Alligators are not good listeners and have no people skills.
They lack tact, respect, and
empathy. They are not good negotiators, nor are they problem solvers.
Imagine staring into the face of this guy, primed to eat your head off as you say, “Um…dear…um…you’ve left
the toothpaste cover off …again.”
Let’s be honest. If you are as uncomfortable with conflict as most, and this is what you fear each time you bring something up, you will think twice. Maybe you decide to live with the uncapped toothpaste, and slink away. Perhaps you are so frustrated, you snarl back and come out fighting.
What does an alligator have to do with conflict? We have a primitive brain wired much like this alligator. Our brains are really comprised of several parts, the oldest being the reptilian brain. It puts us on the defensive, brings out our claws and teeth, or motivates us to run for cover, as in the fight or flight response. This is hardwired into us. When threatened, we automatically go to this state. People react to conflict as predictably as this alligator, with as many people skills as the alligator. Now you understand why so many conflicts escalate into a mess.
Our people skills depend on other parts of the brain, the limbic system and the Neocortex. The most evolved and most recent in human evelopment is the brain command center, the Neocortex.
It gives us the capacity to be respectful, to listen well to what others are saying, to be analytical as we gather information and take in all kinds of data, to process it and make intelligent, well informed choices about any activity with which we are engaged. It allows us to imagine and to create new possibilities. It creates music and art, and diplomatic agreements.
Our ability to empathize, to step into another person’s shoes, to care and have compassion, to negotiate and problem solve, all are part of the Neocortex function. Ah, the joy of having an evolved brain with these cool human attributes! Life goes along swimmingly when
the whole brain is engaged.
Fear slams the doors shut to the higher brain functions, leaving us amidst conflict and our reptilian brain, which loves to believe it is the only brain necessary! Our brain functions on flight or fight hardwired reactions whenever triggered by a perceived threat. Alligator brain shuts down higher level functioning and takes command. Unfortunately, only the critical functions, the familiar fight and flight response, remains up and unning. If we are fighting for our lives we appreciate greatly the fight/flight response. However, if we are trying to perform at work, or to agree to a negotiation, we are in a tough spot.
This comes at an extreme cost. Without the big picture, alligator brain locks into the minimal of functioning and narrows its focus. It puts us in a bad spot, as it assumes it is right, assumes it has ownership of The Truth, and
sees other party as a challenger of that truth. The Neocortex is the information gatherer that analyzes much data, synthesizes, and reaches reasonable decisions. The reptilian brain cannot gather information, yet dangerouslybelieves it owns the one and only truth; fighting anyone challenging that “truth”.
Whether we have a conflict with a trusted friend, a spouse, or are engaged in a legal conflict, we risk coming to the conflict as defensive and feisty as an alligator. And the person withwhom we are in conflict is as likely to be in the same place as us— thinking like
an alligator. Slapping tails, gnashing teeth, and frothing waters predict an ugly outcome…to divorce settlements…to peaceful resolution between friends…to agreements between co-workers.
©2011 Maren Beckman Inc. All rights reserved.