Honest talk: why we avoid being direct? And how to improve your ‘horse talk’


Horses are direct in their communication, letting you know through their response if they’re not happy with how you’re working with them. Humans, not always. Here’s why it’s important to honest and how to improve.


If you’ve ever worked with a horse, you might have had the experience of them walking away from you, swishing their tails or stomping their feet.


These are all ways of them communicating directly with you – telling you what they think, or how they feel about the way you’re working with them. For horses it’s all about feeling safe. If something isn’t comfortable, they will let you know! Immediately. Honestly. Non-judgmentally.


Are humans always this direct in their approach? Not in my experience. Often, we find honest talk difficult. We don’t want to have to tell colleagues we don’t think their approach is working or deal with problems with employees. We worry we will hurt feelings, cause upset or rock the boat. We have learnt to be wary of showing vulnerability and are concerned about what others will think of us.


In fact, I personally have had to learn to push my own discomfort with uncomfortable conversations aside to lead people in my businesses – actually even as a wife and mother. I would prefer to avoid conflict of any sort but that is not fair on anyone including myself.


However, avoiding a difficult issue makes it difficult for the issue to be resolved, and in fact, it often makes it worse.


Seeing a direct approach in action


Once we were hosting a leadership training exercise with Liz, a banking executive, her colleague Sally and our horse, Bart. Liz was determined to make Bart comply with her way of doing things, but he just firmly planted his feet and refused to move.


Eventually, Sally was able to speak up and let her manager know that her leadership style can be a bit too forceful – hence Bart’s reaction. Liz was then able to use this direct feedback to improve her management.


Now, I’m not saying that it was Sally’s fault – direct communication needs to be received as much as it is delivered – but having Bart there, reacting to Liz’s behaviour helped her to raise an issue directly in a way which might have been difficult in the office setting.


It’s also a valuable reminder that as leaders, we not only have to give direct feedback, but create an environment in which others feel safe being direct.


Tips on direct communication


  • Honest talk doesn’t mean putting aside subtlety and kindness in the way we communicate. Being direct is not the same as being blunt or cruel.
  • It may help to remember that even if someone is hurt in the short term by what you’ve said, it may benefit them in the long term.
  • Remember everyone has their own communication style, which means they will receive and process communication in a variety of ways. It’s possible to be direct while still respecting people’s own personalities! 
  • Be confident. Direct feedback or communication will generally be better received if it’s delivered with conviction. It may help to plan out why to say beforehand, marking out the key areas so you can be firm and to-the-point
  • Be prepared to see something from another’s point of view. Perhaps the behaviour you have issue with is in fact triggered by something you’re doing? For example, you might want to talk to an employee who doesn’t seem motivated, when their direct response back to you is that it’s because they’re not getting enough variety in their work. The direct feedback you may receive in respond to your direct feedback is something you should be prepared for!
  • Keep it cool. If you’re angry about something, it may be a good idea to wait before you tell the other person. Talking to someone when you’re angry can come across as aggressive, rather than the kind of clear, constructive communication we’re aiming for. Just don’t put it off for too long!

As this Harvard Business Review article points out, “difficult conversations…are an inevitable part of management.” Accepting this and being prepared help make them an easier and productive event. 

Do you have anything to add?


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