Are You a Busy Bee or Just Buzzing Around?

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My last morning ride of the autumn was on a classic Indian summer day.  It was sunny and comfortably warm.  The sky was azure blue.  I was grateful for the gift of another opportunity to saddle my horse in such accommodating weather.  After a while on the trails, I dropped the reins to allow my Dolce to go where he pleased to graze.  I respect my horse.  Our relationship is a partnership and after we ride a trail of my choosing, I like him to have time to choose his own forage and to just be a horse.

Busy Bees

This particular morning I noticed he was grazing on a weed sometimes called “Long-bristled Smartweed.”  It thrives each fall on his farm and he seeks it out each year.  Just as I was considering this, I noticed the many bees also enjoying the Long-bristled Smartweed.  There were dozens of them all within a one-foot radius of his head!  My first reaction was to move us along.  Horses have many nerve endings around their mouths and noses and I could only imagine that being stung there would be terribly painful for him – and dangerous for me if he bolted or reared.  But then, I realized that we’d been there for some time.  Those bees were not paying him any attention at all.  They were entirely engrossed in the nectar of the pink buds.  They had what to get done and they were doing it.  And the bees were silent.  There was no buzz at all from these very busy bees.  No buzzing and no stinging.  This got me thinking …


I often hear people say, “I’m so busy!” You call or text or email and they first assert, “I’ve been so busy …”  You invite them and they say, “Sorry, busy.”  Busy, busy, bizzzzyyy.  My students almost all tell me repeatedly that they are “so busy.”  Then there are the people in my life who never use that word.  Here’s the interesting thing: they are the most committed, devoted and productive people I know.  When I call or text or write them they are attentive, present, focused, decisive and efficient.  They’re the ones with demanding careers, elaborate pursuits, families and time-consuming hobbies and avocations.  I don’t notice them multi-tasking, but they certainly have multiple roles in their lives.  Beside my close family members and friends, many of those who come to mind are the experts I represent at my speakers bureau.  I have such respect for them.  They are devoted spouses, parents and grandparents.  They run firms, write books, conduct elaborate research, attend professional conferences, give interviews and deliver speeches and travel the world in doing so – literally.  Their deadlines are hard deadlines.  They are genuinely “busy.”  But they don’t describe themselves that way.  They tend to focus on the matter at hand.  My favorite vignette comes from my speaker whom I texted, “Have 5 minutes for a chat?”  He texted back, “Yep.  10:00.  Cell.”  It was already 10:40 in the morning so I asked, “Tonight or 10:00 a.m.  tomorrow?”  His reply: “Tonight.  On midnight flight to Moscow.”  He’s busy.  That kind of rigor and efficiency are the norm for my speakers.

When I returned Dolce to his paddock that morning, there was a swarm of bees by the gate and I heard them before I saw them.   They were flying around and their collective buzz was audible – even loud.  They just didn’t seem to be doing anything – anything but buzzing, that is.  We avoided them.  This time, I felt we could be stung and late for where we needed to be next.  These were not “busy bees” but “buzzing” ones.

Lisa Bernard is now the President of SecuritySpeak, LLC, a consulting firm that represents unbiased experts on national, cyber and global security matters or briefings, talks and distinguished lectures before audiences with an interest in keeping the level of discourse high.  See more at and  She can be reached at (203) 293-4741 or via email at








Don’t Get Your Tail in a Twist! When Bad Body Language is the Signal to Speak Up and Straighten Things Out

IMG_20130605_170058_756 (1)This is the third article in a series on nonverbal messaging inspired by the equine world, one realm where beauty is never vain, strength does not mean aggression and nonverbal cues always trump talk.

I adore my horse, Dolce. His name in Italian means “sweet” or “sweetly.” He is well-named as he has, true to his Arabian breed, a lovely disposition. Every wrangler, rider, rancher and farmhand who has ever come in contact with him has commented on his gentility. And he came to me sweetly. He was rounded up in a rescue effort and transported to the farm where I took riding lessons. I first saw him as the farm owner drove me around looking at the horses available for lease. He had been living there for about six months and was cowering under a big mare. What first caught my attention was not his physical beauty, but that he made extended eye contact with me –and then suddenly looked away. This happened three times. Our eyes locked for about three seconds and then he turned his whole head away. By the third time, I sensed that he had once been very much loved by a human. That’s how I read it. His expression and gestures said, “Are you back? Is that you?” And, implicitly, “If you help me now we can put this all behind us.” Three days later I leased him. Three months later I bought him. We’ve been together as horse and rider for six years now.

I know Dolce quite well and when I see that he is not himself in some way, I know he doesn’t feel well. This was the case the other day when he didn’t trot right over to me. He was moving slowly. He didn’t whinny. His ears did not come forward—the equine equivalent of a smile. Worse, his ears went back when I haltered him—the equine expression of irritation. I admit that I first felt insulted. He’s always so happy to see me. Then, when I began to groom him, he pinned his ears. That hurt! That hurt me, I mean! As I brushed his back near his rear he swung his head around as if to bite me. He was letting me know he was not taking it. And I was taking the rejection personally. After a deep breath and a pause, I started to emote less and think more. I palpated his spine. I was thinking Lyme disease which gets horses and causes them painfully sore backs. But he didn’t jump when I palpated further. Not back pain. But what was it then? It was time for a thorough head to hoof examination. And there it was: a nasty-looking abrasion on his heel bulb. Communication experts say, “A problem named is a problem solved” and so it was. Just as I lifted the injured hoof to clean the wound his ears went forward. True to his personality, Dolce knew I was trying to help him. I think that’s why he heals quickly when injured or ill. He starts to heal even before the medicine is applied. He starts off grouchy and defensive until he senses the sincerity, accepts the helping hand and warms hearts in the process. That’s a lot of camaraderie and effective communication for a creature that doesn’t use words.

How different it is in human to human communication! What happens with us humans when other humans’ “body language” communicates to us that they are not happy to see us, irritated with us and even seem to be rejecting us? Ouch! We feel hurt. We get insulted. And we walk away, snarl back, or otherwise escalate the hostility. But just as with our four-legged friends, I propose that these negative signals we receive are actually clues to one’s circumstances and if we can “respond” thoughtfully rather than “react “ emotionally we humans, too, can find relationships in unexpected places and productivity in stressful situations. What do I mean?

Let’s start by realizing that non-verbal communication is ambiguous. This is counter-intuitive as many of us have powerful gut-feelings about what a look, tone or gesture mean. We really believe we “know what she meant when she averted her eyes during our conversation.” We are certain that “his tone was dismissive during the phone call.” We are sure that “when she shifted in her chair and looked at her watch during the interview that she was bored.” The fact is that we really do not and often cannot “know” any such things. Why? Because, nonverbal communication means different things depending on the culture from which it emanates. In short, it is culture-specific, a fancy term for the behaviors of particular people with common characteristics that impact the way they act and especially how they communicate. For instance, if you are American and give a fellow American colleague the “thumbs up” gesture, it is a compliment. Give a “thumbs up” to a Persian associate and you just gave someone “the finger.” One gesture. Two cultures. Divergent messages. And unintentionally hurt feelings.

And culture is not just about ethnicity. Take the culture of folks with back problems, say compressed discs. They have trouble sitting for long periods of time and they behave in certain ways as a result. During hiring season a human resource professional might need to sit through back-to-back interviews that aggravate her condition. Feeling her back start to ache, she shifts in her chair trying to find a comfortable position. This happens two or three times until she also glances at her watch wondering if it is time yet for another dose of her medication. However, the signal received by the anxious interviewee is, “Uh-oh. She’s bored with my responses. This is not going well.” Wrong! The message sent has zero to do with the interview. Rather, the behavior stems from a physical ailment, not an interpersonal issue or negative view of the matter at hand.

What thickens the plot is how one handles a perceived slight. If one self-righteously declares, “You are being very rude and I won’t stand for this treatment” it is dramatic and makes for a juicy, “I told her where to go” story at dinner with friends. However, it doesn’t help one get a job. If one stays quiet and silently brews resentment that too will likely backfire as those signals eek out to pollute the communication environment and sabotage the interview. When affronted, one must think logically about what to say that is productive and can contribute to a climate of good will. And make no mistake about it: words are necessary. We are the only species on the planet with the gift of speech and arguably, we have not only a responsibility to use it sensitively with other humans, but great opportunities to use it smartly to achieve our goals. How so?

Bearing in mind that nonverbal messages are ambiguous, culture-specific and typically based in biology, we must remind ourselves that we are likely mistaken in our first read of what is being signaled. That doesn’t mean our intuition is off; on the contrary, something is indeed happening when one averts their eyes suddenly in the midst of an otherwise engaging conversation. What’s off is our translation or interpretation of the gesture. So when we’re observing a change in an interviewer’s body language, that is, she goes from smiling and making eye contact to fidgeting, grimacing and glancing at the clock—simply speak up! We need to share the observation and pose a genuine question in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. We need to smile sincerely and say, “I notice that you are checking your watch. Have we run over our scheduled time or need a break?” How welcome that will be to a person who needs an aspirin! And what’s in it for us? She now sees a perceptive and reasonable person! She will likely call a five-minute break and return focused and noting that she is interviewing someone who is a whole person and not just a resume. In a word, her ears will come forward.

Lisa Bernard, M.A., is the founder of Lisa Bernard’s Word of Mouth, Inc. a full-service oral communication firm based in Westport, CT. For over twenty years Lisa has been helping real people achieve their goals one conversation, speech or interview at a time. She can be reached at, followed on Twitter @CueCardComm or via LinkedIn.

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


In the Beginning and Beyond: The First Few Moments Matter in Our Most Important Relationships

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.