The BBC have recently been afforded unprecedented access to Koko, a western lowland gorilla who was born on the 4th of July, 1971 in the San Francisco Zoo. At the age of six months, she developed a potentially fatal intestinal parasite and so was removed from her mother to recover. To prevent the possible spread of infection to the rest of her family, she was moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains where a PHD student began to teach her American sign language. Now in her forties, she has a working knowledge of over 1,000 signs, which she uses to communicate her needs and wants to her human carers. So what can Koko teach the professional services about communication?
Non verbal communication, such as eye contact, posture and gesture, are vitally important in the business world as they convey subtle messages, often more powerful than the actual words spoken. Managers can affirm or contradict the message that they are trying to give if their verbal and non verbal communication are either in synch or in conflict with each other. If you fold your arms or cross your legs you can be seen as relaxed or resistant. Positive eye contact with a speaker can show interest in both the presenter and the subject, whereas negative eye contact, such as that used by lecturers and teachers, can communicate a desire to subdue or control.
People who want to engage usually sit side by side, whereas people who want to confront often sit facing each other. Active listening can suggest confidence and enthusiasm, whilst the way you dress can be used to convey confidence and knowledge. As a presenter, it is important to remember that you must scan the audience, make eye contact for no longer than a few seconds with a particular individual and that moving around the stage can be so much more engaging than a presenter who is rooted to the spot.
So if a gorilla can learn to communicate with humans, why can’t humans communicate more effectively with each other?
Koko, if you’re not familiar, was taught American sign language when she was about a year old. Now 40, she apparently has a working vocabulary of more than 1,000 signs and understands around 2,000 words of spoken English. Forty years on, the Gorilla Foundation’s Koko project has become the longest continuous inter-species communications programme of its kind anywhere in the world. I sign “hello”, which looks like a sailor’s salute, and she emits a long, throaty growl. “Don’t worry, that means she likes you,” comes the disembodied voice of Dr Penny Patterson, the foundation’s president and scientific director, from somewhere inside the enclosure. “It’s the gorilla equivalent of a purr.” Koko grins at me, then turns and signs to Dr Patterson. “She wants to see your mouth… wait, she particularly wants to see your tongue,”