The following article is a transcript interview between Lyn Christian and Judith E. Glaser, the hosts of What’s Your Conversational Intelligence®? Podcast.
Lyn Christian, an ICF Master Certified Coach and founder of SoulSalt Inc. has partnered up with Author of Conversational Intelligence®, Organizational Anthropologist Judith E. Glaser to present the podcast episode: Rattle Snakes And Roots – How fear influences how we see the world.
I looked up at the peak, my destination. It was an unusually warm spring day, and the sun caught my cheek as I glanced up. The snow had finally melted. It melted a couple weeks ago, and I was ready to test myself on this two-thousand-foot elevation gain, which occurs in just two miles. And this time, I was excited because I didn’t have to wear my ice cleats. So, I took a deep breath, I prepped, and then I pushed forward up hill, slowly starting, feeling, getting my mountain legs and lungs back.
And I knew this trail. It was one of my favorites. And on most occasions, I might catch the sight of a deer, or a moose. And this memory reminded me: “Stay alert!” A moose is not the kind of animal you want to surprise or make nervous. People have been trampled; they’ve even been killed by these huge animals. So, my mind made a note, and I focused on the rhythm of my steps.
Sometimes I drifted into enjoying the sun, and the fresh air again, for the springtime coming in, and the scenery. And then, my thoughts would snap back like an elastic band to the present by a rustle in a nearby brush, and the potential of a moose. And I was thusly engrossed in my hike when . . . “Wait, something was moving.”
And I stopped, and my nerves shifted into overdrive, because I realized, while this was not a hulking display of moosedom, there was a living creature on the trail just in front of me. And it was a rattlesnake. The snake was slowly slithering across my path, no more than 10 feet ahead of me. And as I quickly became aware that it was there, I also realized that it was probably not aware of me, because I froze. And those of you who know about rattlesnakes: if you instinctually stop and freeze and not move the snake usually keeps moving because it’s unaware of you.
Now rattlesnakes don’t move very fast. They don’t feel a need for speed, usually. So, after what seemed like an hour (but was probably just a few minutes) the snake had completed its path, slithering across into a bush and out of sight. And as I watched the last bit of its rattle disappear, I took a deep breath and decided it was time for me to go back on the path, and get up the mountain.
But, as determined as I was, I still had these visions that that was just a ploy by the rattlesnake. That it was really curled up in the bush, right by the path, and as soon as I walked by it, it was going to snatch me with its fangs and bite me. So, I backed up a little bit, took a running jump, and leaped like a frog right over the spot where I imagined the rattlesnake to be. And then I took off running for another 20 meters.
Finally, I had to stop and catch my breath. And do you know what happened after that point, on my hike up the mountain? Every root, every stick on the path, I perceived it to be a rattlesnake until I could calm myself down, take another look, or a third look, and realize “No that’s just a stick, that’s just a piece of wood.”
Rattle Snakes And Roots – How fear influences how we see the world.
Welcome to What’s Your Conversational Intelligence®?, and I’m Lyn Christian. And in this edition, we’re going to discuss a conversational blind spot that some of you may have read about in Judith E. Glaser’s book, Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust, and Get Extraordinary Results.
In the book, Judith says that we often fail to realize that fear, distrust and trust changes how we see and interpret reality. And therefore, it changes how we talk to other people. It changes the language we wrap around things, including the language that we use in the conversations in our own minds—as in the story with me and the rattlesnake.
Here’s the neuro-chemistry behind this blind spot: when you and I are in a state of fear, we release cortisol and catacholamines. And this closes down our executive brain, our prefrontal cortex. So, we feel threatened, we move into protective behaviors, and we often don’t realize we’re doing this. And if we are seeking peak performance, we are not going to be in the right place in our brain for peak performance. So, Judith, I’m curious. How come fear can influence our reality so intensely? Come on the line and talk to us about that.
Judith E. Glaser:
The question is: why does that happen?
There’s nothing we can do about it. Our brains are hardwired to handle fear to protect us.
So, if you go back to Darwin’s theory about the brain, and survival instincts, and things like that. I was very profoundly impacted by his work. And I believed that at one side . . . that’s how I got the dashboard concept going . . . which on one side it was protect and on the other side its partner.
And what I realized is that, historically, our evolution has been to protect. As animals, we want to protect ourselves. We want to protect our genes. We want to protect our families. We want to protect everything. And so there’s a heavy-duty amount of machinery in our brain that will not let us forget experiences that we have that will help us protect ourselves from something in the future. So, the brain is designed for that.
I like how you said it: The heavy machinery of years and years of evolution that says, “Stay safe! So we’re [the brain] going to over compensate with those devices that keep you safe.”
Judith E. Glaser:
Yes. And so, our brain has an infinite capacity . . . (beyond what human beings, when you’re talking about trillions of data points, can remember) . . . It remembers experiences. It anchors them with chemistry. So, if you’ve seen rattlesnakes, and now you find yourself seeing things that look like rattlesnakes on the ground, and you want to protect yourself, that’s your brain saying, “I’m here to help you. You’ve shown me what scares you. Now, I’m going to make sure that I give you a chance to notice that enough to run away from it, so that you don’t get hurt.”
And so, it’s just survival. That’s the survival part. It’s you saving you. It’s the brilliance of the human being to say, “Let me get in front of the curve. If there’s something bad here, let me move away from it. Let me notice it. Let me not get a blind spot, and not notice it, and say, ‘Ah, that was just a twig.’” But it wasn’t a twig, you know.
So, it’s all done to preserve our DNA. It’s all done to enable us to reproduce healthier, better human beings, but we have to be sensitive to where the threats are. So, it’s just natural. And once you see it, you always see it. Because, you know, it’s the movie. Your brain is a movie machine. And once you’ve introduced it to a certain type of movie, it says, “Oh, I see. I know that. Hey, I got it. I got it covered now.” You know, right?
Is that our Reticular Activation System playing a part in that?
Judith E. Glaser:
Yes, it is. It is. Yeah, the R.A.S. is really an amazing part of the brain that is designed for so many amazingly good things to help us stay alive, in survival, in a good way. So, none of this is bad. Where it becomes bad is if it causes angina inside of us to the point where we start to withdraw, and we don’t know how to navigate.
Because a lot of our brain is navigational, the limbic brain says, “Ok we have all these memories. We have all these imprints. What do we do about it?” And so, the limbic brain, it comes up with different types of strategies for how to navigate these memories. And some of the memories it teaches us to say, “ignore!” Others it says, “Refrain, refocus and redirect.” Others it says, “There’s all sorts of things.”
That’s why, if I go back to my dictionary, I’m bringing a language into the world that gives you tools, and ways to interact and interpret, and do things differently. I’m reading John Barge. [He] is one of the scientist that identified . . . 12, 15 years ago, who’s work I love. And he has a new book that just came out about the unconscious. . . . And he said so much of our unconscious is (and he didn’t even know it as a scientist) is written with scripts for how to handle these survival situations. They’re built up over millions of years. And so, the things you saw about the stick, all that is: “Oh! I’m protecting myself. I can do that! That’s good, right?” Where it’s not good is if you carry around a judgment. You go up a Ladder of Conclusions (this is my metaphor for that).
There was research done called the Jodi Foster experiment. And there was a guy that loved Jodi Foster. And so, these scientists wrote questions that they were going to ask him, and just wanted to see where Jodi Foster fit into his brain, because he was just in love with her. And so, it turns out, for every human being we meet, we put a little spot in our brain; and every time we interact with that person we capture the interaction dynamic, and it goes there so that we keep a history of our interactions.
And if . . . You and I get along really well. And I just look forward seeing you, because the balance is in the direction of feels good. And so then, before I even see you again, the thought of being on this call with you got me excited, because the balance on your behalf is very much in favor of: “Ah! I can’t wait to have a conversation again.” And that’s how the brain remembers it.
So, with this guy, with Jodi Foster, they inserted questions, asked them. And, every time her name was mentioned, the same place in his brain lit up. And the chemistry of that spot was: “Ah!” It was pull; it was endorphins; it was oxytocin. Had it been a bad experience, there would have been cortisol, and the brain would have shifted. And they could take pictures of seeing that the lower brain would be activated. It could produce an amygdala hijack. The amygdala hijack could show up and stay, and live, and have a life that’s well beyond that moment. It could have a 24-hour, 27-hour shelf life.
And the more you think about a bad experience with someone, not just have it, but think about it, and meditate on it, or bring it up, and all that kind of stuff, the more cortisol you’re producing. So now you’ve shifted the brain. Every time I think about you, that pattern comes up and I’m producing multiples of that horrible cortisol hijack.
Right, so if we have been imprinted and we have a memory, it’s almost like we relive the trauma if something similar shows up. Unless, we reframe it, or redirect it, refocus it, rewire it.
Judith E. Glaser:
Yes, exactly. Exactly. And I have an exercise called Looking Back to Look Forward, which is exactly that. And it’s to take anything that are these incidences over the course of your life (first third of your life, mid third, and then last third of your life) and identify specific moments that might have happened—that had high impact for you, that left some type of a, quote, scar or scar tissue, that every time you head in that direction, your whole body starts to get anxiety or cortisol, and things like that—and go back and revisit that. Refrain, Refocus, Redirect.
This is the application of your insights that you gained listening to Judith. What you want to do is, on a piece of paper, lay it down in front of you facing horizontally, and create a lifeline by dividing the sheet into three segments. The left segment will be the first third of your life, the middle column will be the second third of your life, and the last column on the right will be the last third of your life.
Now, what you want to do is pick a key event or situation, something that happened to you in each of these times in your life: the first, second, and third of your life.
As you write each key situation in the column where it belongs, anchor it in with language—describe a little bit about the high point of this experience or the key points about the experience. Also, ask yourself: “Who were the people who were involved in this situation with me.”
Now, describe the how. How did the situation take place, and list facts. And then, anchor in the interpretation, the story that you made up about the event, the meaning that you made.
And finally, as you reflect on each event, note the key takeaways. What did you learn from the events?
Now, once you’ve identified this timeline and you have it mapped out in front of you, share this with a partner or a group of friends, associates, trusted individuals who can be like your mini-board of directors. Share with each person what the words mean, and what the situation means to you in each of the columns. And ask these partners if they see patterns, or if they notice things that they want to share because they’ve stepped back away from your life and can give you insights.
And then, you’ll want to look into the future and ask yourself: “What’s next?” “How can this life-pattern of the past either be replicated, changed, or how can I do things differently, because I’m drawing on the life-wisdom of my own journey?”
If you’d like to learn more about Judith E. Glaser, visit creatingwe.com. If you’d like to learn from Judith directly or like to be coached by someone who has been certified in Conversational Intelligence®, inquire at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What’s Your Conversational Intelligence® is a podcast produced by Benchmark Communications, Inc., and SoulSalt, Inc., with editing by Jessica Draper and Gavin Bruderer. Writing on this episode was completed by Shea Reed and Judith E. Glaser. Special thanks to Shannon Dee and Molly Levine, who were in charge of scheduling and logistics. Thanks again to Judith E. Glaser and Richard Glaser for the love and persistence they have put into her work, known as Conversational Intelligence®.