Karen*, a sales manager at a large company, is starting to have that knot in her stomach. She’s asked a member of her team to come up with his projected sales report for the quarter, and he’s still not done so. Pressured to not come across as bitchy, she bends herself into non-threatening postures of politeness each time she reminds him that she needs his projections, but inside she is beginning to boil. She’s feeling blown off and disrespected. Finally, after her fifth request, she confronts him in a sales meeting and looses control—yelling, accusing and threatening.
Later, he tosses the report on her desk and walks away in silence. The other team-members are weary of her. Karen feels terrible and embarrassed. She can’t believe she lost control like that and in front of all of her direct reports, and at the same time, she felt ‘set up’ to do so by her team-member’s refusal to submit his work. She knew that she had let anger have the reins, but she also knew part of the fuel for the anger was that she was angry that she was angry. She began to feel powerless and despairing. This, she thought, is exactly why she hated managing and leading.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Learning how to make requests in a firm, fair and just manner, and inspire others to follow those requests is a skill that the horses have taught me over the years. Horses teach us a way of relationship that is not only authentic, but abides in the world between the two extremes of ‘nice’ and ‘violent’. That place is called ‘just’. And while I can’t bring a horse to you through the screen to show you how it is done, it is easily described. In discovering collaborative horsemanship, I learned about what some horse-people call ‘the four phases of a request’. And it goes like this:
Phase one — a subtle, quiet request. With horses, it looks something like a gesture, or a look, a feel, or sometimes just a thought. With people it is slightly different, but the same principle applies. In the case of Karen, it may be the first request for the projection report made to the entire team through a meeting or email. Or, it is the expectation of projection reports that are due on the first Monday of each quarter, as part of regular known protocol.
Phase two — is slightly ‘louder’ – not as in verbally loud, but ‘louder’ in clarity. It follows phase one, and only if phase one is not heard. Karen may take her team-member aside and, with eye contact, remind him of the report, and perhaps asking him some clarifying questions about his needs or challenges to see if anything needs to change in her expectations, or if some assistance is required. By now, if she had practiced the phases enough, Karen would be already strategizing what her phase three and four are going to be, so that she was not just reacting. Knowing her potential phases three and four also helps Karen to stay centered and calm, confident that one way or another she will have a means to receive her report.
Phase three — is slightly ‘louder’ still, and follows phase two, that followed phase one, and is only applied if phase two has not been heeded or ‘heard’. At this point Karen might have stated something succinctly and unemotionally such as, ‘On my table by 4 pm today, period.’ It may be followed by a warning of some kind of consequence or outcome as a result of the report not being handed in by 4 pm.
Phase four — is a ‘promise’. Unlike phases two and three, it is no longer just a ‘crescendo’ of a request, but is more a final word, a line that will not be crossed, and a consequence that is issued as warned in phase three. It is firm, clear and unwavering. But best of all, it is unemotional — free of judgement, blame, anger. This is, after all, just physics: a request was made, and was not yet followed, and as a result, there are consequences. And here’s the secret to phase four—there is no phase five. Four is final.
But I want to warn you about the importance of a correct phase four. Here is what they are not: emotional, judgemental, angry, threatening, intimidating, thrashing, controlling, mean, sarcastic, manipulative, inappropriate, or out of control. We have all been at the receiving end of such tactics, whether in childhood or adulthood. That is not a phase four, that is violence. And because of violence, many of us fear the phase four and therefore will not use it.
Phase four is: considered, powerful, clear, certain, serves the good of the whole, situational-appropriate, unemotional, nonjudgmental and final so that the particular issue (in the above case, the report) is dealt with once and for all.
It takes time to learn the art of a phase four, and they are different with every circumstance. This is why it is important to creatively plan ahead in every situation, so you are ready.
If you think about how you make requests, you might find yourself in one of these scenarios: either you remain in phase one, and continually bend and bend and accomodate, until finally you, like Karen, blow up – going straight from phase one to a very emotional and stressful phase four! This style perpetuates the blow-up cycle, because it reinforces our fear of a phase four (‘See, being strong and clear is always scary and dramatic!’ ) and keeps us accommodating. Or perhaps you have an authoritarian approach, just going straight to a phase four. This approach makes people weary. Or, some of us move from phase one, to then a two, and then even a three, but because we resist a phase four, we’ll just hang out delivering phase two’s or three’s over and over and over. This is called nagging.
What makes these phases work? First of all, they are offered in succession, one after the other, allowing the recipient a chance to follow the request at each phase. They ‘crescendo’ in firm-ness, with clarity of the final consequence. And they require the one making the request to plan for each successive (clearer) phase, knowing there is a final phase, and not just some wild unfettered escalation on their part.
Ironically, people who blow up and lose control are those who dislike anger and feel disempowered by external events. The four phases help us regain a sense of control, thereby protecting us from reactive anger in two ways: by helping us put a plan on exactly how to escalate requests (protecting the one making the request from the perils of reaction mode), and by putting a lid (phase four) on the projected escalation.
Over time, the four phases allow us to trust our requests, trust how we make them, and trust others to follow them. We learn to make them without fearing we’ll lose it if requests aren’t followed, or just wallow in defeat. We become clearer, firmer and more just—on ourselves and with our staff. As the worry about anger or being manipulated diminishes, we become more effective and so does our team.
What can you expect over time? When working with horses, the four phases inspire them to increasingly follow requests with a simple phase one, and that’s all. They do this, not because they are intimidated, but because it is easier, quieter and more fun. When the phases are applied with consistency and clarity, and the phase four is applied unapologetically, unemotionally and without ambivalence, horses feel respected and in return, respect us. This is, after all, their language. What results is a partnership of quiet collaborative ease, with almost psychic response and precision. Imagine that with your team!
But here’s the secret, if a horse knows you really really don’t want to have a phase four, he’ll ignore you. Or, if all you have is violence and emotion in response to his defiance, he may be subdued, but he’ll never respect you. He has to respond in these ways, his survival depends upon it. If you are not clear enough to deliver a correct phase four, you have no right to lead that horse to safety, and his defiance is his way of making sure only the most clear, present and just earn leadership status.
It works the same way in organizations. Only the most clear, present and just deserve leadership positions. And we’ll be tested in numerous, often subconscious ways to see if we are clear enough. You can take defiance as a welcome and important test, and oblige by revealing your presence, justness and clarity.
Learning a non-predatory approach to leadership by implementing the four phases of a request teaches us the art of power-with, verses power-over. And this makes us worthy leaders.
You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.
* Names have been changed.