In my work, we spend a lot of time working with clients on the topic of unconscious bias. The study of unconscious bias has focused on the hidden biases many of us carry around based primarily on race and, often, gender. However, when you begin to dismantle the roots and sources of unconscious bias, they really apply to anyone who is different from you. We all know that we have certain proclivities towards particular people and behaviors and, conversely, very specific aversions to other types of people. Often times this is going on without us even being aware of it.
When I discuss or teach unconscious bias, I always have little epiphanies about myself or those around me because I draw on my own experiences to provide authenticity. I continue to find it amazing how much these hidden biases come into play in our day-to-day lives. One of the tools we often use when teaching unconscious bias is the Iceberg Model. This model is one that is used in many aspects of training because you can use the metaphor of the iceberg in a variety of different ways. I like this particular model because it really resonates as we think about how we approach our interactions with other people.
I am very fascinated about the workings of the human mind and how our own experiences build up in our unconscious to inform how we interact with others. Too often, we, as a society, prejudge others based on what we can readily access from them – their appearance, their initial behaviors, the words they speak, etc. Typically, in less than 10 seconds, we make assumptions about others. Rarely are these assumptions rooted in much more than those basic aspects of their being that we can tap into. What interests me is how much is actually informing their behaviors, words and actions. I try very hard to see beneath the surface when dealing with people – particularly when I begin to notice something about them that does not sit right with me. I try to understand the roots of their actions rather than just take them at face value. I attempt to go below the water line to find out what has led them to become the person they are today.
Of course, I am not very good at this as not many people are. More importantly, though, I try. I fundamentally believe that we all have good in us and we all begin at a place where we are well-intentioned, moral, just and kind. I recognize that this begins to erode as the circumstances of our lives interfere with our basic infrastructure and begin to create a different perspective that changes how we engage with others. Typically, the people who are the most far removed from their core and who have not spent the time accessing their true and authentic selves, have the most difficulty both going below the water line with others and allowing what is below their own water line to surface with those with whom they interact.
As a young child, I was always very embarrassed about my family. It was hard for me to admit that my parents were divorced or that I lived in less than a perfect family environment. I often hid the truths about my life and managed to avoid going into details about what was really going on. I spent so much of my life managing my fake reality that I never had the time to get to know myself or the others around me. I spent a lot of time looking outwards at others and making assumptions about them – typically about how much better off they were than me – based on the small amounts of information I could gather. This led me to be very anxious and depressed because my life was anything but real and meaningful. I was trapped inside a very airtight box and, if someone popped even the smallest hole, all of my oxygen would escape and I would be destroyed. As I grew older and spent more time reflecting on my life, I began to come to terms with the realities of my place in the world. This ability to go below my own water line enabled me to summon up these aspects of myself and share them with others in order to allow them a deeper glimpse into who I was. Hopefully, this would prevent others from making rash judgments about me without the proper information. And, as my own understanding of myself expanded, my ability to see deeper into others increased as well.
Today, when I meet or spend a little bit of time with people, part of my analysis of them includes getting a better understanding of where they come from in their lives. Of course, there are many prototypes of people and, more often than not, people fall into very specific buckets. But, what allows you to better engage and connect with people is to understand the nuance of what they are bringing to their particular prototype. Someone can be a type A, intense, intelligent, controlling person but that is not their entire story. They may have had a tremendous amount of trauma in their childhood that has caused them to want to ensure that everything in their life is taken care of so as not to have to rely on others for their security. This seemingly negative trait might actually be a window into a whole different aspect of their reality that allows us to connect on a much deeper level. I often think about that when I meet people and wonder how they could be friends or partners when they are so extraordinarily different. Very possibly, they have tapped into something deep below the surface and made a connection that is barely visible to anyone on the outside. It is pure and it is authentic and it is powerful.
The flipside of all of this is, of course, the negative attributes that can be revealed when going a bit deeper with people. So often, we meet people and are completely enamored with them because they are funny or charming or warm. After spending some time with them and beginning to go below the water line, we notice that our initial experience is not their authentic self but, instead, the persona they put forward in order to attract people to them. They have a very deliberate strategy for what exists above the water line to maximize their appeal to others. It is a survival of the fittest behavior pattern because, much like external beauty, it allows them to have initial impact and success but cannot be sustained without something more substantial lurking behind it.
While the work that I do is focused on how we relate to others in a professional environment, I believe this information is valuable in all of our human interactions. It is so important for us to stop ourselves from making snap judgments and be open to explore the deeper story that exists with everyone. We need to adjust our radar and sonar to tune into the aspects that are not readily surfaced. After all, we know that the part of the iceberg that lies below the water line is what sinks ships.