clowns_1920x1080
Kerrying On

You’re Not A Good Enough Actor

In the early 1980s, I slowly transitioned from teaching MBA classes to designing corporate training programs. Surprisingly, with this change in focus, my design partners and I soon found ourselves in, of all places, Hollywood—not the glamorous version that produces dazzling movies, but the not-so-glamorous version that produces industrial videos.

Here’s what took us to Tinsel Town. Our typical training design project consisted of following around top-performing leaders and watching how they handled challenges such as missed deadlines. From these observations, we extracted behavioral tactics (best practices) that we could teach to other leaders. The down-side being that merely talking in a training session about these valuable tactics required trainers to be gifted at describing behaviors and trainees to be talented at turning abstractions into action. Instead, we opted to demonstrate the skills on video—which took us to Hollywood.

As you might suspect, this demand to produce and direct mini-movies of leaders in action called for a huge change in the lives of training designers. My colleagues and I knew a fair amount about social science theory and practice but little about video production. Okay, we knew nothing about video production.

With time and coaching, we eventually figured out how to develop video snippets that could be used in our training but, sadly, not ones that suited everybody. Our acting team appeared a bit too white-collar. To balance out the mix, we needed to find an actor who could embody someone who was used to getting his hands dirty at work (for clients who did just that). One evening, after watching the sitcom Alf on TV, it struck me that John LaMotta, the talented actor who played the role of Alf’s neighbor Trevor Ochmonek, would be perfect for the part of a heavy-duty production worker. I called him, sent him a script, and picked him up at the airport a few weeks later to join our acting troupe as we began work on a new video project.

The next morning, I directed the first rehearsal. When it came time for John to—in his own words—“make magic,” he stormed onto the set. The situation was simple. John portrayed a gruff-looking production worker whose co-worker had failed to deliver materials to him on time—causing him problems. John’s job was to resolve the issue. To keep the scene fresh, I gave John no direction except to deliver his lines in a way that felt comfortable to him. I wanted John to calmly describe the problem in a respectful and professional way, but would he interpret the scene in that manner? Time would tell.

With the shout of “Action!” John walked onto the set, hit his mark, and delivered his opening line: “You said you’d have product to me by noon, but it never arrived. What happened?” Note: the script we had written contained no inflammatory words, insults, threats, or attacks—just a simple description of the problem followed by a diagnostic question. John delivered the correct words—no problem there—but he said them with such force and disgust that the other actor nearly melted.

“Cut!” I shouted as I leaped into the set and explained to John that he sounded furious and needed to try the scene anew but without the acrimony. Once again, I didn’t tell John how to interpret the script because I had been taught that if you over-direct, or worse still, show actors the delivery you want, they tend to mimic your performance and you lose their unique interpretation.

This time, John walked onto the set with his arms folded, slowly circled the other actor, shook his head in utter disgust, and delivered his line in a deadly whisper. It was chilling. For the third take, John poked the fellow with his massive index finger. Thump, thump, thump. It hurt just watching. Next, John sneered at the other actor so malignantly that it caused a camera operator to flinch.

For another five takes, John found five new ways to accost his coworker while I patiently waited for him to deliver an opening line that would lead to a respectful discussion. Each time, John expressed the same neutral words we had written but with new punitive body twitches, facial tics, and voice fluctuations that turned what should have been a professional, problem-solving conversation into an attack.

Finally, I gave up. I broke the rule of offering minimum direction by telling John that the fellow who had let him down was his good friend and that John was curious as to why his coworker hadn’t delivered the goods on time.

“He’s my friend, and I’m curious?” John repeated. “Yup,” I answered.

Then John delivered the lines perfectly—clearly, correctly, and full of respect.

This experience affected every scene I’ve directed from that day forward. It has also influenced how my partners and I teach how to deal with disappointments, infractions, and bad behavior. No matter how talented an actor you believe you are, if you choose to talk to others about infractions while retaining negative thoughts about how they fowled-up, your harsh judgments invariably creep into your body and facial movements. You can try to be nice, but some part of you (seemingly of its own accord) tenses up and you look upset. First a strained smile, then a contortion of the muscles in your neck, then a tapping foot, then a vein madly pulsing in your forehead—all implying a threat—all reflecting your underlying negative judgment. If you were playing poker, you’d call these revealing reactions “tells”—slight body movements or facial expressions that give away your underlying emotion (in John’s case, disappointment and anger).

John taught us that if you desire to respectfully deal with people who have let you down or behaved badly, you can’t focus solely on managing the “tells” that so readily take over your body. It’s insufficient. As soon as you fix one tell, another one replaces it. So you have to work on your underlying thinking by replacing harsh judgments with genuine curiosity. If not, no matter how nice or “professionally” you think you’re behaving, or how under control you feel, your body is emitting signals that plainly reveal your underlying disappointment, disrespect, and disgust.

So, start problem-solving discussions with sincere respect for the individual who has taken a misstep. Take care to maintain a healthy curiosity regarding the circumstances. If you assume the best—not the worst—of others, the correct body language (from a relaxed jaw to a pleasant tone) will naturally follow. In short, don’t condemn others in your heart and then try to mask your harsh judgments one “tell” at a time. You’re not a good enough actor to pull it off. John certainly wasn’t—and the same is true for the rest of us.

Crucial Conversations QA

Feasting with Unruly Relatives

The following article was first published on November 17, 2010.

Dear Crucial Skills,

With the holidays quickly approaching, I have found myself caught in a sucker’s choice with my family. My wife and I have made it a tradition to travel to my parents’ home seven hours away for Thanksgiving. This year, my parents informed me that my sister will also stay there. My sister is a drug addict and has been in and out of jail for thirty years. Every time she gets out, she claims to clean up her life and my parents roll out the red carpet to help her. When she returns to her destructive patterns, they turn a blind eye.

For years, this has caused all kinds of problems between my parents and five siblings. I would love to keep my tradition of spending Thanksgiving with my parents, but I don’t feel comfortable staying in the same home with my sister. It’s a rural area so there are no hotels or other arrangements available.

I see only two options: either continue with the tradition and hate the experience (which could also be potentially dangerous), or forgo the tradition and hurt my relationship with my parents. I can’t find a win-win here. Please help.

Signed,
Stuck

Dear Stuck,

If you’ll give me some latitude, I’m going to wax philosophical and share my perspective on the purpose of life. My goal is not to persuade you that my view of life is right, but simply to share one perspective that gives context to my suggestions.

In my view, life is about achieving intimacy with those we’re inseparably connected to. Family is first and foremost in that category.

Now, how is that relevant to my dialogue with you? Because I walk in your shoes. I have dear ones who also struggle with addiction. Some of the most searing pain of my life has been watching them destroy months of progress—only to land once again in jail or on the street. Almost equally painful is watching those who care about them behave in ways that positively enable their self-destruction. It’s agonizing. And my natural reflexes toggle between an overwhelming urge to either take control of the situation or to distance myself from it.

And yet, neither impulse is consistent with my view of the purpose of my life, which is to develop the character to achieve intimacy with imperfect people. When I try to take control or distance myself from my struggling loved ones, I find that my life is the poorer and my character weakens.

When I find myself in your shoes, the question now becomes, how can I remain close in a way that exerts positive influence on those who are the most troubled?

Enough with the philosophy. So what about your situation?

First of all, you made a reference to danger. If by that you mean you might take children into a situation when your sister is using, I would decline and explain this concern to your parents. And when doing so, cleanse yourself of any intention of using this decision as a threat to get them to exclude your sister. Simply explain that you can appreciate their desire to include your sister—and hope it is a good experience for them and her—but that your children give you other considerations. You may even want to make a call on Thanksgiving Day and wish your parents and sister well so they don’t misinterpret the decision.

If you choose to participate in the Thanksgiving tradition, there are a couple of crucial conversations you’ll need to have:

1. Motives. You need to change your motives. This year may not be about peace and harmony in the home. It may be filled with uncertainty and awkwardness, but it might still be meaningful. In fact, it could be more meaningful than many others. Your goal will not be to fix your sister or to correct your parents. It will be to improve your relationships with all of them—to try to achieve greater intimacy. Doing so may increase your positive influence in the future in all their lives.

2. Boundaries. You can’t control your sister or your parents, but you can control yourself. Decide in advance what kinds of situations may play out. Then ask yourself, “If what I really want is to be a positive influence on my sister and my parents, how will I respond?” Don’t wait until the resentment of the moment hits to make this decision. Think it through in advance.

Then discuss these boundary conditions with your parents. Let them know you love them and want to be part of this holiday, and that you have your own view of how to deal with some of the potential challenges. You don’t ask that they agree with you, you just want to explain your intentions so they can understand your motives in case you behave in a way they find jarring.

For example, if your sister uses, you may choose to leave or you may call the police. Before you arrive, discuss these boundaries with your parents and see if you can come to terms on them. If you disagree in important ways, you may elect not to participate. If that is the case, do not announce that decision in a punishing way. Don’t use your decision as a way of provoking your parents to concede to you on these points. Honor their right to disagree. Affirm them. Express your love. Ask if it’s okay if you arrange another visit with them when things are simpler.

If after working through these two conversations you find yourself at the family gathering, be as good as your word. Take small steps to show love to your sister. Expose yourself to the discomfort of possible disappointment or rejection. You may well find, in some future situation, that your improved relationship with her puts you in a position of influence to help her take a steadier step toward sobriety. It may be one step forward and two steps back (it certainly has been with some of those I love).

While these situations are complex and difficult, I can tell you that this Thanksgiving, one of the blessings I will feel most intensely is the intimacy I now have with one who looked the most helpless for the longest time.

I hope I haven’t been too presumptuous. If I’ve misunderstood your situation or imposed my own views inappropriately, please forgive me and don’t let my imperfection drive distance between you and me.

Sincerely,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Broach a Difficult Topic

Dear Crucial Skills,

As the mother of two adult children who are each very intelligent and gainfully employed, I try and stay out of their personal decisions. However, one of them started smoking during his high school years. The smoking has continued for almost twenty years. His father and I worry about his health but have trouble understanding how to (or if we should) broach this topic productively with him.

Signed,
Uneasy Parents

Dear Uneasy Parents,

To broach or not to broach—that is the question. Or even better, how to broach without reproach? And it’s not simply a question of whether or not to bring up a particular topic, but also how to do it in way that’s positive and impactful. I find that when people are facing this, and similar challenges, they merge these two separate and distinct questions into one. And since they usually don’t have a good response to how to be positive and impactful, they easily dismiss the answer regarding whether to bring up the topic in the first place. In essence we think, “I’m not sure I’d be able to address (fill in your concern here), so it’s probably not worth bringing up.” We choose to “live” with the situation despite the negative consequences. So let’s tackle these questions one at a time.

First, to broach or not broach? The outcome from either choice seems to have a big downside—accept his smoking habit or ruin the relationship—especially in light of the current strains on an already weak relationship. In Crucial Conversations, we describe the pull toward these two alternatives as choosing between silence and violence. And in case you didn’t already notice, regardless of which you choose, you lose. So we end up choosing the more palatable option out of two bad alternatives—silence. Essentially, this means we’ve lost from the outset, before we’ve even taken any action. By choosing silence, we believe that we’re voting in favor of maintaining the relationship while really undermining the relationship we’re trying so hard to maintain. Let me give you an example:

Years ago, my wife’s sister and her husband had their first child—happy day for everyone! Well, maybe not everyone. In my wife’s family, it is assumed that her mother will be invited to the home to help take care of the new arrival. So my mother-in-law started to make travel arrangements even before the baby was born. However, these arrangements had to be undone because my sister-in-law had already invited someone else to come and help with the new baby without alerting her mother. You see, my brother-in-law had some mother-in-law issues. Instead of addressing the concerns in the open, my sister-in-law tried to brush them under the rug and created a whole new set of mother/daughter issues. This is a good example of the principle that what we don’t talk out, we act out. It never ends well.

To get out of this trap, try drafting a more complete consequence list for smoking. What do I mean by that? When faced with a difficult conversation, our head quickly volunteers to do the hard work of calculating the potential outcomes for speaking up and quickly saves itself from any additional hard work by quickly convincing you that a conversation won’t be worth it. We tend to focus on the short-term, negative consequences (like straining your relationship) and look past the long-term, positive consequences of actually sharing our concerns (like helping your son avoid a terminal illness). Relieve your brain of this responsibility by capturing all of the consequences on paper. When you’re able to consider a more complete and accurate list, you can make a more informed decision about how to proceed.

Once you decide the topic’s worth broaching, how do you go about it? Most often in these types of situations, my first thoughts are aligned with the STATE skills in Crucial Conversations. They provide the perfect framework to help people raise tough, controversial issues or concerns in a way that minimizes defensiveness and invites the other person into the conversation. And yet, how you describe your son in your question pulls me in a different direction—especially your description of his intelligence.

Many times, when talking with intelligent people about strongly entrenched habits like smoking, our approach invites defensiveness—even when using STATE skills. Why? Because we approach it as if the person needs more information about the negative impacts of his or her choices (the unsavory smell, coughing, emphysema, lung cancer, the list goes on). The other person has seen the ads, and likely know the statistics. More information is not the problem. Your son is already well-informed. Instead, try getting him to consider an insightful question.

Here’s what we’ve found: it’s very natural for people to resist when confronted head-on about issues that require significant effort to change. They hear your argument and treat it as an argument. That means taking a position, digging in to defend the position, and actively looking for ways to reinforce that position—which is not very conducive to an honest exploration. If you’re looking to create motivation, don’t start with sharing more information.

Bill Miller pioneered an approach that focused on influential questions. He found that exploration can be more powerful in creating the conditions conducive to change than explanation. For example, lead with a question like, “I was wondering how smoking interferes with (insert your son’s favorite activity or even an important role he plays, like at work, for example)?” This probing question produces far less defensiveness than, “let me tell you why I wish you wouldn’t smoke.” You’re not forcing him to take the opposite position from you, and it’s directing him towards something he regularly experiences. Get him to explore the implications of his choices so he is less ambivalent about making different choices.

These types of conversations are tricky and usually require a lot of love, concern, and patience. Hopefully these ideas will give you some options for approaching your son. I wish you the best in beginning this conversation and as you create the conditions to explore and reinforce the motivations for change that he probably already has.

All the best,
Steve

Crucial Conversations QA

Change Begins With Me: Reflections on the 2016 Election

This has been the most disturbing and divisive election cycle either of us can remember. We began writing this piece by assembling a list of sound bites that ought to be consigned to a political “Hall of Shame.” But as we did so, we began to realize we’ve made our own contributions to that hall as well.

Now, don’t get us wrong. We haven’t engaged in hate speech or called for the imprisonment of a candidate. But as we started throwing rocks at others’ behavior, we realized some of ours was not beyond reproach either. As we all reflect on the past year, there’s a hierarchy of culprits we can look to:

1. The candidates. Need we say more? And beyond Trump and Clinton, many of the primary and presidential contenders have lowered the bar on political discourse and election strategy.
2. The media. The media has brought in paid partisans who do little more than recite their campaign’s talking points. News outlets claim to give us “balance” when what we really want is objective analysis by unbiased reporters, producers, and news anchors. After all, the media is often touted as the fourth estate with the responsibility to hold the government to account, and from our perspective, the media has not acted any more responsibly than the before-mentioned politicians.
3. The alternative media. The Internet is festooned with fiction dressed up as fact. And most of its users have become witless distribution tools rather than cautious examiners of what it offers—causing us to “feel” informed rather than “be” informed.
4. Friends (or former friends) and colleagues. We published a study a few months ago that revealed how terrified many of us have felt to venture into political discussions – and rightly so. Over thirty-three percent of us have had a political discussion blow up in our face—causing us to lose a relationship—or worse. We can all point to others who have behaved badly as they’ve attempted to assert their views or influence the views of others.
5. Me. Our emotions turned from righteous indignation to humble reflection as we asked, “How have we contributed to the decline?” If our motive in reviewing the past is to assign blame, we could certainly start with number one on this list and move down in that order. But if we really want to influence change, we should probably reverse the order and start with ME.
With this sobering insight in mind, here are our top six political regrets from 2016 and resolutions for the future.

• Regret 1: We have allowed profound disagreement to turn into personal judgments.
• Regret 2: We have cowered from opportunities to share our honest views on issues of deep moral importance to us for fear of being punished by an angry virtual mob—or worse.
• Regret 3: We have spent enormous time commiserating with those who shared our views and precious little exercising genuine curiosity to learn from those who don’t share our views.
• Regret 4: We have been passively vulnerable to the tyranny of search engines—investing time in information that is manipulated by algorithms designed to reinforce our biases. Search engines today are a powerful force for reinforcing ideological divisions as they sense what you prefer to read and serve up more of the same.
• Regret 5: We have contributed to contention by chuckling and—gulp—“liking” postings that were insulting but clever, if they advanced our agenda.
• Regret 6: We complained about the final candidates but did precious little early enough in the process to produce a better slate of choices.
These are hard pills to swallow. But if we’re truly honest with ourselves, we let ourselves down. Thankfully, we woke up this morning knowing we can do better. We don’t have to experience this type of divisive and toxic election again, and we won’t—at the very least, we won’t be participants in one. In the future we promise:

1. To not turn vehement disagreement into personal attack.
2. To periodically seek out reasonable advocates of opposing views—and listen deeply to them.
3. To never outsource our political opinions to search engines.
4. To get involved in the political process earlier rather than complain later about weak candidate options.
5. To never again forward or “like” hatefully clever but intellectually vapid material even about candidates or positions we oppose.
6. To continue to engage in the political discussion—and do so in the way we hope others do with us—even if we are unhappy with the results of yesterday’s election.

How about you? Got any regrets? How have you behaved in ways that you are not proud of? What resolutions are you willing to make to help prevent the disgrace of this last election? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

We believe in the goodness of our readers and would like to rally around what can be possible, rather than what just happened. Let’s vow to make it different the next time around.

Best Wishes,
Joseph & David

Crucial Conversations QA

Health Challenges at Work—How to Create A New Normal

Dear Crucial Skills,

I was just diagnosed with a non-contagious medical condition. Now I know why I have been so fatigued these past months. Though my condition can be life-threatening, after having a pity party, I’ve decided to move forward and be as positive as I can. I told my supervisor and co-workers about my diagnosis but now feel they are avoiding me and showing me pity. Some people are not giving me the work they used to give me, and others have actually taken work away from me. It may be they are trying to “ease the burden,” but I just want to move forward, be busy, and continue to be a productive member of the team. I’m second-guessing my decision to come forward with my condition and the added stress actually aggravates my condition. It’s a vicious cycle! Any help would be appreciated.

Signed,
Moving Forward

Dear Moving Forward,

I am sorry to hear about the diagnosis. It sounds like you have gone through some overwhelming emotions as you’ve adjusted to this new reality. It also sounds like you have arrived at a remarkable place in determining to embrace life on these new terms. Congratulations on that. I admire your resilience and trust you’ll find strength in this decision.

I would not fault you for sharing the news with close colleagues. To me, life is about connection—and withholding such profound information from friends can only serve to make you less connected at a time when you need friends most. The challenge now is to negotiate the new relationship this information is provoking. That’s the conversation you need to have. I offer three thoughts that I hope are of use:

1. Let them process their feelings. Like you, your colleagues are going through a process of adapting to the new information about you. Clearly, you deserve much more consideration than they do under the circumstances. However, it’s helpful to know that they are being affected, and it will take time for them to integrate this reality and connect with you in a way that accommodates it. I don’t offer any of this to suggest that it is your job to service their emotional needs—you’ve got plenty to manage on your own. But perhaps being aware that their current behavior is not likely to be their final behavior can help you be patient as they go through their own fear, sadness, and anxiety.

2. Make it discussable. Many of your colleagues are dealing in the realm of mystery at this point. All they know is you have a medical condition. That’s all. They don’t know how it is affecting you physically, emotionally, or interpersonally. Should they lighten your load or treat you the same? Should they give you space or smother you with support? Should they pretend they don’t know about the diagnosis or inquire for details? In most situations like this, those around you are paralyzed with uncertainty. They feel awkward and incompetent and tend to respond to this anxiety with hand-wringing. They try to guess what you want or need—or shrink back to a safe distance to avoid their own discomfort. You have it in your power to end all of that. All you need to do is make the situation discussable. Find a medium that works for you: email, a private blog, perhaps even a team meeting. Take a few minutes to catch people up not just about the physiology of what’s going on with you, but the psychology. Tell them how you’re feeling. Tell them how that varies by day or week.

Then . . .

3. Teach them what works for you. Here’s the best part of my advice for you—you have enormous influence at this very moment. What your colleagues crave most is certainty. They simply want to know how to show up for you. They’ll likely respond to most any request you make. Tell them what questions you’d like or not like. Tell them how you’d like to be treated and not treated. Tell them how you would and wouldn’t like to communicate with them about future changes in your health. For example, will you tire of repeating the same update to everyone? If so, you might want to create a private blog and encourage people who are interested to get information from there so you don’t have to rehash the same story forty-three times at work. Or, you may ask a trusted friend to be the source of information for the group. Whatever works for you is likely to work for them. It’s up to you to teach them.

I wish you health and happiness in this coming phase. May your troubles be eclipsed by increased focus on what matters most and greater intimacy with friends and loved ones.

Warmly,
Joseph

Kerrying On

Surviving Freedom

As a child, my parents fiercely protected me. At their insistence, I remained close to home and under their tight watch. And then, one day in early 1959, they let go. When I turned thirteen, my Mom and Dad either tired of regulating my every move or began to trust me. Either way, it was as if the door to my cage had been left unlocked. Since my friends were similarly liberated, it wasn’t long until a small band of thirteen-year-old boys was roaming the area around Bellingham Bay, mostly unfettered, and completely unsupervised. We didn’t know it, but we had entered our Huck Finn years.

During this period of newly-granted independence, my friends and I became one with the earth and her treasures. We walked for miles along her pine needle paths in a quest to discover caves, explore abandoned buildings, scale cliffs, build rafts, and gaff dogfish. We ran barefoot across tide flats and meadows as we chased each other with kelp whips, puffballs, and rose-hip seeds (nature’s itching powder).

We didn’t merely explore the earth’s surface; we attacked it. We tore into the hillside to make caves, cut down trees to build forts and rafts, and heaped up massive sandcastles on tide flats. And then (as the returning water crept back), we fought to keep the flowing enemy from devouring our towers. If this wasn’t earthy enough, we played mumblety-peg, a pocketknife game that required the loser to pull a three-inch, hand carved peg out of the earth (with only his teeth)—painting his mouth, gums, and face with dark brown muck.

Having little money, we were provided for by Mother Earth until we returned home each day. For a taste of nature’s menu, we chewed sour grass and sipped from honeysuckles. As our hunger grew, we dined from the fruit of the thorny Himalayan blackberry vines that spread across the countryside like an angry rash. As we moved into the forest, we switched to huckleberries, salmon berries, and black caps. If we stumbled on a tree laden with ripe cherries, pears, or apples, we gorged on the bonanza and moved on, grimacing from the inevitable upset stomach that followed. On a dare, we chewed wild rhubarb.

As we grew more experienced, stronger, and confident, we commandeered materials from our parents. Once equipped, we built rope swings that soared thirty feet into the air. We constructed tree houses that hid us from adults. When July rolled around, we built rockets of all types. Should a rocket start a fire in the dry grass near the shore, we’d beat out the flames with wet burlap bags, strip to our cut-off jeans, and emit a savage howl as we leaped triumphantly into the bay.

We did all of this unlicensed cavorting on foot because we came from one-car families. Plus, we had a desire for seclusion. This meant that on the days we hiked to Cedar Lake, we walked five miles simply to arrive at the trailhead and another two miles up Chuckanut Mountain to get to the lake. When we arrived, it would be our voices, and our voices alone, that echoed across the mist-covered water. Jogging hadn’t been invented yet, mountain biking was unheard of, and clothing outfitters hadn’t popularized hiking. Consequently, on most of our excursions, when we arrived at our destination we were completely alone. Exactly the way we liked it.

Had we slipped into a hole in the earth on any one of these sorties, nobody would have ever found us. Our parents would never have known where to look because we gave them phony itineraries. We told our folks that we were going to safe, well-groomed parks near our homes so they wouldn’t worry about the dangers we’d face when we practiced spelunking and free-climbing without a shred of equipment or know-how.

Our folks had no idea that when the canneries jutting over the bay closed for the day, the gigantic steel tubs used to haul crabs out of fishermen’s boats were repurposed by us as we stood inside them and mechanically lowered ourselves into the water—competing for who could descend the deepest. On days our parents thought we were playing safely in a nearby park, we were waiting for the tide to go out, so we could jump from a cannery roof sixty feet in the air into ten feet of water. With each leap, our bare feet dug deep into thousand-year-old muck, the earth providing us the cushion we needed as we knifed into the bay. We did all this unbeknownst to our parents. For three years, my buddies and I scampered across, fed from, and explored the earth—unnoticed and unimpeded. She was our laboratory, cafeteria, and playground.

Should one of today’s helicopter parents look back at what my friends and I did, they’d be mortified by our casual recklessness. My mom would have been mortified had she not been so busy taking college courses and working two jobs. To be honest, I can’t believe that we, the feral boys of Bellingham, actually survived unharmed.

Now for the intriguing part. According to a recent study exploring how certain parents had reared several extraordinarily successful adults within the same family, the freedom my friends and I enjoyed might actually have been to our benefit. Child-rearing research suggests that a “free-range childhood” fuels a sense of confidence and independence that can lead to superior accomplishment later in life. More than a few scholars are now suggesting that if you want your offspring to truly excel as adults, retire the helicopter—or at least give it a rest.

But who can do that? If I had teenage kids today, I’d never allow them to roam the earth like my friends and I did. Unsupervised cavorting is just as dangerous today as it was fifty years ago. But, then again, I’d hate to think that risk-averse parenting might come at the cost of the next generation’s confidence and independence. Plus, there’s the fact that adopting a hands-off approach isn’t exactly an untested idea. When it comes to the workplace, non-hovering leadership is referred to as empowerment, and empowerment has generally proven to be a good thing. Just ask the empowered.

So what’s a person to do? I, for one, can’t imagine purposely exposing adolescents to unnecessary risks. Nevertheless, the earth will most certainly call out to them. She’ll offer up her fruits and spread forth her tide flats. She’ll tempt our youngsters to scramble across her boulders and swim in her streams. And they’ll answer. You can bet on that. So, be prepared. Take the time to teach your offspring safe practices. Warn them of common dangers and excessive risks. Empower them with skills that help them flourish in the freedom of nature’s classroom. And most important of all, refuse the sucker’s choice that says you can raise kids to be either safe or self-assured. Aim for both. Your kids deserve no less.

Change Anything QA

How to Avoid Getting Angry

Dear Emily,

How do you stop your emotions from shifting into “fight” mode and verbal violence? I understand the principles of Making It Safe, but often, I only become aware that I am in “violence” well into the conversation—when my own emotions are already heated and boiling over. The wisest choice at that point seems to be to get out of the space and conversation where I can get my emotions under control, but, by then, the damage is usually done. While I have greatly improved over the years and am far more aware of my own bullying nature (intellectual or otherwise), I still struggle to change.

Signed,
Upset & Unaware

Dear Upset & Unaware,

Oh yes, I have been there. I have been in that conversation where I said something and as the words came out of my mouth I thought, “Why am I saying this? And with this tone?” I could literally feel the expression on my face, and it was not one of curiosity or calm but rather of condemnation. So yes, I have been where you are—having raced down a path to anger, judgment, and verbal violence. Inevitably, in those moments, I think to myself, “Wait. I teach something about this. Oh, yes. It’s called Learn to Look. Learn to Look for when a conversation turns crucial because the sooner you get back into dialogue, the lower the cost.”

But sometimes learning to look seems to come too late. I don’t want to simply learn to look for the signs that a conversation is going off the rails so that I can course-correct quickly. I want to avoid going off the rails at all. So the question for me is not: “How can I recognize earlier when I have been triggered?” but, “How can I not get triggered at all?”

So that seems pretty crazy, right? Not get triggered? Ever? Impossible. In real life, stuff happens. Irritations abound. Rough edges push up against all sides of our lives. The triggers are there and will always be there. Yet the question remains, “How can I avoid being triggered?”

I have two practical ideas to offer you, but, before I get to them, I want to add a frame to the discussion and a challenge for everyone reading this.

The Frame

Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” This is the idea I am fascinated by—that we need not wait until our response has begun and then somehow catch ourselves because we are responding in a way that is overly forceful, or angry, or violent. If we learn to see that space, to expand it, to live in it, then we can respond in ways of our choosing, rather than simply reacting. The question is then, what can we do to enlarge and inhabit that space more often?

There is no one right answer to this question. I have two ideas that I believe are helpful. However, just as we teach in Change Anything, no one can tell you what your Vital Behavior will be for a change you need to make. Everyone’s Vital Behaviors will be different and diverse.

A lot of people read this newsletter (over 350,000), and there will be a lot of different answers regarding how we can enlarge and inhabit the space between stimulus and response. So I challenge you to share your own answer with us in the comments below. What do you do to enlarge and inhabit this space? I am looking forward to seeing the wisdom of this particular crowd.

And, without further ado, two ideas to help.

1. Morally engage—all the time. In his new book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves, psychologist Albert Bandura makes the point that we are not bad people but that we behave badly (Want to win a signed copy of this book? Read to the end to learn how to enter). And when we act in ways or treat people in ways that are counter to our moral compass, we use a variety of strategies to disengage from that morality and thereby reduce our inner conflict. Said another way, our poor actions are not a result of moral defect but of moral slumber. If we want to behave better, we need to wake ourselves up.

Here is one example of how you might do that: Write a note to yourself that awakens you to your values and then review it regularly. Write down what it means to you to be a good person or why you care about other people. Put it on a card that your carry in your wallet or a Post-It note on your computer monitor. Put it in your phone. Set an alarm to read it regularly. Wake yourself up again and again to who you are and who you want to be.

The note in my office that is directly beneath my monitor screen and that I read several times a day is, “Never let a problem to be solved be more important than a person to be loved.” This is meaningful to me because I am a problem-solver. A fast problem-solver. Far too often, when I am in problem-solving mode, people become barriers between me and the solution. But while it is true that in moments of moral disengagement, I can become so focused on a problem and solution that I forget people, it is also true that I have a deep, abiding respect for humans and humanity. I love people and I want to be the person who connects with other people. It is not about changing who I am, but simply reminding myself of who I am.

2. Eat for energy. Bet you weren’t expecting that one! I just finished reading Jim Loehr’s, The Power of Full Engagement. Among the many takeaways for me was that the energy we bring to an interaction impacts the outcome. Dr. Loehr’s goal is to help people learn to manage their energy in a way that improves interactions, impact, and outcomes.

I recently received some very valuable 360 feedback. As I analyzed and mapped this feedback, I realized that some of my interactions don’t always go so well. Turns out, the interactions where I am abrupt, short-tempered, or irritated occur between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. Really. It’s uncanny, but not surprising. I eat breakfast and lunch early and by 4:00 p.m. I’m usually running on low blood sugar. Compounding my low energy is the fact that I have usually been sitting for hours on end by this point. So when someone comes in for a crucial conversation, it is not surprising that I don’t always handle it well.

The solution is, in part, to eat in ways that provide sustained, useful energy for me throughout the day. Basically, eat often and eat light. I started having an apple or a piece of cheese or a handful of nuts about 3:00 p.m.—before I start feeling tired or irritable. And then I get up and walk around and take some deep breaths. I have noticed that when I do this consistently, my interactions are far more effective and far more kind.

So, there you have it—a frame, challenge, and two ideas. I am looking forward to seeing what other ideas are out there!

Best of luck,
Emily

Win a signed copy of Albert Bandura’s book. Share your idea in the comments below and then also email us your answer at editor@vitalsmarts.com under the subject line: “I’d like a signed copy.” We will award books to those with the four best answers.