Kerrying On

Kerrying On: When the Going Gets Tough

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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It didn’t take long for a heated argument to break out. Dozens of us had just arrived in Yorktown, Virginia to undergo officer training for the Coast Guard—each of us armed with his own story of the ghastly treatment that was rumored to lay ahead. According to scuttlebutt, we were soon to be marched until we dropped, cursed at, threatened, and mentally taxed to the point where many of us would wash out.

And now for the bad part. If we did wash out, we would be denied the chance to become an officer, forced to sign a four-year enlistment contract, paid one-third of what we’d expected, and sent to Vietnam to die. Or so went the stories.

But then again, you couldn’t deny the pleasant experience we had just enjoyed. After we climbed out of cabs that transported us from the airport, we were politely ushered to the mess hall, where the officers on duty greeted us warmly and with dignity. One lieutenant invited a group of us to his dining table where he regaled us with inspiring Coast Guard stories.

Why, the silly rumors were wrong. This was going to be fun! Training was going to be like scout camp, only with gunboats and howitzers.

Or was it? We were actually given several clues as to what lie ahead. The beds we retired to that evening didn’t have a chocolate on the pillow. That couldn’t be good. A note on the table said we would be awakened at zero six hundred the next morning at which point we were to gather at the “grinder.” True, the term “grinder” sounded suspicious, but perhaps it referred to a coffee house where we’d toss back espressos while singing “Yo-ho, yo-ho, a Coast Guard life for me!” One could only hope.

The next morning, after awakening to a version of Reveille that could have easily drawn blood, we donned our civilian clothes for the last time and wandered out to the blacktop patch behind the barracks—the actual grinder—where we continued debating what was in store for us.

And then we heard it. A curious noise in the distance that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. At first I thought it was a pack of wolves. Emanating from the darkness came a feral roar accompanied by the sound of feet beating on the blacktop.

And then we saw them—those charming fellows who had greeted us the evening before—the kindly officers from dinner. Only this time, their faces were twisted into grotesque masks of hatred and instead of greeting us with a warm handshake, they charged at us at full speed while screaming orders that none of us could understand and all of us desperately wanted to obey.

It wasn’t long until we were all doing pushups, running with rifles held above our heads, lying on our backs doing an impression of a dying cockroach, and otherwise being pushed to the edge of sanity. Finally, at our first break (standing in line to receive inoculations), Jim Propopolis, the officer candidate from New York City who stood behind me, uttered four memorable words.

The evening before Jim had sided with the optimists in the debate by insisting that the training we were about to undergo was going to be pleasant, not dreadful. Now, appearing as defeated as is humanly possible, and with a Brooklyn accent you could cut with a knife, Jim exclaimed: “Da Jamboree is ova!”

Indeed it was. And so was the debate. The scuttlebutt had been right. We were about to descend into the seventh circle of training hell.

Now, I’ve told this story before—usually ending with a warning of how things are about to grow more difficult—you know, the jamboree or good-old days are behind us whereas the future is going to be more challenging. However, today I’d like to approach the incident from a different angle.

I eventually graduated from Dante’s training school, served three years in the Coast Guard, exited into the civilian world, and never looked back. That is, until one day over forty years later, when the Commandant of the Coast Guard asked me to speak to the top 1,000 leaders at a conference. At the end of my speech, I was presented with a yearbook from the class of 1971—my OCS class. I opened it and there staring back at me was a photo of my platoon. The rather haunting picture had been taken during the heat of that dreadful first day. We looked horrible.

As my eyes worked their way across the photo they eventually settled on the fellow in the bottom right-hand corner—Jim Propopolis. He looked worse than everyone else. He looked defeated. Four decades of consulting experience coupled with the entire cannon of organizational theory rushed through my head in a single flash of insight. With Jim’s image fresh in my mind, I wanted to go back to 1971 and attend OCS again; only this time, I wanted to get it right.

The first time through officer training, my colleagues and I botched it. With the threat of being sent to the front hanging over us, we turned into a group of selfish louts. When someone struggled with, say, celestial navigation, nobody formed a study group or offered tutoring. When someone had trouble squaring away their quarters, nobody taught them best practices. When a candidate washed out and was spirited off in the middle of the night, no one spoke of the fallen comrade. We studied alone, suffered alone, and occasionally washed out alone.

And when I say “we,” I mean “I.” I watched Jim Propopolis struggle and did nothing to help him. He was the only guy in our platoon who was willing to appear vulnerable and as you can probably tell from his “jamboree” remark, he had a much-needed sense of humor. He was also a bit of a train wreck. No matter how hard Jim tried to look spiffy, he always looked like a sack full of doorknobs that had been dragged through a swamp.

I worried about Jim. I even encouraged him, but I never actually helped him. It just wasn’t done. And when Jim eventually was whisked off in the middle of the night, nobody ever spoke of him again. The same was true for my other four platoon mates who disappeared to points unknown. Nobody said a word.

And so Mr. Propopolis, I apologize. You were right about the jamboree being over. We were about to face hard times and that should have been a call for us to pull together, not fall apart. I know I needed your help and I suspect you needed mine. But I didn’t know I could help. I didn’t know I should help.

I was young and frightened.

Imagine that. We were supposed to be learning how to be leaders who would eventually lead teams, and we couldn’t have acted more selfishly. Worse still, this gross misconduct wasn’t merely a military anomaly. A few years later, when I took MBA classes, students were purposely pitted against one another. Collaboration was actually punished. As a result, classroom combatants verbally accosted one another while secretly hoping for each other’s demise.

A few years later, when I was hired to consult with executives who had come through one of those MBA programs, what did I find? Silos. Leaders frequently worked against one another, spoke of others as “them,” and failed to support each other under times of stress. They were a mess.

Fortunately, over the ensuing decades most of us have come to realize that interdependent specialists need to collaborate—meaning we need to act like healthy teammates not combatants. And some of us do. For instance, that MBA program that used to encourage unhealthy competition has actually changed. A recent graduate informed me that students now share their notes, create study groups, tutor one another, and feel and act as if their teammates’ problems are their own problems.

This should be true of all workgroups. Everyone deserves to work with colleagues who have their back. And if that’s not your current reality, it should at least become your aspiration. Organizations should be havens, not gladiator arenas. We should learn together, grow together, and help one another. Challenges should unite us not yank us apart. And most of all, when the chips are down, we should be able to count on each other for help.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Respond When You're Ambushed

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have been through the Crucial Conversations Training and feel confident using the skills. However, sometimes an unexpected, angry attack or accusation surprises me. I feel emotional, get flustered, and do not handle things very well. After the situation is over, I can Master My Stories, but unfortunately the damage is done. What can I do to better deal with the situation in the moment when I can’t get my brain to work?


Dear Flustered,

Congratulations on doing well with the use of your skills. You will get more and more fluent and confident as you use your crucial conversations skills regularly and consistently.

You describe a very difficult situation where you do not have time to prepare in advance. These moments when we are blindsided or feel ambushed are among the toughest crucial conversations to conduct well.

Let me suggest a strategy to help you do well in those emotional moments.

When you find yourself in the middle of a crucial conversation and feel flustered and can’t get your mind working, call for a “strategic withdrawal.” Now, going silent and refusing to talk with the other person may be hurtful to your purposes and the relationship, yet having some time to consider what to do and compose yourself would be very helpful.

Picture a situation. John approaches you in the hall and says, “The VP announced today that your team is not going to give us any resources on the ABC account. Apparently your schedule is full. You are leaving us high and dry; meanwhile you end up looking pretty good!”

Try saying something like: “John, you are raising an issue that is obviously important to you. It’s important to me as well. We need to discuss this further. Can you and I get together after our budget meeting this afternoon and talk about this more fully?”

Notice what you have not done. You did not attack him and say all he cares about is himself. You did not blow him off by telling him you refuse to talk about this. You did not leave him hanging saying that you will have to talk this over sometime in the vague future. And you did not insult him by saying he should come back after he has gotten “control of his emotions.”

You were respectful and you acknowledged that his issue matters. You made it a Mutual Purpose by saying it matters to you as well. You then set a specific time when you would get together to give this issue the time it deserves. You have created a degree of safety with John and made a plan to do more.

Meanwhile, this gives you some time to think things over. You can Master Your Story by asking yourself why a reasonable, rational, decent person would act that way. You have time to Start with Heart by asking yourself what you really want. You also have time to collect more information to better understand what’s going on with the VP.

A “strategic withdrawal” is a respectful way to take the time you need to prepare for a crucial conversation.

When you reconvene at the appointed time, begin by paraphrasing John’s attack. Focus on the main ideas he voiced without using “hot” words (emotionally laden or provocative terms).

You might say: “John, you said the VP announced we would not be supporting you on the ABC account and you feel we are leaving you in a bad position. Did I get that right?”

Now listen carefully. If needed, use your AMPP skills to get a better understanding and diffuse his strong emotion. You may want to use Contrasting to clarify a misunderstanding or use your STATE skills to add meaning to the Pool of Shared Meaning. There are a lot of possibilities depending on what you really want and what is needed. Having created a space for yourself to deal with your own strong emotions and plan the coming crucial conversation, you are in a better situation to deal with this emergent problem in a way that gets you better results and an improved relationship.

All the best,


From the Road

From the Road: Twenty Fourteen

Steve WillisSteve Willis is a Master Trainer and Vice President of Professional Services at VitalSmarts.

From the Road

It’s a new year and with it comes so many “news”—new opportunities, new resolutions, new beginnings, new goals, new mindsets (or would it be new minds set??). It’s a whole new year! Indeed, it seems like with every breath I draw in a huge mouthful of newness. It’s invigorating and energizing! It definitely erases the bitter taste of all those “should haves” I was chewing on at the end of 2013.

Now don’t get me wrong. While I love new, it doesn’t mean I completely neglect anything that’s not new. There is, at this time of year, an opportunity to infuse our “currents,” “on-goings,” and “existings” with new effort and passion.

Take training for example. How do you breathe new life into something you’ve done or seen a lot? In some cases, your dreams include VitalSmarts’ actors—presenting a whole new set of problems!

How do you make it new for you, and especially how do you make it new for the participants?

What are you going to do during the course of this new year?

What will be new in your delivery, in your roll-out, or in the way you’re targeting the skills?

Comment below to share your ideas.