What the Horse Taught Me: Feedback Hurts & Helps

Tuesday 01.08.17


Some things stick with you. The things you remember for a long, long time afterward.

Last spring, I was doing a leadership program with horses and a gelding named JetStar taught me a lesson which stuck with me. A long story short, Jetstar bit me. Right in the bum. Hard. Hilarious, right? I remembered it every time I sat down, every time I moved for two months. The bruise was enormous.

This memento was, yes, an injury, but it was also feedback. Horses don’t hold back; they speak their “truth” instantly and powerfully.  They have no hidden agenda. This is not always true of your boss!

What Is Feedback?

Feedback is information distilled into insight, which is built upon reactions, responses, results, comments, bits of criticism and advice we receive along the journey of life. It is those bites, but also those nuzzles. For humans, unlike horses, feedback can be difficult to give and is often painful to receive.

This is because it often feels like criticism to us. MRIs show how the most primitive (aka reptilian) parts of our brain views feedback as a threat to our survival. Our lizard brain tries to protect us and maintain our status by convincing us we’re right, even when we’re not.


So why is feedback important? Feedback, even in the form of a booty bite, is a multi-faceted life-giving gift should you chose to embrace it.

Facet 1: It creates insight into our blind spots.No matter how self-aware, we all have them and they limit our ability to create and sustain enlivening partnerships in today’s integrated transparent world. With JetStar, he was helping me face my “Perform and Please” nature, a habitual way of being that has prevented me from speaking from my heart and being a true natural leader. More on that later.

Facet 2: It cultivates rich personal, professional and business growth, just like nature. Do you remember Biosphere 2? This research facility in Arizona attempted to recreate biomes and habitats in an enclosed, controlled setting. One of the striking lessons from the experiment had to do with the trees. In the enclosure, trees grew faster than in the wild. They had everything they needed with the “advantage” of eliminated environmental stress. Yet before they could reach maturity, these trees died. Every. Single. One. Before they could fulfill the potential of their fruit-bearing nature, they would collapse. Upon further study, scientists determined that this was caused by the lack of wind. The stress and feedback of wind enables trees to be resilient and strong, to mature and not collapse under their own size. Same goes for people: steady feedback helps us develop mastery as we contribute the “fruits” of our potential to work that matters. Feedback is essential to fulfillment.

(Dear reader, as we explore Leading Naturally, this will be a theme. Nature is powerful, ruthlessly efficient and wildly abundant. Its interactions with us is big on purpose—that way we don’t miss the lesson, as my dad would say. Exhibit A: My aching hindquarters.)

• Facet 3: Accepting feedback deepens personal relationships. When you prove yourself to be impenetrable to feedback, people who work with you know they cannot give you important information or become close with you. This reflects “old world” models of leading by controlling and relying on one-way communication style which undermines great performance. Avoid this if you want optimal human performance and genuine relationships for yourself or others!

How can we make the most out of feedback?

1) Be a receptive container. I ask my clients to “be inside the feedback.” What I mean by this is that for feedback to be the most useful to us, we must get our lens, our viewpoint, out of the way. Being inside the feedback integrates our intuition with the insight. This helps us be responsible for our own growth.

Receptive containers are able to hear another person’s perspective and distill it. Receiving feedback well requires that we develop the ability to question our own thoughts, something our survival brain HATES. It’s uncomfortable to ask the question, “What if something I believe is untrue?” But remember, the more receptive our container, the faster we will grow personally, professionally, and in our business.

As I love to say, the “benevolent universe” is always providing us what we need next to grow into our dreams and intentions. Being a receptive container quickens this process.

2) Set up relationships for candor. It is critical to thoughtfully select relationships in which to build vulnerability. Feedback from those people is going to be like JetStar’s: strong and true. As part of this is you’ll need to assess carefully is this a good source of feedback in this area of my life. Simply put, are they embodying themselves that which I seek? Are they trustworthy in this area of life or business? (more on this in the future).

3) Notice and celebrate the everyday positive feedback. This focus honors our gifts and strengths, which our survival brain often overlooks. These moments of appreciation help us keep momentum in our more challenging areas of development. I notice my dog Sequoia with his head resting on my foot; the message: he’s loyal (and I’m a reliable source of good kibble). My client telling everyone she meets about our work together, telling me I made a difference in her business: my work is valuable. My (frugal) husband buying the best possible sheets and even getting up in the middle of the night to move to the guest bed if he’s snoring; the message:he loves me by helping me get a good night’s sleep. Cultivating receptivity to the positive feedback creates happiness.

Remember, it’s not just people giving you feedback. Everything on earth, in nature, is giving you feedback. From the gravity that “helped” you down the stairs to the chill which the recent rain brought. The world around joins our co-workers and loved ones in responding and interacting with us. The fragrance of your partner’s scarf and the smell of your hiking socks left in the car: both feedback. The moment you breathe in that scent is your moment to relate powerfully to its message, receive insight and choose what you will do with it.

JetStar helped me grow into a more genuine leader. Not only did he give me a big visual, he gave me a reminder every time I sat down for months. Thank you, JetStar.

How will you build receptivity for today’s feedback?

12 Comments | Courtney True |
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