Have you ever tried “Horse Whispering”?

Now, I’m not talking whispering sweet nothings in big hairy ears, but the Monty Roberts-style of gently influencing horses to calmly follow your lead.

Well, a couple of years ago I had the chance to try this for a day. I don’t have a horsey background, but have seen the film starring Robert Redford and was curious to learn more. It was far too good an opportunity to miss.

I’ve had large dogs (around 60kg) for years, so knew how challenging obedience training can be. Believe me, if a dog that big doesn’t want to go along with your plans (like jump in the back of the car), forget it. I’ve learned a lot about persuasion from them!

So I went along, expecting to meet sweet little Thelwell-style Shetland ponies. But no, these were enormous, proper horses. To be honest, ever so slightly scary.

The instructor explained that the idea was to invite my assigned horse to follow me around a course of obstacles, turns and so on. Sounds easy enough but not so in practice.

After a slow start, I caught the horse’s attention. When he began to follow me, I was amazed, almost emotional, as I felt honoured he wanted to do so.

And the exercise quickly revealed the trainees preferred management styles too, as the horses picked up on subtle behaviours. Some people patiently got to know the horse a little first, others expected immediate results. One lady became so frustrated at the lack of movement in her horse, she began waving her arms around, raising her voice. And of course the horse ignored her, looked the other way, disinterestedly swishing his tail.

It was a fascinating day – I highly recommend the “horse whispering” experience if you have the opportunity. The lessons from my day with the horses were striking, with more relevance to managing my workload than I ever anticipated.

You see, when delegating tasks, we use the same skills and behaviours needed to influence a horse to follow. My horse reminded me to “people whisper” in these ways:

1      Begin with trust and relationship.

You must take time to get to know each other, no fast moves, to listen. What are your mutual expectations? How do you like to work together?

With the horses, I discovered how sensitive they were to my body language and voice tone (just like my dogs). And of course, our colleagues pick up on these signals too. Are you calm, confident, trustworthy, interested in them? Without realising, all this and more is communicated through our posture, voice, eye contact, even our breathing.

2      Be clear what you want to happen

Can you explain exactly the result you’re hoping for when the task is completed? Any essential standards, budgets or timescales to be met? Give guidance, then let them do it in their own way whenever possible.

With the horses, it was easy to give a misdirection because I hadn’t given enough thought. Often it was obvious to me what I wanted to happen, but not to the horse. He didn’t know the route I planned through the obstacles and several times I confused him. I know I’ve been guilty of the same fault when delegating tasks. Familiar tasks for me aren’t necessarily straightforward to somebody new to it.

3      Provide motivation

It had to be interesting for the horse or why would he bother following me? That was the most challenging part for me as I don’t know much about horses. I discovered this seemed similar to dogs – you must be more interesting than anything else around to attract and keep their attention.

And with people, everybody is listening for “What’s in it for me?”. Ideally assign tasks interesting to an individual, giving them an opportunity to use their talents and learn something new. Explain how the task fits in to the “big picture” of the project as it’s much more motivating.

Delegation is a great way to develop and increase the overall skill level of a team. Yes, it might take more time initially to coach someone new, but enthusiasm to learn goes a long way. And once experienced, they can repeat the task again and again, making a great return on your time investment.

4      And remember the reward

Now, with the horses a carrot worked, for my dog it’s a tasty chew. Of course, those helping with your projects will have very different ideas of a suitable reward. What will they appreciate? Those two tiny little words “Thank You” are a great start.

Now, I know it’s much tougher to run a successful project than simply persuading a horse to follow you. It’s time consuming, complex and often frustrating. But as with most things in life, by mastering the art of “people whispering” and winning the support of others, you’ll be increasing your chances of a successful outcome many times over.

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, it goes to his heart. – Nelson Mandela

Rosie Gray helps superbusy people better manage their precious time, feel less stressed and achieve much more. As a result, productivity improves and "life" returns to their "work/life balance" equation. After working at a senior level in fast-paced ... (Read More)

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