Farming and Facilitation

Have you ever watched a dog enter a room for the first time? Typically, it will pace around the room, sniffing and sensing until it has explored the whole space. Only then will it choose one particular spot to lie down in and whenever it returns to that room in the future, it will return to the same spot and settle down. It's almost as if the dog can sense different levels of energy around the room and feels more comfortable in one place than in another. 

People often behave in a similar way. When they choose where to sit in a room, their decison may be based on conscious preferences: near the door, back to the wall, view through the window, etc., but they are also likely to sit somewhere because it feels more comfortable to them than if they sit somewhere else. When they return to the room, they are very likely to sit in the same place again, unless they make a conscious decision to sit somewhere else.

It always amuses me when participants on a programme seem to want to return to the same seat they occupied before, when they re-enter the room. In fact I often ask them to sit in a different seat than before, just to refresh the energy and to change the atmosphere.

I had a fantastic childhood, growing up on a small farm in the Derbyshire dales, where I was surrounded by animals. My earliest memories are of riding on the back of our Shire horse as it pulled carts around the fields (it was a very traditional farm with little in the way of modern equipment), feeding the chickens and fetching the cows in for milking. In adult life, it was only a matter of time before I returned to my roots. For the last 15 years I have managed a small flock of around 30 rare breed sheep and a growing fold of eight Highland cattle on land around Impact's global headquarters in the Lake District.

Whilst only ever being able to claim to be a "hobby farmer" I get tremendous pleasure and satisfaction from breeding and caring for these fascinating animals. At the height of the financial crisis in 2009, I took huge solace from occasionally being able to escape from the pressures of the business to spend some time with my animals. It grounded me and helped me reconnect with what is really important. These animals are totally reliant on me to feed them, to look out for their needs and to be around to help out when they are giving birth. They never judge me, always seem happy to see me (especially at feeding time) and the cows in particular, seem to be gifted with an eternal optimism. Contentedly chewing their cud and gazing into the distance with an air of satisfaction and positivity, Cows mainly seem to look on the bright side of life, or at least mine do!

The best facilitators I have worked with, have an uncanny knack for reading the atmosphere of a group. They can sense the prevalent mood whether it's light, heavy, anxious or relaxed. They are also in tune with how their own energy can affect the people around them and they actively use this as part of their practice.

I learnt a long time ago that tuning into the energy of a group, when running a session, is a key component in effective facilitation or coaching an individual. Call it intuition, non-verbal communication or sixth sense, whatever you like, but it's real and it often represents the difference between a good session and a great session, or a good trainer and a transformational facilitator.

So what's this got to do with cows?

Well, in the same way that groups pick up on how you are feeling, and respond accordingly, I've noticed that my cows do the same. They are intelligent, observant animals, and they are also able to sense my mood.

When I stand in the field in a calm and happy state, they will gradually approach me to see if I have anything they can eat, or just for a friendly pat. Whereas, if I am anxious about something, or feeling angry, they seem to keep their distance. 

I remember an incident that best illustrates this. One Saturday morning, I had arrived at Merewood (one of our hotels), to load up my two eldest cows into the trailer, to take them on a relatively long journey to visit the bull! I'd loaded the two of them up many times before to move them from field to field. Both they and I were familiar with the process. This morning however, I was feeling anxious. I was running late. I had never been to the farm I was taking them to before and I was worried about finding it and getting there at the time I had arranged. My whole demeanor was one of stress, anxiety and rushing about.

I coaxed both of the cows into the holding pen with some cattle nuts, hardly noticing that they were picking up on my mood and becoming agitated. We had done this so many times before that it didn't cross my mind that anything could possibly go wrong. As I drove them towards the trailer, one of them started to show signs of not wanting to go inside. Instead of recognising the growing sense of nervousness in this cow, I tried to force her into the trailer by raising my voice and shaking my stick. She turned, bolted straight past me and charged through the holding pen fence, straight onto the hotel drive. I immediately panicked. Here was a huge, black, horned beast careering through the garden and up and down the hotel drive, trying to decide where to go for safety. I knew that a wedding party was due to arrive within 30 minutes and I was terrified that the cow would interfere with the proceedings. Frighten the bride or worse. Aside from possibly calling the police to come and shoot the cow, I couldn't think of anything else to do. 

It then became clear to me that I had created this situation by transmitting my anxiety and feelings of pressure onto the cows and that maybe I could reverse this with the right approach. I purposely changed my presence and attitude. With a bucket of cattle nuts and using a calm and convincingly encouraging voice, I approached the cow. After a few minutes of nervousness, running away from me in fear, she started to calm down and gradually came towards me to see what was in the bucket. I gently coaxed her back through the broken fence and into the trailer and all was well again.

Those of you who have read this far are probably thinking that I have finally lost the plot. What has any of this got to do with facilitation?

Well, we have all heard stories of horse whispering and how the skills and intuition involved have relevance to how we communicate with others. 

My experience tells me that there is a deeper level of consciousness in place when we are working with people (and animals!). It's not just about what we can see and hear. If we can tune into this deeper level of awareness and focus as much on what we are feeling and sensing as we do on body language and the spoken word, we will be capable of working as more sensitive and effective facilitators. 

If you don't believe me, come and meet my cows!

Or read this poem: 

Dace Williams and his cowsDave Williams and a cow