Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Taking Control of Our Stories

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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One night somewhere in deepest rural America, a fellow driving along a lonely stretch of country road blew his right front tire. After pulling over and scrambling out of his BMW, he walked to the trunk, opened it, and noted with disgust that his jack was missing.

After ten minutes of nothing but frog and cricket noises, our traveler concluded that he was on his own. It was then that he noticed that off to the west, across a long stretch of open ground, was a lone farmhouse. It was late, but there was a light on in the front window and surely the farmer had a jack.

After squeezing through a break in a barbed-wire fence and nearly tearing his silk suit coat, the fellow started his trek across the field. “People in this part of the country need to pull together just to survive the elements,” he imagined. “The farmer will be glad to lend me a hand.”

Five minutes of tripping, trudging, and twitching later, our stranded driver caught a moonlit reflection of himself in a muddy puddle. “Dang, I look like a city slicker. That’s not good. Farmers don’t take much of a shine to ‘city folk.’”

As our traveler continued his quest for a jack he thought to himself, “There’s a chance the farmer won’t even answer the door. With all the murders they show on TV nowadays, who could blame him? Besides, in every slasher movie it’s always guys like me in fancy cars and expensive suits who the audience is made to hate.”

As the traveler drew closer to the farmer’s door his concerns escalated. “I’ve walked all the way across this huge field and the farmer will probably open up the door a few inches, listen to my request, and then tell me that he ain’t got no stinkin’ jack. And then he’ll slam the door in my face! What’s wrong with these people anyway?”

At last our desperate traveler stood at door. He figured that he might as well knock since he’d come all that way—so he did. The door open and the farmer asked:

“May I help you?”

“You can keep your stupid jack!” the traveler shouted, and then spun on his heel and trudged back to his car.

I tell this anecdote because it demonstrates the problem we often create when we invent stories to help us first understand and then prepare for the world. Sometimes the stories we tell are accurate and sometimes they aren’t. The problem, unfortunately, doesn’t lie completely in the accuracy of the story; it often lies in the act of storytelling itself. As handy a tool as story telling is for making sense of the world, conjuring up tales can cause a great deal of harm. Story telling often keeps us from seeking the truth. It can damage relationships. And if done with enough frequency and bile, it can kill us.

In case you think I’m overreacting to the possible dangers of storytelling, allow me to point out that the phenomenon that has recently taken center stage of the law and drug enforcement arenas. We learned this in a recent interview with the head of a very successful rehab program in San Francisco. She told us the following.

When candidates are screened to see if they’ll be admitted to the program, she asks them to share how they got to where they are. If a fellow explains that his mother was a crack addict, she remarks that perhaps his mother should be entering the program. If the candidate counters with the fact that his dad beat him almost daily, she explains that surely his dad should be the one being interviewed.

The leader of this successful program isn’t trying to be glib or clever as she continues to nudge the candidate every time he blames someone else for his horrible life. She’s merely trying to learn how willingly the person will tell a new story—one where the person takes most of the responsibility.

“As long as people going through rehab are able to blame others for their problems,” she explains, “they have no need to change. Their stories keep them trapped in the current circumstances. You can’t change people until they change their story.”

Given the power that stories have over our lives, it can be helpful to know how we create them. Our friend in search of a jack serves as a perfect example. As he prepared for an encounter with a stranger, he steeled himself against the worst possible case. You can take the edge off disappointment if you anticipate it.

I learned this lesson at a young age. My brother would tell me that we would be going to the drive-in movie that evening and I’d go crazy with excitement. When I brought it up with my mom later, she would tell me that we weren’t going to the movie—and where did I come up with such a crazy notion anyway? Disappointment would penetrate my entire being. My brother, on the other hand, would laugh and laugh. He pulled this trick about a dozen times until I learned: Don’t accept good news on its face. Be skeptical. Anticipate bad news. When I went to work I learned the corporate parallel. When others do something ambiguous, suspect the worst motive. And later when it came to relationships, I learned: Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve.

To avoid damage to our psyches we become good at telling a whole host of stories. Some are aimed at preventing disappointment while others are aimed at keeping our image intact. For example, if we get into a heated argument and spin out of control, we let ourselves off the hook by explaining that we were innocent victims. We didn’t do anything wrong—oh no, we were on our best behavior when the other person lashed out at us.

When we are caught behaving in rude, insulting, ways we tell a different story. We take the heat off ourselves by vilifying others. Consider the limit case. Career criminals often justify their actions by suggesting that the people they steal from don’t deserve the money. They’re selfish tax-evaders who probably stole the money in the first place. We create villainous stories so we can treat others poorly without feeling guilty about our own actions. To quote a supervisor I once interviewed, “Of course I shout threats at my employees. They’re animals. They only listen to threats.”

Finally, when we’ve stood by and done nothing to rectify a wrong, when our inaction puts our integrity into question, we tell helpless stories. “What? You want me to disagree with the boss in the meeting—and get fired? Not me. Nobody can disagree and live to tell about it.” Stories that suggest that no effort will be enough help us transform gutless inaction into political savvy. We tell ourselves, “I wasn’t afraid, I just wasn’t naïve.”

And now for an interesting twist. If we tell the stories with enough creativity and conviction, the part of our brain that prepares for blunt trauma actually believes our story. Even though we’ve only imagined that something bad is about to happen, or that the other person is a villain and deserves whatever we give them, we actually pump adrenaline into our blood stream and prepare for the threat as if it were real.

Under the influence of adrenaline, good things happen if we run into, say, a saber tooth tiger. Blood is diverted from our less-important organs such as the brain to the muscles that will help us run and jump and hit and otherwise engage in fight or flight activities—against the tiger. Bad things happen to us if we run into, say, our spouse or coworker where neither fight nor flight is required. Our brain, running low on fuel, goes into backup mode and mostly shuts down the cerebral cortex—or the part we use for higher-level thinking. Now our brain draws more heavily from the lower half—also known as the “reptilian brain.” So when it matters the most, we come up with stupid ideas. “He’s resisting my recommendation. Maybe if I raise my voice, become belligerent, and overstate my point he’ll come around to my way of thinking.”

It gets worse. Other bad things happen to us when we tell stories, believe them, and then prepare for blunt trauma. Not only do we say stupid things, but our body also produces cholesterol to thicken our blood in case we start to bleed. I learned this while listening to a medical radio show, driving to work, and drinking—and I’m not making this up—I was actually consuming a disgusting tofu-based breakfast beverage in an effort to lower my cholesterol. The very news that my body can produce its own cholesterol—despite the fact that I was eating tofu and soy supplements—ticked me off, started my adrenaline flowing and, I’m pretty sure, kick-started my own cholesterol production on the spot.

So what’s a person to do? Rather than always preparing for the worst or imagining the worst of others—maybe we should keep an open mind. Instead of vilifying others, we simply wonder what’s going on. We’re not sure what’s going to happen, so let’s find out. This does two things: It propels us to discover the truth, and it keeps us from angrily charging in with an accusation.

So, replace your ability to conjure up stories with a genuine desire to learn the truth. If you do so, you’ll take charge of your emotions, improve your health, and bolster your relationships. It may not be as fun as thinking horrible thoughts, but it’s a lot more effective. And who knows—as you open yourself up to the truth, you might just be able to find a jack, change your tire, and get back on the road.

Crucial Conversations QA

Mixing Family and Business

Dear Crucial Skills,

Before partnering with my brother in a small business, I knew that it would be difficult to get along. I insisted on defining responsibilities, and tried at the beginning to manage huge differences. We ended up disagreeing and clashing; the business went down, we lost our savings, and I decided not to talk about our differences anymore. Now I just do what needs to be done and let the chips fall where they may.

I am convinced that certain situations cannot be resolved within a given time frame, and a decision needs to be made about what is more important—our working relationship or business success—in order not to lose both. Is it a far fetched justification to our situation?


Family Feud

Dear Feud,

You’re correct about the fact that it can take time to solve some problems and that certain business choices may not fit neatly in the required timeframe. I’m reminded of a couple of occasions in my own experience where a person who worked for me and I were still talking about a certain decision, hadn’t resolved it to both our satisfaction, and the clock then decided for us. That is, it became too late to execute one of the choices so the choice was made for us. From this experience I learned that on particularly tough decisions I should set a time for the decision (before the drop-dead date) and then suggest that if we hadn’t come to an agreement by that time, I’d make the decision.

These are the circumstances under which you step away from dialogue and act because of time demands. You let people know what you’re doing up front, do your best to come to a shared resolution, and if necessary, make the choice on your own (or turn it over to a higher power)—rather than let the clock decide for you.

On the other hand, deciding to systematically cut off your business partner because you don’t have time to work through the issues may be too extreme. Not everything is so time sensitive that you can’t involve others in some way—including getting their best ideas. When you choose to implement a unilateral leadership style in the name of time constraints, you not only harm the relationship, you also harm the business. Surely every idea your brother has can’t be wrong. Involving him provides his perspective and expertise, and as a general rule your decisions will benefit. But then again, you argue so much, you probably won’t ever come to a shared decision anyway—right?

Talk with your brother about how you make choices and the methods you’d like to follow in the future. Point out that you’ve often argued about key issues, putting you in the tough position of having to make a decision at the last minute rather than let the opportunity pass. This has led to you adopting a rather one-sided style—which isn’t working for you.

Explain that you’d like more of his involvement, but in order for that to happen you’ll need to move away from debating and more toward dialogue. That means that both of you will need to break away from your habit of trying to convince each other, and become better at sharing your ideas in a way that doesn’t lead to defensiveness or an unhealthy battle. Both of you will have to become better at listening, doing your best to understand one another rather than attacking each other’s views on the spot. Try discussing relevant skills from Crucial Conversations and ways in which you can help each other implement them in your interactions.

In summary, start by suggesting that you want to improve both your relationship and your business outcomes. Let your brother know that you want to work with him in a collaborative fashion, that you haven’t always been able to do so, and that you’re interested in improving both the quality of your decisions and the quality of your work life. Acknowledge that all hasn’t gone well to this point, that over the long haul your relationship is far more important than any specific business issue, and that your goal is to turn your little enterprise into a company that is not only well run, but also a place you’re both proud to work.

Best wishes,