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Belonging – Marley and Me

By

David Burke

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Wednesday, May 24, 2023

What I have learned about my understanding of belonging with my dog, Marley.

I hadn’t had Marley, my rescue dog from Romania, for very long and as a first-time dog owner, I was still getting to grips with where to walk, how long to walk him, training him to walk ‘properly’ – the list of things to think about was endless! Every time we went out for a walk I was ‘full’ of things to remember/do/say/demonstrate – and that was just to Marley!

If any other human beings spoke to me, I would welcome the interaction as a sign that I was ‘doing it’ – being a responsible dog owner – properly. Any interaction with people/dog owners on my walks also made me feel as if I belonged, which seems strange, but with hindsight, I think that in a similar way when you are a new parent, and specifically a new mother, when you are pushing your pram, you are ‘wearing’ a badge of honour – you have ‘made’ it. You are now a grown-up, although I recognise how superficial this may appear. Nevertheless, these feelings are valid and real – and they drive our behaviours.

During one particular December morning, I was grappling with the list of expectations that were waiting for me to fulfil…. And I had made the decision to walk to the local park. Marley’s recall is ropey, and it was, back in December 2021, a ‘work in progress’. I was keen to stretch him and give him new opportunities to sniff out new spaces that we were discovering. So, off we walked to the park.

When we arrived at the park, I was keen to let Marley sniff where he wanted to be, but, being the exuberant and highly sociable dog that he is, he gravitated towards the other dogs that were in the park. There was a variety of dogs and their owners, all talking together, and their dogs were playing. One of the dog owners gestured to me to join them and encouraged me to release Marley from his lead so that he could play with the other dogs. This was a milestone of success for me, and it became heightened (in a good way) as I engaged in conversations of dog-related topics with the other dog owners.

I was ‘in’. I am a ‘proper’ dog owner.

I asked someone in the dog owners’ group how often they met during the week and at what time, and I was told the time and the days. I was making a mental note of ensuring that I would be there – work permitting. Good for me, good for Marley. I walked home with Marley, feeling pretty euphoric. Not only had I successfully walked my dog to the park without incident, but we had BOTH made friends! Winner winner, chicken dinner!

The day arrived when my fellow dog owners were going to meet at the park. Marley and I set off, expecting to meet our ‘friends’ that we had made a couple of days earlier.

We got to the park at the time that I had been told most dog owners would arrive.

No one was there.

We hung around for a little while, but no one turned up – so we continued our walk and went home. These things happen, right? I didn’t think too much of it until a few days later when we were at the park, and I could see the dog owners’ group and the dogs that Marley had played with before. He was keen to be re-acquainted with his friends, and I felt pretty confident that I was going to be able to re-acquaint myself with the group, but unknown to me, the group had other ideas. I was ignored as I approached the group. I said hello to the same dog owner that I had spoken to a few days earlier. Ignored. Blanked.

I let Marley off the lead so that he could play with his new friends. Within what felt like a minute of releasing Marley from his lead, I was asked if I could retrieve Marley as one of the dog owners felt that Marley’s playing was a little ‘rough’. Marley had been fine with the same group of dogs a few days earlier.

I couldn’t understand it.

The warm welcome was absent. It was as if they had never met me or Marley before. I collected Marley and we left the park and went home.

As I walked home, I couldn’t piece together what I had just experienced.

What had gone wrong?

Did I offend someone? Was Marley anti-social with another dog? Did I miss something?

Did I misunderstand what was said? Had the group had second thoughts about me?

None of it made sense – and it still doesn’t.

I clearly was made to feel unwelcome and I certain didn’t belong.

So – what is belonging?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs shows us that belonging and social connection is part of what makes us human and drives our desires to thrive. Cambridge Dictionary’s definition is as follows: “a feeling of being happy or comfortable as part of a particular group and having a good relationship with the other members of the group because they welcome you and accept you.”

Errrr – don’t think that that was the case here.

In the days following ‘DogParkGate’, I was reflecting on the feelings that it generated within me – and the feelings shocked me. I was not expecting to feel so hurt, so rejected. Interestingly, I could accept that the dog owners didn’t want to talk to me – and I recognised, as I have done all my life, that my ethnicity – I am a black British female – may have played a part. I was FAR more upset that my dog had been rejected! Marley looks different to many dogs in our area and often generates reactions which are overwhelmingly positive (he’s a lovely looking dog – ok ok – I am biased 😉) but it felt that his difference was not required.

I know it sounds silly, and there could be some really clear and understandable reasons why the situation played out as it did, but that is how it felt and how it left me wondering how he/we could have done more to have made a successful and sustained connection.

I have not been back to the park since that incident.

My dog story was an illustration of how belonging – when it is not successfully applied – lands with the receiving party. The feelings of bewilderment, confusion, anxiety are real. I won’t ever really know if my dog felt these emotions at the time, but they have had a lasting impression on me. If we change the scenario and we apply them to the workplace, our learning establishments, the cost of exclusion is high.

Exclusion can cause significant financial losses for companies. When employees feel excluded, they may become disengaged, demotivated, and less productive, which can result in decreased organisational performance. Also, we know that employees who feel excluded may experience higher levels of stress, anxiety, and depression, which can lead to increased absenteeism and costs related to replacing staff on a temporary basis if we are thinking about schools.

In addition, workplace exclusion can also lead to increased turnover rates, as employees who feel excluded may seek employment elsewhere.

In addition, workplace exclusion can also lead to increased turnover rates, as employees who feel excluded may seek employment elsewhere. High turnover rates can be costly for organisations, as they require time and resources to recruit, train, and onboard new employees. Moreover, turnover can also impact team dynamics, as new employees may take time to integrate into the team, which can further decrease productivity and cohesiveness.

Overall, workplace belonging is critical for organisational success and individual well-being. Having reflected on my ‘DogParkGate’ experience – and one that I am sure most of us have had at one time or another at some point – organisations must prioritise creating inclusive environments that foster a sense of belonging among employees. This can include measures such as promoting diversity and equity, providing opportunities for social connection and team building, and ensuring that all employees feel valued and respected.

How can we practically increase our sense of belonging? I found this from the Very Well Mind website article by Kendra Cherry A Sense of Belonging: What It Is and How to Feel It (verywellmind.com) and she suggested three key strategies that can help.

They are:

  1. Make an effort: Creating a sense of belonging takes effort, to put yourself out there, seek out activities and groups of people with whom you have common interests, and engage with others.

  2. Be patient: It might take time to gain acceptance, attention, and support from members of the group.

  3. Practice acceptance: Focus on the similarities, not the differences, that connects you to others, and remain open to new ways of thinking

It would have been lovely if the dog owners in the park could have consistently applied some or all of these strategies. What can you do to increase your contribution to a stronger sense of belonging in your organisation? Do you welcome and embrace difference? Are you part of the problem, or part of the cure?

Audrey Pantelis is the founder of Elevation Coaching and Consulting and is presenting a workshop The Importance of Belonging here on edEVENTS, June 7, 2023 at 3:30pm Singapore time.

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