Kerrying On

The Road Less Traveled

Nowadays, teenage boys have it made. Most have access to man caves and media rooms that serve as perfect hangouts. When I was thirteen, you had to leave home to find anything remotely similar. In my case, a hundred yards down the alley behind our house, nestled against the local college’s northern boundary, lay a hamburger joint called Gus’s. It sold cheap, greasy food that nobody actually liked. To strengthen the place’s appeal, the owner (yes, his name was Gus), added a step-down lounge where college boys played pinochle, drank sodas, and smoked as if taking a drag on a cigarette was an Olympic event.

I found the hangout strangely alluring. To be truthful, what really enticed me to Gus’s place was the nickel pinball machine located in the far corner of the card room. If you knew what you were doing, you could play up to six balls at once while they wildly bounced around racking up free games (as many as twenty before the machine stopped doling out freebies). If you were good at it, you could play the game for hours on a single nickel.

But I wasn’t good at it and I didn’t have any money to invest in training, so I was constantly scrounging for coins. Soon tiring of rifling through coat pockets and digging between sofa cushions, I’m ashamed to say that I stooped to sneaking into my father’s rare coin collection to feed my nickel habit. I’d hand Gus a 1917 Standing Liberty quarter and ask for change. Gus would examine the rare coin, sneak it into his pocket, open the till, and then cheerfully count out five nickels—as if he were doing me a favor. Then he’d wait for me to lose five games and repeat the cycle.

After dozens of hours of expensive practice, I eventually advanced to the point where I could easily keep several balls in play at the same time. In fact, I became so proficient that by the end of the school year, my eighth-grade buddies addressed their remarks in my yearbook to “The Pinball King.”

One evening in July, I walked into Gus’s with a nickel in my pocket, hoping to play pinball for a couple of hours. To my chagrin, there stood my eighteen-year-old brother, Bill, along with Mike and Rick, his weasel friends. The three took great pleasure in torturing me. Bill ridiculed me about everything from my curiously large feet to my tenacious cowlick. Putting me down wasn’t merely Bill’s hobby, it was his raison d’être. Mike couldn’t give me enough wedgies, and Rick’s torture du jour was either an Indian-burn or a Dutch-rub. In response to their unwanted attention, I prayed for a curse to fall upon the lot of them.

On this particular day in Gus’s card room, my prayers were answered. There they were—my three tormentors—playing the pinball machine. More accurately, playing my pinball machine and playing it poorly. I watched the trio from a distant corner for nearly half an hour, and not once did they win a free game. And then it hit me; it was the perfect setup for me to finally exact revenge on them. I could humiliate them all in one fell swoop.

“Hey look who’s here,” Mike shouted as I approached. “It’s Bill’s dweeby brother. Hey zit-face, don’t you know that nerds aren’t allowed in here?” Then he tried to give me a wedgie.

“Would you like me to win you some free games?” I asked my brother.

Bill scowled and said, “You think you can win free games on this pinball machine? You? The world’s biggest twerp?” (My brother dabbled in oxymora.) “You’d need to stand on an apple box just to reach the flippers.”

“Well, I just thought you might want some free games.”

This generous offer earned me, as I knew it would, both a Dutch-rub and an Indian-burn from Rick. Then the hapless threesome returned to pumping nickels into the machine until my brother finally turned to me and said, “So you’re saying you can win us some free games?”

“Yeah,” I responded. Nothing more; nothing less. No embellishments. No bragging or heightened volume. Just the one word. “Yeah.”

Bill stepped away from the machine, motioned me forward, and said, “Okay, hot-shot. You’ve got one ball left.” Winning free games was never easy; doing so after four of the five allotted balls had been lost would be nearly impossible.

“Does baby need a booster chair?” Bill taunted as I approached the machine.

I pulled back the plunger and shot the last ball onto the sloped playing surface. As designed, the steel sphere made a beeline to the gobble hole but I expertly feathered the flippers just so and—smack! I avoided a disaster. Slowly my muscle-memory took over. Within minutes I had built the extra-ball count to five, rolled over the activate button, and whammy! Out came the five bonus balls. It took every nerve in my body to keep the spheres alive as my score skyrocketed until a beautiful sound filled the room. It was the machine announcing the first free game. Pop! I continued this frantic dance for another five minutes until the twentieth report signaled that I had won the last free game possible.

Everything I had done at Gus’s until that day had been in preparation for this glorious moment. The question was: How should I celebrate? When you do something as astounding as thrashing your older brother and his toadies (in public, no less), you face a fork in the road. You can ridicule the three by pointing out that they’re five years older and you still whipped them in a pinball game. Or you can take the road less traveled by rejecting the feral pleasures of revenge and acting like a mature adult.

It wasn’t an easy choice for me, but here’s the path I took. I didn’t pump my fist, point at my chest, or dance a victory jig—despite an overwhelming desire to do so. Instead, I gave my three tormentors a subtle nod, turned on my heel, and calmly walked away from the machine as if the miracle I had just performed was routine. No big deal. Just business as usual.

“Who was that kid?” a lingering customer asked Bill as I walked away.

“My jerk brother,” Bill responded with a look of disdain.

“Well, you’re right about one thing,” the customer continued. “Someone was acting like a jerk. But it wasn’t your little brother.”

I hadn’t expected such immediate results. Despite my desire to maintain a mature demeanor, I grinned on the way out the door. I had taken the road less traveled, and it had indeed made all the difference.

Influencer QA

Influencing an Unfaithful Spouse

Dear Joseph,

I recently married a person who told me he is a recovering sex addict. I believe he is really trying to change his ways and is a good man. However, over the past couple of months, he has started to lie again, sent inappropriate text messages to women, and may have had an inappropriate encounter at a recent business conference. He has definitely crossed the line.

When I tried to talk to him about this, he started to exhibit the typical behaviors of lashing out at me, saying I do not trust him, that I was throwing his weaknesses in his face, etc.

I want our marriage to work based on my religious beliefs. How do I stop these behaviors? How do I get him to be honest again and show him that I care about him and his well-being? Should we see a therapist? Please help.

Married to a Sex Addict

Dear Married,

I’m sorry that this “honeymoon” period of your marriage is so hard. I admire your desire to be faithful to your beliefs. Many people give up when the first disappointments of marriage hit. It is clear your feelings about the commitment you made run very deep. I respect that. And I ask your permission to challenge your thinking—and perhaps even one of your beliefs.

1. Make a decision. Now.
You believe that marriage is sacred. So do I. My question is: What do you believe God would want you to do if staying in a marriage was bad for both you and the other person? Does God place the sanctity of marriage above all other considerations? You are at a place you will never be again. You are early enough in the relationship that you don’t yet suffer from what is called “hedonic adaptation.” Human beings are capable of adapting to remarkably painful and unhealthy situations. Over time they begin to feel “normal.” They no longer seem repulsive or intolerable. In fact, even abusive situations can begin to feel comfortably familiar. The first time someone goes to jail, for example, it’s terrifying. The second time the terror disappears—it is simply unpleasant. By the fifth time, it’s just life. So pause now before you’ve become accustomed to living with someone who is manipulative, dishonest, and unfaithful and then ask, “Is this the future I want for myself?” Decide now what your bottom line is—before his behavior seems familiar.

2. Don’t mistake influence for control. Your question scares me. You asked, “How do I stop these behaviors?” Please read this next sentence ten times out loud: I can never stop his behaviors. There is nothing you can do to change him. Nothing. There are, however, things you can do to get in the way of him changing. For example, you could stay in a relationship with him in spite of his habits. You can try to control him—through guilt, shame, punishment, etc.—which will offer him a convenient scapegoat for his own choices. You could become the “bad guy” he needs to rationalize his acting out in future years. Don’t mistake influence for control. The only healthy way forward is for you—right now—to accept two immutable facts:

a. He may never change.
b. You can never change him.

Then decide what you want to do with those two facts.

3. Controlling yourself is the only way to influence him.
There is one thing you can do to help him change—take care of yourself. People imprisoned in addiction become slaves to impulses. They lose self-respect because they become incapable of maintaining boundaries. Don’t catch his disease. Start now to set boundaries for yourself that will keep you healthy and safe. Boundaries are rules you make for yourself—not the other person. For example, you might set the following boundary: “If you commit adultery, I will leave you.” Or, “If you use porn, I will move out for at least thirty days and reconsider my willingness to stay married to you.”

Now, let me explain the difference between setting boundaries and punishing. When you set a boundary you are deciding how YOU will behave in order to take care of YOU. Your goal is not to manipulate or punish the other person. You are simply saying, “I deserve to be respected. I deserve a relationship of trust.” And when that boundary is violated, you are enacting a rule to take yourself out of a situation where you are being harmed. Punishment, on the other hand, is about trying to control others. Yelling, screaming, and silent treatments are punishments not boundaries. Remember, you cannot control his behavior. All you can do is control your own.

When you stop trying to control others, you gain influence. With addicts, the best thing you can offer is a healthy example of a well-bounded life. Show him what it looks like when you keep your commitments to yourself—and perhaps you will invite him to a higher level of living. One that blesses both him and you.

I again express my sympathy that you are in such a heart-rending situation at such a tender part of your relationship. I hope you will not turn pain into protracted misery by choosing to be part of it.


Crucial Conversations QA

Missing Social Cues

The following article was first published on December 29, 2004.

Dear Kerry,

I’m faced with the challenge of training people who are rather low self-monitors. That is, they don’t read social cues particularly well and as a result often annoy or offend others. They tend to push too hard or talk about topics that others are no longer interested in or simply hang back and don’t offer their ideas when they should. Many are skilled professionals in their field but since they don’t come off well in social interactions, they are being discounted. Our company can’t afford the luxury of not hearing from or discounting the opinions and ideas of some of our best thinkers.

Here’s the problem: when I work with this particular group, many are blind to the fact that they have a blind side. They view social skills training in general as a waste of time and the fact that they are in particular need of it often escapes them. How can I deal with this sensitive situation?

At a Loss

Dear At a Loss,

First of all, it’s important to make sure those you’re training understand that using crucial skills in the workplace isn’t about looking pleasant or making people happy. Effective employees don’t charm people into their good graces. If anything, they’re tough on infractions, violations, and failed promises. They confidently step up to problems and hold the other person accountable.

Honest, complete, and effective communication is about getting the results you want and need. Interpersonal skills matter because you work in a social environment made up of small groups and teams. People who “don’t work and play well with others” cause companies fits. Individuals who aren’t able to express themselves well aren’t heard, so their best ideas are often missed. Companies can’t afford that.

That said, the challenge here lies in first helping people realize that they aren’t reading the cues well, and second, helping them apply high-level reasoning to an activity that most people do intuitively (picking up on social cues). It turns out that the first challenge isn’t all that great. Most people who stumble in social settings are well aware of the fact that they aren’t doing well. They’ve been given more than enough feedback over the years to realize that they don’t always shine in complex social interactions. They know this in general, but still struggle in the moment. Many also realize that the typical training they’ve been given or books they have been asked to read haven’t given them much help. This is often because the material deals with what to do and say but offers little to no help when it comes to when and how. This is where they struggle. They don’t know when because they aren’t reading the cues and they often don’t know how because they aren’t reading the responses well enough to then make subtle adjustments to their behavioral attempts.

What’s a person to do? We all need help in reading social cues, some just more than others. If you’re offering social skills (influence, accountability, communication) training for those who have been tagged at risk, spend as much time talking about the entry condition or cue to the skill in question as you do on the skill itself. This can feel odd because it seems so obvious, but it isn’t to everyone. In fact, we all have problems at times. For instance, when we’re caught up in an argument, all of us have missed the process of what’s going on around us and plowed on ahead no matter how others respond. We’ve all seen people resist our ideas only to push harder and cause more resistance. In short, we all missed the cues.

Without going into detail here, suffice it to say that you’ll need to slow down the skill you’re teaching. Focus on what others are doing or saying BEFORE the skill is called for and actually spend time looking for both the verbal and nonverbal cues that would drive a person in one direction or another. Then look at how people might respond to what you’ve just learned—with particular emphasis on what it looks like when the skill is working and when it isn’t. “Oops, that didn’t work. Let me try something else.” Once again, this calls for slowing down, looking for both verbal and nonverbal hints, talking about them, and then identifying where to go given the response. It’s a little hard to describe this in the abstract, but this ability to read social cues lies at the heart of your problem and you won’t be providing people the full solution to their problem if you merely focus on the traditional elements of influence or communication training.

Good luck with a challenging and often touchy task.