Cats, Dogs, Horses & Spiderman

“If people knew how much more they could get out of a horse by gentleness than by harshness, it would save a great deal of trouble both to the horse and the man.”

— Ulysses S Grant, by Ron Chernow, p. 13

General Grant has a reputation as a hard-bitten, hard-driving soldier, but he was also a tender-hearted man who couldn’t bear to see people or animals suffer. His military “shock and awe” strategy was designed to bring a rapid end to war, rather than to stretch it out. He aimed to reduce suffering.

As Ron Chernow points out in his excellent biography, from a young age, Ulysses Grant was an accomplished horseman. His riding put people in mind of a minotaur, the mythological half-man, half-horse creature because he seemed at one with the horse. Not only did he ride like the wind, and risk jumps higher than all his peers, but Grant was also famous for his skill at “breaking” horses — the process of turning a wild horse into a safe, reliable, mount.

But people were awed by his offbeat approach to breaking a horse. It was common practice for a man breaking a horse to assert his dominance over the creature. Grant chose the path of gentleness, and his horses repaid him with feats of daring in hostile situations.

Cats and Dogs

For a number of years, I taught Sunday School at church, for children as young as two years. When some grownups struggled to connect with kids, I’d often explain to them the difference between cats and dogs.

A dog is much more likely to approach you, tail-wagging, and render an enthusiastic greeting. They often appreciate a vigorous patting and rubbing about the ears. Whereas cats often stand aloof, approach only with great caution, and seem to hiss “Don’t touch me.”

You can usually walk right up to a non-hostile dog, but you’re better off to let a cat approach you.

It’s the same way with children. I’ve seen adult strangers practically rush upon a child, and speak to him in an animated manner, usually with a form of sing-song baby talk. Many children are terrified by this, and shrink away. I’ve found it much better to let a child approach you. I also speak with the child as I would to any adult, using polite, ordinary speech. In other words, I talk with a child the same as I do with an adult. Kids don’t think of themselves as babies.

Friendly Neighborhood

Recently, in the store where I work, I saw a boy — about seven years-old — wearing a Spiderman shirt, moving gracefully, and casting web from his hands to aid his progress. He stopped near me. I looked at him briefly, said quite matter-of-factly, “Good morning, Spiderman,” and carried on with what I was doing. The boy nodded at me, maturely, and moved on. If I had bent over and cooed, “Lookie who’s pretending to be Spidey,” the boy would have been disgusted. As it was, he felt affirmed. I had said exactly what he should have expected.

So what’s all of this about cats, dogs, horses and Spiderman?

The upshot is that you can’t treat all people the same, but at the same time, you shouldn’t stoop to ingratiate yourself with them by talking down to them.

If a woman engages you in vigorous conversation, she apparently has no fear of such situations. You can jump right in.

However, you’re more likely to meet people who are skittish around others. Most people are naturally fearful of talking with strangers, and avoid it if possible. Therefore, a more reserved approach is usually appropriate. Even if you’re an extrovert, you might want to dial it back until you discern whether your counterpart shares your gregarious nature.

This gets to the second part of my point. Although you adapt your approach to the other person, don’t fake it. In other words, don’t pretend you’re someone you’re not, or engage in the equivalent of baby talk toward them. This may sound confusing in theory, but it’s obvious in practice. Ultimately, just be yourself. Authenticity is the key to building relationships.

The challenge here is that even extroverts are often skittish meeting new people — they just power through it. In other words, an outgoing personality is their way of overcoming fear of new people and new situations. It’s their (and perhaps your) coping strategy. Because of this, it can prove more difficult for an extrovert to be genuine with others early on. A back-slapping, life-of-the-party, guy may struggle to admit vulnerability, or to connect on an intimate personal level.


Years ago, when I served as pastor of a church, I met with a man from the local denomination to talk about what was happening at our small church in a poor town. I was over-the-top enthusiastic about what I saw the Lord doing, and expressed that to him vigorously. After listening to me for a long time, he waited until I took a breath, looked me in the eye, and asked, “Do you intimidate everyone this way?”

I was stunned. Intimidate? Me?

Upon reflection, I realized that his position in the denominaton didn’t necessarily mean he was a bold leader. In fact, he was shy, and quietly introspective. I had steamrolled him. He couldn’t process all I threw at him. He needed me to calm down and back off, and give it a rest — to adapt my approach to his relational style.

We all have a tendency to misjudge others. I’ve been a major misjudger over the years. Eventually, I learned to sit back and let the cat come to me — to approach the horse with gentleness and whispers.

I’ve observed that extroverts tend to act toward others as if we’re all extroverts, and introverts do the same. In other words, introverts tend to feel as if they’re not as outgoing as most people. They assume most others are extroverts.

The misjudgement of both extroverts and introverts makes it more difficult for all of us to form meaningful relationships. Extroverts often have a bunch of acquaintances — relationships that run a mile wide and an inch deep. Introverts tend to avoid situations which could grow into friendships. None of us are purely in either camp. In each of us manifests each personality type depending on situation and mood.

This calls for a type of situational awareness, and the spirit of a learner. Of course, listening to learn is key to the WinSome approach, and will serve you well in determining how to best communicate with someone.

If you’re aware of your strengths and limitations, you’ll do better at evaluating the same in others, and you’ll adapt your approach in ways the best connect with them.

This usually involves being slow to talk, and quick to listen. Like encountering a cat, dog, or horse, you approach cautiously, read body language, look into the eyes, and listen for tell-tale signs of the other person’s attitude and mood.

In nearly all circumstances, it’s best to let the other person “come to you” first.

Legend has it that many human physical greetings — a wave or a handshake — were developed to demonstrate peaceable intent. The open hand carries no weapon, and thus the person poses no threat.

People are naturally “gun shy”, perceiving others as potential threats until proven otherwise.

In our efforts to put others at ease, we need to slow down, dial down the volume, and engage the other person in the way best suited to his personality type. Because I can’t immediately discern that type, I take it easy, and get to know him.

This is not only a WinSome tactic for persuasion, but a winsome way to make a friend.