Three Vs of communication: A lesson from equine friends

Three Vs of communication: A lesson from equine friends

by Cara Sloman, Force4 Technology Communications  

The through line in everything we do at Force4 is our ability to communicate effectively – with each other, our clients and their ecosystem of customers and partners, and our media and analyst contacts. 

We recently held an in-person summit to hone our non-verbal communication skills through a series of team building activities. Non-verbal communication plays a huge role in our interactions with others – including how we move, how we project ourselves, our body language and our emotions. The experts at local nonprofit Horse Sense Education & Advocacy helped us explore these elements through what’s called equine-assisted learning (EAL), a term used to describe activities with horses and people to foster leadership and experiential learning. 

EAL tasks frequently require participants to communicate with the horses as well as with one another. This can go a long way toward helping people improve their communication skills, which are crucial for success in the workplace.  

Horses communicate with their entire bodies (including their eyes, ears, nose, voice and head). That’s something we can learn from as humans as we consider how we convey meaning and feelings.  

 The Three Vs of Communication 

Horses are highly sensitive to non-verbal communication, such as body language, tone and intent. In our business, our presence, body language, tone of voice and how we use language matters. By working with horses — on the ground, not riding — we learned a variety of communication tools for professional development, both individually and as a team. 

A researcher of body language who first broke down the components of a face-to-face conversation came up with the now-famous “7% rule” that uses three Vs to describe how communication is:  

  • 55% VISUAL (how we look) 
  • 38% VOCAL (how we sound)   
  • 7% VERBAL (what we say). 

The horse is an honest mirror. Our team had to overcome the inhibitions we each brought to the table in order to get a clear message across.  Team members learned how they present themselves to others when facing uncertainty. We did this by introducing the people to the horse (aka the horse handshake, where we offered our hand for it to “nose”) and a simple obstacle to walk the horse over. 

Leadership without Boundaries 

The horse needs the human partner to be clear in their ask. In this instance, the horse was the client. The human partner needs to always think about the horse first. If they aren’t doing so, the horse isn’t going to do what they ask them to do. As we moved through this exercise, we observed the interactions between the animal, with a lens toward: 

  • Was the human able to find inner calm to direct the horse?     
  • Did the human plan and find a way to follow through with their plan with their equine partner to overcome a literal obstacle?      
  • What did people learn about themselves when interacting with the horse? What did the horse help them understand?  

Earning Attention and Leading with Intention 

Experiential learning with horses is all about trustworthiness, authenticity and connection. These are key aspects of effective leadership with people, too!  

Leadership development with horses is different from other kinds of learning opportunities in that you’re interacting with a sentient being with its own needs, wants, fears and desires. You get feedback very differently than you would with an inanimate object, and in a way that sticks. 

Emotional intelligence (EI) plays a big role in this experience. EI refers to the ability to understand and manage your emotions, as well as recognize and influence the emotions of those around you. When you can read a situation and are communicating in clear way, when your intention and your focus match your body—when your whole body and intent are aligned —the horse gets it and will do what you ask. 

Horses seek out leaders naturally. Every horse wants a leader because leaders keep them safe in the herd. Even more importantly, they want a leader they can respect and who also treats them with kindness and respect. 

Realizing the power of focused intention and alignment with “whole body communication” can enhance leadership development individually and as a team. Our energy, posture and purpose must all be considered. Horses help you lead with poise, power and presence. If you are clear on what you want, connected with the horse and asking in the right way, they will follow you. That’s an amazing experience for leadership development – especially for those who’ve never spent much time around horses. 

Transformative Moments and Impact 

During our experience, team members realized parallels between leading horses and leading in an organization. One team member’s confident approach found validation and led to new ideas and techniques. Another team member, who was initially apprehensive, said that the substitute teacher analogy we spoke of when meeting the horses for the first time really resonated with them and drew parallels to effective techniques when meeting a new client. 

One teammate experienced the horse losing interest in them and, based on the guidance to make themselves interesting again, revised their approach and got the response they were looking for.  

Another team member expressed concern that they were bringing weakness instead of their strengths when participating in the horse encounter. However, they were able to flip this and despite their initial feeling of “being out of place,” they were able to channel their intent and then focus on the task at hand. They were able to shift to see how much fun they could have with the right mindset. Several teammates talked about connection and how relationship and trust are key to connection, which brought significant value.   

Toward Well-Rounded Communication 

Horses are a powerful metaphor for leaders and leadership based on themes of partnership, relationship, trust and communication. When people have difficulty getting a horse to do something they want it to do, it stems from a lack of trust on the horse’s part. By teaching people how to get the horse to trust them and follow their directions, it’s a special kind of experiential learning – which is one of the most effective ways to learn. 

Our vision with Force4 is to build a team-first organization that creates great value for our customers, inspires and motivates our employees to bring their best every day and serves as an invaluable resource to our partners in the press and analyst community. In the dynamic, fast-paced world we live in, I’m a big believer in empowering the team with the right information to see the big picture to connect their contributions to our overall success. With transparency, the team shares a common vision of where we are going and how we will get there.  

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