Unlearning polarization: Let your fearful crocodiles bite the dust instead of your relationships

Opinions help us navigate our world. Discerning what’s effective, helpful, true, connecting and fulfilling is a beneficial consequence of our capacity to judge.

What if there were no wrong opinions? Then what would our world look like? How would we relate to the people we care about differently? According to Gallup, polarization in the US is at an all-time high. For example, Democrats and Republicans have never before diverged so much on issues like how much power the federal government should have, whether we should decrease the number of immigrants, whether gun laws should be stricter and whether global warming is something to worry about. In my country of origin, the Netherlands, there is a similar trend. Says one prominent Dutch writer: “What surprises me is how polarized we have become.”

We know this: The more we judge each other, the weaker our relationships become. And the weaker our relationships become, the less we’re able to enjoy and work together towards common solutions. Judging others doesn’t feel good, even though we do it all the time. Why do we judge so much, even though we hurt ourselves and others doing it?
The word ‘judging’ comes from the Latin word ‘iudicare’ “to judge, to examine officially; form an opinion upon; pronounce judgment,” and contains the root of the old English word “deman” which is related to “doom” and “demonize.” Our mind has the capacity to form an opinion about something it perceives. This is helpful.

Opinions help us navigate our world. Discerning what’s effective, helpful, true, connecting and fulfilling is a beneficial consequence of our capacity to judge. Imagine if we were unable to have opinions. Then how would we relate to our experience? And how do we relate to our experience? We can learn about the power of discernment from Helen Keller, the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, who became an influential writer, activist, and lecturer. Helen became deaf-blind at 19 months old when she contracted a disease that doctors were unable to diagnose. Take a moment to imagine what it would be like if you became deaf and blind as an infant. How would you relate to the world then? How would you feel?

You wouldn’t be able to hear or see anything. You’d be in total darkness, and in deep silence. You’d have thoughts and feelings. You’d be able to smell, taste and touch. And how would you make sense of your experience if you hadn’t heard or seen a single word in your life? How would you relate to others then? This was one of the first things Anne Sullivan, Helen’s tutor helped her with – how to make sense of her world and communicate with others. She did this by spelling words in Helen’s hand. For a while, Helen didn’t comprehend what was happening. Why was this woman touching her hand so much? Why was she repeating the same movements over and over? Weeks went by and, then, one day, as Anne was spelling w-a-t-e-r in Helen’s hand while holding her other hand underneath a running faucet, Helen grasped the meaning of what Anne was showing her. She comprehended that the motions of Anne’s fingers had something to do with the substance she was feeling in her other hand. Helen wrote in her autobiography:

“I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free!“

Like Helen, we learn to relate to our world through language when are very young. Language helps us make sense of ourselves and our world. Language helps us navigate our lives. With language, we learn to make distinctions, understand – even dream. Eventually, with language, we write the story of and about our lives. “The mystery of language” helps us relate to the mystery of our lives. Language helps us discern. That’s some of the good news about our capacity for language.

The bad news is that, like with any tool, we can use language for a benefit, or for harm – it all depends on the intention and skillfulness of the tool user. Unfortunately, the average tool user is not very intentional or skilled– many of us don’t think much about the words we think, say and act on. We just do, as if driven by and floating on an unconscious current that propels us forward through life.

This current is not random. When we examine it, we may notice that it includes collective and individual stories that consist of motivations, beliefs, needs, and fears – what we care about, what we think is true, what we need, and what we’re afraid of. We can start to learn to navigate these stories, we can call it our self-talk, by distinguishing between wiser, more compassionate stories – we’ll call these the ‘owl’ to signify our higher consciousness, and more reactive, fear-based ones – we’ll call these the ‘crocodile’ to signify the part of our consciousness that is glued into our reptilian survival motivations. There is some value in the crocodile, as it helps us to survive physically. Unfortunately, the crocodile is unable to discern between physical and emotional – ego – survival. It works just as hard to protect our self-images of “I am good,” “I am better than,” “I am a nice person”, “I am special” and “I am I control”, to name a few common self-images, as it exerts itself to protect us from being eaten by a tiger or from being hit by a car.

Over time we tend to strengthen our crocodile by training it to get really good at its ego-survival job, by gathering and storing impressions – snippets of stories, feelings, and images, like short movies – about what’s a threat to our self-image. It stores impressions about all the times we felt unsafe, unseen, abandoned, offended, ridiculed and lost, and what strategies worked to address these ‘dangers’ – maybe it was crying, pouting, yelling, manipulating, being the special one or the smartest, pleasing, being submissive or avoiding. Our crocodile interprets everything as a potential danger first and, left to its own devices, it keeps adding to its fear-filled database of what could be dangerous as we have more life experiences. Ever noticed that some people become really scared and closed off, the older they get? “Better safe than sorry” is the crocodile’s motto. Under the influence of the crocodile, considerations such as authenticity, respect, and learning become irrelevant and may be seen too dangerous to even think about. “Whatever strategy helps me survive now is what I need!” yells the crocodile.

The crocodile views other humans as potential dangers first. When we interact with someone it will first do the micro-calculations to determine whether this person is a threat or not. Once it’s made sure there is no threat, it starts applying a second filter: how can this person help my survival? Think of a stranger coming to your door unexpectedly. What is your first thought? You may wonder: “Is it safe to open the door?” and “What do they want?” … maybe followed by: “What can I get from this person?”

Let’s do another quick thought experiment. Consider how you relate to your e-mail inbox. Under the influence of the crocodile, you may scan first for any ‘fires’ and ‘threats’ and then you may be drawn to a message that makes you feel good, before allowing yourself to focus on what you really need to do. The crocodile calculates: how may this person be dangerous to me? How could this person help me? What do I need to do to minimize the danger and maximize the benefit to me?

The crocodile keeps it super simple. It doesn’t have any time or capacity for nuance, as it needs us to react immediately. Our survival is at stake! To help us navigate the potential dangers presented to us by other humans, it tells us one of three categories of survival stories when we relate to others. Story one reads “You are helping my survival.” Story two goes “You are hurting my survival.” And story three is “You don’t matter.”

Unconsciously trying to protect our self-image and driven by the unconscious crocodilian current of “You are here helping my survival”, we will try to manipulate, please, make false promises we can’t keep, control so the person stays “for me,” put expectations on the other for what they should do for me as a person who is “for me,” and judge the other person harshly as soon as they don’t comply with my expectations of a “for me” person. Conversely, seeing the other as “hurting my survival,” the crocodile will try to defend us, annihilating the other person by judging them, shutting us of from them, retreating into our silos and by creating allies, by means of gossip and other forms of slander, to make sure that others will protect us against the perceived source of harm. And what about the people that are “irrelevant” to our ego survival? The crocodile will treat them as such, by ignoring them, staying cold, disrespecting their needs, and keeping an eye on them to make sure they don’t turn ‘against’ us and to sense if they can’t become potential recruits for our cause after all.

Take a moment and think about some of the people you work with. With what ego-survival story does your crocodile try to bias you? Contemplating this question may feel uncomfortable, as it may seem like an exercise in self-judgment. It’s not. We’re not inquiring into our crocodiles to judge ourselves, but to free ourselves from the crocodilian narratives that limit our relationships. By liberating ourselves from these false stories, we learn to discern more truth about ourselves and others. This can help restore our connection to others to a truer and saner level – one that is based upon love, respect, collaboration and clear boundaries, rather than crocodilian transactions in which I try to get my ego-needs met through you, or at your expense.

Reflect on this: With what stories does my crocodile end up clouding my self-talk about others, in its innocent yet unrelenting attempts to help me survive? And, how do I behave under the influence of these stories? I have listed the three crocodilian relationship narratives below with some of the coping behaviors we tend to fall into when we based our actions on these hallucinations:

Three Crocodilian Relationship Stories Coping Behaviors Under the Influence of the Crocodile
  • You are helping my survival
Flight & Freeze

  • I please you, hiding what I really stand for.
  • I avoid the hard conversations.
  • I conform to the rules, written or unwritten to not rock the boat
  • I always defer to you believing you always know what’s best. I hide behind you.
  • I feel anxious about losing you and/or your support.
  • I am your doormat and have no boundaries.
  • I lose my balance and perspective as soon as you disagree with me.
  • I check how many ‘hits’ my online post or article ‘got.’

Fight

  • I always have an agenda to use you for me.
  • I will retaliate if you disagree with me.
  • I manipulate you so you will stay loyal to me.
  • I try to make you ‘like’ me or become a ‘follower’ online to increase my sense of self-importance.
  • You are hurting my survival
Fight

  • I judge you as bad, I make you wrong.
  • I think of you as less than me.
  • I cut myself off from you.
  • I gossip about you and try to find allies to destroy you.
  • I try to convince you that you are wrong and that I am right.

Flight & Freeze

  • I retreat into my silo.
  • I avoid the hard conversation – I withhold my truth.
  • I feel anxious about what you’ll do next.
  • I hold myself accountable for your feelings, thoughts, and actions.
  • You don’t matter
Forget

  • I see no value in you.
  • I ignore you, your perspective and your needs.
  • I think of you as less than me.
  • I use you as a disposable resource.

 

“You are a thing rather than a fellow human being” is one common denominator in all these crocodilian hallucinations. Believing we’re relating to a ‘thing,’ we become far less wise, creative and compassionate than we can be. Under the influence of the crocodile, we just as easily dispose of an empty battery as of a person that is of no use to us.

This morning I received an email from a client who I believed was ‘on board’ with a culture program we are supporting. When I read that he wanted to approach the culture journey very differently, my first thought was “how can I defuse your resistance?” Under the influence of my “You are hurting my survival” crocodile, I made him wrong because he didn’t comply with my image of what someone who helps me looks like. If I continue to let myself be taken for a ride by this crocodilian hallucination, I will miss out on an important opportunity to learn his perspective and to collaborate with him to co-create a more robust program for the client.

I also think of a group of people in a customer service organization I coached. They share a belief that the engineers they need to influence to help them create sound customer service solutions are an enemy they are intimidated by. They don’t dare to go toe-to-toe with the engineers in conflict as they believe the engineers possess the budget and the technical expertise and they don’t. Under the influence of the “You are hurting my survival” crocodile the customer service people shut down, hold back, aren’t as assertive as they could be in their requests for product improvements with the engineers, and give up. Under the influence of their fearful crocodile, they become ineffective collaborators with their colleagues.

Taking the perspective of the engineers, some of them see the customer service folks as irrelevant to their success. Under the influence of the crocodilian narrative “You don’t matter,” they are unable to hear the perspective of their colleagues and miss out on an important opportunity to learn, help customers and add value to the company they are part of.

Seeing others as for, against or irrelevant, severely limits our options to relate to our fellow human beings in a fulfilling, collaborative and effective way. How would our relationships evolve if we no longer believed any of these crocodilian stories?

I believe Martin Luther King Jr. can teach us about this. Writes Harry Belafonte: “Radical love is Doc’s great hallmark. Loving those who are twisting your words. Loving those moving against you. Loving those looking to take your spot and undermine your authority. In the end, Doc is not only offering unconditional love but he is supporting every organization and individual fighting for the liberation of people throughout the globe. He never allows political discourse to overwhelm his revolutionary moral vision.”

When we free ourselves from our crocodilian ego-survival stories, another dimension of being comes to the foreground: our deeper, truer self, which may be about our capacity to be present, to stay true to our purpose and to extend unconditional love. How do we practice this with our colleagues in our day-to-day lives? It all starts with awareness. We can notice within ourselves that we’re about to give into the crocodilian narrative that we need to cling to people that reinforce our self-image and cringe from people that don’t. When we notice our clingy or cringy self-talk, we can ask ourselves: what do I really stand for? What are my highest values? How can I bring these into the conversation rather than giving in to my crocodilian hallucinations? How can I make sure my crocodile doesn’t derail my connection and conversation with others? Maybe you stand for truthfulness, respect, and purposefulness. If these are your values, how can you let these set the tone for your conversation, rather than giving into crocodilian fight, flight, freeze and forget fixes?

Freeing ourselves from our ego-survival stories, which limit us to a small-minded version of ourselves, we grow in our capacity to love, and become ready to widen our perspective to see the connection between us and everything and everyone. We activate this truer, owl perspective by inquiring: what do I truly stand for on a deeper level? What is it that they see and need? What is a wise, compassionate and effective way to take care of all of us?

When we give ourselves the time and space to dig underneath our narrow-minded survival stories, we connect to a wider and deeper vision, of who we are and of what is really true. Then we leave the world of crocodilian, polarizing hallucinations and get to enjoy the creative, nourishing play of true relationship.

Hylke Faber serves as a leadership coach and facilitator and leads the coaching organizations, Constancee and the Growth Leaders Network. His first book, Taming Your Crocodiles: Unlearn Fear & Become a True Leader, was released in May 2018 and was soon selected as one of Bloomberg’s 10 Best Books on Leadership in 2018. Through his ongoing collaboration between Constancee and Columbia Business School Executive Education, Taming Your Crocodiles has become the curriculum cornerstone for Hylke’s sought-after online learning series, Leader as Coach.