By Liz Warren-Pederson
Eller MBA students in Barry Goldman’s negotiations course this semester went out of the classroom and down to the ranch for a hands-on exercise in nonverbal communication.
At Rancho Bosque the students participated in a day-long program led by UA professor of surgery Allan Hamilton, who is also a horse whisperer.
Goldman had heard about similar sessions that Hamilton hosted for medical students, focused on nonverbal communication in a clinical setting. “I had been trying to find a way to emphasize nonverbal behavior in negotiations to our students,” Goldman said. “There are, simply, no good readings or videos on the issue. It’s not enough to tell people nonverbal behavior is important; it is something that they must see for themselves.”
The students arrived at the ranch prepared to interact directly with the horses. After Hamilton provided some background information, the students gathered around the corral and Hamilton solicited volunteers.
“I volunteered to go into the ring first,” said second-year MBA student Allison Duffy. “Since I had no previous experience with horses, I didn’t know what to expect. My time in the ring, about five minutes, was spent convincing the horse that I was in charge, with body language as my only tool.”
Hamilton asked Duffy to lead the horse around the ring, and pointed out to the observers the different ways the horse got a feel for the boundaries she unconsciously set.
“When I stood up as straight and tall as possible with my shoulders back, the horse believed that I was the boss,” she said. “After leaving the ring, I realized that nonverbal communication comes from much more than body language. You have to pull from within and exude the confidence you feel through the body language that people can see and sense.”
Hamilton suggested the change in posture, which seemed minute, had a significant impact on the way the horse responded to Duffy. “Having success after making slight changes in the ring showed me that very small adjustments in behavior can have large impacts on perception, and therefore the outcome of a negotiation,” Duffy concluded.
Second-year MBA student Dan Henry was the second volunteer in the ring. Hamilton asked him to get the horse to move quickly, shifting its hindquarters away, simply by directing a predatory stare at the horse.
“I was directed to push the horse to its limits,” Henry said. “We had heard that this horse had broken Dr. Hamilton’s back several years ago, so a bit of fear set in the more I pushed the horse’s patience.”
Hamilton had Henry repeatedly prompt the horse’s fear response, then calm it back down. “It was a great way of seeing how you can push emotions in one direction and then reverse them in another direction,” Henry said. “Nonverbal communication is powerful. I definitely felt that after my experience with the horse.”
Over the course of the afternoon, Hamilton’s challenges to the students grew more complex, culminating in an attempt to test the adage about leading a horse to water, to see if he will drink.
“Dr. Hamilton told us that 70 percent of communication is nonverbal, but because humans can speak to each other, we often overlook the importance of body language,” Duffy said. “Working with the horses, we were forced to use our body language to communicate. This is a valuable lesson because it gave us a tactile example of how our actions often speak louder than our words.”
“Nonverbal communication can be more important than what is communicated verbally,” Henry said. “The class clearly demonstrated how body language can help or hurt you in a business negotiation. Your nonverbal behavior can change the way in which people perceive you and that can alter your ability to negotiate a business deal. Every single thing you do when negotiating will give the other side information about who you are and what you want to gain. To be an effective negotiator, you must effectively communicate verbally as well as nonverbally.”
“Students always appreciate when professors use out-of-the-box learning exercises,” Duffy added. “Our trip to Rancho Bosque was especially memorable because it taught us skills outside our comfort zone of the classroom. After completing the exercises at Rancho Bosque, I realize that it would have been impossible to achieve the same learning without the horses. Horses depend completely on nonverbal cues, so words are useless. We were thus able to isolate body language and see real-time changes in the horses’ behavior based on body language changes.”
“We are lucky to have a resource like this so close to us,” Henry added. “This class added a dynamic educational dimension to our MBA negotiations course.”