September 17, 2007

Good day, team,

This week’s challenge comes from the book “The Man Who Listens to Horses” by Monty Roberts. Roberts is a real-life horse whisperer, an American original whose gentle training methods reveal the depth of communication possible between people and animals.

A few years ago, my fellow coach Kate Dwyer (who’s also an avid horsewoman) mentioned to me that the similarities between coaching people and horses are uncanny. She suggested this book to me and in reading it, I have found many useful hints in my attempts to understand good ways of working with people.

Here’s an excerpt from the introduction to the book, written by Lawrence Scanlon:

“Three hundred years before the birth of Christ, there lived a Greek cavalry officer named Xenophon. He wrote a tiny classic called ‘The Art of Horsemanship.’ Here is a paragraph from it:

‘A fit of passion is a thing that has no foresight in it, and so we often have to rue the day when we gave way to it. Consequently, when your horse shies at an object and is unwilling to go up to it, he should be shown that there is nothing fearful in it, least of all to a courageous horse like him; but if this fails, touch the object yourself that seems so dreadful to him, and lead him up to it with gentleness.

‘Riders who force their horses by the use of the whip only increase their fear, for they then associate the pain with the thing that frightens them.’”

This advice makes me think about situations in which some sort of discipline is required. How strong do we need to be in getting the message across (the whip)? And what are the consequences if the people we manage or parent don’t do what we’ve instructed them to do?

Interestingly, none of us seems to have trouble letting toddlers know that if they touch a stove, they will get burned. It’s not hard for us to be quite direct in our instructions about it. However, try using the same direct message when cautioning adults about something that can burn them figuratively: We often stumble on our words and are not very clear about the consequences.

Coaching works best when we begin by being the active force but then quickly step back from that position so the people being coached can become the active force for themselves. People, like horses, respond best to those who are willing to be patient, considerate and clear about their intention, with no hint of anger or judgment.

Of course, managing people will require being tough at times. Such toughness will be effective if all team members believe the discipline is being applied fairly and that it’s for the good of the whole team, not just one person in particular. Managers shouldn’t ask their team members to do anything they themselves wouldn’t also be willing to do.

One of the techniques Roberts uses most effectively, which he describes many times in his book, is to listen to what horses are saying in their own language. This attentiveness gives him the opportunity to respond to them in the same way, with the flick of an ear, the movement of an eye, or a facial expression. Our body language communicates volumes, and unspoken messages that frighten people or make them ill at ease do not facilitate good communication and often make people wary. Feeling safe is a prerequisite for being vulnerable enough to open up the lines of communication and say what we’re really thinking.

Your challenge this week is to take a lesson from our four-legged friend the horse. Take a look at the people you spend most of your time with. How do you treat them? Are you hard on them because you think that will bring out their best? Do you find yourself asking them to do something you wouldn’t dream of doing? Are you willing to invite them into the running, so to speak, rather than forcing them? How would you like to be treated in a similar situation? Are people willing to come back to you for more guidance, or do they try to avoid you? Do you cause people to fear you or respect you?

Once you are able to answer these questions, try taking a gentle, attentive approach with people. Maybe it’s just as simple as holding out your hand and asking for help rather than pointing your finger to get your opinion across. And if that hand offers an apple as well, you might just find that people respond like the horse does, with a willingness to carry you that extra mile!

Have a great week!


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