“What bears have taught me about being human”

You have to look closely, but it’s there! On the left side of the picture, near the middle, you can see a black blob, which is really a bear. Last week, as I sat inside, I heard some rustling noises, and glanced out to see two bears walking along the river’s edge. I immediately grabbed my camera, pushed out the window screen for an unobstructed view, all in a few frantic seconds. A young bear with his (her?) mom were moving quickly and I tried to take in all I could. This was the first time I had seen a bear near our home. Kilham’s talk taught me a lot about these wonderful creatures. And it reminded me of important lessons for life, like the value of reading a situation instead of just barreling through it.

When I saw the title slide on the presentation given two nights ago by New Hampshire bear expert, Ben Kilham, I knew I was going to enjoy the evening. Hosted by the Jaffrey Conservation Committee, my husband and I, along with another nature-lover friend, went to a talk Kilham entitled: “The social black bear: What bears have taught me about being human.”

I nudged my husband immediately upon sitting down and seeing the slide. He knew, as I did, that the concept of learning from animals was right up my alley. It’s what I’ve dedicated this blog to — the connections we have with others and lessons we can apply to the workplace that we learn from animals and nature.

Kilham made numerous analogies and connections between what he has learned from black bears and how it parallels human nature. For example, he talked about the frustrations from people who have their trash unturned or bird feeders devoured by roaming bears. But imagine, he said, if you went outside and left $10 bills all over your lawn. Think about the behavior of your neighbors; what would they do to get to that treasured item? People can act strange when money is involved, he reminded us. His point is that bears are driven to find high quality food, so if you have left much-needed nourishment in places that they can access, you should expect the behavior that is natural to them, even if it’s not preferable to you.

And of course, the same is true with people in our work environments. As managers, we can unknowingly set a stage for behavior that isn’t desirable. Are you leaving bait that you shouldn’t be?

One after another, fascinating stories were offered by Kilham about the social and complex lives of bears. The evening was ending with questions from the audience. What should a person do if you come unexpectedly upon a bear?, one woman inquired. First, he pointed out, it’s very unlikely that you would just “run into” a bear. These animals (like most) can hear you coming and will avoid the confrontation. (Think of your role as a manager: how many times have you been blind-sided with something that you shouldn’t have? It probably means you weren’t being as alert as you could have been all along.)

But, if you do find yourself facing a bear, Kilham’s advice on what to do might surprise you. “Read the situation and try to figure out what is motivating her,” he said. If you start waving your arms and being loud, you are provoking a situation unnecessarily. You should calmly and confidently exit their area, leaving them to do what they want to do, which is to have a peaceful exchange while making sure their cubs are left unharmed. If they sense your fear, they will want to dominant it, but otherwise, they don’t want to have any conflict. He said that bears will read your emotional language and be better at reading that emotion and intent than we as humans are.

Think about that in the context of your work environments. When you come into a situation unexpectedly, do you have a tendency to immediately jump into defensive mode? What if, instead, you remained calm and confident, and read the situation?

By taking a few minutes to assess the situation and understand the motives of the person, you create an environment where the ensuing conversation could turn into something very productive, instead into a battle of wills.

When we are so intent on only pushing our own view — our own agenda — we miss what is important to the other person. Becoming more aware of your own style is the first step to ensuring that happens.

I won’t have any bears at my next workshop, but I still hope you will join me to learn more about respectful and constructive interactions in the workplace!

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