At an early age, most of us were taught to speak and think
Jackal. This language is from the head. It is a way of mentally
classifying people into varying shades of good and bad, right
and wrong. Ultimately it provokes defensiveness, resistance and
counterattack. Giraffe bids us to speak from the heart, to talk
about what is going on for us - without judging others. In this
idiom, you give people an opportunity to say yes, although you
respect no for an answer. Giraffe is a language of requests;
Jackal is a language of demands.
Human beings the world over say they want to contribute to the
well-being of others, to connect and communicate with others in
loving, compassionate ways. Why then, is there so much disharmony
Setting out to find answers, I discovered that the language
many of us were taught interferes with our desire to live in
harmony with one another. At an early age, most of us were taught
to speak and think jackal. This is a moralistic classification
idiom that labels people; it has a splendid vocabulary for
analyzing and criticizing. Jackal is good for telling people
what's wrong with them: "Obviously, you're emotionally
disturbed (rude, lazy, selfish)."
The jackal moves close to the ground. It is so preoccupied with
getting its immediate needs met that it cannot see into the
future. Similarly, Jackal-thinking individuals believe that in
quickly classifying or analyzing people, they understand them.
Unhappy about what's going on, a Jackal will label the people
involved, saying, "He's an idiot" or "She's
bad" or "They're culturally deprived."
This language is from the head. It is a way of mentally
classifying people into varying shades of good and bad, right and
wrong. Ultimately, it provokes defensiveness, resistance, and
I also came upon a language of the heart, a form of interacting
that promotes the well-being of ourselves and other people. I call
this means of communicating Giraffe. The giraffe has the largest
heart of any land animal, is tall enough to look into the future,
and lives its life with gentility and strength. Like-wise, Giraffe
bids us to speak from the heart, to talk about what is going on
for us - without judging others. In this idiom, you give people an
opportunity to say yes, although you respect no for an answer.
Giraffe is a language of requests; Jackal is a language of
By the time I identified these two languages, I had thoroughly
learned Jackal. So I set out to teach myself Giraffe. What would I
say, I wondered, if someone were doing something I found
unpleasant and I wanted to influence him to change his behavior?
Giraffes, I realized, are aware that they cannot change others.
They are not even interested in changing people; rather, they are
interested (italics) "in providing opportunities for them to
be willing to change." One way of providing such an
opportunity, I decided, would be to approach the other person with
a message such as: "Please do this, but only if you can do it
willingly - in a total absence of fear, guilt, or shame. If you
are motivated by fear, guilt, or shame, I lose."
As Giraffes, we make requests in terms of what we want people
to do, not what we want them to feel. All the while, we steer
clear of mandates. Nothing creates more resistance than telling
people they "should" or "have to" or
"must" or "ought to" do something. These terms
eliminate choice. Without the freedom to choose, life becomes
slave like. "I had to do it, superior's orders" is the
response of people robbed of their free will. Prompted by
directives and injunctions, people do not take responsibility for
As time passed, I learned much more about Giraffes. For one
thing, they do not make requests in the past. They do not say, or
even think, "How nice it would have been if you had cleaned
the living room last night." Instead, Giraffes state clearly
what they want in the present. And they take responsibility for
their feelings, aware that their feelings are caused by their
wants. If a mother is upset because her son's toys are strewn
about the living room, she will identify her feeling: anger. She
will then get in touch with the underlying want that is causing
this feeling: her desire for a neat and orderly living room. She
will own the anger, saying, "I feel angry because I want the
living room to be clean and instead it's a mess." Finally,
she will ask for a different outcome: "I'd feel so much
better if you'd just put these toys away."
Whereas Jackals say, "I feel angry because you... ,"
Giraffes will say, "I feel angry because I want ... " As
Giraffes, we know that the cause of our feelings is not another
person, but rather our own thoughts, wants, and wishes. We become
angry because of the thoughts we are having, not because of
anything another person has done to us.
Jackals, on the other hand, view others as the source of their
anger. In fact, violence, whether verbal or physical, is the
result of assuming that our feelings are caused not by what is
going on inside us but rather by what is going on "out
there." In response, we say things designed to hurt, punish,
or blame the person whom we imagine has hurt our feelings. Aware
of this tendency, a Giraffe will conclude, "I'm angry because
my expectations have not been met."
As Giraffes we take responsibility for our feelings. At the
same time, we attempt to give others an opportunity to act in a
way that will help us feel better. For example, a boy may want
more respect from his father. After getting in touch with his
anger over the decisions his father has been making for him, he
might say: "Please ask me if I want a haircut before making a
barbershop appointment for me." Giraffes say what they do
want; rather than what they don't want. "Stop that,"
"Cut it out," or "Quit that" do not inspire
changed behaviors. People can't do a "don't."
Giraffes ultimately seek a connection in which each person
feels a sense of well-being and no one feels forced into action by
blame, guilt, or punishment: As such, Giraffe thinking creates
Stating a Request Clearly
Stating a request in simple Giraffe is a four-part process
rooted in honesty:
- Describe your observation
- Identify your feeling
- Explain the reason for your feeling in terms of your needs
- State your request
In describing the situation, do so without criticizing or
judging. If you have come home from a busy day and your partner
seems preoccupied with the newspaper, simply describe the
situation: "When I walked in the door after an especially
trying day, you seemed busy reading." Identify your feeling:
"I feel hurt." State the reason for your feeling:
"I feel hurt because I would like to feel close to you right
now and instead I'm feeling disconnected from you." Then
state your request in do-able terms: "Are you willing to take
time out for a hug and a few moments of sharing?"
The same process applies if your teenager has been talking on
the phone for hours and you are expecting a call. Describe the
situation: "When you have the phone tied up for so long,
other calls can't come through." Express your feeling and the
reason for it: "I'm feeling frustrated because I've been
expecting to hear from someone." Then state your request:
"I'd like you to bring your conversation to a close if that's
In a Jackal culture, feelings and wants are severely punished.
People are expected to be docile, subservient to authority, slave
like in their reactions, and alienated from their feelings and
needs. In a Giraffe culture, we learn to express our feelings,
needs, and requests without passing judgment or attacking. We
request, rather than demand. And we are aware of the fine line of
distinction between these two types of statements.
In Jackal, we expect other people to prove their love for us by
doing what we want. As Giraffes, we may persist in trying to
persuade others, but we are not influenced by guilt. We
acknowledge that we have no control over the other person's
response. And we stay in Giraffe no matter what the other person
says. If she or he seems upset or tense, we switch into listening,
which allows us to hear the person's feelings, needs, and wishes
(italics) without hearing any criticism of ourselves. Nor does a
Giraffe simply say no; as Giraffes we state the need that prevents
us from fulfilling the request.
Responding to a "No"
Responding to a refusal is a four-part process rooted in
- Describe the situation
- Guess the other person's feeling
- Guess the reason for the feeling, together with the unmet
need; then let the person verify whether you have correctly
- Clarify the unmet need
When people say no in a nasty way, what they invariably want is
to protect their autonomy. They have heard a request as a demand
and are saying, in effect, "I want to do it when I choose to
do it, and not because I am forced to do it." Sighing,
sulking, or screaming can likewise reflect a desire to protect
one's freedom of choice, one's need to act from a position of
willingness. If people scream at us, we do not scream back. We
listen beneath the words and hear what they are really saying -
that they have a need and want to get their need met.
If a mother has asked her daughter to please do her chores and
she has refused, the Giraffe dance may go something like this:
Parent: Are you feeling annoyed right now because you
want to do your chores at your own pace rather than being forced
to do them?
Child: Yeah, I'm sick and tired of being a slave. [Note
the defensive mode, indicating a need to be listened to.]
Parent: So, you really want to do things when it feels
good to do them, and you're not just avoiding them altogether?
Child: You order me around! [The child still needs to be
listened to. The parent must keep guessing what the child is
saying about feelings and wants.]
Parent: So, it's frustrating when I seem to be ordering
you around and you have no choice about when to do your chores?
Child: I don't want to do chores! They're stupid. If you
want them done, you do them.
Parent: You really hate doing chores and you would like
me to do all of them?
Child: Yeah... no... I don't know. I just don't feel
like being bossed around. (The child is becoming vulnerable and
starting to open up because she's feeling heard without judgment.)
If we have been Jackalish and demanding in the past, the people
close to us may need a lot of empathy at first. So we listen and
listen, reflecting back with guesses about what they are feeling
and wanting, until they feel heard and shift out of being
defensive. We don't take anything personally, for we know that
upset, attacking, defensive statements are tragic expressions of
unmet needs. At some point, the person's voice and body language
will indicate that a shift has occurred.
At a meeting I attended at a mosque in a refugee camp near
Jerusalem, a man suddenly stood up and cried,
"Murderer!" As a Giraffe, all I heard was
"Please!" - that is, I heard the pain, the need that
wasn't being met. That is where I focused my attention. After
about 40 minutes of speaking, he did what most of us do when we
sense we have been accurately heard and listened to: he changed.
The situation was immediately defused of all tension. He later
invited me to dinner.
In international disputes, as well as in relationship,
business, classroom, and parent-child conflicts, we can learn to
hear the human being behind the message, regardless of how the
message is framed. We can learn to hear the other person's unmet
needs and requests. Ultimately, listening empathically does not
imply doing what the person wants; rather, it implies showing
respectful acknowledgment of the individual's inner world. As we
do that, we move from the coercive language we have been taught to
the language of the heart.
Speaking from the heart is a gesture of love; giving other
people an opportunity to contribute to our well-being and to
exercise generosity. Empathically receiving what is going on in
others is a reciprocal gesture. Giraffes experience love as
openness and sensitivity, with no demands, criticism, or
requirements to fulfill requests at either end of a dispute. And
the outcome of any dialogue ruled by love is harmony.
In the end, Jackals are simply illiterate Giraffes. Once you've
learned to hear the heart behind any message, you discover that
there's nothing to fear in anything another person says. With that
discovery, you are well on your way to compassionate
communication. This form of dialogue, although offering no
guarantees of agreement between disputing parties, sets the stage
for negotiation, compromise, and most importantly, mutual
understanding and respect.