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Dueling with Dinosaurs

A story about unconscious bias.

Originally published by the author in the Minnesota Society of Certified Public Accountants September 2017 newsletter

A long time ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, an old high school friend of mine visited me one summer with his wife and 4-year-old son in New York.

We decided to visit the Museum of Natural History. We were looking forward to it, my friend’s son being the most excited of all of us. When we entered the museum that Saturday morning, it was crowded. My friend and I proceeded to the long line snaking around the hall to buy tickets, leaving his wife and son seated on one of the benches around the reception area.

That’s when we heard the wailing.

It started off low, but built up in volume until everyone in that crowded entrance hall could hear it. My friend and I turned around to try and locate the source of this sudden, unexpected disruption.

We didn’t have to look far. It was my friend’s son.

He was looking at the huge dinosaur skeleton that greeted visitors to the museum forbiddingly and formidably in that enormous hall. It was clear that he was scared out of his mind.

My friend’s wife was trying to calm her son down by telling him there was nothing to worry about; the skeleton was fake. It was a pitch-perfect argument cognitively, logically, rationally. Not to mention, she knew her son well and had successfully calmed him down on many similar occasions before.

Yet, somehow, none of that was really helping. The wailing continued unabated.

As a second line of defense, my friend left the line to take a shot at quelling his son’s ill-founded fears. His competitive and logical nature took over as he pointed out that there were a lot of other kids milling happily around, unaffected by the same skeleton.

His comparative analysis of peer behavior didn’t go over well either. The wailing increased in volume and pitch.

We were at risk of having to abort the trip. Out of desperation, I waved my friend back to the line and proceeded cautiously to the inconsolable child.

When I approached, I could tell that he was genuinely and deeply scared. This was no idle tantrum or ploy for attention. The tears were streaming down his face. I could feel the abject fear that enveloped him. My heart hurt for him.

As I knelt to his level and turned around to look at the imposing dinosaur skeleton, I could see why he would be scared. The whole piece was suspended on wires, causing a gentle movement that made it look more animated than one would expect. The jaws were wide open and its front legs were bent in perfect pouncing position. The empty eye sockets looked malevolent and murderous.

Heck, even as an adult, I was beginning to feel goosebumps.

So, when I knelt to talk to my friend’s son, I didn’t tell him it was OK.

Instead, choosing to be in the moment and to live his truth — not mine — I asked him if he was scared of that huge thing because he felt it would move at any moment and come towards him.

Amazingly, the crying abated a bit. The tears were still streaming down his cheeks, but he nodded his head. For the first time since his life was upended by this unexpected horror in the beloved museum that he had so looked forward to seeing, it seemed like an adult understood what he was going through.

Not a particularly smart adult, by the way, just a really desperate one.

I doubled down on this line of questioning, continuing to ask him about how he was feeling and why he felt that way. Did he feel like running away? Was his heart pounding? Did the arms look like they were going to scoop him up? The more descriptive I got about how he might be feeling, and the more inquisitive I got about why he might be feeling that way, the more engaged he became in the conversation — and the less he cried.

It was totally counter-intuitive, and a complete revelation to me. Instead of damping down the feelings he was experiencing, I was taking the risk of potentially amplifying them by exploring and articulating them further. Yet, I was having the opposite effect, much to my surprise and that of his parents.

As he started to talk more and cry less, I told him that I understood why he felt this way, and that I would feel the same way in his shoes. I told him that his reaction was perfectly legitimate based on how the exhibit looked, and that he had every right to want to run away.

Again, one would imagine that this would reinforce his insistent demands to put some distance between himself and the source of his intense discomfort. But, curiously, my affirmation of his feelings caused him to question them in the internal conversation he was having with himself. He became doubtful about the legitimacy of the intensity of his feelings, if not the feelings themselves, even as I was supporting them.

Thirdly, and finally, in my desperation, I did one more unthinkable thing: I admitted that I didn’t know what to do and suggested that, maybe together, we could figure something out.

By this time, he had stopped crying completely. We started brainstorming ways in which the existential threat to his well-being could be mitigated and agreed upon one of them.

We both took a couple of steps toward the offending object and paused. If there was no movement on the part of the skeletal predator to challenge our move, we took a couple more steps. We continued doing this over the next 20 minutes or so, until we were both right at the velvet rope that separated the fearsome carnivore from his hapless potential victims.

Pretty soon, the same kid who had been imitating a London ambulance for the past half an hour was jumping around with an imaginary light saber, challenging Skeletorus Rex to a duel.

In the end, we had a wonderful day at the Museum of Natural History, and it became one of those memorable experiences that all of us treasured forever.

Why recognizing unconscious bias matters

That day taught me a few things that I have tried to never forget. I stumbled upon some eternal truths from a 4-year-old, dueling with dinosaurs on a summer morning at a museum, that have served me well on many different occasions in many different situations.

  • Our perception is our reality. It doesn’t matter whether it’s someone else’s reality or the objective reality. It is ours. A big dinosaur skeleton swaying in the wind means nothing to adults, but means nightmares to a kid.

  • We need to meet people where they are, not where we want them to be. And that is in their perceptual framework, not in ours. Telling a 4-year-old that dinosaurs mean nothing can be a futile and frustrating endeavor.

  • People’s perceptual framework may have unconscious biases built into them. These are heuristics and algorithms that our brain has built based on pattern recognition. We might not even be aware of them, but they can sometimes lead us astray. In this case, the child’s brain was programmed to interpret big and mobile as threatening, and it was wrong.

  • The best way for us to address these unconscious biases is to realize them for ourselves. Having someone point them out to us may increase awareness, but not necessarily acceptance and action. Once that self-realization happened for my friend’s son, there was no stopping him. But until that happened, there was no changing him. The challenge is how to get that self-realization to happen.

The path toward self-realization can be summarized in three steps:

  • The first step to getting others to realize the unconscious biases embedded in their perceptual framework is to explore and elaborate their beliefs by asking appropriate questions. Remember my straying into this realization when I asked my friend’s son a few questions about what he was feeling and why, instead of trying to refute it all, and how that succeeded in stemming the tide of tears.

  • The second step to enabling self-realization in others is to affirm and acknowledge what they are thinking and feeling. This doesn’t mean that we agree with it, just that we support their right to think and feel the way they do. When I did this with the child, you will remember that it immediately helped to open up a new set of alternative approaches versus being wedded to one: leaving immediately.

  • The third step to self-realization is to collaborate and conceptualize a process together so that learning is enabled for the individual, and pre-existing frameworks can be modified. In the earlier example, the “two-steps-at-a-time” game helped change the initial perception of danger.

If we follow these steps, perceptual frameworks and unconscious biases can be modified. The child was playing Star Wars with the dinosaur 30 minutes after breaking out in full-throated operatic mode. Granted, the neuroplasticity of an adult brain might be less than that of a 4-year-old, and it may be tougher to go off-road on those neural networks, but it is possible. People can self-correct their ways of thinking at any age if approached the right way.

Applying this knowledge

Let’s think about these insights for a bit. How often do we ignore them or don’t realize that they are in operation? Picture yourself in the following scenarios and determine how you navigate someone’s (or your own) unconscious biases.

  • When a friend laments that they are going to lose their job, or that their CAT scan will turn out positive, do you tell them everything will be OK and they shouldn’t worry? Do you remind them about all the blessings they do have that they should focus on and be thankful for?

  • When someone on the opposite side of the negotiation table puts an offer down that is far from where you are, do you immediately respond with your offer and try to justify it?

  • When you are talking to prospective clients who express a preference for a competitor, do you immediately present your differentiating proposition and superior advantages?

In all these instances and others, if you were to keep unconscious bias insights in mind and apply them, your approach would change significantly.

  • With your friend, maybe you would say that you are scared along with them, and it’s perfectly appropriate to feel that way given the situation they are facing. You might say you are there with them through their journey, and help them think through the real risks of the situation and how to mitigate them.

  • With your negotiating opponent, you may be more curious about the thinking behind their offer, understand their logic and work with them on their criteria for success. Only then can you explore options that might ultimately maximize those criteria better.

  • With the prospective client, you might choose to uncover and understand their preferences that cause them to lean toward the competitor, and then genuinely try to optimize their success. Yes, you might lose the prospective business that day, but the trust you build as a result will likely yield some business in the future.

If we did all of the above, we just might end up winning our own duels with our own unique species of dinosaur.