Talking to horses and talking to people

Robert Benjamin - From The Horses Mouth: On The Nature Of Equine And Human Negotiations - has some interesting observations on how professionals treat clients who are in conflict. I resonate strongly with his thinking.
Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

I enjoyed this article by Robert Benjamin at mediate.comFrom The Horses Mouth: On The Nature Of Equine And Human Negotiations. He contrasts the old-fashioned idea of “breaking” a horse with the approach of the so-called horse-whisperer. It’s the difference between attacking the other’s reality and entering it.

Benjamin relates this notion to dealing with humans in conflict.

Especially in the midst of conflict be it a divorce, workplace, business, or policy matter, humans exhibit the same nervous demeanor of a horse exposed in an open field. In our own way, we approximate that head tossing, nose to the wind, quick glancing behavior that suggests a state of constant alert to all possible plots to take advantage of us. We close ranks with those we think we can trust, and hire professionals to protect us from being played for fools in an ever increasingly complex and threatening world

This passage struck a chord with me. I once experienced a business dispute where I felt very much like the horse Benjamin describes here. During that time, I also experienced some classic examples of insensitive and incompetent advice of the kind he goes on to discuss.

Still part of our Western folklore is the conventional wisdom about how to train, or more bluntly, break a horse. Still practiced in some quarters, in negotiation terms it is a form of ultimatum – “you will do as I demand, or else” – the beast needs to be “broken” and bent to the will of the trainer…

Unfortunately, there are similarities between this traditional form of horse training and the practice of some professionals—lawyers, doctors and even some mediators— who feel compelled to be in control of their clients or patients. By giving clients rules of behavior, asserting their superior knowledge of the situation and intimidating them with their years of experience and education, some professionals demand respect. The theory is that people in conflict are prone to be unpredictable, emotional and so likely to bolt in every direction that they must be reigned in with heavy doses of reality…

We believe we can talk people out of their fears and change their emotional responses with logic. Instead of talking at them—trying to suppress or contain their emotions with rules of behavior, which are as likely as not to intensify their fears—accepting their fears as normal, natural and expected, paradoxically gives people the permission they need to relax that telling them to “relax” or “calm down” never can.

I really agree with this analysis, based on my own experience of dealing with professionals during a painful conflict a few years ago. It also chimes with my experience seeing friends and acquaintances trying to get value out of solicitors, doctors and accountants in a variety of painful situations.

What I’ve come to believe is that the “authoritative” (ie bossy) approach, dressed up as professionalism, is really a way of avoiding their own fears and discomfort in the presence of others in pain. Rather than acknowledge their own uncertainty and insecurity, they issue orders to other people to calm down.

According to Benjamin, “A trip to the horse paddock has been made part of the medical school curriculum in Arizona. The students are asked to work with the horses and in so doing, glean immediate feedback.” which sounds like a great idea to me.

People often quote the Churchill line about nothing to fear but fear itself. This is often used to suggest that people just need to “pull themselves together”. Actually, I think it contains a deeper wisdom than that; that often we do need to be willing to fully experience our fear, and that the best thing for our supporters to do is to find the courage to be with us in our fear instead of trying to talk us out of it.

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