Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
Every family has at least one kooky relative, and mine is no exception. In our case it was my step-grandfather Bert who routinely provided us with endless tales of quirkiness and interpersonal insensitivity. For instance, once when my wife and I had not seen Bert and my grandmother Dorothy for years, they dropped unannounced into our apartment in the town where I was attending school at the time. When it comes to social interaction, Bert is a train wreck, so, true to form, he initiated his conversation by stating, “You’ve certainly porked out since I last saw you. It looks like you swallowed your own eight-year-old self. Ha ha!”
After Bert ranked on me for an hour or so, he eventually asked for a tour of the campus. Glad to escape the insensitive humor and all-around rudeness, my wife and I buckled our two baby girls into our VW bus and, along with Bert and Dorothy, started out on what we hoped would be a pleasant tour of the campus—one where we would putt along amicably while discussing the university’s architecture, history, and curriculum.
Bert wasn’t interested in any such “foo-foo crapola” (his words, not mine). No, Bert wanted to walk inside the buildings and see stuff up-close-and-personal. After walking through the humanities quad, where he never once raised his eyes above the kick plates, Bert asked me to take him to the janitor’s closet. As if students carried a pass key or knew the entry code. Eventually, Bert found the custodial nerve center where he enthusiastically examined cleaning solutions while my wife and I tried our best to keep our toddlers from eating them.
As you’ve probably guessed, Bert was a custodian. To him, visiting a university didn’t mean examining the curriculum or listening to a lecture, it meant exploring the things that needed to be cleaned. It was the world Bert cared about and, as near as I could tell, pretty much the only one he saw.
The fact that Bert was interested in taking a custodial tour wasn’t the problem. Granted, it’s a bit odd to be touching and sniffing cleaning chemicals when touring a college campus with your grandchildren, but the issue here wasn’t Bert’s quirkiness, it was his insensitivity. Bert took my wife, my children, and me on a lengthy janitorial journey with no thought whatsoever of our needs or interests. In fact, the more we hinted and complained about stepping over sewer pipes or avoiding the flames that were leaping out of the power plant, the more Bert threw himself into the tour.
And it only grew worse. The sun kept beating down, my youngest daughter actually wedged her binky under a wrecking ball, my wife gave me one of her “he’s your relative” stares—and Bert? Well, he droned on.
Now, don’t get me wrong. You can care passionately about a lot of different things and still be socially well adjusted. Unfortunately, like Bert, many of us follow our interest in a subject with such fire and focus that we lose our social graces in the process—even if just temporarily. For instance, when caught in a debate at work we turn our attention so intensely on our side of the argument that we often miss the net effect of our actions. It may not be wax on the floor beneath us that we obsess over, but like Bert, when we’re caught up in the details of our own viewpoint, we often fail to notice that we’re turning people off to it. Or if we do notice that we’re not having the effect we had hoped for, we’re not sure what to do instead.
The good news is that not only can we easily improve our ability to note when we’re losing our social sensibility, but we can also improve the skills we employ when trying to express our views. That’s because the tools for enhancing our social repertoire are all around us. We actually live in the best laboratories available. We call them kitchens and offices and meeting rooms, but they are laboratories nevertheless.
How do these labs work? To quote from the renowned social commentator Yogi Berra: “Sometimes you can observe a lot by just watching.” If we take our focus off the arguments we and others are making and carefully watch others in action, noting what works and what doesn’t, we can turn every social venue into a learning lab. For instance, Jean Piaget made some great discoveries in the field of child development simply by watching his own children at home. Socially gifted people aren’t born gifted. They learn the skills by watching social interactions with the same level of interest Bert had for studying floor wax.
So, take a lesson from my experience with Bert. As you become more and more drawn into an argument, take your focus off “your thing.” Step out of the argument and observe how others are responding and note if communication ceases—even while you’re still talking. If that is the case, take the opportunity to apologize, open the conversation up to everyone, and get back on track. And drawing on these same observational skills, on those occasions when you yourself aren’t in the middle of the debate but are on the sidelines (perhaps in a meeting), observe gifted people in action. Focus on what they do, what works and why. Turn every high-stakes, emotionally charged discussion into a learning opportunity.
Turn your world into a stimulating learning lab, not just a place that needs to be waxed.