Sitting Tall in the Saddle of Solid Communication

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This is the second 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.

About forty-five minutes into a ninety-minute riding clinic my gelding, Dolce, began pulling away from the group and heading for the gate. This has happened before on extended rides or events; in less than an hour he starts to head home. Ordinarily, after a few spins to tire him out he is reminded that I am the “alpha” in this relationship and he continues the ride, but only to start pulling me “home” again in another half hour or so. Traditional horsemanship suggests we riders must insist through persistent and clear cues that our horses obey our wishes and continue on the course we set. But this time, I was too curious to be the “alpha.” Instead, I let my equine “partner” lead us out of the arena to see where he would go if the decision was his. He went straight to his post and paused. I dismounted but left him tacked up. And then, as if on cue, he calmly did his business and looked right at me appearing, no pun intended, relieved. I then remounted and we returned to the clinic where he was again attentive and responsive. Hmmm….

I shared this with the farm owner, a gifted horsewoman who is especially tuned into the equine sensibility as well as their constitutional and individual needs. My first thought was that given his bout with kidney failure a few years back, perhaps the pressure on his kidneys (located under the saddle) occasions him to feel the need to urinate more frequently. But this didn’t explain why he feels he must leave the arena to do so. She proffered a very logical explanation: Dolce was likely originally trained and served as a lesson horse in his life before me and my rescue of him. That made complete sense. He “works” for forty-five minutes, then eats and does his business—and always at his post. And as I reviewed my riding journal, I saw that his habits were there well before the illness that shut down his kidneys and almost took his life.

The next day, I saddled Dolce and took him right into a small ring. I figured that if he were once a lesson horse, he would likely be most familiar with a small ring in which lessons typically take place All the paraphernalia for a lesson were there: crop, mounting block, locked gate. I was eager to observe his behavior. It was a stunningly revealing and rewarding exercise. From bridling to mounting to turning, trotting and backing up, my Dolce performed with ease and confidence. And forty minutes into the exercise, he paused at the mounting block cueing me that our “lesson” was done. I took the cue and when I dismounted, I looked at him and he looked positively glowing! Actually, it was more than that; his expression was one of “I am so happy to host you in my home.” He was proud! He was in a place where he is entirely comfortable and doing the things he knows best because he did them, it seems, from an early age, for many years and with very positive reinforcement. In retrospect, it all adds up. All the times my nieces and nephews came to take a riding lesson on Dolce he was so patient with them. He would stand like a statue as they mounted. He would pose with them for photos wearing funny hats and sunglasses. He would endure the hot August sun for hours as they took turns on his back. He knows his “job” in the ring and senses that he does it very well.


This all got me thinking about our comfort zones and the opportunities they provide for improving communication between partners—be they in business, romance, community or family. As the universe would have it, the next weekend my daughter invited me to the New York Philharmonic. A cellist, she was thrilled to hear that they were performing a program she had recently performed with her university orchestra. It is her favorite and her excitement was palpable. Her energy and enthusiasm were flowing as we selected our outfits, drove in listening to the CD, walked across Lincoln Center and entered Avery Fisher Hall. She was grinning the entire time. There was a bounce in her step despite her high heels. She navigated the ticket booth and concert hall with a graceful flow and familiarity I have never seen—even in our own home. With our last-minute ticket purchase we had to sit separately but she stood with me until the last possible second pointing out the instruments less familiar to me and the particulars of this ensemble. When she took her seat, I could see her beaming with delight through the entire program and looking away only to share a contagious and wide smile. During intermission, she shared so many insights about the conductor, the orchestration and the challenges of playing the piece and all in a voice I had never heard from the body of my child! She was sharing and welcoming me into her “home,” her comfort zone from which emanates her sense of purpose and self and pride. What a different place that is from even our physical home, where while we are loving and close but where we must also share space and chores and other banalities from which come few opportunities to shine.

Too often, we interact with a sliver of our clients, mates, neighbors and kin—all complex creatures who have a number of roles in life many of which push them well outside their comfort zones in their interactions with us. Given the stress we feel when we are outside our comfort zones it’s no wonder our communication get sloppy. Stress pollutes our communication with even those we have known for years, share goals and values, and for whom we care deeply. Instead of responding sensitively to a neighbor’s complaint, we react and get defensive only prolonging the conflict rather than resolving it. We may pull rank and use a harsh tone with our children when they ask for more than our resources allow rather than sharing our simple need for a grown-up snack and nap. And technology facilitates our worst impulses and indulges lazy behaviors. We bang out a terse email and hit “send” rather than “draft” when a friend hurts our feelings or a lover lets us down. We allow ourselves to go months or even years without seeing a client face-to-face in his or her place of business, relying instead on phone calls and emails and that easily mask the realities of what they are doing, enduring and accomplishing. Texts may give us the sense that we are efficiently taking care of business, but being the “alpha” doesn’t really resolve conflicts or promote trust in human or equine relationships.

Keeping others’ hurtful, mysterious or insensitive behavior in perspective is accomplished by spending some time “where they live” and in their comfort zones. It reveals precisely what makes them tick and what they really value. That refreshes our respect for them and, in turn, their commitment to us. My relationship with my daughter took on an entirely new dimension that night at Lincoln Center and it provides us with tolerance during the times when we disagree or quarrel. The combination has made us even closer. Reflecting on strained or failed relationships—both personal and professional—I see a common thread: lack of regular, real-time, face-to-face contact on both parties’ “home turfs.” Denied invitations and missed opportunities to understand our clients’, colleagues’, neighbors’, friends’ and family members’ behaviors through the lens of their comfort zones deny us the chance for genuine insight and long-term trust, respect and commitment in the relationship. That is why I so enjoy going to my clients’ offices to see where and how they run their businesses and support their families. I love meeting my young clients’ parents to understand the home environments that shape their study habits and provide the support they’ll need during the demanding season of college applications and admissions interviews. When the forum is public, I attend my clients’ speeches to witness their success at the podium earned through the tedious and time-consuming work behind-the-scenes. And I realize now that it is no coincidence that the professionals who have been in my life for twenty-plus years and who continue with me through today are only those who know me, my children, my life’s work and values because they stayed close and took the journey along side us, not dispensing advice from behind computer screens or via voice mail messages. Simply put, we need to be understood and appreciated in our comfort zone before we can expand it.

True to his Arabian breed, Dolce is an intelligent, athletic and communicative horse who gets on beautifully with humans so I won’t insult his intelligence or mine by thinking we can ride only in a training ring. He is certainly capable of “expanding his comfort zone” as can any healthy creature who has a willing to surrender the reins every now and then and enter another’s zone. Lately, Dolce and I have been starting our rides in that small ring, then moving into the larger arena—always well before that forty-five minute alarm—and by first opening the gate together, me on his back and him accepting my gentle and clear cues for a slow and gradual movement from one space to the next.


Lisa Bernard has prepared and represented people from all walks of life to speak publicly at meetings, on panels, in their places of worship and as keynoters. She herself has addressed audiences as large as 2000 and designed and delivered over 500 workshops, seminars and college-level courses on oral communication.  She has slowed down fast-talkers, turned “uhmers” into smooth-speakers and moderated accents from Brooklyn to Beijing – all to develop confident communicators.  Lisa has a Masters Degree in International Affairs from Columbia University and today manages Lisa Bernard’s SecuritySpeak, LLC, a consulting firm that makes available experts on national, global and cyber-security for distinguished lectures worldwide.  You can reach her at (203) 293-4741 or and like her firm at