Kerrying On

Verbal Violence: Creating a New Normal

One day, while waiting at the airport for a flight home, I watched an older fellow tear into a gate agent for not putting him and his wife on the next plane (it had been overbooked). At first, the airline employee maintained her composure, but after being verbally attacked for what seemed like ten minutes, she began making threats of her own. Getting nowhere closer to home—but far closer to an infarction—the angry senior finally backed away. Seeing that I was watching him rather intently, he stepped toward me with a menacing look that suggested I’d be his next target.

And then I did something I didn’t plan on doing. It was if someone had run his or her arm up the back of my shirt and I was now a puppet, controlled by an unseen force. I looked the apoplectic guy in the eye and quietly said (I can’t believe I’m confessing this), “Sir, the way you just treated the gate agent was simply horrible.”

Both he and his wife were mortified by my remarks. I was mortified. But instead of turning his anger on me, as I thought he might, he turned to his wife who had been trying to drag him out of the fray for most of the interaction. Both looked ashamed as they slowly walked away. Although I’ll never know how my remarks affected him, it appeared as if I had held up a mirror and the reflection had cut him to the bone. My suspicions were confirmed by his wife’s comment as they walked away: “It’s true, dear. You are yelling at people a lot nowadays. You didn’t used to be like that. I don’t know what’s happened to you.”

I had no right to be so judgmental and intrusive but let’s set my faux pas aside and explore the process by which normal, decent, everyday people (as I’m sure this grandpa once was or mostly is) transform into forceful aggressors—or at least into people who occasionally do things they said they would never do. Beware, this transformation can happen slowly and without notice. Nobody applies for a membership into a curmudgeon club or takes a course in verbal violence. No one decides to become an attacking parent, insulting boss, or a senior citizen who verbally abuses gate agents. But somewhere between, “Please and thank you,” and “That’s just plain stupid!” we lose our path. As you might suspect, there are lots of ways we do so, but let me share my experience with a very common one as well as a few ideas for how to change.

Creating a New Normal

In the fall of 1973, while I was serving as a junior officer in the Coast Guard, a senior warrant officer (I’ll call him Burt) was assigned to a job that reported to me. He soon displayed all of the attributes of a forceful (and sometimes scary and abusive) debater within a team that was largely soft spoken and respectful. Scarcely a day passed without Burt getting into a heated argument. To quote one colleague: “Burt could turn a lullaby into a shouting match.”

One day, after I’d chatted with Burt for the umpteenth time about the evils of taking an aggressive, often hurtful style into what should be a calm discussion, he blew a gasket and slipped into full debate mode (ironic, no?). I maintained my cool for a minute or two until I eventually started firing back at him (even more ironic). The loud and fruitless argument ended poorly and Burt stomped off in a dither.

It took a few minutes for my adrenaline to dissipate but then I noticed something rather chilling. The members of my staff who had heard and seen the interaction were staring at me in disbelief—giving me the same shocked look the people at the airport had given the abusive senior citizen. Finally, one of my direct reports said, “Wow! Mr. Patterson, I never thought that you could explode like that.” It was a nice way of saying, “That was inexcusable—and please don’t ever do that to me.”

I thought about this interaction without much insight until a couple of days later when I ran into Burt as he was putting on his jacket to go home. Two things surprised me. One, Burt seemed completely unaffected by the fact that we had recently had a heated and relationship-damaging argument. He acted as if we were life-long chums. Two, he was sliding a lead pipe into his sleeve—the kind of lead pipe Colonel Mustard routinely uses to kill Miss Scarlet in the library.

Noticing me staring at his pipe, Burt explained, “It’s for fights. You need to be prepared.” He then suggested that “Betsy” (the pipe) had often saved his bacon. “What fights?” I wondered. And then it hit me. Burt was a walking time bomb. He was so spontaneously aggressive in most interactions that he caused heated debates, even fights, everywhere he went. His view, of course, was that the world was dangerous and he needed to carry a lead pipe in case a fight “broke out” somewhere.

Like Charles Shultz’ character Pigpen, who walks around causing the very cloud of dust that surrounds him (and that’s all he sees), Burt created his own cloud of forceful and violent debate. Violence was all he knew because it was all he saw. It was all he saw because wherever he went, it was what he brought out in others. Of course, since he constantly saw others acting violently, he thought everyone was violent most of the time and that made his aggressive style, if not okay, at least normal.

Burt confirmed my suspicions that he was creating a false “normal” one day when he asked, “Why are you singling me out for being too aggressive? Everyone I work with is verbally violent. Don’t you remember that time you yelled at me?”

“True,” I answered, but you’re the only person I’ve been verbally violent with in my entire career.”

“Are you saying,” Burt asked, “that I’m causing others to become argumentative?”

“To find out,” I suggested, “watch for heated arguments at work that you aren’t part of, then report back to me.” A month later, Burt reported that he had seen no verbal battles—except for his own—which had been plentiful. And then it happened. Burt began seeing himself as a causal force in his violent world rather than merely an innocent bystander. Then I asked Burt to look for what he was doing that might be causing the friction. He came back with a list that he started working on immediately.

Burt didn’t totally transform during the time we worked together, but the changes he did make only came after he realized that he had followed a dangerous path to verbal violence. First, his aggressive style often brought out the worst in others making him an active participant in creating his own unhealthy environment. Second, he had come to see the harmful reactions he routinely created as normal, even acceptable. In short, Burt saw no need to change until he realized that the world before and after he entered the scene was far more peaceful than the one he created through his own aggressive actions.

So, if you’re struggling with how relationships or conversations are being handled in your life, one first step toward change can be taking a good look around and questioning your own “normal.” It can be intimidating to review our own part in the problems we’re experiencing, but trust me, it sure beats carrying around a lead pipe.

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Crucial Conversations QA

Recovering From Childhood Stereotypes

Dear Steve,

I’ve learned much about interacting with people through my career experiences and training—including some of your training—as an engineering project manager. I have been quite successful at putting these skills into effect, and have even taught some of them to my kids. However, I have had very little success in applying the same skills with extended family members. In particular, these are people who have not been a part of my daily life for many years i.e., we get together occasionally but don’t interact regularly.

Although many relatives relate to me as the person I am today, my siblings, parents, and some cousins insist on treating me as the person I was many years ago as a child or teenager. They refuse to acknowledge any of my growth. I find it difficult to have meaningful relationships with people who treat me as they remember me as a child despite the fact that I am in my 50’s, have had a successful career, and have raised three successful children. Do you have any advice for how to hold these kinds of conversations?

Stuck in the Past

Dear Stuck in the Past,

I can relate. I married the second youngest of eight children, which at the time seemed to be all upside. I was instantly part of a large family with lots of brothers- and sisters-in-law as well as many nieces and nephews. They are a wonderful family and I really enjoy my interactions with all of the siblings. What I didn’t realize at the time we were married, is that I was joining the family in a pre-established position of sorts.

My wife’s oldest brother is ten years older than she is, and for years, treated me like his little sister’s boyfriend when it came to certain matters. It wasn’t that he wasn’t nice and inviting, he just discounted my experience and wisdom on important topics. And it took years to change the overall tenor of our shared experiences.

So first of all, remember to be patient. This can take time—especially when the frequency of your interactions is every two years versus every four to six months. The challenge you face is a data challenge. The impression members of your extended family have is based on experiences, third party information exchanges between relatives, and distant memories—the kind that feel 100% fresh and accurate, but are more likely half distorted and fuzzy. All these things come together to form impressions which remain long after the data supporting them has ceased. And while communication can help in this type of situation, what really needs to happen is to alter their data stream, or in most cases, create a whole new data set based on who you are today. Let me further illuminate my meaning.

Some years ago, I was working on a project where we tried to showcase the skills and knowledge of recently hired employees. Or more specifically, get these employees to demonstrate their ever-growing knowledge base and understanding of their industry. These new hires tended to be younger and had little-to-no industry experience. This being the case, they found that leaders, especially those who had been in the organization for a long time, had trouble seeing these newer employees as much more than punk kids who’d just barely graduated from school. The people who worked closely with this group of younger, newer employees (especially members within the peer group) could see their growth and treated them with more respect. Those who were more removed (similar to your extended relatives and my brother-in-law), continued to hold the group to the same level of knowledge and experience at which they first experienced the group. These impressions and conclusions were so strong, that even when one of the newer employees had a breakthrough achievement, the members of the longer-tenured leadership group would attribute that success to some fluke of circumstance.

We discovered that the key to changing these assumptions was to change the experiences—or data—that created, and perhaps more importantly, reinforced these assumptions. They needed to find a way to demonstrate their new knowledge in a way that wasn’t overly showy or ostentatious lest they give rise to a new and different story.

So if it’s really important to you that your relatives see you as “all grown up,” then here’s some ways to think about demonstrating your knowledge and otherwise changing their data streams.

1. If others aren’t giving you credit for specific knowledge (whether it’s how to raise kids, or manage finances, etc.) find a way to engage with them on that topic. Share an article or video with them and create an opportunity for discussion. It could also be as simple as finding that person at the next family gathering and starting up a conversation on the topic.

2. Another great way to give them new data is to experience the outcome of your work. Let them spend time with your children so they get the sense that you’re a more skilled parent than they give you credit for, or let them see the template you created for a smashing financial plan.

3. You might also want to start with those who have the most sway with others in the family. If you can create shifts in their perceptions, they can start to reinforce who you really are rather than who everyone remembers you used to be.

Along the way, you may still have need to use your best crucial conversations skills to correct misconceptions and inaccuracies so be prepared for that. This will be most particularly needful for the ones you interact with least. And if you find that it’s not that important to you, then take comfort and satisfaction in the person you’re becoming and the immediate outcomes you have produced.

Best of Luck!

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Influencer QA

Breaking Through the Status Quo

Dear David,

How do you respond to someone who states, “But we’ve always done it this way,” as a response to change? My experience tells me that it’s a comfort-level response that says, “I really don’t understand what you are suggesting.” Progress is crucial for success but when the people who drive progress don’t understand new ideas or don’t want to explore them, it could drive talent to competitors. How do we elegantly address this?

Pushing Progress

Dear Pushing Progress,

Change is not always difficult. For example, when I get a new car, I manage to adapt to its more comfortable seats and new-car smell with hardly a hiccup. When people hate change, it’s because they don’t think the benefits outweigh the costs. The solution is to 1.) Make sure they understand the benefits of the change, and 2.) Get them to explain the costs as they see them. The difficult part of this solution is that there is a third element: “Who owns the decision?” Clarifying the decision rights is often the sticky element.

I’ll share a few ideas on each element.

1. Explain the Benefits. Explain the benefits before examining the costs. The goal is to find benefits that are likely (that the person can believe in) and that are valued (that the person cares about). Don’t assume that the person sees the benefits exactly as you do. And don’t assume they will be motivated by the same benefits that motivate you.

Consider benefits for the customer, the team, the job, and for the individual’s personal development:

• Customer: What are the benefits for customers? Better reliability, quicker deliveries, additional product features, improved service, etc.
• Team: What are the benefits for the team or the broader organization? Consistency across teams, better information, less effort, etc.
• Job: What are the benefits for how the job gets done? Improved quality, reduced cycle time, lower costs, etc.
• Development: What are the benefits for the individual’s skills or career? More valuable skills, more current skills, etc.

2. Examine the Costs. Get the person to explain what they see as the downsides of the change. Group these downsides into two categories: transition costs (the short-term costs of moving from one process to another) and permanent costs (the long-term inadequacies of the new process).

• Transition Costs: Most changes involve some transition costs, such as learning the new system, troubleshooting the new system, becoming comfortable with the new system, etc. Try to identify as many of these costs as possible in an open discussion. Your goal should be to anticipate and have a plan to reduce as many transition costs as possible. Often, it’s these transition costs that cause people to hate change.
• Permanent Costs: No new system is perfect. Most will have at least a few features that are inferior to the current system. Ask the employee to help you identify these and the impacts they will have on customers, teams, jobs, and development. Sometimes, the employee will be aware of a cost you haven’t considered—one that would cause you to reverse course on the change.

3. Clarify Decision Rights. How will the decision about the change be made? Does it require a consensus where anyone could veto it? Is it your decision to make? Or does someone else “own the decision”?

We ask leaders to consider three questions about their decisions: Who needs to have input into the decision? Who will make recommendations regarding the decision? Who will ultimately decide?

As a leader, it’s important to explain to your employees what their role is. Often, you want the employees’ input or recommendation, but you will decide. They need to know that asking for their ideas doesn’t give them veto power.

It sounds as if you may be encountering some ambiguity over these decision rights, or the person might be feeling unheard. My own approach is to begin by getting as many facts on the table as possible—by exploring the benefits and the costs—and to explain how the decision rights will work.

After the decision has been made, I reiterate the pluses and minuses I’ve heard from them—in part to prove I was listening. I explain the decision, and give it my support. Then I ask them to help me make the decision a success. Once the decision has been made, I want their commitment rather than more questioning.

Best Wishes,

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