New Ways of Listening: Conversations at Work

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What can the corporate world learn from The Horse Whisperer when it comes to hosting conversations that really matter? It’s said that a good trainer can hear a horse speak. But a great trainer can hear him whisper.

By this definition, Monty Roberts is a great trainer. Known as the Horse Whisperer, Monty has broken away from traditional methods of horse training to introduce a new level of trust through listening. He has changed the game entirely by deconstructing the fear-based training paradigm.

Monty has broken away from some of the most stubborn traditions in horse training, re-conceptualizing our relationship with our equine friends. He hasn’t just improved old methodologies. He has changed the game entirely by deconstructing the fear-based training paradigm. Along the way, he has converted whole armies of believers to his softer approach.

When it comes to employee motivation and performance in the workplace, the corporate world can learn from Monty.

No whips. No control and command. No punishment. No fear.

No kidding!

After years of studying and observing horses both in training stables and the wild, Monty has deciphered and ascribed meanings to the non-verbal gestures of the horse. Through movement, horses speak to him and he knows how to listen. He has transferred his observations and some deeper discoveries into the arena. And he is a man with a clear mission: his goal is to leave the world a better place–for horses and people–than he found it.

Monty has dedicated himself to teaching others about Equus, this non-verbal language, and the ways in which we can use it to better understand horses and ourselves. His work is about building trust and increasing cooperation and collaboration through honest, open, safe communication, and he has some worthwhile lessons to share with business leaders and their teams.

Having horse sense

After all, what organization couldn’t benefit by some horse sense? Monty describes horse sense as good, solid, sound thinking based in intuition and experience.
Businesses fly corporate leaders and their teams out to his “Flag is Up” farm in Solvang, California, to witness what Monty calls “join up,” the gentle saddling of an “unbroken horse” within a closed arena. “Join up” is a series of cued communications – a non-verbal dance between the horse and the trainer that follows a prescribed protocol. “Join up” requires just a few hours of one-on-one interaction and establishes a strong level of trust and security between the horse and trainer.
Successful “join up” is evidenced by the horse allowing itself to be saddled and ridden as an outcome of the session. This is different from traditional breaking methods, which require anywhere from 3 weeks to 2 months and involve ropes and restraints and considerable pain for the horse. The goal in traditional training is to dominate the horse’s spirit and will (hence the term “breaking”), so it will acquiesce to the trainer and submit to a saddle and rider.
Sound familiar? Who hasn’t come away dispirited as a result of a bad day or worse at work?

Soft touch vs. tough love

I am personally biased here, as I am naturally attracted to Monty’s work. In my early career right out of college, I worked with racehorses. I witnessed the different styles of interaction in the different stables. In my eyes, the trainers who had a soft, firm, gentle touch set themselves apart from the others. Their stables seemed to consistently outperform the “tough love” stables. In addition to succeeding in the races, they attracted the best stable hands and owners and had fewer lameness issues or breakdowns.

You can’t tell a horse what to do

That racetrack experience influences the organizational work I do today in important ways. I learned, very simply, that you can’t tell a horse what to do. The horse decides what it will or will not do. And isn’t it similarly true in our work with each other?

A strong stable of work

Notwithstanding my endorsement, Monty’s work stands on its own: he has an impressive set of statistics. His accomplishments read more like a cavalry of horsemen rather than a single rider. With over 60 years in the saddle, he has won just about everything in the Western rodeo circuit and made his mark with thoroughbred horses, including the extraordinary Alleged, two-time winner of the prestigious Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Monty has “gentled” over 10,000 horses and has demonstrated his technique to well over 100,000 people. His book, The Man Who Listens to Horses, has sold over 3,000,000 copies and has been translated into 14 languages in more than 20 countries. He has been featured in American and British television and has worked in the Hollywood film industry, doubling for such actors as Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet and James Dean (his friend) in East of Eden.

The catch

None of this came easy.
Monty’s commitment to do away with pain and force was forged in a difficult and violent relationship with his father, Marvin Earl Roberts. In addition to running a riding academy, Monty’s father operated an 800 box stall, 20,000 seat equestrian arena and, like many trainers of his day, used barbaric training methods on his young horses. He used some of the very same methods on young Monty.

There’s a better way

Yet Monty did not follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead, he rejected violence, believing there was a better way to develop horses, a gentler way, and he set about to prove it.

One day, Queen Elizabeth would invite him to come to England to work with her trainers and stable of thoroughbreds. And the world would come to recognize and share his commitment to a respectful, loving and gentle relationship with horses. Until that time, though, he was criticized and pressured by his father to abandon his quest.

But, at 17, Monty made a vow to his cherished horse, Brownie, that he would dedicate his life to learning the horse’s language. And he never reneged that promise.

Where did this motivation and sense of stamina come from?
I had an opportunity to speak with Monty and ask him about his work. He was pleased to share some of his thoughts with Hamlet readers and optimistic about the many ways in which a gentler, more respectful approach in the workplace would benefit everyone involved — employees and business leaders alike—and, also, ensure corporate responsibility and profit. It was 9:00 am when I called the farm and heard this warm, solid voice with a slight California cowboy lilt answer the phone on the first ring, ready to get down to business.

Motivating employees: meet them where they are

(MS) Organizations are always looking for new ways to motivate employees – they tie rewards to performance and they chart employee competencies and such. But well intentions aside, employees still struggle to stay motivated. The readers of Hamlet are in the human resources and organizational development fields. What can they learn from you and how can they transfer your philosophies and practices regarding communication and interpersonal trust into the workplace?
(MR) It’s important to understand the concerns of employees, meet them where they are and allay and arrest all worries so you can build an environment where it is safe for them.
You know there’s not much difference between people and horses, particularly people when they are at work. Sure, horses don’t have mortgage payments, but they have the same survival issues. They worry about their food sources. They’re asking, “is there water in the trough?” “Is my place safe?” Beyond food, water and physical survival, they are looking for emotional safety.

Creating safe environments; encouraging safe conversations

(MS) Can you elaborate more about emotional safety, or feeling “safe?” How do we help employees feel safe, so they can have safe conversations?

 

(MR) We need to create safe environments in the workplace where people can learn to depend on each other, where we can raise the bar on our expectations, not lower it. We can always succeed in the short term by using intimidation, fear and violence. It works fast.

If we need to get the job done by Thursday and I yell and scream and everyone does what I tell them to, then we will get the job done by Thursday. When that happens, you get quick results and you habituate to the behaviors.

We have to be willing to let Thursday come and go, and be willing to face that black hole. Decision-makers and business leaders need to get through that point. They have to opt, to choose for themselves, to get through that black hole. They need to develop the strength of character to hang tough, because, on Friday, we will pick up the pieces and be able to really pull together and make it really work.

Overcoming the fear factor; engaging hearts and spirits

(MS) But this does work, doesn’t it?

(MR) There is some pain before the gain, no getting away from it. The inclination to grab or force is overwhelming and absolute restraint is required. At some point in time, most cowboys are going to get in there and consider roping and jerking a horse around, reverting to Neanderthal behavior. And, yes, if you pull out the whips and the ropes and threaten them with pain and punishment (or the “civilized” equivalent: loss of paycheck or approval) they’ll probably acquiesce, go through the motions and maybe even win a few races.

 

But you won’t get their hearts. You won’t engage their spirit. We have to opt away from violence because violence in any form is not the answer; it is never the answer. Now, in organizations, violence is not permissible, so we use fear and intimidation instead, and we link it to survival, a paycheck. But it all boils down to the same thing.

Out with the old

(MS) Most organizations are involved in some sort of cultural transition – they realize the old “command and control” way of operating is not effective. Yet they may not have a clear road map or the confidence to lead into the future. At times, they may resort to buzz words or clichés, which only further undermines their intent. Can you comment on the effects of mixed messages on trust and open communication, which affects whether we can have safe conversations or not?

(MR) There’s a scene in The Horse Whisperer towards the end of the film I’d never endorse. Robert Redford has been working slowly throughout the film to gain the horse’s trust, and then he goes and hobbles him with ropes so the girl can get back on her horse. Well, that was worse than if they had used ropes all along.

Feeling unsafe and insecure

(MR) Mixed messages confuse us and make us feel unsafe and insecure – they are antithetical to trust and cooperation. You never break trust once you have built it. You have to hang in there and resist saying one thing but doing another just because it’s easier.
Trust depends on commitment – it’s just like in a good marriage– no back door, no way out, you focus on the good stuff and build on the trust.

(Note: Monty’s been married to Pat – wife, partner and mother of their 3 natural children and 47 foster children – for over 42 years)

There’s no such thing as failure

(MS) In your book, The Man Who Listens to Horses, you give an example of the ways in which we “educate” the motivation out of our children in schools.

(Note: In his book Monty describes an incident in which his teacher, Mr. Fowler, gives him a failing grade in an assignment because his vision of his own future -which included a racing stable and Thoroughbred training facility, all of which he now owns and operates – was not “realistic” enough.)

(MS) In many ways, by the time men and women enter the workforce, they have been taught not to dream or be curious or risk failure, and they bring this cautious mindset into the workplace and limit their expectations and aspirations. How do we educate our children so we stimulate their own motivation and sense of responsibility?
(MR) First of all, there’s no such thing as failure. When it comes to learning, you have to be able to fail. It’s a fundamental part of the process. Children need lots of encouragement, and they need to be told what they are doing right. Parents and educators have to take the time to identify what the individual child is doing well. It doesn’t have to be big, but it has to be something honest and real, so the child understands you are really paying attention to her.
The best teacher I ever knew, Sister Agnes Patricia, taught me there’s no such thing as teaching. Teaching implies an injection of knowledge and that is not possible. Knowledge needs to be pulled into the brain by the student. At best, we can create an environment, at home, school or in the workplace where individuals want to learn. This is where we should be putting our attention.

Delusional optimism

(MS) You have demonstrated what can be called an almost “delusional” optimism – an ability to believe and stay focused on extraordinary outcomes in the face of significant obstacles. What do you think they would find if they were able to map your brain? What helps to stimulate your attitude, keep you motivated?
(MR) There’s nothing different in my brain than in anyone else’s. I have incredible tenacity, that’s for sure, but it’s not because there is something special about me that no one else has. I guess I have my father to thank for my vision and tenacity. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have had to fight so hard. Maybe I wouldn’t have dedicated my life to ridding the world of violence in this way.
As difficult as my relationship with my father was, he also gave me a great gift. If anything, I hope my personal story shows people they can achieve anything if they put their minds to it and that each of us has the ability to change and improve the world for everyone, humans and animals alike.

Changing the world one conversation at a time

Good ideas – ideas that feel right in the gut, that resonate with our best intuition and experience — spread like wild fire in dry brush. The conversations they generate can find their way into people’s lives and change the world for the better. Monty Roberts’ contribution through Equus promotes healthy dialogue and safe conversations in ways that change how we think about our own thinking and behavior. Pay dirt.

Straight from the horse’s mouth

When we want to say we have the facts on something, we are sure we’ve got it right and our information is correct, we say we got it “straight from the horse’s mouth.” How fitting.

No need to shout about it though. Just ask the man who listens to horses and he will tell you that all it takes is…a whisper.

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