Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four bestselling books, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
This article was first published on November 16, 2005.
I once held a party at my house where one of the guests was a social anthropologist. I fussed the whole evening—wondering if he was examining our home and drawing unflattering conclusions about our values based on the visible artifacts.
“Hmm . . . look at the size of that refrigerator. Hmm . . . more CDs than books.”
I bet there are a couple of things about my home that he’d have a hard time understanding. For example, the potted plants leading up to our front door are shabby, disheveled, and imbalanced, whereas the carpets inside are so clean you could perform surgery on them. Why is that?
How my plants got so raggedy and my carpets so clean is the subject of today’s Kerrying On. It all started some twenty years ago while I was observing an executive give a speech. It was a tough time in the company and she was explaining in an all-hands meeting why they were cutting back on the budget. She argued that everyone was going to have to sacrifice. Everyone was going to have to tighten their belts. You know the drill.
When the executive eventually called for questions, there was a long pause. Finally, a fellow standing in the back raised his hand. His comments shook the room. “If money is so tight,” the fellow remarked, “then why are you building a second office across town for yourself? And I hear that it’s costing tens of thousands of dollars. How can you justify that?”
This was one of those fearful and awkward moments we’ve all experienced. Everyone quickly sucked in their breath as they waited for the executive to blow a gasket and then humiliate the person who asked the question. After all, the guy had just called the big boss a hypocrite in front of the whole company. Surely he would now pay. And sure enough, the boss did turn a shade of dark red while the muscles in her face tightened.
But then the executive seemed to catch herself. She took a deep breath, relaxed, smiled and thanked the person for the question. She explained what was going on and why, said she was unaware of the actual budget, but if it was indeed that high she would make sure that it wasn’t in excess. This conversation continued until everyone seemed satisfied with what was going on and the meeting ended on a positive note.
As we walked back to her office, I asked the executive how she was able to keep from losing her temper. She explained that at first she was upset. The question did come across as a cheap-shot. But then she said something that I’ve never forgotten. She explained, “As I was becoming angry, I asked myself what I really wanted. Did I want to humiliate this guy in front of the crowd? My emotions cried for this, but it’s not what I really wanted. I really wanted everyone to buy into the notion that times were indeed tough and that we needed to be financially responsible. If there were rumors floating around that had to be answered before people would believe the message, then I needed to hear them. The truth is, I needed him to ask the very question he asked. So I thanked him and I meant it. It was the best thing that could have happened.”
When you’re in the middle of an argument or heated discussion, “What do I really want?” turns out to be one of the most important questions you can ask yourself. As your emotions kick in you might just move from wanting to make the best choice to wanting something else altogether. Is humiliating the other person or winning the argument at any cost really your desire? Are you going to let your most immature and perverse wishes set your priorities for you? Or are you going to be mature enough to return to your original and healthy goals? Because if you still want to make the best choice, then maybe fighting for the second or third best option just so you can win isn’t the smartest strategy. And causing the other person pain—that should never be on your to-do list.
With this lesson in mind, let’s return to my home and see if we can help the social anthropologist understand how my flowers got so tattered while the carpet became so clean. Is this disparity evidence that I’m an obsessive compulsive with traces of schizophrenia? Or is something else going on?
Here’s the answer. When my mother passed away three years ago, Dad moved in with us. He’s a wonderful fellow, always upbeat and always trying to help out despite the fact that he’s eighty-seven and mostly deaf and blind. That first spring, just after he moved in, I started to fill the various flower pots and planters out front with the perennials I’d purchased. Dad shuffled up next to me, gloves in hand and ready to help.
It turned out to be a tough job—including him that is. He can’t really see, so when I asked him to water after I put the plants in the soil, he frequently harmed the delicate flowers. Either he knocked off the blooms with the hose or he flushed away the soil with too much water pressure. He then hinted that watering the plants would now be his daily job. When I suggested that I could do it, he looked disappointed and said that he really wanted to pitch in.
It’s not easy growing old. Giving away your life’s possessions as you move from house to apartment to a single room can’t be fun. Watching your body give out one part at a time must be frightening. And now, as he stood there with hose nozzle in hand, Dad wanted to hold onto being a productive member of society. He wanted a job. He wanted to contribute. He wanted to help.
At first I told him not to worry about watering, I’d do it. I’d spent hundreds of dollars on bedding plants and took pride in my flower beds and pots. He’d just ruin them. Every summer people would come to the front door and the first words out of their mouths would be a compliment about our lovely flowers. My wife and oldest son watched what was going on and each sidled up next to me and suggested that I couldn’t let Dad help with the flowers. It would be a disaster.
As I talked with Dad, he continued to plead his case. He’d be really careful and watering would give him something to do. We had been struggling with how to fill his days.
And then it hit me—the words of the executive echoed in my head. What did I really want? Obviously I wanted Dad to be happy. But then again, I wanted the plants to look good. Maybe I could find another job for him—one that wouldn’t involve killing my flowers; but I couldn’t find anything. After all, he’s mostly deaf and blind. So I decided right then and there: Dad would water. He mattered the most. I wanted him to be happy. That’s what I really wanted.
The carpets soon fell into his domain as well. As summer turned to fall and Dad moved from outside to inside, he took over the vacuuming chores. Nobody is more meticulous than he. He goes over each carpet segment from five different directions. A job that would normally take thirty minutes now takes three hours. First he sucks up the dirt. Then, for the next two and a half hours he sucks up the color. I think he may even be altering electrons in their paths. One day our living room may go nuclear.
Of course, having the vacuum scream for hours on end drives us nuts. Nowadays we schedule ourselves to be out of the house whenever Dad vacuums. Once again, we could have told him no, but when we asked what we really wanted, Dad won the vacuuming job.
My guess is that the cultural anthropologist wouldn’t be able to explain why our plants look so bad while the carpets look so good. He’d have to know two important facts: One, when caught in an argument of competing priorities, I’ve learned to step back from the fray and ask what I really want. Two, I love my dad. The combined effect of these two seemingly unrelated facts is actually quite wonderful.
Dad is flourishing and that’s all that really matters.