How to Be Serpents and Doves in Coaching, Management and Leadership Development

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What did twenty years in college, military, sales, marketing, church and mastermind environments teach me?

My default settings in relating to people are wise as doves, and harmless as serpents - meaning random, and destructive to boot.

Whether giving business advice, leadership development, or simply with skills in video, audio, writing and presentation - there's a lot left to be desired by the traditional "shotgun" approach to communications.


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Jesus may have told his disciples to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves," but I seemed to do better at getting it backward - mainly using my mouth.

I understood the "harmless as doves" part well enough. That's simple - benign, sincere, kind-hearted concern for your fellow human beings.

It didn't stop me from messing it up, however. Doves are quintessentially unwise creatures, flittering about aimlessly, without much of a sense of direction. That was my communication style for many years - just vomit all over people, regardless of the consequences.


The Interesting Thing About Snakes

But if I made a poor dove, I was an even worse serpent.

To First Century Jews as well as 21st Century Christians, a command from the central figure of Western civilization to be "wise as serpents" sounds daunting. Kind of like, "Just be like Satan" - crafty, seductive, calculating. A stereotypical sales sleaze.

Dallas Willard, in his book The Divine Conspiracy, shed some light on this:

"What is the wisdom of the snake? It is to be watchful and observant until the time is right to act ... One rarely sees a snake chasing its prey or thrashing about in an effort to impress it. But when it acts, it acts quickly and decisively."

Okay. Fair enough, but I'll go a step beyond Mr. Willard's observation, as a former keeper of a pet ball python.

Leaving aside venomous snakes, it may come as a surprise to learn that constrictor snakes (boas and pythons) have poor visual acuity. They actually can't be very watchful and observant, because they can't see straight in front of themselves, which is where the prey usually is.

Snakes' eyes are set facing to their left and right, and according to, they can observe shapes - but not details of those shapes - in what their eyes process.

They can't tell the difference, practically, between a field mouse and a small rock of equal size.


So, Why Tell Us to Be As Watchful and Observant as Creatures that Can't See Very Well?

As any student of these reptiles knows, snakes make use of thermoreceptors - tiny infrared sensors that refract imagery of the prey to the snake's brain, telling it what it's looking at.

Which suddenly begins to make sense when you consider the temperature of your subject rather than the surface appearance of it.

A snake picking up the body heat of a field mouse can easily distinguish it from a small, grey rock.

So, what Jesus meant was not to watch for the right time, but to sense it by calculating the temperature - i.e. the degree of intimacy and rapport - in an exchange. (He did not, after all, go to all that trouble of his life and death on earth to teach us how to be better herpetologists.)


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Which Means ...?

We aren't referring here to "heated exchanges," like debates or contretemps, so much as "warm vs. cold."

A sale, a meeting, an employee or panel review - all of these interactions have the potential to remain freezing cold (shallow), or they can become warm and inviting (deep).

In either role you play - but especially as the seller, persuader, employer or panel member - you have an opportunity every time to add warmth to cold waters. This is where vulnerability and openness become your greatest assets.

I observed over and again, when willing to share my struggles, failures and stories that make me wince - the temperature of the conversation rose. People respond to what talk show host Michael Savage calls "psychological nudity."


Another Incomplete Piece of Wisdom

It might still be true that "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," but I want to stretch that maxim as well.

Is it not a tiresome refrain of many an insincere merchant to say "We care"? Everyone knows that's a shallow attempt at parroting focus-grouped language. Politicians trot that out every election cycle. It's completely lost any power it might have had.

But to expose yourself to judgment or distance from someone by telling the truth about your folly and weakness? That screams "I care" as loud as one's voice can carry. Now you're swimming in deep, warm waters.


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Life As a Serpent-Dove

The lifestyle of radical generosity, of being a harmless dove of a friend (and a quiet, observant serpent when the conversation turns in your favor) has no equal from any approach.

It's a lifestyle of sales conversations without selling - the prospect usually buys from you, asks where to sign, how much you need and which payment method you'd prefer.

The coaching client takes copious notes, moves immediately to implement your advice and returns to you with reports of progress they're willing to turn into testimonial videos.

The employee gets engaged, excited and creative in more fully executing their assigned role, making your firm more productive and your profit margins higher.

It's definitely a bargain at twice the price.


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