By Karen B. Smith, MBA, PMP

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a spa in Arizona – which at one point was one of Oprah Winfrey’s top spas to visit around the world. I signed up for the “Equine Experience,” thinking that I would be “playing” around with horses. When I arrived with a few fellow spa-goers, the ranch hand told us that he’d teach us how to clean the horse’s hoof. My first thought was, “Really?”

But sure enough, the ranch hand began showing us how to do this. He said that you’d have to put your hand on the horse to make sure he knows you’re there and will, therefore, not crush you against the fence to which he was posted. You are then supposed to go up to his side and, naturally, bend his leg to scrape his hoof clean. The ranch hand made this task look effortless. I thought to myself … looks simple enough.

I confidently walked up to the horse, placed my hand on his hind side, and then attempted to get him to bend his leg for some good ol’ fashioned cleaning. After a minute or two, the ranch hand told me to step away from the horse, and asked me what I was doing. I proudly said that I was showing the horse that I was confidently going to clean his hoof. {Note: My heart was racing. Besides not wanting to be crushed, I didn’t want to be the only one who couldn’t easily do this task! Where is that “easy” button when you need one?!?}

The ranch hand asked if I had ever done this before, to show such a display of confidence. I, of course, said that this was new to me, but the good news was that the horse did not know that (yes, sigh – my exact words). He adeptly replied that a horse is one of the most empathetic animals on earth, and he could see right through my “air of confidence.”

The ranch hand requested that I rethink my strategy, from one of “confidence” to one of “intent,” e.g., my purpose and intent is to get the horse to give me his hoof for cleaning.

I got my wits about me, walked back up to the horse with intent and, amazingly, he gave me his hoof!

What does this experience about a horse and a hoof have to do with communication? It articulates the difference between “confidence” and “intent.”

Confidence is defined as the “quality or state of being certain.” Intent is defined as “an aim or purpose” or “having the mind and will focused on a specific purpose.” When trying or learning something new, I learned that you should have the intent to complete that task – whether that’s learning a new skill, taking on a new area of responsibility, or just noticing others’ body language.

By intending to complete a task – say noticing what you may be “presenting” to others via your own choice of words – you are making a conscious effort to say that while you’ve not done this before, the task will be completed. It’s all about mindset versus trying to look as though you are experienced.

Think how you might apply this “intent” mindset in your job. While underlying project management skills are learned and practiced, by definition, projects are unique. Your areas of responsibility are expanding. Technology is changing. Market needs are diverse and ever-changing. While showing your confident self – even if you are not—may help you to be more confident than if you did not put on this act, intent may be the stronger motivator of the two. You can have intent often in unfamiliar situations, but yet there’s typically no misinterpretation as there may be with confidence, e.g., she was pretentious.

The purpose of sharing my story is to instill in you the desire to have intent versus confidence. Confidence will come with practice and experience. Intend to understand and communicate with others effectively. Intend to learn a new skill. Intend to understand what’s important to your executive team. Intent will help you come closer to achieving your desired outcome – whether that’s to ensure your team works collaboratively towards a mutual goal delivered at a certain time, that you were able to successfully use your new-found skill during a key project, or that you achieved management’s expectations.

Intent is the foundation to confidence. Try this mindset and see what {hoof} pops up!

Where have you “Got Intent?”

3 replies
  1. Kerry
    Kerry says:

    Karen – Great thought process here in this story. Second time just this week i have read/heard someone talk about Intent/purpose. Though horses are very perceptive and empathetic, people are also and many times can see right through an air of confidence when there is no genuine intent/purpose. Thanks for sharing. Great points.

  2. Karen Smith
    Karen Smith says:

    Thanks for your comment, Kerry. I see and read so much about “fake it ’til you make it.” However, why fake anything when you have real intent to reach a particular outcome. People cannot mistake your desire for anything other than being focused on results, regardless if it’s for a professional result like passing the PMP exam or one that is more personal, such as intent to be a good parent, a good student or a good friend. My equine experience taught me a life lesson that probably words could not have summed up quite as nicely. Good luck with all your intents!

  3. Walter Cekala
    Walter Cekala says:

    Thank you for your insightful article. Interpersonal communications skills are not just intuitive. They may be learned and taught when conditions are right.

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