This is the first in a series of articles on nonverbal messaging that have emerged from my observations and experiences in the equine world, one realm where beauty is never vain, power does not produce aggression and nonverbal cues always trump talk.
The first few moments of a meeting matter. The first communication sets the tone. Even something like who is first to say “hello” can make a difference in the mood of the session. Last week I arrived at the farm where I board my horse and started chatting with another rider at the main barn when I heard my horse whinny, an equine greeting that translates to, “Howdy partner! Glad to see you!” My heart soared. I couldn’t stop smiling! You see, ordinarily he spends his days out in the pasture with the other geldings some distance from the barn. I have to walk a ways to get him. I initiate contact from a few yards back by whistling and calling his name. I initiate contact; I approach the field, open the gate, call his name, whistle and smile wide when I see him. Only then does he trot over to me. But this day, he was left behind in his private paddock, right near the main barn and I had no idea he was so close by. He saw and heard me before I heard or saw him. And he said, “Howdy” first. It mattered. It suggested that the affection in our horse and rider relationship is mutual. It was a delightful feeling that set the tone of our time together that day and beyond.
This experience got me thinking that mutuality matters between people, too, and we communicate this–or fail to–in the first few moments of our encounters. We seem to be aware of this at the earliest stages of new relationships—when first dating, moving into a new neighborhood, starting a new job, going after the account or client, or at the beginning of a new semester at school. At the outset we are punctual and polite and fully focused. But as time goes on and the people in our lives become more familiar and our relationships more cemented, we lose touch and sight of how precious the first few seconds of our routine encounters really are. Instinctively, we know better than to be reading a text while waving and saying hello during a first meeting with a prospective new customer. Intuitively, we know that without eye contact we can’t send a credible message that “you and your business matter.” Yet, in subsequent encounters we do just that. We get sloppy. We arrive to the meeting chatting on our mobile phones or checking email as we are walking into the room. And inadvertently, we send the message that we are not as invested in the relationship as the other party and/or don’t regard the encounter as a priority. Clients and providers, teachers and students, neighbors and friends, husbands and wives, parents and kids – we are all vulnerable to it and guilty of it.
Since this revelation, I am trying to initiate more contact with the people in my life and to be more deliberate in my initial glances, sounds and words. When I last drove to Manhattan and spent an aggravating twenty minutes in search of parking, I first composed myself and only then texted my daughter to say I had arrived and couldn’t wait to see her. By the time I did set eyes on her, my expression reflected my joy in beholding her, not the leftover frustration from traffic woes. It was then no surprise that I instantaneously saw the peaceful and confident look on her face that only a parent’s acceptance and support can engender. Those first nanoseconds set the tone for a warm, fun and relaxed visit. If my horse could talk he’d probably tell me the impact of those first seconds go well beyond that day or any one visit.