Kerrying On

Space: The Final Frontier

Now that I’m retired and have time on my hands, I’ve decided to work on something I’ve been avoiding for years—old photos. I’m going to sift through dozens of shoe boxes, envelopes, and albums, and not only organize the photos contained therein, but also scan the pictures as a means of transforming them into digital files.

Here’s why. Once you scan photos, you can send their electronic essence (along with the digital photos you’ve taken since around 2002) to the cloud. Then your kids and grandkids can look at everything from your great grandfather’s baby picture taken in 1880, to something you shot on your smart phone yesterday. Plus, you can crop, clean, lighten, darken, and otherwise edit photos once you’ve reduced them to digital records.

I figure that the long and tedious job of digitizing photos falls on me because the world upgraded to digital platforms fifteen years ago and most people (including my kids and grandkids) won’t give a second’s thought to the once-cherished family snapshots that are currently stuffed away in corners, boxes, and drawers. Worse still, younger folks aren’t exactly losing sleep over what’s going to happen to vintage family photos as they age out of memory and fade out of sight. Plus, old fogies such as myself may be the last people around who know anything about the stories behind each photo—which is what makes them so interesting in the first place.

For instance, I was poring through a box of black-and-white pictures my great-grandparents passed along and, to my surprise, written on the back of one of them was the following note: “This little darling is your cousin Elizabeth. The vase on the table next to her is Tiffany (New York). I’m surprised that Elizabeth’s mother Mary hasn’t broken it yet. She breaks more dishes than a green maid.”

I stumbled on this treasure when my mother was still alive and she could tell me about the photo and the story behind it. The person who wrote the note was my great-grandmother Lilly Davis. She was raised in a wealthy home where she had been trained in everything from oil painting to opera. In fact, her voice was so beautiful, she auditioned for the New York Opera in the late 1890s and was scheduled to start performing in the fall. That is, until she bumped into a young man (in her front yard no less) who instantly captured her heart. “It was love at first sight,” my mother explained. “They knew they had found their life companion the moment they locked eyes.”

Their sudden love also initiated a disaster. Lilly wouldn’t be preparing for the opera that summer—not with her parent’s support, at least—because Lilly had fallen in love with the gardener. The poor fellow knew nothing of Tiffany vases, green maids, and opera. And then Lilly’s mother did exactly what you’d expect from a person raised on old money, she forbade her daughter from seeing the common laborer. When the young couple disobeyed her, she banished the two from the family.

In response, the two snuck away, were married by the justice of the peace, and headed west for a better life. Wagons, surreys, shoe leather, and trains (no cars or highways back then), took the newlyweds to coastal Oregon where they settled down and raised four boys and four girls—including my grandmother Priscilla.

As the Booths were raising their family in Oregon, half way across the country in Dyersville, Iowa, Billy Noonan, the curious son of Irish immigrants, was being raised by his fraternal aunt and uncle (his parents had passed). The two unlikely parents possessed such harsh temperaments that they routinely beat Billy for the smallest of infractions. At age 12, tiring of the sting of the whip, Billy packed a bag and walked across the entire state of Iowa to find his late mother’s sister and family. Billy found love and support in western Iowa and remained dear friends with his cousin Mae for the next 80 years—all of which was captured in notes written on the back of old photos.

After graduating from high school, traveling the country, and working in everything from trapping to riverboat gambling, Billy (now Bill) landed in a coastal Oregon town where he found work as a lumber inspector. On the first evening, Bill sat down for a meal at his new boarding house, Priscilla, the attractive young woman serving the food, stole his heart. A man who had once hiked, hitched, and huffed his way across the country, and a woman whose parents had made a similarly arduous journey, met over a bowl of beef stew in a tiny berg located miles from everywhere. The pair fell in love, married, and eventually had a baby girl they named Melba—my mother.

As you might imagine, I would love for my offspring to pore over our old family photos and the digital records I’m now creating, and learn about the people who supplied their DNA. But who’s going to scrounge through boxes and envelopes, or search through computer files, and discuss the people and events found in the images? You can’t lecture, guilt, or otherwise inspire your kids into doing such a thing—not with live friends vying for their attention on their smart phones.

Fortunately, where wielding guilt may come up short, there is one source of influence that just might plunge young people into their fascinating histories: space. Use it correctly and Billy, Priscilla, and their folks won’t be forgotten. There’s an entire literature devoted to using space to one’s advantage. Propinquity Theory, as the field is known, offers up such tidbits as: if you want to avoid eating candy, move the bowl farther away; or, if you want to marry a science major, eat lunch in the engineering building. You get the idea. It’s the science of bump-into.

So, here’s how I plan to use propinquity to my advantage. I’m creating a special space—a legacy corner near our piano made up of a dozen framed heritage photos that I’ll rotate every few months. When the grandkids come to visit, we’ll gather around the newly rotated photos and discuss the people and their stories. Here’s what the conversation might sound like: “Do you see the fellow in the dark suit? He’s the gardener who married Priscilla. His name was Frank Lincoln Booth. Does that name raise any questions in your mind?” (It turns out that Frank, the lovesick gardener, was born three months after John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln. Frank was given the middle name Lincoln, to clarify his allegiances. Fascinating, right?)

So, for the next few weeks, I’ll continue to scan our family photos—taking care to capture the stories behind each (you can record the stories in the “comments” section of the JPEG file—keeping photo and story forever linked). If I manage my space wisely, by bringing photo histories into the center of our living quarters where my children and their children will constantly bump into them, my offspring will be blessed with a host of fascinating stories about the people who made their lives possible.

Oh, yes, and should you drop by my home one day and spot a photo of a fourteen-year-old boy standing in the middle of a scorched bedroom, holding on to a spent container of rocket fuel looking guilty, that would be a snapshot of me.

But that’s another story for another day.

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Conversations in a Crowd and Other Less Than Ideal Circumstances

Dear Emily,

I have enjoyed reading your guidance. Your advice and books tend to assume an ideal environment for communication: face-to-face, alone, and with no distractions. Those conditions are ideal, but rare. Most interactions are constrained: in an open-plan office, with family members, on a car or train, with background noise, or amidst distractions, lack of sleep, and preexisting stress. The communication channel may limit tone of voice and facial expression: email / text / IM / phone / handheld radio / voice mail / Slack / Skype. Often, the presence of others may change the way people act.

In these conditions, a conversation is more likely to turn crucial. That has happened to me recently. It may be hard to even schedule a crucial conversation. Please describe how to plan, arrange, and conduct a constrained crucial conversation.

Best,
Living in the Real World

Dear Real World,

What a great way to describe this—a constrained crucial conversation! Constrained by all the realities of life. Here is what I love about your question: you are putting the power of Crucial Conversations to the test. If crucial conversations skills only work under ideal circumstances, they aren’t really all that valuable. If, on the other hand, crucial conversations skills can stand up to the test of real life, then they are of immense value.

Consider a spectrum of conditions in which you face a crucial conversation. On one end of the spectrum, you have the ideal conditions; on the other, you have the suboptimal conditions you describe above. When faced with those suboptimal conditions, it can be easy to use the situation as a rationalization for our silence: “I can’t have a crucial conversation with this person because it won’t be private, quiet, in-person,” . . . fill in the blank. Or, we attempt the conversation, it doesn’t go well, and then we use those suboptimal conditions to justify our poor results: “Of course it didn’t go well! It was so noisy, distracting, stressful,” etc. Rather than waiting for the ideal conditions to appear or using less than ideal conditions as an excuse, I would suggest you ask yourself, “How can I move along the spectrum, even a step or two, toward improved conditions?”

Ideal conditions are those that make it easier to engage in the core principles of crucial conversations: creating safety, mastering our stories, and encouraging others to share their meaning. They allow us to be present and focused, attuned to the responses of ourselves and others in the conversation. Certainly, those things are easier to do under some conditions than others, but if you focus on the goal of creating safety and being present, you can creatively solve most conditional challenges.

Here are four quick tips you can consider for some common challenging conditions:

1. Capitalize on the privacy of crowds. We often assume you need to be in a private place in order to successfully hold a crucial conversation. Privacy certainly helps, but why? Because it helps the other person feel safe. Choosing a private place demonstrates to the other person your good intent and to allow them to express themselves without fear of judgment. That being said, I am often amazed at the intimacy, intensity, and candor of the conversations that are held in a training room. When I ask training participants to turn to a partner and share a difficult message, it can get very real. But because everyone is doing it at once, we are all paying attention to the conversations we are having, not the conversations we are overhearing. Likewise, a crowded coffee shop can be a great place to hold a crucial conversation; we are safe amidst people who are more interested in their own conversations than in yours.

2. Walk and talk. One of the best ways to hold a crucial conversation when in an open office environment is to take a walk. I love the walking crucial conversation for several reasons. Walking side-by-side takes some pressure off the other person from having to make eye contact in what might be an uncomfortable situation. Walking also introduces natural pauses in the conversation. For example: passing through doors, moving to the side to allow someone else to pass, taking a moment to decide which way to turn next, etc. Those pauses allow both you and the other person to gather your thoughts and refocus on your intent. Walking, even in a crowded area, also ensures that no single person will overhear your entire conversation, though someone may catch a word or two.

3. Call out the less than ideal conditions and why they matter. Simply acknowledging the less than ideal conditions can help to neutralize them. For example, you might begin a conversation like this:

“I would like to talk about something important. I know there are a lot of distractions right now and that is really less than ideal. Additionally, we only have about fifteen minutes and that will put time pressure on this conversation. At the same time, it doesn’t seem fair to wait because I fear we won’t ever have the perfect time and place for this conversation. Please know I will do everything I can to focus on this conversation because I believe that it, and you, are important. Hopefully, we can each give each other the benefit of the doubt if we get distracted or this doesn’t go perfectly.”

Making the conditions visible, acknowledging why they matter, and committing to the core crucial conversations principle of good intent can provide a buffer to poor conditions.

4. Use more and fewer words when you don’t have visuals. We all know how challenging it can be to have a crucial conversation over the phone or email. The reason? We are blind to all of the visual cues of how someone else is reacting to our message. We can’t see if the other person is upset, defensive, hurt, anxious, or engaged. Without that visual feedback, we often stumble blindly on and can get caught off-guard when a conversation blows up or shuts down. When deprived of visual cues, compensate with words and silence to frequently check to see how they are receiving your message. For example: “I wish we were face-to-face so I could see how this message is impacting you. Since we aren’t, can you share with me how you are feeling about what I have said?” A statement like this is the “more” words part. Pair these statements with “fewer” words i.e., silence. Learn to be okay with the pause that allows someone to consider and respond.

These are just a few ideas for the myriad situations in which we find ourselves communicating with others. What other tips have you found for holding constrained crucial conversations in your life? There are more than 350,000 very wise readers of this newsletter. I invite you to share your experiences and tips with us by adding a comment below.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Emily

One note: Some crucial conversations demand complete privacy. For example, a conversation in a hospital about a patient should not be held in a place where someone else might overhear confidential and legally protected information. In cases like these, you must delay the conversation until an appropriate location can be secured.

Change Anything QA

Helping an Unmotivated Teenager

Dear Steve,

I have a thirteen-year-old son who thinks everything in life sucks. He tends to think everything will be better somewhere else. He asks for things and when we get them for him, he decides he doesn’t want it anymore and wants something else. For example, we bought him a guitar so he could learn how to play. He gave up saying, “It’s too hard, I suck at it.” If he can’t do it naturally the first time, he gives up. I’m not sure where he gets that mentality from; he’s seen many people in our family struggle at things, keep going, and finally succeed. Any insight on how to help him?

Signed,
Frustrated Father

Dear Frustrated,

I, too, have a thirteen-year-old and he also finds “suckiness” in an increasing number of things. I suspect it has something to do with junior high and the general feeling of awkwardness that young people experience during that period of their life. And while it would be really convenient to attribute this attitude to his age, I don’t think that is entirely accurate.

My thirteen-year-old is also my third thirteen-year-old and so my experience tells me that you can’t take the “life sucks” attitude out of the boy or girl completely. However, there are some things you can do as a parent. Let me offer three ideas to help you avoid pulling out your hair as you think about and approach your son.

Unfix the fixed mind set. Find a copy of Mindset by Carol Dweck and study it. She’s a professor at Standford University who has studied the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. In essence, a fixed mindset is one that believes that people (themselves in particular) are either naturally good or bad at an activity. For example, one of my colleagues is the son of two math professors. So naturally everyone, including him, thought he’d be good at math. He succeeded early in his school career and both parents are involved in the field. His mindset became fixed in the belief that he no longer needed to put in time and effort to practice or do homework because he was inherently gifted in math. That is exactly the point where his grades began to slip. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one that assumes that if you take the time to practice, study, or otherwise apply yourself, you can learn to become better. He stopped putting in the effort to learn because he assumed it would come naturally.

Along with the many wonderful ideas you’ll get directly from Dweck, you might want to sprinkle in some vicarious experiences. It may be useful to expose your child to the background stories of those who’ve succeeded in their areas of potential interest so they can get a better sense of the amount of effort required to achieve different levels of competence.

When I was a boy, I loved Tony Hawk. He rolled his way into my life when I was about fourteen. As a skater, I thought it was awesome that he turned pro two years earlier (he is two years older than I am). I was even more impressed when I learned how much time he spent on his board to become that good. I had assumed he was just naturally gifted. When I learned how hard he had worked at skating, it changed my perspective on my drive and determination.

See if you can find short articles or YouTube videos that feature successful people in whom your child might be interested. Share them with him and ask questions like, “How good is he/she?” and more importantly, “How long did it take him/her to get that good?” and, “What’s their daily routine?” Get your child to experience the process required to succeed.

Change the frame. This second idea is related to the first. Sounds like your son views many of his efforts that fall short of complete competence as failure: “I suck at guitar! I wasn’t able play this song, so I’m no good!” In addition to being untrue, this attitude also feeds into the fixed mindset described in the first idea.

We’ve found it useful to start framing their beginning experiences in this way: turn bad days, jam sessions, performances, etc. into good data. People often give up because they take a setback of any kind to mean they are no good. Instead, we encourage people to examine the setback for information they can use to improve. And let me be clear, this is not about discounting frustrations. It’s okay to acknowledge these as legitimate feelings. Just make sure you help your child see how the root of these emotions are based in their experience—which can be changed and improved.

It can also be useful to help your child reframe challenges as opportunities. For example, when you notice he is struggling with learning a song on the guitar, try something like, “How many stanzas do you think you could learn in twenty minutes?” When it comes time to hear the progress, praise the work and effort, and ask him about what helped and/or hindered (back to the idea of turning bad days into good data).

Try it out. Now for all this to work, you ought to find ways for your child to “try it out” before having to fully commit to something of interest. And, it’s got to be something in which your child shows interest. Once it seems that you found a good fit, it will be useful for you to help him identify some quick wins that will keep this interest and allow you to practice some of the ideas above.

Hope this helps you steer clear of the “suck,” or at least helps to reduce the amount of “suck-i-tude” you have to endure.

P.S. Don’t say suck.

Best of Luck,
Steve

Crucial Conversations QA

Help! I’m Stuck on an Airplane and Need Some Skills

Dear Joseph,

Recently, I was on an overnight flight, trying to sleep. The person in the next seat was using headphones and laughing loudly every two minutes or so. I told her, politely: “Excuse me, you probably do not realize it, but you are laughing quite loudly, and it is preventing me from going to sleep.” In response, she muttered an offensive epithet and turned away from me. I decided not to engage further and closed my eyes. I didn’t get any sleep as she continued to make noise. Once the lights were back on and we started having breakfast, she started talking to me angrily saying that I should find a different seat or use earplugs if I am disturbed by noise. I had no desire to be engaged in an argument but did not know how to respond to get her to stop. What could I have done differently?

Signed,
Anger Management

Dear Anger Management,

A sign of your emotional maturity is your capacity to sit with others’ drama without absorbing it.

Your experience bears a striking resemblance to one I had three months ago. A perky woman next to me began peppering me with questions the instant she sat down. “What’s your name? What do you do? Why are you going to LA?” and on, and on. I introduced myself, answered a couple of perfunctory questions, then said, “I’ve got some work I want to get done. May I talk with you more when I finish in a couple of hours?” She huffed and turned away.

That was a crucial moment. In moments like that, I have three emotional choices: ignore, absorb, or acknowledge.

Ignore. I can reject the clear evidence of the other person’s upset—often in a defensive way. I can actively neglect him or her in an attempt to punish. Or, I can do so to ensure my own safety. In either case, this willful ignorance is false. I actively resist the other person’s emotions while pretending I am not.

Absorb. I can take responsibility for how the other person is feeling by apologizing, or rescuing him or her. I could turn to this lady next to me and say, “I am sorry, what’s on your mind?” or, “Please don’t be mad, I’m just very busy—I have to get these things done or I’ll be in big trouble.”

Acknowledge. Acknowledgement means I care that she is upset but also recognize that it is her choice to be upset. After acknowledging that she is angry, I first examine my own role to discern whether I have fallen short of my own moral duty. If I have, I own it. I don’t own her emotions, but I own the actions that invited her to feel that way. For example, if I had been curt with her I might say, “I don’t think I said that in a very respectful way. I am sorry. I would enjoy talking with you once I have handled some things on my mind. I hope you understand.” Next, I acknowledge that she is feeling that way by validating her. “It appears you’re upset that I won’t talk with you now. I’m sorry you feel that way.” Do NOT apologize for your choice, simply express your empathy with her upset.

In my own case, the woman began to order drink after drink. The more she took in, the angrier she became. Every few minutes, she would turn to me and say, “Are you ready to talk now, Mr. Big Shot?” With a couple of more drinks in her she began to swear at me and call me names.

It is hard to stay in acknowledge rather than absorb when a relentless string of profanities is coming at you. But it is possible. You slip from one to the other when you begin to feel either that: a) the other person’s behavior means something about you—i.e. when people are unhappy with you or don’t like you that your own worth is threatened; or b) you are responsible for the other person’s feelings—i.e. your safety or worth require you to keep others happy.

Moments like the one you had on the plane—disruptive though they may be—are a great chance to develop the internal muscle to stay in acknowledge and avoid slipping into absorb. When you are able to sleep in spite of someone else’s drama, you’ll know you’ve reached momentary competence. My ability to sleep is usually affected more by the emotional noise inside me than the physical noise outside me. If I can quiet the first, I have at least a hope of rest. Continued practice can propel you to sustained competence. Truthfully, I’m working hard to get there myself.

Once I finished my work, I turned to the woman next to me and said, “I would like to talk now if you are still interested.” It turned out, she was on her way to the Betty Ford Clinic for her alcoholism. I doubt my conversation with her changed her trajectory much, but I was happy that I was able to connect with her for a few minutes.

Next time you’ve got a party going on in the next seat, take advantage of the opportunity to do some emotional calisthenics.

Warmly,
Joseph

Kerrying On

You’re Gonna Be Popular

After a fifty-year absence in my life, a word that once filled me with fear and loathing found its way back into my world. It arrived one day, quite by accident, when my granddaughter Kylee was talking to her sister Kelsee about a classmate. I overheard her say that a certain teenager was really “popular.” Ugh. How I hated the whole idea of being popular, or worse still, trying to be popular. I never actually made the cut despite the fact I did my best to adhere to a set of unwritten rules that governed everything from clothing, to food, to the spoken word—especially the spoken word.

For instance, in 1958 (in my neighborhood, at least), if you were hip—(and by natural extension, popular) everything was “rare.” My school annual is full of notes attesting to everyone’s rareness. “To a rare guy, from an even rarer one,” can be found on nearly every page. And then one day, for reasons I still don’t understand, the word “rare” was rendered uncool because, well, “cool” was the new rare. Being cool became the goal of every person wielding a tube of Clearasil. It was all very confusing.

Being “cool” also demanded a great deal from your wardrobe. If you wanted to look hip, you bought standard pants and then took them straight to the tailor to have them narrowed at the ankles. Then, of course, you chose your cuffs. Amongst the popular crowd, a half-inch cuff was too small and a one-inch cuff too large. Your cuffs simply had to be three quarters of an inch. Wear that length of cuff and you would be on the road to cool—which eventually flowed into the narrow path of popularity, that sat a half-block to the left of nirvana, and two doors down from Valhalla.

Sadly, nothing about attaining popularity was, nor will it ever be, the least bit convenient. Popular kids routinely jumped through hoops to hold their station. Consider the humble tennis shoe. One day, the in-crowd decided that you had to wear Converse All-Stars or you’d be permanently assigned to geekdom, which is to say, to be forced to hang out with the nerds who ran the school’s movie projectors. Naturally, (and here’s where the guidelines to popularity make life difficult), your brand-new sneakers weren’t supposed to look new. New sneakers revealed that you were a latecomer to the fashion race and that was never good. So, I rubbed my fresh-out-of-the-box All-Stars with mud and grime–and then threw them in the washing machine (three times) until they came out clean, but older looking. The effect was perfect. My shoes looked as if they had never been new, but had magically appeared one day at the end of my legs—just below my three-quarter inch cuffs.

Given the effort required to be part of the “in” group, it’s little wonder that I shuddered when I heard my granddaughter mention the word popular. But the good news is, the need to be popular didn’t last. One day, after clinging to the norms that govern popularity as if they were sacred script, the very notion of being popular vanished. It happened the day I stepped onto a college campus. Matriculating students came from all around the region and there was no way to determine who had once been popular and who hadn’t. In fact, wearing a high school letter sweater was frowned upon, and mentioning your time as a cheerleader (the gold-standard of popularity) met with sneers. Suddenly, the norms governing cool were out the window, or at least very different. Kids you knew in high school, who wouldn’t have stooped to talk to you three days earlier, now chummed up to you like a life-long friend—all wearing cuffs and shoes of varying sizes, looks, and colors. It was both refreshing and unnerving.

Social scientists love to study such crowd behaviors. The power of social pressure can be both fascinating and unbelievable. For instance, as revered scholar Stanly Milgram learned decades ago, if an authority figure encourages one human to harm (even kill) another human, the researcher can get nearly three-fourths of everyday subjects to shock others to death (or at least think they did) by simply exerting a dose of authority. In the junior version of the game, you can have research confederates give blatantly wrong answers to simple questions and then watch subjects chime in with the same clearly wrong response—just to fit in. Solomon Asch made a living demonstrating this.

The idea of caving into social pressure isn’t merely curious; it also has never been very popular. As you read scientific journals (and don’t we all?), it’s hard to miss the tone taken by researchers who not only report the phenomenon, but also suggest that, at their core, humans are far too concerned about what others think of them. In fact, when the venerable Dr. Asch came out of retirement to make an appearance on the campus where I was attending school in the late 70s, I quickly made my way to his lecture. What did he have in mind? Asch, it turns out, had returned to the academy to set the record straight. He explained that he hadn’t been interested in conformity, as the topic of his research had become to be known. He had been interested in the one-fourth of all research subjects who demonstrated their courage and strength of character by standing up to the wrong opinions of others. In short, he was interested in independence.

To this day, if you ask your average adult if he or she would have been one of the compliant sixty-seven percent who Dr. Milgram manipulated into shocking others into silence, or one of the research dupes who Dr. Asch manipulated into telling a barefaced lie, almost all say, “not me.” Nobody wants to believe that they can be conned into taking questionable actions through the mere force of social pressure. Although many “not me” people probably spent most of their teenage years following trends, they now claim to desire no such thing. “Heck!” they exclaim. “Who cares what others care about? Who cares about being popular?”

The problem here is one of oversimplification. Wanting to be accepted shouldn’t be characterized solely as abandoning one’s opinion merely because one doesn’t have the courage to disagree with others. There’s a lot more going on than that. For example, wanting to get along with and be accepted by others makes up the glue that holds groups together. Helpful behaviors such as finding common ground, looking for a “third way,” carefully listening to (and truly hearing) others—are all rooted in the soil of wanting to be accepted and respected.

This means that the longing to be accepted often supplements a person’s urge to speak openly with the desire to do so respectfully. So, the next time your granddaughter mentions the word “popular,” don’t retch at the thought of following the crowd down who knows what silly path. We already did our stint in teenage hell, no need for more practice. Instead, make Dr. Asch happy by acting independently and by honestly sharing your view—even if it runs counter to the popular opinion. And then act collaboratively by tactfully sharing your views and carefully listening to others. Take pleasure in knowing that belonging to groups provides a sense of comfort and safety while personal expertise (freely spoken) coupled with the wisdom of crowds keeps the whole thing from collapsing. Oh, yes. Don’t forget to wear three-fourths inch cuffs while doing so. No use going crazy.

Influencer QA

Working with a Know-it-All

Dear Steve,

As a nurse, I am responsible for precepting our new hires. In most cases, experienced nurses come to my unit and my job is to help them learn the policies and procedures unique to our unit and the hospital. The most difficult challenge is the “know-it-all” who is impossible to teach. We avoid these people in our personal life and regard them as arrogant, but how do I deal with someone with an unteachable attitude at work?

Signed,
Preceptor
Dear Preceptor,

Braggart, smarty pants, windbag, egoist—however you refer to this category of people, it still doesn’t change the fact that “No ones likes a know-it-all!” (one of my mom’s favorite sayings—just second to the all-time favorite, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!”).

Most people figure they’ll just have to grin and bear the time they’re required to spend working with a know-it all. Or, when patience finally wears thin, they try to “help” the person see the impacts of their know-it-all ways. And while either the “grin and bear it” or “put them in their place” approaches might work in a social setting, at work, you can’t simply choose to avoid these folks. It’s your job to work with them—especially in your case.

My best advice to you is to change the way you go about trying to change these new nurse’s minds.

Typically, when we have information we want to impart, our preferred method is tell, followed by tell, and then we end up with, well . . . more telling. You get the point. Instead of starting and ending with tell, try to create an experience that will help them change their own minds. Here’s what I mean.

I asked my good friend, Jamie, who’s responsible for precepting new hires at Med/Surg Psych Forensics Unit if he’d ever been assigned to train a know-it-all, and if so, what he did. “Of course,” he responded, “I had one a little while ago. She was the toughest I’ve dealt with yet.”

She came to her new unit pre-stocked with all the knowledge, expertise, and information she needed for this new unit—at least that’s what she believed. He explained she had ten years of experience as a NICU nurse and was about fifteen years older than him. She spent a significant amount of time making sure he knew she was at least twenty years beyond him in practical experience, common sense, and all around skill.

Two very long days into a two-week precepting process and she was already discounting and ignoring almost everything Jamie had to offer. And that’s when he got smart. Instead of trying to verbally convince her he had something of value to offer, he decided to let her “solo” on a tricky, but non-life-threatening task.

She floundered. He made some suggestions and, finally, she listened. This direct experience was the catalyst to her asking questions and paying more attention rather than trying to prove she already knew it all. Jamie had no more need to convince or compel. His trainee understood there were things she’d need to know and learn to do well in her new position. In a very short period of time, she ended up changing her own mind.

Now, what made this work? When Jamie switched from telling to getting this new nurse to participate in a task that required knowledge she didn’t currently have, he created a direct experience for the new hire. People usually dismiss attempts at verbal persuasion but can’t so readily dismiss things they’ve experienced firsthand. These direct experiences are both more memorable and more meaningful.

So, what does this mean for you? Try precepting up front. Shift from a theoretical description of their role to a practical one. Instead of waiting for some type of direct experience to present itself, design a process so that one of the very first, if not the first, activities you engage in are direct experiences. I’m talking about simulations or actual tasks that represent the typical types of situations a nurse will encounter in your unit. It will allow you to see what skills they are bringing to your area so you will have a better sense of how to customize their overall precepting experience. It will also provide a great direct experience for the new hire to get a sense of how different your area is and where they’ll need to focus.

I think you’ll find that as you try to incorporate this idea, you’ll come to appreciate the Chinese Proverb which counsels: Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.

Best of Luck,
Steve

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Discrimination at Work

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