In professional and personal interactions, much needless strife, agitation, anger, apathy, and inefficiency occur due to a lack of training in how to set and respect boundaries, how to motivate others, and how to tell the difference between the two.
Mainstream equestrians have been taught that horses should not be allowed to set boundaries with humans or they will become dangerous. These animals instead must submit to being touched any time, anywhere, for any reason whatsoever without objection, or they are punished, sometimes severely. This results in a great number of horses who dissociate, who become apathetic or machine-like (which some people consider a well-trained horse). These animals lose their vibrancy in the show ring, and act dull and disinterested in daily interactions with people. At the other extreme, some horses, like my Arabian stallion Midnight Merlin, fight back, becoming hyper-sensitive to human touch, throwing riders, and attacking anyone who walks into the corral. These horses are often destroyed simply for lack of mutually-respectful treatment by humans early in life.
In the business world, people who try to set boundaries with co-workers and, most especially, bosses are often punished too, though usually in more subtle ways, developing reputations for being cranky, perhaps losing a promotion in the process. For this reason, most people avoid setting boundaries, swallowing their discomfort and anger by becoming increasingly dull and apathetic. Over time, this creates a toxic work environment where people not only “retire in place,” they use cynicism and sarcasm to release at least some of the resentment seething underneath a complacent façade.
“A Cultural Thing”
But what are boundaries, and why do we need to set them? At the most basic physical level, a boundary helps you claim the personal space you need to feel safe, connected, and therefore engaged with a person who’s approaching and interacting with you. Most of us have dealt with people who stand too close. It’s hard to think straight, let alone pay attention to what they’re talking about, when you’re leaning backward, holding your breath, glancing toward the door, or perhaps dissociating (going blank and numb) to appear polite.
Giving others the physical or emotional space they need not only helps them feel respected, it actually allows their minds to work more effectively. Quite simply, they hear and remember much more of what you’re saying, an important consideration for efficient, results-oriented leaders. If you’re a person who likes to stand or sit close to others, your goal may be to communicate support, camaraderie and, at times, intimacy. But because people have differing needs for space, you need to pay attention to nonverbal cues of discomfort—if you want to be heard. Many people will only process and remember half of what you’re saying if you move into their zone of personal space, as this literally makes their blood pressure rise and their minds to lose focus.
Students often ask me if this is a “cultural thing.” It is only to the extent that in each country, there are some people for whom the accepted standard of physical proximity works, and others for whom it does not. In cultures where close contact is the norm, the most successful, gregarious people are the ones who feel comfortable, even energized in close proximity to others. But there are people for whom this same spatial formula is downright debilitating. These are the seemingly aloof members of society who live on the outskirts of town, work at home if they’re lucky, who either don’t attend parties or must drink copious amounts of alcohol to deaden their sensitivity to the sensory overload they experience in rooms filled with people. Some are “helped” with medication to reduce chronic anxiety, not realizing they might be able to by-pass the drug and its side-effects simply by teaching others to respect the space their bodies need for their minds to be present.
I’ve even found that some children diagnosed with learning disabilities, including attention deficit disorder and oppositional defiant disorder, need more physical space than the classroom allows. Simply sitting in such close proximity to their peers causes the blood pressure to rise, whereupon these students either dissociate and don’t hear the lesson, or they release the tension by acting out. Several teachers who studied these simple techniques have reorganized their classrooms to allow for differences in spatial needs, finding that test scores rose and unproductive behavior dropped. Sales people who have been taught the same nonverbal spatial protocols have seen revenues rise. And business leaders who have the power to give employees their optimal amount of personal space, in meetings and in work stations, find it’s an easy way to save time and money, boost creativity, and avoid many interpersonal difficulties that undermine the daily functioning of an effective team.
Standing close is not automatic connection. Luckily, determining others’ spatial needs isn’t rocket science. You simply have to pay attention to nonverbal cues and adjust accordingly. The next time you see someone leaning back, looking distracted, refusing to make eye contact, holding his/her breath, or going blank, try taking a few steps back and breathing more deeply. Quite often, you’ll notice the person relax and lean forward in response, engaging in more thoughtful conversation because he’s feeling safer and more connected to you, for “intuitive” reasons he may never guess are simply related to space.
Space is the Place
This crucial element of social intelligence has been virtually ignored by scientists and leadership coaches alike. But don’t feel bad if you’ve unknowingly been standing too close to certain people. Or if you thought you were learning impaired and socially inept because you couldn’t think straight in groups of people that you now realize were standing or sitting too close for your comfort. I only noticed the importance of this issue upon the threat of death!
In rehabilitating my stallion Merlin, it took me several months to realize that he had a larger need for personal space than most horses, that this was the root of his intensely aggressive behavior. And at first, I had no idea what to do about it. Over time, I discovered that the positive benefits of working with his heightened sensitivity, rather than trying to de-sensitize him as past trainers had done, instantaneously made him much less violent, more thoughtful and much happier, and I realized that space is the place where relationship begins. Something as simple as physical proximity turned out to be crucial, not only to his mental and emotional health, but to my ongoing safety.
In approaching Merlin, I learned to watch for increasing signs of tension: His neck would raise, his ears would begin to pin back, and he’d either prepare to move away or attack. Yet at the moment I saw these signs of physical stress, if I simply paused, rocked back slightly and sighed, Merlin would sigh, lick and chew, and relax, avoiding a confrontation. Some trainers recommend turning and walking away to release the pressure, but with Merlin this not only temporarily broke the developing connection, it turned out to be unnecessary. As I later realized when I began teaching this technique to doctors, and studying its effects with the physiologist Ann Linda Baldwin, Ph.D., the stallion instinctually preferred the “rock back and sigh” protocol for another reason: His tendency to “catch” or “mirror” my sigh activated his parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body and focuses the mind. (See Chapter Ten.)
Eventually, this same “rock back and sigh” protocol motivated him to walk gently, respectfully toward me with an engaged, cooperative attitude—until he got too close to me for his own comfort. I could almost see his blood pressure rise. (Actually, I could feel it in my own body: a buzzing sensation that would steadily intensify.) If I didn’t make him back off at that moment, setting a boundary with him—for his comfort and my safety—he’d lash out and try to bite me.
Merlin wanted to connect, and he was confused by the overstimulation. Once we found the optimal spatial proximity between us—the place where both of our bodies felt naturally relaxed—his personality changed dramatically. (Again, see Chapter Ten for a more extensive discussion of the unexpectedly fascinating elements involved.)
Through this process, I learned that, contrary to what the mainstream equestrian world still believes, sensing and respecting Merlin’s boundaries made him less dangerous. But it had to be a two-way street. Through this experience, I came up with a boundary rule that works with people too: When I’m approaching the horse (or another person), he or she sets the boundary. When this same horse or person approaches me, I must set the boundary.
Both elements were essential to building mutual respect. If I respected Merlin’s need for space without insisting he respect mine, he would have become dominant over me, which is incredibly dangerous when someone weighs a thousand pounds. But it’s also an instinctual tendency in humans. As a result, effective nonverbal protocols for setting and respecting boundaries are similar in both species.
Over the years, I learned to watch for similar cues in people: I noticed that when I hit that bubble of personal space unique to each individual, his or her shoulders might rise slightly. He might lean backward, look away, blink more often, and/or hold his breath. People who are more stoic in facial expression often unconsciously twitch their hands or adjust their necks. Others, women especially, are deceptively expressive, actually smiling to release the tension in a socially accepted way, only this type of smile looks forced, and might even turn into more of a grimace if you continue to stand too close. These involuntary physical responses to proximity often signal that you’re approaching too fast (if you’re farther away), or getting too close for comfort if you’ve reached someone’s zone of personal space. If you rock back and sigh at the exact moment you see these cues, however, previously distracted people will often relax, even lean forward. A light seems to come back into their eyes, and they suddenly seem more interested in what you’re saying.
But just as important as respecting others’ boundaries is the art of setting them with people who are clueless about your unique needs for space. And here’s where the difficulty level rises.
On the Job
Among humans, boundaries are also relevant to professional space (offices and cubicles), job integrity (handling your part of a project, or running your division), and emotional space (keeping your private life as private as you want to keep it, regardless of what others may share about their relationships and backgrounds). Boundaries also involve time: the time you need to do the job well, without being overrun with other projects and goals coming at you from multiple directions.
In all of these cases, boundaries are not walls, they are negotiations. When you set a boundary, you should always keep this in mind. Some people need more space and/or quiet to think clearly. Some thrive on close physical proximity and discussion. Others do their best creative work when the radio is playing. In college, I found it easier to write complex term papers at the student union with hundreds of strangers talking and laughing around me, but I didn’t want to socialize on these occasions.
When it comes to setting and respecting boundaries, the old adage “do unto others as you would have others do unto you” may not apply. Some people like to be hugged when they’re feeling down, others like to go out to lunch and talk about it, still others would be eternally grateful if everyone would let them close their office door and be alone for two hours. Finding out what someone needs, rather than giving him or her what you would want in the same situation is an easy way to bypass many potential boundary issues.
For similar reasons, it’s important to avoid jumping to conclusions when someone oversteps the line with you. You’ll save yourself a lot of time, energy, and grief if you don’t automatically take offense. This person may have been treating you as she would have wanted to be treated, or her previous boss would have wanted to be treated, or her mother always told her people would want to be treated in a certain situation. Or perhaps you inadvertently and completely unconsciously stepped on her toes in some way earlier in the day, and she’s angry with you!
As discussed in Guiding Principle One, anger is a signal that someone has overstepped a boundary, perhaps with the conscious or unconscious intention of bending you to his or her will. Most of the time, however, boundary issues do not involve intentionally aggressive moves. Someone who bursts into your office with a list of five urgent things for you to do that day may break your concentration on finishing an important project. You need to set an effective boundary, not swallow your irritation (and explode at her or someone else later). At the same time, it’s not at all helpful to tell this person that she has “violated” your boundaries. Though many people don’t understand what this means, most feel shamed and alienated by this language.
In setting boundaries, it’s most productive to:
- Take care of these momentarily uncomfortable issues early, on an individual, case by case basis. If you wait too long to set boundaries, you’ll encourage the “offending” person to unconsciously step over the line again and again. As a result, you’re likely to do one of two highly unproductive things later, most likely when you’re under stress for some other reason: You might hit that “straw that breaks the camel’s back” stage where you lose your temper with this person over something minor, gaining a reputation as a hot-head. Or, more commonly, you’ll become perpetually irritated and, over time, mistrustful of this person, perhaps dismissing her ideas or giving her the silent treatment, whereupon you will develop a reputation as an inexplicably cold, cranky, self-absorbed, and/or petty person who is not a team player.
- Ask for the specific behavior, space, or time you want and explain how it will help you get the job done. Again, you would never say “Madeline, I need to set a boundary with you. This new client must be some kind of prima donna. Can’t you wait another day for us to get started on this proposal? I’m trying to prepare for another meeting that I set up a month ago, and I really need to concentrate for an hour! Jeez!” Instead use a calm, problem-solving tone of voice: “Madeline, I can see you have a list of five important things for me to do this morning, but I’m finishing up the final figures on the budget for tomorrow’s meeting. What’s the first priority here? Should I get John to take over the budget figures so I can help you with this unexpected lead? Can we hold off until I finish the budget later today? Or should we get Susan or Emily to help us prioritize and divide up this list right now?”
- Negotiate if necessary once you understand the other person’s needs and concerns.
- Give the person immediate positive feedback when he or she makes the slightest move to give you the space, time or consideration you’ve asked for, in the form of relaxed, connected body language, smiles, gentle eye contact, etc. You want to show the person that you’re not setting a boundary to alienate or punish anyone but to become more effective and connected. Appreciation and enthusiasm for the negotiated adjustments are also helpful: “Thanks Madeline; I do think it’s a good plan to have Susan get started on at least outlining the new proposal this morning. I’ll get right back to these boring budget figures so that I can do some research on your new prospect later today. It’s a great opportunity! Hey, can you close my office door on your way out, and let everyone else know I need a couple more hours to get this done before I can jump on board?”
- Be willing to hold your ground once an agreement has been reached. You may have to set the boundary several times, with an increasingly emphatic tone of voice and progressively more assertive body language. But again, give immediate positive feedback when the boundary is respected once more. This “crescendo into immediate positive feedback” technique is essential in working with teams of experts who may or may not be your boss. It’s also an important tool in motivating others to accomplish all kinds of mundane or ambitious goals.
The Ultimate Power Tool
A crescendo is a gradual increase in volume or intensity that does not back down or release pressure until it reaches its fulfillment. Musicians learn to do this for expressive, purely aesthetic reasons. Most people, however, don’t develop this important skill, though there are many good reasons to employ it daily in all kinds of contexts.
The crescendo is, for instance, helpful in setting boundaries with a horse, though it’s rarely taught at conventional training barns, at least not consciously. The best trainers and riding instructors somehow develop it unconsciously in motivating horses to perform a specific goal. But most equestrians spend more time in the saddle than in relating to their horses on the ground. As a result, very few recognize that there’s a difference between assertive, goal-directing behavior and boundary setting.
Boundaries are often completely mishandled in all kinds of ways. Commonly, people say, “back off” to a horse, perhaps half-heartedly, perhaps even angrily—not realizing that their body language is completely incongruent with their message. Truly, it’s not at all uncommon to see experienced riders wave a whip and shout “back off” to a horse while they are backing up. In effect, the verbal cue, vocal tone and whip waving add up to more than ten percent of the communication potential, let’s say thirty percent. But that still means the horse is responding to another seventy-percent of the body language, perceived intent, and energy of a person who is literally inviting the horse to move closer as she steps back.
Holding your ground is the first step in clear boundary-setting communication, and well-trained horses will respect this—as long as they’re naturally submissive. Mastering the crescendo is key to handling more defiant responses from an alpha mare or feisty stallion who believes she or he should be in charge, and is willing to up the ante, using intimidation to gain control over you. More specifically, the crescendo into immediate positive feedback approach is a remarkably simple, highly effective, yet completely counter-intuitive way to gain the respect of any proud, talented being—without alienating him or her—a skill we all need to develop in leading and/or collaborating with groups of human experts, or naturally dominant family members for that matter.
I say counterintuitive because the tendency for most people is to feel insulted by any power play, sometimes setting a boundary in a state of such outrage that the human or horse really doesn’t care to interact with them again, perhaps deferring to their dominance, but not trusting them as leaders. (The important distinction between the herd dominant and herd leader is discussed in Chapter Eight.)
At the barn, the progression usually looks like this: A trainer, let’s call her Wanda, manages to stand her ground as a stallion steps too close. She quietly says “back off, Sparky” with a subtle twitch of the whip. No response. Again, she quietly says “back off, Sparky,” with a subtle twitch of the whip, perhaps several more times, essentially holding the same “volume level,” let’s say a two on a “power dial” of one to ten. Then suddenly, she shouts “Damn it Sparky! I said BACK OFF, you presumptuous bastard!” Whereupon she whacks the horse with the whip, and makes him run around the arena five times to show some respect.
If Wanda’s ultimate aim was to socialize Sparky—to make him a more trustworthy, respectful horse—let alone form an actual partnership with him, she made at least four mistakes:
1.) She suddenly jumped from a two to a ten on the power dial, instantaneously shifting from coolness to ferocious, uncontrolled madness, creating the impression that she was suffering from some sort of equine-induced bi-polar disorder.
2.) She never actually set a boundary. By going straight from moving the horse out of her personal space to insisting he run around the arena at her discretion, she by-passed boundary setting and went straight to “motivating” him to perform a goal, in this case, not by engaging clear-headed assertiveness but by tripping off into rage-infused aggression.
3.) Poor Sparky didn’t learn anything about the relationship-enhancing benefits of respecting boundaries. He learned that dominant individuals take control by suddenly wreaking such havoc that you’re better off doing what they say, and for the most part, staying out of their way.
4.) If he’s like many stallions, he’s now hell-bent on securing a second-in-command position in the horse-human “pecking order” by using Wanda’s same exact tactic on unsuspecting grooms and apprentices, some of whom may come flying out of the arena later that same day.
A Saner Approach
In contrast, this is what Wanda could have done differently, producing a more peaceful, connected outcome:
1.) When Sparky approached her, she could have easily started with the same volume of verbal and nonverbal cues, saying “back up,” with a slight twitch of the whip.
2.) When he didn’t respond, she could have waved the whip more emphatically at the ground just in front of his feet, leaning toward him, taking the power volume up to a “three” or “four.” Here Sparky would have heard the whip hissing, sensed the air moving, and maybe even felt a bit of sand hitting his legs.
3.) If that didn’t work, she could have increased the speed and intensity of the whip to the point where any attempt to step into her space would have resulted in a stinging sensation from the whip, taking the volume up to a “five” or a “six.”
4.) The split second Sparky backed off, Wanda could have then conveyed that giving her the space she needs to feel safe has a positive, relationship-enhancing effect through the following primarily non-verbal cues: instantly stopping the whip, putting it in a neutral position, breathing deeply, and quietly praising Sparky, standing for a few moments longer in this peaceful place of mutual respect before then directing Sparky to move on to performing a specific training move.
It’s important to note that in this example, immediate positive feedback is not about gushing empty praise, but giving Sparky the experience of the relaxation and connection he will always receive when he respects Wanda’s boundaries. Wanda’s continuing obligation is to bring this “emotional intelligence” goal of greater connection and appreciation (though not always relaxation) to everything she does with the stallion, effortlessly increasing his desire to be with her no matter what she wants him to accomplish.
From an emotional and social intelligence point of view, it’s essential to pay attention to the difference between setting boundaries (holding your ground or protecting territory/space/resources) and motivating others (using assertiveness to influence others’ behavior and/or direct them to take action toward specific a goal). Both activities involve a skillful use of power. You can avoid adding aggression, shame, blame and resentment to these activities by “dialing your power up” progressively (crescendo) and then acknowledging achievement of the desired response with “immediate positive feedback.” In this way, boundaries are set with nonverbal cues cultivating safety, cooperation, clear thinking, and greater trust between team members. And goals are achieved through a simple formula for assertiveness:
Commitment + Crescendo + Immediate Positive Feedback = Motivation
This formula, when used mindfully and masterfully, also creates greater self-motivation in others over time, freeing leaders up for other pursuits.
But why must we distinguish between boundary setting and assertiveness? There are three reasons actually: 1.) The goals are very different. 2.) The timing and the positive feedback are different. 3.) The emotions that arise are different.
First of all, in setting a boundary you’re claiming the space, time, or consideration you need to be effective, not directing someone else’s behavior. (In the case of resources, such as money or property, you’re protecting what you already have, not trying to acquire more.) The split second someone backs off, you reward him or her with relaxed, appreciative engagement before getting back on task. When someone repeatedly or aggressively steps over your boundaries you will feel anger.
When you’re motivating someone else to perform a goal, you’re often pushing his boundaries for a specific purpose, sometimes asking him to step outside his comfort zone, sacrifice some of his resources, or compromise his need for personal space, time, etc. in order to serve the needs of the organization, family, or culture at large. Standard positive feedback involves some kind of reward or recognition when the goal is completed. But on more complex, long-term projects, it’s helpful to engage immediate positive feedback for efforts to get started, endure, and trouble shoot. This means that as the motivator, you’re adding enthusiasm, appreciation, and perhaps additional training along the way.
In fact, unless an already-motivated person is taking a break, the “relaxed connection” feedback used in boundary setting is counterproductive. For instance, in motivating a horse to move from a walk to a trot, appreciation must be communicated when he makes the transition without dropping the energy level, or the horse will fall back into the walk. And with someone who’s reluctant to perform a necessary yet boring, tedious task, he or she doesn’t need any excuse to relax and take a break; this person needs to be energized, probably requiring a more assertive crescendo to get started, boosted by enthusiasm and even a bit of humor from you to lighten the load.
In the context of assertiveness/motivation, if someone drops the ball or needs constant attention to stay on task, you will feel frustrated because you’ve “hit the wall” in getting him to do his job in general or take specific action on a previously agreed upon goal.
Anger and Frustration
So once again: from an emotional message point of view, you will feel anger rising when people overstep a boundary and frustration when you’ve reached a block in motivating them or modifying their behavior. Both of these instructive emotions can intensify into rage when they aren’t addressed, and as a result, often feel similar by the time you finally get riled up enough to deal with what’s not working. To respond productively, however, you must track back from rage, accessing the original core emotion in order to ask the right questions and take the best action.
Remember, the questions to ask of anger are: What must be protected? What boundary must be established or restored? For frustration, the questions are: What is the block? What can I do differently? And, if you can’t think of anything different to do, which is often the case with frustration when none of our favorite approaches or coping strategies work, Who can I go to for ideas or assistance?
To up the difficulty level, sometimes you may feel anger and frustration in situations where setting boundaries and motivating a change in someone’s behavior are both involved. Dealing with a spouse who smokes is a classic example. Here we also begin to see how people misuse the boundary concept:
Let’s say, one night after putting their four-year-old son and seven-month-old twins to bed, Sheila tells her husband Greg, “I need to set a boundary with you. You will stop smoking. It’s not good for the children’s health, my health, and most especially your health.”
Sheila’s concern for everyone’s well-being is legitimate and admirable. But she’s confused about the boundary versus motivation issue here, and, as a result, is likely to be less effective. Here’s how Sheila might improve her approach:
“Greg, I’m concerned about your smoking for several reasons. First, there’s the second-hand smoke effect on little Jimmy, the twins, and me. We need to set up some smoke free zones (the boundary issue). Second, I love you, and I want to insure that we all get to spend many more happy years together. You’ve been coughing a lot lately, and even though you’re under a lot of stress at work, I want to support you to stop smoking now. I know this is hard, but I will do whatever it takes to help you (the motivation issue).”
This inspires a clearer, more pointed conversation, resulting in several negotiations where both parties are encouraged to contribute ideas and possible solutions. In this case, Greg and Shelia decide that the family car is completely off limits, and that Greg can smoke in his truck when no one else is with him. The house is off limits, except for Greg’s office when the door is closed and the window is open. These are recognized as temporary measures, however, as Greg really wants to stop smoking. He discovers that Sheila will help him research the best course of action to take, and if he slips, he can count on even more support from her.
In motivating Greg to stop smoking, however, success is most likely achieved when both he and Sheila are committed to the plan. If Greg is overwhelmed by the twins, the economy, and stress at work, he may not be able to fathom undertaking this additional, notoriously difficult challenge. Sheila may feel frustrated and worried, but she also knows there’s only so much she can do to change someone else’s behavior. What she can do is uphold the smoke-free zones, and over time, look for ways to encourage Greg to pay more attention to his health, perhaps helping him to reduce stress so that he smokes less and finds the strength to quit later.
Music or Medicine
Here’s another classic misuse of the boundary concept: Dominique says to her seventeen-year-old son Eddie, “I need to set a boundary with you, young man. As a member of the Upton family, you will put these frivolous dreams of becoming a composer and recording artist aside. You will go to college and you will study medicine like your father, his father, and his father before him. Now put that keyboard away and get back to studying for those SATs or you’ll never get into Harvard.”
While Dominique presents this as a boundary issue, this is primarily a goal-oriented, motivational issue (and a one-sided, short-sighted one at that). First of all, the Upton family is setting a very stringent boundary: They’re telling Eddie that they will only pay for college, room and board if he studies medicine, in which case the boundary is a wall that limits his access to moral support, approval, and money unless he follows the one and only goal his parents choose to fund from their stash of physical and emotional resources. If Eddie is at all talented and dedicated musically, this tactic is harsh and may very well backfire, as it’s really more of a bribe disguised as a boundary, alienating him in the long run. Legally, they can’t force him to study medicine. If he gets a scholarship or secretly decides to sell drugs to support his musical aspirations, the Upton family’s influence on him lessens considerably.
In terms of motivating Eddie toward her wish that he become a doctor, Dominique’s supposed “tough love” stance is likely to fail in the long run because the first ingredient, commitment, is seriously lacking in the person who has to carry out a complex goal that will take a decade to accomplish. (Remember, the formula we’re exploring is commitment + crescendo + immediate positive feedback = motivation.)
Commitment from an authority figure alone is only effective in local, short term goals, such as a rider urging a horse to move from a trot to a canter, or a parent pressuring a child to clean his or her room. Eddie’s mother may be able to stand over him while he’s living at home, force feeding him commitment to the “doctor plan” while he’s studying for the SATs and applying to Harvard. But if he’s accepted, he needs some serious commitment resources of his own to make it though eight years of school, not to mention a grueling residency.
All kinds of things can happen as a result of Eddie’s lack of commitment. Maybe he faints at the sight of blood, and won’t make it through his first year of medical school. Maybe he has a stronger stomach, and loves his parents (and their approval or money) so much that he gives up his musical aspirations, unenthusiastically earns his M.D., and completes his residency. Maybe he leads a superficially successful life. Maybe he develops a reputation as a cranky heartless doctor who’s later sued for malpractice.
On the other hand, Eddie might stand his ground and break ties with the family that actively rejected his unique calling, resulting in several additional possible outcomes—none of which involve meaningful contact with his parents. Maybe he gloats when he becomes a famous recording artist, no thanks to the Uptons. Or maybe he overdoses in a New York back alley because after he was accepted to Julliard, he started using speed to boost his energy and deal with the high level of competition, later selling cocaine and crystal meth because waiting tables didn’t begin to cover his room and board, much less his tuition. Or maybe he struggles in another way, taking six years to put himself through community college, becoming a high school music teacher who has a modest yet satisfying life, building a family, playing jazz on the side, releasing a couple of regionally successful, self-published CDs—and encouraging his own children to follow their dreams, whatever they are.
Of these three music-oriented outcomes, I actually find the last the most innovative from a cathedral thinking point of view. The stardom option is impressive and perhaps a bit of a fluke; the second is a tragedy that could have been avoided. But the third is an act of revolution that anyone can perform with a reasonable amount of talent, courage and endurance, in Eddie’s case freeing future members of the Upton clan from the indentured servitude of becoming doctors, whether they like it or not.
I’ve actually seen numerous cases of the same scenario in reverse, encountering musical prodigies who were pressured toward a performance career they didn’t want, lessening the pleasure they could have received from playing an instrument well for the sheer joy of it while pursuing a humanitarian, research, or leadership calling their families refused to support. Come to think of it, I gave into social pressure to suppress a seemingly childish goal of working with horses, an attraction so foreign to my parents that majoring in music seemed practical by comparison. By the time I was successful enough to buy my own horse, I was too old to become an Olympic-level rider—though eventually these two streams of knowledge informed each other when I had the courage to step into the unknown.
Sometimes, no one is bribing you to go to medical school, or forcing you to give up your dreams. At age eighteen, or twenty, or thirty, you simply lack the crucial combination of vision, experience, power, and communication skills to gather support for a goal that family, friends, and perhaps society at large can’t yet imagine, which is why many innovators don’t pursue their true calling until later in life.
When you work directly with horses, you realize that money and position are not actually forms of power at all. They’re tools for organizing, modifying and distributing resources, including land, water, minerals, food, human labor, ideas, information, and the technology that arises from their coordinated use. Resource management also involves dealing with the noxious by-products of civilization, not just toxic waste, but the hurtful, manipulative, vengeful, sometimes downright criminal behavior of people who essentially have one thing in common: Whether they’re desperate housewives, callous social climbers, overly competitive soccer moms, drug addicts, gang members, rapists, wall street swindlers, mean-spirited pundits, or oppressive dictators, these people haven’t learned how to use their own power effectively. They, and everyone around them, suffer as a result.
But those of us who function within currently accepted rules of social conduct also lack an understanding of power and how to master it. And those who enforce the law, well, let’s just say we could all use a healthy dose of horse wisdom to get to the next level, no matter how accomplished we are and how honorable our intentions may be….
“Barbara Wilkinson,” a Tucson-based District Court Judge, came to study assertiveness and conflict resolution skills with me, not because she needed help at work, but because her ex-husband Henry and her fifteen-year-old son Michael were driving her crazy. From nine to five, Judge Wilkinson flourished in the courtroom, handing down tough yet fair sentences, gaining the respect of everyone around her. But once she put that gavel down and removed her long, black robe, the people she loved the most seemed to go out of their way to challenge her authority.
Henry and Michael undermined her in all kinds of irritating ways. Her ex-husband, a successful attorney, strategically altered the visitation schedule, seemingly to create additional stress for Barbara; at least that was how it appeared to her. He also refused to back her up on disciplinary measures, and sometimes paid child support late, always erring just this side of the law, deftly sending Barbara the message that “you’re not the boss of me,” as he sometimes actually told her.
Partly due to influence from his father, partly due to teenage angst, and partly due to raw, still unresolved issues from the divorce, Michael was becoming increasingly dismissive of his mother, most recently finding all kinds of excuses to skip dinner and avoid cleaning his room. While these seemed like simple, childish ways to test the limits, Barbara was worried that if she didn’t turn things around soon, six-foot tall Michael would become uncontrollable. As a judge, she knew very well what kind of trouble he could get into once he passed his driver’s test, not only as an instigator or careless driver, but as a possible victim. It didn’t help that Henry had already promised to give their son his loaded Ford Expedition after buying a brand-new Lexus.
During our initial meeting, the judge gave me quite an earful about the infuriating nuances of the SUV issue. Barbara felt that Henry had purposefully crossed a boundary in their child-rearing partnership by telling Michael he could count on receiving the truck for his sixteenth birthday before discussing it with her. She thought it was an obvious bribe for their son’s affection and loyalty, that it was too ostentatious a vehicle for a teenager, and as a result, too dangerous in terms of its attractiveness to carjackers. She admitted that she “blew up” when Michael announced his excitement about the gift, helping her husband gain points in another way, bolstering a case that Henry was always making to her son in all kinds of verbal and much craftier, underhanded nonverbal ways: that she was an unnecessarily conservative, at times hysterical, over-protective mother who “didn’t have a clue.” I could see that Barbara was still livid, hurt, and fearful for her son’s safety. She also felt that somehow Michael always ended up being used as a pawn in ongoing arguments with her ex, and she didn’t know what to do about it, adding intense frustration to the mix.
Talk about a conundrum. Teasing apart this rapidly expanding tangle of intense emotions and power plays could have taken years in conventional office-style counseling. But Barbara desperately needed to take constructive action immediately as Michael’s sixteenth birthday was six weeks away.
Over the next month, she somehow found the time to study with me several times a week as we practiced skills related to boundary setting, assertiveness, emotional agility, and empowerment. Barbara was shocked to find that even my gentlest horses easily found all kinds of opportunities to take charge. She thought that Rasa was following her, when the mare was actually herding the woman all over the arena. Getting this normally considerate mare to back away from Barbara took an entire, hour-long session. It appeared that all her power was related to a socially-sanctioned position. Without her robe and gavel, the judge seemed to actually attract subtle displays of disrespect, as if she had a power vacuum in her solar plexus, a black hole that would suck others right into her space.
Barbara’s awareness of her own body language in relation to others was non-existent. When learning to set boundaries, it took numerous tries to stand her ground rather than unconsciously back up. Teaching her the crescendo was also difficult. Barbara would wave the whip rhythmically at a “volume” of two or three, rather than progressively increase the power and intensity, then get frustrated and explode up to eight or nine. And she initially seemed very confused by the concept of immediate positive feedback. Barbara was used to handing down punishments for serious transgressions, letting people know that “they should be ashamed of themselves,” often giving them lots of time to think about it depending upon the sentence. When her husband or son offended her, she admitted she would hold onto a silent, rigid, shaming attitude after they made the necessary adjustments. She actually laughed out loud, and shook her head upon realizing she had been unconsciously sentencing them to a few hours or even days of emotional penance.
The horses had an almost magical effect on Barbara’s ability to change this habit once she saw how ineffective it was. She felt they were innocent, pure beings, who didn’t mean to hurt anyone. As a result, she didn’t take their challenges personally, wasting additional emotional and mental energy trying to find ways to punish them for insolence and disrespect. As she learned to crescendo to get a horse to back off, she also realized that any effort to boost her power over a “five or six” was initially accompanied by rage, which is very common with people who think of themselves as cool, low-energy people.
“You are not an energy level,” I emphasized. “Your comfort may be in the one to five range, but that’s only a habit you learned somewhere along the way. You have an energy dial inside that can go from a one to a ten. As you exercise it, you won’t need to use rage to get there. When increased progressively, thoughtfully, for a specific purpose, intense power does not have to be aggressive, resentful, or violent.”
“Wow,” she replied with a faraway look in her eyes. “I wish we could teach these skills in the prison system. Even better, preventatively, in schools….”
Because she had no previous equestrian experience, respecting the horses’ boundaries wasn’t a stretch for Barbara, and she quickly thought of all kinds of ways she ignored her son’s need for personal space through wanting to connect with him and gain his attention. Still, she had some difficulty learning the nonverbal protocols.
In approaching Rasa, it took Barbara several sessions to master the optimal timing of seeing signs of tension and immediately engaging the “rock back and sigh.” At first, she would walk right up to the mare, not noticing that Rasa had raised her neck higher and even started moving away ten feet earlier. Then, when Barbara began to discern these nonverbal cues, she would simply stop and hold her breath. When asked to rock back, she would stiffly lean back and forget to breathe. Sitting in a judge’s chair for ten years had solidified the unconscious impression that she didn’t have to move, breathe, or relate responsively to others in wielding significant power.
“It’s not necessary to have real power when you’re a judge,” Barbara marveled the day she was finally able to direct Rasa to walk, trot and canter around the arena. “I don’t know what to call it actually, borrowed power, fake power, empty power. I mean just about anyone off the street could put on those robes and experience instant respect walking through the courthouse. They’d have to know the law, or the charade would soon be up, of course. But all I know is that when the robe comes off, and people don’t know who you are, that kind of power is about as useful in everyday life as trying to eat a photo of someone else’s four-course meal!”
During her last session with me, Barbara was pleased to report that she had used the assertiveness/motivation formula to get her son to clean his room regularly. “I couldn’t think of any reason a boy his age would be committed to cleaning his room,” she said. “I actually thought about bribing him, letting him accept Henry’s gift of the SUV. But I’m still on the fence about that. Why should I compromise Michael’s safety over household chores?”
After working with the horses, Barbara realized she had enough personal commitment resources as mother and homeowner to motivate Michael to take care of this tedious chore through the “crescendo into immediate positive feedback” protocol. The first time, she texted him to remind him that he’d agreed to clean his room Thursday after school (a “one” on the power dial), then called him on her way home from work (a “two”). That night, when it was clear that he hadn’t lifted a finger to clean his room, she firmly yet calmly spoke to him after dinner (a “three” or “four”). When Michael “forgot” on Friday, she grounded him that weekend (a “five” in her mind, as she was also willing to take away his cell phone and his spring-break trip if necessary).
“Michael was really giving me the silent treatment on Saturday, but I didn’t take the bait,” she proudly told me. “I actually went into his room and got him started as I could see he was overwhelmed with the total lack of organization. It was really disgusting actually. I helped him gather his laundry, but I had him measure out the detergent and set the dials. I guess this was a helpful way to take the motivation up to a “six.” And I was giving him immediate positive feedback in the process, just talking with him in a matter-of-fact way, rather than giving him the stern, silent, resentful treatment I would normally use, I’m now embarrassed to say, when he tested my authority. And when he finished later that afternoon, I announced that he was no longer grounded, as he had achieved the goal. He actually looked shocked. I’ve had a much easier time motivating him at a two, three, or four on the power scale ever since!”
Barbara was even more excited that day when I allowed her to go into the arena with my stallion Merlin. The judge was nervous, but she successfully set boundaries with Merlin, seeing that he needed the space to avoid becoming over-stimulated. And she was able to convince him to move around the arena once in each direction using the motivation formula, though she found it hard to control his speed. We talked afterward about Merlin’s need to learn self-control, to learn how to modulate his own power if he were ever truly to be “healed” from the unnecessarily violent treatment he had received in earlier training.
Tears welled up in Barbara’s eyes. “I’ve made a decision,” she said. “I’m going to support Michael in driving the Expedition. I’m going to help him to understand that Henry’s SUV is a symbol of power, not power itself. I’m going to let both of them know that taking additional defensive driving training, and maybe even a personal self-defense class, will be my conditions for letting Michael officially own the vehicle after he receives his driver’s license. And I’m going to make sure he knows that showing me he can responsibly handle himself in situations when I’m not around will allow him to keep it over time.”