Red, Green, Yellow

What happens when we begin to notice the effect our communication style has on other people?
By Susan Gillis Chapman


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Recently my friend Nancy, who I haven’t seen in years, sent me an email with some photos attached. “You’ll love these,” she wrote.

When I opened the photos I chuckled with delight and clicked back to her: “Yes, I love these pictures so much I’ve already written a book about them!” The photos circulating through the Internet were of a polar bear and a dog playing together. I first saw them in a National Geographic magazine many years ago and was captivated by the story. A dog named Churchill was tied up to a stake in the ice. His owner spotted a starving bear, just out of hibernation, through the window of his cabin. He watched in horror as the bear approached his dog. Feeling powerless to protect his pet from certain death, he grabbed his camera and snapped pictures of the scene unfolding before his eyes. But to his amazement, what he ended up witnessing was how Churchill saved his own life.

As the bear lumbered towards him, Churchill crouched down and wagged his tail. In spite of his ravenous hunger, the bear responded to the signal and switched from predator to playmate. One of the photos shows Churchill and the bear embraced in an affectionate hug as they tumbled and rolled around the ice. Then the huge polar bear turned and ambled away. Over the next few days, the bear returned to the site several times to play with his new friend.

The National Geographic photo essay came into my life at the right moment. I had been preparing to teach a series of workshops on mindful communication, where students would learn practical skills in bringing awareness, insight, compassion and choice to their communications. In preparation, I was paying close attention to my own interactions, especially with the difficult people in my life.

From Predator to Playmate

When I first saw the National Geographic photos, I was observing the defensive strategies I used with the hungry bears in my life. Would Robert, the bullying co-worker coming down the hallway, turn into a teddy bear if I adjusted the signals I was sending? Not likely. But I decided to give tail wagging a try anyway.

In some ways, Robert fit the image of a starving polar bear as he stalked the office, commanding attention and emotionally devouring the rest of us with his crude jokes and predictable opinions. Normally, when he walked into the room I cringed and put on my mask, which only locked the two of us into another episode in our predator-prey relationship. But when it occurred to me that I could arouse a feeling of friendliness rather than cower, I felt a wave of confidence. Over the following days and weeks, I discovered that I could interrupt my defensive reactions to Robert by bringing up the mental image of Churchill and the polar bear. This interruption in my defensiveness allowed me to relax for a moment. In one such moment, I flashed back to my little brother at age four dressed up as a cowboy wearing a sheriff’s badge. A wave of sisterly affection came over me, and with it, a new image of Robert. I saw him as a lonely, confused man who was always hungry because he had no idea how to nourish himself through friendship. Imagining his isolation made me feel sad. Letting my guard down even for a moment or two allowed me to notice the vulnerable messages Robert was really communicating behind his bravado. I still did not agree with his bullying tactics, but he became a real human being to me—wounded and frightened, just like the rest of us.

Read rest of article on Mindful Magazine’s website