Kerrying On

I Miss Strawberries

I miss strawberries. Despite the fact that my acquaintance with them began quite by accident, I still miss them. It all started when, as a child, I was foraging in the woods behind my house and stumbled onto a patch of wild strawberries. I had already gobbled down berries of all sorts that morning and figured that the insignificant sampling of fragaria vesca wouldn’t amount to much. I was wrong. The berries were delicious beyond description. As I feasted on the wild wonder, all other berries hung their heads in shame.

And now for a change in direction, but not topic. Last night I mistakenly tuned into a TV “makeover” program. Not one where they transform a clap-trap shamble of a house into a modern wonder, but one where they make over an actual human being—a woman to be more precise. I had tuned into the part of the program where a plastic surgeon was holding up “before” pictures of a normal-looking woman. He chided her for once having looked so plain. Then he bragged about the miraculous transformation he and a team of surgeons, silicone experts, and cosmetologists had performed. Although no one said the words, it was clear the transformation team believed that looking like a runway model should be the goal of all caring people.

“Just look at her!” the plastic surgeon exclaimed as the woman finally walked on stage. They had replaced the plain person with a firmer and “rounder-in-the-right-places” beauty. Behold Barbie. The woman gushed. The team applauded. The crowd cheered. I doubt that when penicillin was discovered the celebration was as boisterous as this one.

The woman they had transformed worked as an elementary school teacher. When the TV program cut to a video clip of the remade teacher’s cheering students, I was surprised by their boisterous reaction. I figured the kids would be disappointed, but they seemed to like the new version of their teacher. One boy went so far as to say that she was “hot.” I flinched.

I also thought my first-grade teacher was beautiful and I can remember the day I was most struck by her beauty. My classmate, Tammy Ray Black, had just completed a coloring assignment. She was the kid nobody liked; learning was a challenge for her. And as is often the case with children who struggle, she was constantly acting out, whining, and causing her classmates grief. Finishing a task was a breakthrough for her and Miss McDonald didn’t miss this chance to reward her efforts.

At first, I couldn’t believe that my beloved teacher was praising Tammy Ray for completing a coloring assignment. Heck, I’d done the same thing a hundred times before and she never said anything to me. And then I got it. Miss McDonald was trying to help my classmate feel better about herself. How lovely. At that moment I thought she was as beautiful a person as I had ever seen. Curiously enough, she didn’t look a bit like Barbie. Of course, Barbie hadn’t been invented yet, so how was I to know what was beautiful and what wasn’t?

Back to the wild strawberries. “So you liked the strawberries,” Grandpa remarked as I told him about the ones I had discovered. “They aren’t just tasty,” he went on to explain, “they’re also honest.” I didn’t catch his drift, so Grandpa quickly clarified his point. “You see, most fruits and berries employ trickery. They look good on the surface, all the while hiding their inner seeds. You bite into a beautiful piece of fruit and nearly break a tooth on the concealed pit. The strawberry, in contrast, wears its seeds on the outside. That makes it honest.” Or so said Grandpa.

Let’s leap to a still different time and place. The summer before I started junior high school, I entered the workforce for the first time. Each morning, I rode a bus with my buddies far into the country. Here we would walk into a sea of parallel rows and pick strawberries—the honest fruit.

As it turns out, strawberries are also the user-unfriendly fruit. They offer no relief from the sun as they lay low to the dirt, requiring you to either stoop or crawl if you want to harvest them. But these commercial strawberries were nothing like the wild ones I had discovered. They had been transformed through the miracle of horticulture into larger and prettier berries. But at a cost. They weren’t nearly as flavorful as their ancestors.

It only got worse from there. In my fifth summer of picking strawberries, I was selected along with two other kids to harvest a new, experimental field. The small patch sported the latest and greatest variety of strawberry. The new breed was huge, deep red, and flawless. Horticulture experts had outdone themselves. And because the berries were so large, I could fill a box in half the time. For a dream-like two hours, I filled each flat of twelve boxes in a mere fifteen minutes, not the half hour the other, smaller berries took. I loved those new money-doubling products of horticultural science.

But not for long. Sadly, as I bit into one of the uber-berries, I discovered the rest of the story. The new strain was even more bitter and pithier than the commercial ones I had been picking for years. Worst of all, gone was the taste of strawberry. Imagine that. A strawberry that didn’t taste anything like a strawberry. As you may have already guessed, the experimental berries that I picked over forty years ago are the same huge, deep red, tasteless fruit you can buy at the grocery store today.

Putting it all together. I’m exercising a fair amount nowadays in order to lose weight. I want to be able to play with my grandkids without dropping dead from a heart attack. For me, thinning down is not so much a looks thing as a health thing. That’s because I mainly like who I am and I’m glad that my wife, children, and grandchildren seem perfectly satisfied as well. Like a strawberry, I typically wear my seeds on the outside. I’m deeply aware of the fact that I look like a cross between Tom Cruise and Danny DeVito—minus the Tom Cruise part. And you know what? I’m okay with that.

I don’t believe it when TV commercials and programs tell me I need to transform myself into someone else’s view of how I should appear. In my particular case, today’s beauty vendors routinely try to tempt me with the wonders of liposuction or maybe even calf and pec implants. Imagine that: little plastic pillows sewed inside me to make my chest look more muscled. You’re talking about a guy who doesn’t miss his hair all that much or even think to comb it for that matter.

Most important of all, I never want my wife, children, or grandchildren to feel that they too are unfinished until someone transforms them into the world’s view of the perfect prototype. I love them just the way they are. I love them for who they are. And like the wild strawberry, I love them for what’s inside. I know that sounds corny. It is corny. But maybe I’m not thinking clearly. When I look out the window of my office and see puffy-lipped, silicon enhanced, calf and pec sculpted, and curiously look-alike “perfect specimens” jog by, I have an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia. I miss strawberries.

Crucial Conversations QA

Dealing with Backhanded Compliments

Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a colleague who deals me backhanded compliments about my job performance as the proofreader for the firm. For example, she repeatedly congratulates me on catching errors and then says, “It’s nice to hear those things when you never hear it from anyone else. It must be awful to think your job is not valued.” First of all, my work is valued; that is not the issue or even something I worry about. I just want the backhanded compliments to stop.

I don’t like this woman on a personal level because she is a gossip and has a reputation for stirring up trouble at the office. However, because I work closely with her and her department, I want to at least have a respectful working relationship. How do I address the backhanded compliments she’s been serving me lately?


Dear Slighted,

Thank you for your question. I read some resentment in your comments (perhaps my interpretation). You say you don’t like your coworker. But the fact that you took the trouble to write about this makes me suspect that you feel provoked or offended by her insinuation that your work is not respected. That’s what I’ll assume for the purpose of my response to you. If I’m way off base, then I hope my comments are at least useful to others!

May I suggest that the reason her comments hurt is not because they’re hurtful, it’s because you fear them. They trigger some shame or hurt you hold from past experience. The hurt they create is predictable because you hold them in a mentally habitual way. Two things are necessary to create this pain. First, some triggering circumstance must occur. For example, someone indicates that they believe your work is of inferior value to that of others. Second, and this is the important part: you must interpret this triggering event as evidence of some shame you fear. For example, when someone disparages my work, I may conclude that I am worthless. The second step feels inevitable and true. We don’t even notice our role in the interpretation process because we have a lifetime of practice in drawing this conclusion whenever these kinds of triggers occur. But if you change the way you interpret, the hurt will disappear—completely.

I know this both from the laboratory of my own life and from a lifetime of observation of others’ emotional responses to social triggers. I was baffled for years as I observed people in apparently toxic interpersonal environments who seemed largely immune to them.

For example, I once watched a man who was (wrongfully) accused of being dishonest in the middle of a business meeting. This wasn’t a passing accusation either. It was delivered with a sneer and a string of epithets. I felt my body tense in empathy for the man who was being unfairly insulted. Had it been me, I would have felt a powerful urge to lash out at the accuser. This man, on the other hand, was relaxed. His face showed concern, but not pain. And his response registered interest, but not animosity. “Wow. I had no idea you saw me that way. What have I done that caused you to see me like that?” he said.

He felt no shame. He felt no pain. Instead, he felt compassion and curiosity. Why? Because he understood that this person’s action were not about him.

So, I’ve got great news for you. In fact, I can promise you that if you think deeply about what I’m about to share, nintey-nine percent of the problem you’re experiencing will disappear in a matter of days—or weeks at the most. Never again will you feel slighted, offended, or hurt by this person. Wouldn’t that be great? All you need to do is consistently practice the following skill in coming days and these results are guaranteed. Remember: It is never, never, never, never, never about you. Never. Ever.

Now, let me be clear. There are times when others’ words or actions give us true feedback. They may indicate we are incompetent, made a mistake, broke a promise, etc. And their feedback may be true. It may be helpful information about you. But their emotions and judgments are not about you; they are about them. Nothing they ever do or say has any implications for your worth, self-respect, or self-esteem—unless you decide it does. And it is this decision that causes your persecutor’s foible to feel provocative to you.

So, here’s what I’d suggest:

1. Own your emotions. Notice what kinds of triggers connect with painful self-doubts or shame you’ve learned to invoke. Then develop a script you’ll use to refute this inaccurate conclusion and reconnect with the truth about yourself.

2. Get curious. Once you’ve owned and managed the emotions that could get in the way of a healthy conversation, you’ll notice your resentment will be replaced with curiosity. So act on it. Approach this person, describe the pattern you see, then genuinely try to understand where she’s coming from when she makes these statements. As you do, you will almost inevitably gain new insight about why she frames her “compliments” the way she does. For instance, when your shame is not distorting your perception, you may learn that she has felt her work was disrespected in the past. Maybe her comments were a clumsy attempt to reassure you about something that is only an issue for her.

3. Teach. With a better understanding of her true intent, you can let her know how you hear comments like this. Teach her better ways of expressing solidarity or affirmation to you.

I wish you the best in creating a healthier relationship with her. But most of all, I hope recognizing this trigger gives you an opportunity to develop greater emotional mastery—which can bring a greater peace and happiness to your life.

Best wishes,

Influencer Institute

Using Our Skills in Our Own Communities

At this year’s REACH Conference, I had the pleasure of interacting with a hundred or so VitalSmarts Certified Trainers in breakout sessions entitled “Using Your Skills in the Community.” I walked away from our conversations with a renewed interest in serving in my own community, and I think other attendees felt similarly.

How will you use your skills in your community? What follows is a brief summary of our conference musings. Perhaps these will spark your own creativity and desire to serve.

Be an example. Let’s say that you’ve learned a new skill, such as how to hold a high-stakes, emotional conversation—that’s the crux of Crucial Conversations, right? Each time you use that skill, you’re sharing a little light with those around you—giving them a glimpse of a new behavioral possibility. Think of your skills, not just those that stem from your exposure to VitalSmarts content. Can you use them more deliberately and frequently? In an appropriate way, can you use your skills more visibly?

Be a mentor. Can you remember a key moment in your life when someone mentored you? Take a moment and consider the people in your professional, social, and family circles. Who could you motivate or enable? Whether you think of your own skill set as limited or vast, chances are that there is someone near you who can benefit from your kind words, coaching, cheerleading, or guidance. You don’t need official permission or a mandate to be a mentor, and often those who need your help are hesitant to ask. Who might look back a few years from now and thank you for mentoring them?

Be a trainer. If you’re a VitalSmarts Certified Trainer, then you may have heard of the Not-for-Profit Training Grant Program. Through this program, you can donate your unique skills as a trainer to a qualifying nonprofit organization in your community. Many nonprofits, which otherwise couldn’t access training of this quality, have benefited from this program. Can you think of an organization in your community that could benefit from your training skills?

Be a volunteer. The important work of building healthy communities takes place at many levels—through the work of inspired individuals, neighborhood associations, churches, service organizations, and a variety of nonprofits, for-profit and social impact ventures, and government. Nearly every one of these is an entry point for volunteers. Given your skill set and the needs of your community, how might you stretch yourself into an unfamiliar and potentially rewarding volunteer role? As a trainer, you possess facilitation and teaching skills that could be especially valuable.

Be an influencer. During our breakout session, we spent extra time discussing the Influencer model, which is the backbone of the book, Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change. This model presents a systematic way for any reader to influence behavior. You don’t need special permission or training to apply the Influencer model, and, in fact, I’d love to hear about your efforts, successes, and challenges. I encourage you to read stories of others who have applied this model to accomplish important goals within organizations and communities. How will you influence your community to change for good?

If you’ve felt inspired by any of these descriptions or questions, then I’ll conclude with this invitation: act now. Act in a small way, but act now. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity or for a formal invitation or for a season when you have more free time. Don’t wait for this motivational microburst to subside. Take this challenge now—and let’s all use our skills for good.