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What is Congruence and What Does it Have to Do with Horses?

I have seen it over and over again – someone goes into the roundpen with a horse and the horse totally ignores them. The person tries everything they know to try and get the horse to connect with them, but finally they give up. At this point, the facilitator asks “What are you feeling right now?” When the person admits that they are frustrated, or angry, or sad, or whatever emotion they are trying so hard to hide, the horse comes over and connection just happens. The person experiences acceptance for who they are in that moment.

I saw this play itself out when I was back at Eponaquest at the beginning of February. The person was vibrating with excitement to go in with the horse, but the horse totally ignored them and went around the edges of the roundpen, seemingly grazing on nothing but desert sand. I recognized this as a ‘calming behavior’ on the part of the horse – something a horse does when they are anxious, or they sense anxiety in someone else. When the person admitted that they were actually sad (because they were missing the horse that they had recently sold), the horse came right over and connected to the person in a most beautiful way. This person learned a valuable life lesson in the power of authenticity and congruence.

Linda Kohanov, founder of Eponaquest, has created something called ‘The Emotional Message Chart’, which builds on work originated by Karla McLaren. This chart lists many common emotions and the message that each emotion is trying to send us. In a recently updated version of the EMC, Linda lists the ‘Incongruence Alarm’ which can feel like anxiety, agitation, or anger, depending on the situation, and says that the message from these emotions is that the person you are dealing with is incongruent. In this situation, the question to ask yourself is ‘What is the true emotion behind the other person’s mask of control, friendliness, or well-being, and is it directed toward me?’

Most people aren’t necessarily conscious of when someone is incongruent, but they may feel an unease or some wariness that they can’t put their finger on when in this person’s presence. If they don’t get the message their body is sending with these feelings or unease, the feelings can intensify to mistrust or even rage.

Learning to identify how emotions present themselves in our bodies and the message that they are sending is the core of what is called ‘emotional intelligence.’ Emotional intelligence, or EI, has been shown in research studies to be the greatest predictor of leadership success, as well as success in many other areas of life. As Daniel Goleman, author of the groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence writes, “At the very highest levels, competence models for leadership typically consist of anywhere from 80 to 100 percent EI-based abilities. As the head of research at a global executive search firm put it, “CEOs are hired for the intellect and business expertise – and fired for a lack of emotional intelligence.”

However, the bad news is that the majority of people can’t name their feelings, if they can even really feel them. Researcher Brené Brown collected data from over seven thousand people asking them to list all the emotions they could recognize and name as they were experiencing them. The average number of emotions that people could name? Three – happy, sad and angry. (or mad, sad, glad, which is easier to remember!)

As Brown writes in her latest book Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, “without understanding how our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors work together, it’s almost impossible to find our way back to ourselves and each other. When we don’t understand how our emotions shape our thoughts and decisions, we become disembodied from our own experiences and disconnected from each other.”

The topic of emotions is huge and I recently wrote another blog post on this topic. What is important to take away from this post, though, is that when we can’t acknowledge or name our emotions, we often are incongruent. Both humans and horses sense incongruence, although humans often can’t put their finger on what it is that they don’t trust about the incongruent person. Horses are much more honest. They will just ignore the incongruent one.

You just can’t fool a horse. They see us for who we truly are. And they can show us how to be who we truly are.

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