Kerrying On

Kerrying On: I Need Help

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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In January of 1965, after living their entire lives in soggy Western Washington, my mom and dad packed up their belongings and moved to sunny Arizona. After enjoying the dry climate for several months, Mom wrote a letter to her father inviting him to close up the “mom and pop” store that he operated thirteen-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week and come live with them in Tempe.

“We have a room set aside for you,” Mom explained. “And there’s a lovely park nearby filled with men playing checkers and chess.”

“It sounds wonderful,” Grandpa replied in a return letter. “I must admit that it’s tempting to move to a place where it doesn’t rain most of the time, but I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. You know how hard it is for a man of my age to find work.”

Grandpa was eighty-five years old at the time. He couldn’t conceive of not having a job.

My grandfather loved to work almost as much as he loved his independence. He’d always been that way. Orphaned at a young age, Grandpa had moved in with a relative who didn’t like him much and, to make that point crystal clear, beat him regularly. One day when Grandpa was ten, his school teacher began whipping a small child in his class. Grandpa could take it no longer and pummeled the cowardly teacher until he fled from the classroom. Grandpa was expelled for his efforts and while his caretakers brooded over what to do with him, he packed a change of clothing in a brown paper bag and set out from Dyersville, Iowa to live with his cousin May—the one person who had showed him love when he had met her at a family gathering a few years earlier.

For several days Grandpa trudged westward. For sustenance he drank from creeks, ate fruit from trees, and stole eggs from chicken coops.

“When we first laid eyes on Billy we were sitting on the porch drinking lemonade,” cousin May explained years later when I met her for the first time.

“At first,” May continued, “I thought it was a stray dog coming down the dirt road that passed in front of our house. I could barely make out a speck in the distance, followed by a trail of dust. But then I could see it was a person. It was a boy. The poor thing looked like he was going to collapse; he was so weak from the heat of the sun. And then as the boy drew close enough to see his face, I could tell it was Billy! Mother and I ran to greet him, took him in our arms, and smothered him with kisses.”

After days of lonely effort, Billy—at ten years of age—had walked across the entire state of Iowa to his cousin May’s house just outside Sioux City. He was finally home. For the next eight years his cousins loved and cared for Billy until he graduated from high school and set out to make a life for himself. Then, for almost two decades my grandfather worked at everything from trapping in Minnesota to playing cards on a Mississippi river boat—until he finally met my grandmother, Pricilla, and fell in love, settled down, and raised my mother.

Grandpa taught my mom to be as independent as he had been for twenty years as a bachelor. He had learned to cook and sew, and do all things domestic—not as a point of pride, but from sheer necessity. So as Grandma taught my mom how to run a household, he taught her how to swing a hammer and repair the plumbing.

By the time I was twelve, both my mom and granddad had passed the tradition to me. I’d come home from school to find Mom had torn out part of a wall with a crowbar in an effort to get a remodeling project on its feet. I’d then help her make dinner before Dad came home from work.

This independence has served me well. I love the freedom that comes from being able to do so many things on my own. However, sometimes my desire for self-sufficiency morphs from autonomy to pig-headedness and that’s when it gets me into trouble. Strengths, unguided by wisdom, often become weaknesses.

For instance, last fall when my wife Louise and I vacationed in Paris for our 40th wedding anniversary, my need for independence really pitched us a curve. Louise and I had signed up for a Segway tour by night. (I don’t know what we were thinking.) The upbeat guide taught us how to speed along on one of those motorized sticks while he pointed out the glories of the City of Lights. Unfortunately, after only a few minutes I could tell that Louise’s diminishing night vision was giving her problems and I was quite certain we needed to stop and return to the base. Trooper that she is, Louise wanted to stay the course.

But I couldn’t shake my premonition. Something bad was about to happen. I also didn’t know how to tell our guide that we needed to stop, and I most certainly didn’t want to force the entire group of tourists to return to base on our account.

So, each time my wife drove her Segway too close to a cement pillar placed to keep cars from entering the pathways, I’d shout a warning: “Not so close!” as my blood ran cold with the thought of her crashing and falling.

How could I get this band of merry tourists to do an about face? If the two of us went back on our own, how would we find the way without the help of our guide? How could I fit the blasted contrivances into a cab? How could . . .


In what felt like a slow-motion nightmare, I saw my wife’s vehicle smash into a post and throw her ten feet through the air and onto the rough cobblestones below. Louise writhed in pain as I leaped from my Segway to her side. My worst fear had been realized. She had crashed and (as I later learned at the hospital) broken her pelvis.

For the next three days, as our return flight drew closer, I nearly went crazy trying to figure out how to get Louise back home. The doctors assured us she could travel without doing herself any harm, but her pain was so great she couldn’t take a single step. Fortunately, she could stand, slowly shuffle right or left, and slip into a wheel chair. Now, if I could just get her to the airline front desk, they would wheel her onto the plane—but how?

Out of utter desperation I eventually approached the manager of the hotel we were staying at and said something I almost never say.

“I need your help,” I nervously whispered as if sharing a deep, dark secret. Then I quietly explained our predicament.

“Yes,” the manager responded, “I can see your problem. I’m not sure how to solve it, but don’t worry Mr. Patterson, we will figure it out.”

And they did.

The independence my grandfather so fiercely demonstrated—and that has generally served me so well—occasionally keeps me from asking others for their assistance, even when I need it. Had I stopped our little tour group and said to our guide: “My wife and I need to return, but I also don’t want to disrupt the tour. Do you have any ideas on how to achieve that?” I’m sure the guide would have come up with five different solutions.

But I didn’t think to ask the guide. It simply was not in my nature. It was not the kind of thing I thought a self-sufficient person would do. Of course, we paid dearly.

I know I’m not alone in my misunderstanding of independence. At work, employees routinely avoid asking for help on a project because they fear it might make them look weak. Or a newly promoted boss refuses to say “I don’t know,” because he’s the new supervisor and thinks he’s supposed to know everything. And then, of course, there’s that whole getting lost on vacation and refusing to ask for directions thing . . .

For over sixty years I’ve honed my abilities to stand on my own—as if that’s life’s one true measure of success—when in truth it’s also a wonderful thing to both give and receive help. Stopping and asking others for their assistance is not a signal that we’re weak or that our character is flawed. It’s a sign of our underlying humanity.

Here’s to being more human.

Influencer QA

Changing Behavior After Training

Dear Crucial Skills,

We’ve been through Crucial Conversations Training, have returned back to work, and aren’t changing all that much. Everyone liked the ideas and wanted to do something new, but we haven’t been very good at transferring what we learned in training to how we behave at work. What can we do to kick-start our interest and actually change how we behave at work?


Dear Stumped,

The problem you suggest is common to everyone who has ever had a new aspiration. You finish a training program, set down a book, or walk away from a lecture or sermon—fired up with good intentions to embrace what you just learned. But then you get back to work and are faced with eighty new e-mails waiting for you, a boss who is on your case about a project you let slide, and your coworkers who want you to join a new action team. You’ll have to implement what you learned at training sometime early next week, once you get caught up.

As the days turn into weeks and the weeks into months, you envision the decay curve from your introductory psychology class associated with embracing new concepts. It’s not one of those slightly sloping lines you might see when tracking, say, weight loss. No, the nasty decay curve that plots changes in behavior against time is really more like a decay cliff. With each day that passes without making some kind of change, the likelihood of doing anything new drops precipitously. As the days pass, good intentions transform into apathy, apathy into old habits, and old habits into guilt.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can implement new techniques that support the changes you’d like to make. Here are six tools (following the model we use in Influencer) for transforming good intentions into behavioral changes.

1. Value Links. There are probably at least two reasons you wanted to embrace what you learned in training. First, you believe implementing the skills will make your life better. You also want to be the kind of person who speaks honestly and effectively. You want to work in a company where people replace back-biting with honest dialogue. These are some of the values that go with learning and implementing the skills. Keep these values in mind. Talk with your colleagues not just about the training content, but also the underlying values. As you link behavior changes to the qualities you care about, you increase the likelihood that you’ll actually implement what you learned.

2. Advanced Learning. Most training sessions are intended to start you on a path of learning. Crucial Conversations Training is no different. At the end of the formal training, kick-start your informal and extended learning. Assign your work group to study one of the chapters from the book. Meet and review what you studied. Discuss how it applies to you and your work group. Continue through the end of the book. In addition, ask your HR manager or trainer to conduct a follow-up training session where you review Crucial Conversations concepts, discuss applications, hone skills, and otherwise continue to advance your learning.

3. Contract with the Boss. As the training comes to an end, meet with your boss and lay out a plan for implementing what you learned. Make it clear that you want to bring the skills back to work where they can do some good. Review the skills you think will help you the most, discuss them candidly with your boss, and then tie them into your formal performance review. You might as well get credit for making personal changes and adding to your skill repertoire.

4. Maintenance Crews. Find one or two other people who have been through the training and form a “maintenance crew.” Meet monthly and work to maintain and improve the concepts and skills you learned during the training. Discuss common problems, jointly settle on how you can use the skills, and then practice the conversations. Take turns practicing each skill with real problems you face and don’t forget to give each other candid feedback and specific coaching. By practicing in a safe setting and receiving honest feedback and advice, you can improve your skills in a risk-free environment while preparing to deal with real problems at work.

5. Rewards. Ask your boss or HR manager if it would be okay to reward people who practice the new skills they’ve learned. Make the reward simple and then ask people to report their attempts at holding crucial conversations. People shouldn’t share the names of others involved in the crucial conversation (respecting privacy), but should write a short report of the skill they tried, what happened, and if necessary, what they might do different next time. Then, based on hitting a certain target number of attempted crucial conversations, celebrate efforts with small rewards.

6. Agenda and Reminders. If you care about something, you talk about it, and if you want to hard wire the conversation about high-stakes conversations, add it to your agenda. In each team meeting, openly share what you’re doing, what’s working, what isn’t, and any corrections you are making. Post the Crucial Conversations model on your office wall. Also place a copy in your meeting rooms. Use the model as a reminder of what to do and how to do it. Use the model when discussing your experience as a team.

Use any of these suggested follow-up tactics in combination, and the chances you’ll continue to practice and master the skills increase. Use four or more methods, and the likelihood you’ll transfer the skills from the training room to your work increases tenfold.


Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Conversations amidst Controversy

David Maxfield is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Influencer: THe Power to Change Anything.

David Maxfield is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything.


Crucial ConversationsDear Readers,

I created a firestorm with my response to last week’s question about the crucial conversations world leaders are having about climate change. Like most people, I obviously have my own views on global warming. However, I didn’t intend to write a political column and I am sorry it came out that way. I got more than 40 negative responses on the blog and our editor received several as well. Ben Semadeni echoes many readers’ reactions when he says, “I was disgusted with this column . . . It illustrates that even the ‘experts’ totally botch the process.” But then he goes on to say, “I’d love to see you take another stab at this topic.”

I like Ben’s suggestion. However, rather than dig back into the climate change content, I’d like to use this column for its real purpose—to learn about dialogue. I’d like to apply the crucial conversations principles to last week’s column and its resulting controversy. My guess is that we all find ourselves in this unfortunate position from time to time. I hope my transparent application of these conversation tools will also rebuild my relationship with some of you with whom I may have lost faith.

1. Explore Others’ Paths. Our readers are a pretty gentle crew, so when they write, “you’ve lost credibility,” “you’ve used this forum as a soap box,” and “what unprofessional text!” I know people are deeply upset. I’ve seen and felt the heat of their sentiments and to understand what I’ve done to cause these feelings I need to backtrack to the facts behind these stories.

Backtrack to Facts. Most of the letters I received focus on an assumption I made and never actually acknowledged. I now clearly see this oversight. In my response, I called four statements about climate change that leaders from the BASIC nations had agreed to as “facts.” While the leaders in their agreement also called them “facts,” they are better characterized as “conclusions.” Not only did I label these conclusions as “facts,” I also applauded their agreement because I felt it represented “progress in their dialogue.”

Here’s the rub. Many readers disagree with these “facts” and don’t see “progress” in this direction as a good thing. When I described these as “facts” and as “progress,” it caused these readers to question my credibility and motives. They saw this as an unfair use of the opportunity this forum provides me.

2. Start With Heart. I need to look inside myself and decide what my goals are.

Work on me first. My honest, first reaction to the criticisms was frustration because I felt most comments didn’t deal with what I saw as the topic I’d addressed. Instead of focusing on Copenhagen and the dialogue and disagreements between world leaders, readers focused on disagreements they have with world leaders. That wasn’t my topic.

However, I see now that this reaction on my part was a way of bypassing people’s legitimate frustration with my use of this column.

Focus on what I really want. I need to ask what I really want. As far as this forum is concerned, what I really want is for people to discuss dialogue and influence skills in a way that advances our shared understanding. And I want to be fair and honest in my author role. I really don’t care about advancing or exchanging facts about any political agenda. In the article, I included an undiscussed assumption that many readers saw as a political position, and that was not my intention.

3. Restore Mutual Respect and Mutual Purpose. This is where actions speak louder than words. I care deeply about this forum, so let me begin.

Mutual Respect. I’ve violated mutual respect in two ways. I’ve disrespected some of you by stating a position in a way that came across as underhanded; and I’ve shared an opinion that some of you see as naïve or misguided. I want to apologize to you and clarify my intent.

I’ll try to “practice what we preach” by using a contrasting statement. I didn’t mean to be underhanded. I did try to answer the question posed by one of our readers. Here is what happened. The way the original question was posed (“what dialogue should world leaders have?”) and the way the leaders in Copenhagen framed their agreement (“we’ve agreed on these facts”) created a blind spot that I didn’t see.

I was narrowly focused on the Copenhagen dialogue and failed to remember the broader dispute. As a result, it didn’t occur to me that readers who disagree with global warming would be offended. It was never my intent to either persuade others to accept global warming or to offend readers who don’t accept global warming. I’m sorry I was insensitive to your views.

Mutual Purpose. I see our purpose as building and sharing dialogue skills. We’re not a forum for presenting political views. I will redouble my efforts to avoid doing so. At the same time, we’d like to be able to examine topical political dialogue. We think social and current issues are rich turf for crucial conversations. It would be a shame to put them totally off limits.

I hope you will see this week’s column as more consistent with our community’s purpose. I’ve tried to share how I am applying our dialogue principles to my dilemma. I did not want this to simply be an apology because that would be misusing its purpose as well. Rather, I wanted to demonstrate that I care about what we teach by showing how it helped me through a tough week.