Kerrying On

Surviving Freedom

As a child, my parents fiercely protected me. At their insistence, I remained close to home and under their tight watch. And then, one day in early 1959, they let go. When I turned thirteen, my Mom and Dad either tired of regulating my every move or began to trust me. Either way, it was as if the door to my cage had been left unlocked. Since my friends were similarly liberated, it wasn’t long until a small band of thirteen-year-old boys was roaming the area around Bellingham Bay, mostly unfettered, and completely unsupervised. We didn’t know it, but we had entered our Huck Finn years.

During this period of newly-granted independence, my friends and I became one with the earth and her treasures. We walked for miles along her pine needle paths in a quest to discover caves, explore abandoned buildings, scale cliffs, build rafts, and gaff dogfish. We ran barefoot across tide flats and meadows as we chased each other with kelp whips, puffballs, and rose-hip seeds (nature’s itching powder).

We didn’t merely explore the earth’s surface; we attacked it. We tore into the hillside to make caves, cut down trees to build forts and rafts, and heaped up massive sandcastles on tide flats. And then (as the returning water crept back), we fought to keep the flowing enemy from devouring our towers. If this wasn’t earthy enough, we played mumblety-peg, a pocketknife game that required the loser to pull a three-inch, hand carved peg out of the earth (with only his teeth)—painting his mouth, gums, and face with dark brown muck.

Having little money, we were provided for by Mother Earth until we returned home each day. For a taste of nature’s menu, we chewed sour grass and sipped from honeysuckles. As our hunger grew, we dined from the fruit of the thorny Himalayan blackberry vines that spread across the countryside like an angry rash. As we moved into the forest, we switched to huckleberries, salmon berries, and black caps. If we stumbled on a tree laden with ripe cherries, pears, or apples, we gorged on the bonanza and moved on, grimacing from the inevitable upset stomach that followed. On a dare, we chewed wild rhubarb.

As we grew more experienced, stronger, and confident, we commandeered materials from our parents. Once equipped, we built rope swings that soared thirty feet into the air. We constructed tree houses that hid us from adults. When July rolled around, we built rockets of all types. Should a rocket start a fire in the dry grass near the shore, we’d beat out the flames with wet burlap bags, strip to our cut-off jeans, and emit a savage howl as we leaped triumphantly into the bay.

We did all of this unlicensed cavorting on foot because we came from one-car families. Plus, we had a desire for seclusion. This meant that on the days we hiked to Cedar Lake, we walked five miles simply to arrive at the trailhead and another two miles up Chuckanut Mountain to get to the lake. When we arrived, it would be our voices, and our voices alone, that echoed across the mist-covered water. Jogging hadn’t been invented yet, mountain biking was unheard of, and clothing outfitters hadn’t popularized hiking. Consequently, on most of our excursions, when we arrived at our destination we were completely alone. Exactly the way we liked it.

Had we slipped into a hole in the earth on any one of these sorties, nobody would have ever found us. Our parents would never have known where to look because we gave them phony itineraries. We told our folks that we were going to safe, well-groomed parks near our homes so they wouldn’t worry about the dangers we’d face when we practiced spelunking and free-climbing without a shred of equipment or know-how.

Our folks had no idea that when the canneries jutting over the bay closed for the day, the gigantic steel tubs used to haul crabs out of fishermen’s boats were repurposed by us as we stood inside them and mechanically lowered ourselves into the water—competing for who could descend the deepest. On days our parents thought we were playing safely in a nearby park, we were waiting for the tide to go out, so we could jump from a cannery roof sixty feet in the air into ten feet of water. With each leap, our bare feet dug deep into thousand-year-old muck, the earth providing us the cushion we needed as we knifed into the bay. We did all this unbeknownst to our parents. For three years, my buddies and I scampered across, fed from, and explored the earth—unnoticed and unimpeded. She was our laboratory, cafeteria, and playground.

Should one of today’s helicopter parents look back at what my friends and I did, they’d be mortified by our casual recklessness. My mom would have been mortified had she not been so busy taking college courses and working two jobs. To be honest, I can’t believe that we, the feral boys of Bellingham, actually survived unharmed.

Now for the intriguing part. According to a recent study exploring how certain parents had reared several extraordinarily successful adults within the same family, the freedom my friends and I enjoyed might actually have been to our benefit. Child-rearing research suggests that a “free-range childhood” fuels a sense of confidence and independence that can lead to superior accomplishment later in life. More than a few scholars are now suggesting that if you want your offspring to truly excel as adults, retire the helicopter—or at least give it a rest.

But who can do that? If I had teenage kids today, I’d never allow them to roam the earth like my friends and I did. Unsupervised cavorting is just as dangerous today as it was fifty years ago. But, then again, I’d hate to think that risk-averse parenting might come at the cost of the next generation’s confidence and independence. Plus, there’s the fact that adopting a hands-off approach isn’t exactly an untested idea. When it comes to the workplace, non-hovering leadership is referred to as empowerment, and empowerment has generally proven to be a good thing. Just ask the empowered.

So what’s a person to do? I, for one, can’t imagine purposely exposing adolescents to unnecessary risks. Nevertheless, the earth will most certainly call out to them. She’ll offer up her fruits and spread forth her tide flats. She’ll tempt our youngsters to scramble across her boulders and swim in her streams. And they’ll answer. You can bet on that. So, be prepared. Take the time to teach your offspring safe practices. Warn them of common dangers and excessive risks. Empower them with skills that help them flourish in the freedom of nature’s classroom. And most important of all, refuse the sucker’s choice that says you can raise kids to be either safe or self-assured. Aim for both. Your kids deserve no less.

Change Anything QA

How to Avoid Getting Angry

Dear Emily,

How do you stop your emotions from shifting into “fight” mode and verbal violence? I understand the principles of Making It Safe, but often, I only become aware that I am in “violence” well into the conversation—when my own emotions are already heated and boiling over. The wisest choice at that point seems to be to get out of the space and conversation where I can get my emotions under control, but, by then, the damage is usually done. While I have greatly improved over the years and am far more aware of my own bullying nature (intellectual or otherwise), I still struggle to change.

Signed,
Upset & Unaware

Dear Upset & Unaware,

Oh yes, I have been there. I have been in that conversation where I said something and as the words came out of my mouth I thought, “Why am I saying this? And with this tone?” I could literally feel the expression on my face, and it was not one of curiosity or calm but rather of condemnation. So yes, I have been where you are—having raced down a path to anger, judgment, and verbal violence. Inevitably, in those moments, I think to myself, “Wait. I teach something about this. Oh, yes. It’s called Learn to Look. Learn to Look for when a conversation turns crucial because the sooner you get back into dialogue, the lower the cost.”

But sometimes learning to look seems to come too late. I don’t want to simply learn to look for the signs that a conversation is going off the rails so that I can course-correct quickly. I want to avoid going off the rails at all. So the question for me is not: “How can I recognize earlier when I have been triggered?” but, “How can I not get triggered at all?”

So that seems pretty crazy, right? Not get triggered? Ever? Impossible. In real life, stuff happens. Irritations abound. Rough edges push up against all sides of our lives. The triggers are there and will always be there. Yet the question remains, “How can I avoid being triggered?”

I have two practical ideas to offer you, but, before I get to them, I want to add a frame to the discussion and a challenge for everyone reading this.

The Frame

Viktor Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” This is the idea I am fascinated by—that we need not wait until our response has begun and then somehow catch ourselves because we are responding in a way that is overly forceful, or angry, or violent. If we learn to see that space, to expand it, to live in it, then we can respond in ways of our choosing, rather than simply reacting. The question is then, what can we do to enlarge and inhabit that space more often?

There is no one right answer to this question. I have two ideas that I believe are helpful. However, just as we teach in Change Anything, no one can tell you what your Vital Behavior will be for a change you need to make. Everyone’s Vital Behaviors will be different and diverse.

A lot of people read this newsletter (over 350,000), and there will be a lot of different answers regarding how we can enlarge and inhabit the space between stimulus and response. So I challenge you to share your own answer with us in the comments below. What do you do to enlarge and inhabit this space? I am looking forward to seeing the wisdom of this particular crowd.

And, without further ado, two ideas to help.

1. Morally engage—all the time. In his new book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live with Themselves, psychologist Albert Bandura makes the point that we are not bad people but that we behave badly (Want to win a signed copy of this book? Read to the end to learn how to enter). And when we act in ways or treat people in ways that are counter to our moral compass, we use a variety of strategies to disengage from that morality and thereby reduce our inner conflict. Said another way, our poor actions are not a result of moral defect but of moral slumber. If we want to behave better, we need to wake ourselves up.

Here is one example of how you might do that: Write a note to yourself that awakens you to your values and then review it regularly. Write down what it means to you to be a good person or why you care about other people. Put it on a card that your carry in your wallet or a Post-It note on your computer monitor. Put it in your phone. Set an alarm to read it regularly. Wake yourself up again and again to who you are and who you want to be.

The note in my office that is directly beneath my monitor screen and that I read several times a day is, “Never let a problem to be solved be more important than a person to be loved.” This is meaningful to me because I am a problem-solver. A fast problem-solver. Far too often, when I am in problem-solving mode, people become barriers between me and the solution. But while it is true that in moments of moral disengagement, I can become so focused on a problem and solution that I forget people, it is also true that I have a deep, abiding respect for humans and humanity. I love people and I want to be the person who connects with other people. It is not about changing who I am, but simply reminding myself of who I am.

2. Eat for energy. Bet you weren’t expecting that one! I just finished reading Jim Loehr’s, The Power of Full Engagement. Among the many takeaways for me was that the energy we bring to an interaction impacts the outcome. Dr. Loehr’s goal is to help people learn to manage their energy in a way that improves interactions, impact, and outcomes.

I recently received some very valuable 360 feedback. As I analyzed and mapped this feedback, I realized that some of my interactions don’t always go so well. Turns out, the interactions where I am abrupt, short-tempered, or irritated occur between 3:00 and 5:00 p.m. Really. It’s uncanny, but not surprising. I eat breakfast and lunch early and by 4:00 p.m. I’m usually running on low blood sugar. Compounding my low energy is the fact that I have usually been sitting for hours on end by this point. So when someone comes in for a crucial conversation, it is not surprising that I don’t always handle it well.

The solution is, in part, to eat in ways that provide sustained, useful energy for me throughout the day. Basically, eat often and eat light. I started having an apple or a piece of cheese or a handful of nuts about 3:00 p.m.—before I start feeling tired or irritable. And then I get up and walk around and take some deep breaths. I have noticed that when I do this consistently, my interactions are far more effective and far more kind.

So, there you have it—a frame, challenge, and two ideas. I am looking forward to seeing what other ideas are out there!

Best of luck,
Emily

Win a signed copy of Albert Bandura’s book. Share your idea in the comments below and then also email us your answer at editor@vitalsmarts.com under the subject line: “I’d like a signed copy.” We will award books to those with the four best answers.

Crucial Conversations QA

Are You Being Passive-Aggressive?

Dear Steve,

I recently took the Crucial Conversations course and learned about the silence-dialogue-violence spectrum. I believe my tendency is to go to silence at work, but violence at home. I’ve wondered why I react differently in these two situations. I speculated that perhaps the reason was that I felt safer at home. However, I recently realized that what may look like silence at work may truly be passive-aggressive behavior. This prompted the following question: Where does passive-aggressive behavior fall on the spectrum? Is it silence or veiled violence?

Sincerely,
Earnest Self-Reflection

Dear Earnest,

Some years ago, I happened upon an article in the Money section of USA Today. The section started with an article about former IRS repo men, and, quite frankly, I couldn’t imagine anything being more riveting. I was wrong. There on the next page, appeared a title as if illuminated in neon lights: “When You’re Smiling, Are You Seething Inside?” Hmmm . . . repo men? Or smiling while seething? I think you can guess that I quickly switched articles. What I thought would be an exposé on specific individuals’ behavior turned out to be an exploration of organizational behavior—or, more accurately, collective behavior within organizations. It not only outlined the impact of passive/aggressive culture, but also the industries that were most prone to foster this type of culture. Reading this article started me on a path of thinking about and observing (and on occasion participating in) both individual and collective passive/aggressive behavior patterns. And so, after years of study, I can definitively say that the answer to your question is yes. If that seems confusing, let me explain.

Over the years, I’ve noticed something interesting about the silence-violence continuum. It doesn’t always behave like a true continuum. There are many instances where it is more accurately represented as an arc—and not the altruistic kind like Noah’s or Joan’s. In the case of this arc, silence and violence remain the anchors, but instead of being represented as polar opposites, they bend back toward one another. In many situations they touch, facilitating the surprisingly quick jump from silence to violence or from violence to silence. And so to your question. Passive-aggressive behavior can easily assume the form of veiled violence or silence because it is.

This may seem a little counter-intuitive, but silence and violence are rooted in the same value—fear. And while it might seem easy to make the connection between silence strategies and fear, the fear-to-violence connection wasn’t as easy for me to figure out. Some examples of violence motivated by fear might be: “I’m afraid you won’t agree with me so I have to assert control,” or, “I’m afraid I’ll be seen as less, so I have to go on the attack.” So if we think about silence and violence strategies as different expressions of the same feeling, what used to be well established boundaries start to blur. And sometimes, they blur to the point of not being able to clearly categorize the behavior.

And now, on to a question you didn’t ask but that I feel warrants being part of the discussion. There are two types of passive/aggressive behavior that I see most often as I work with different organizations. They take different forms in different regions of the world. So as you review them, see if you can identify how and where they show up where you live and work.

Sarcasm. This first type is more of an aggressive/passive strategy. It’s one of the most common signs that someone doesn’t feel safe while, at the same time, causing feelings of insecurity in others. Because it’s readily available—and we are surrounded by so many examples—it’s widely used. To be clear, there is such a thing as playful, fun sarcasm. But a lot of what I see in organizations is sarcasm rooted in the origins of the word. Derived from the Greek sarkazein, sarcasm literally means “to strip off the flesh.” Ouch! And in a lame effort to ease the pain of the cut, it’s always followed-up with some version of the old classic, “I’m only kidding! Can’t you take a joke?”

Gossip. This second strategy is more of the tried and true passive/aggressive approach. The idea is that whenever you feel you’re in a weaker position, you launch an assault behind the other person’s back. Never share your concerns, reservations, or controversial perspectives in the moment while talking directly to the other person. Instead, wait until you find an uninvolved third party with absolutely no ability to resolve any of the issues you bring up. Extra bonus points if you can talk to someone who might eventually leak the details of your concerns, without naming who had them, to someone who can do something about it. This version may seem less vicious when compared to the previous example, and yet it’s just as real in its long-term impact on the health of both the relationship and the culture of the organization.

Just to be clear, I don’t dwell on these wedge-driving behaviors for fun. I believe that the sooner we recognize we aren’t in dialogue—especially when we find ourselves on more artful, subtle departures—the faster we can get back to dialogue and the fewer the casualties. I wish you many passive/aggressive-free conversations!

Best of Luck,
Steve