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  • Writer's pictureMaria

The Art of Negotiation, Equine Edition

Part of a future series called “Lessons from the Round Pen”. Similar to Robert Fulghum’s “All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten”, in the round pen, my horses have taught me countless lessons on being a better human.

Valuable Negotiation Lessons

While working with Ace, my OTTB (off-the-track thoroughbred), in the round pen, I would occasionally find us at a standstill. One of the early lessons in our training was getting him to take a few steps backwards in order for me to be seen as the leader.

In their own herds, the lead horse is the one that does the backing, not the one that backs up. Therefore, to be Ace’s leader, I had to be the one asking for the backwards movement. Often, he would do as I asked, but every now and then he would get stuck and refuse to move. I knew it was not a good idea for me to backup because then he might think himself the leader. It took me a few sessions, but I finally realized that I could move sideways rather than backwards to get his feet moving again.

In his book, “The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World” author Michael Wheeler of the Harvard Business School states “effective negotiation demands rapid cycles of learning, adapting, and influencing”. Working with Ace in the round pen I had no choice but to adapt and improvise in order to be successful without creating a battle or a war. The last thing I wanted to do was insist on holding my ground, stay stuck and basically cut off the communication.

Move Sideways, Not Backwards (Redirect rather than Retreat)

If moving backwards can be seen as a retreat, then it is important to not set that precedent. However, how do we ‘learn, adapt and influence’ without retreating? I found that moving sideways affords us the opportunity to do just that. I found that moving sideways did not come with a power struggle, but with an actual opportunity to change the course of the interaction without changing the desired outcome. I found that sometimes when Ace got stuck, I could move sideways and he would follow me, thereby getting him unstuck. I could redirect rather than retreat.

Most of the time he did not even realize it was a redirection; I could act like the sideways move was what I always wanted. I learned that not every situation has to become a battle of the wills.

How can we be willing to negotiate and adapt a situation where everyone wins? Moving sideways and redirecting has been a huge lesson learned that I can apply to almost every aspect of my life.

I Want A Tattoo

When one of my daughters was 16, she told me she wanted a tattoo. I immediately said 'no!' followed by 'I'm the mom and what I say goes”. As the words were leaving my mouth, I immediately knew that was the wrong thing to say, but I couldn't stop myself. And once said, I didn’t feel that I could take it back. She quickly responded with something like, "I have a friend who does tattooing in his basement, so I'll just go to him, and you'll never know".

At that point I realized I had put myself in a corner and didn't quite know how to get out of it. Just like my lessons in the round pen with Ace, we were stuck. If I changed my mind and said OK to the tattoo then my daughter (and other children) might think I was a pushover and that they could eventually do whatever they wanted. If I stayed stuck in my position, I could be sending my daughter off to make a bad decision.

More importantly, I felt that this was a classic parenthood test; my daughter was effectively telling me the kind of relationship she wanted to have with me, that she would be safe coming to me with her wants and concerns. If I shut it down without truly listening, I could risk pushing her into a more secretive relationship with me and I would have to take some responsibility in that creation.

After a few days of going back and forth, I decided to try to move sideways and renegotiate the situation.

What I came up with was that, yes, she could get a tattoo, but I would have some approval of design and placement. In addition, I would select the tattoo parlor so that I could make sure the cleanliness guidelines were met (they were). In return for my daughter’s concessions, I would go with her and pay for the tattoo.

This ended up being a win-win for both of us. This was an amazing lesson for me learning to move sideways and redirect. A very valuable lesson for many aspects of my life.

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