Kerrying On

You’re Not A Good Enough Actor

In the early 1980s, I slowly transitioned from teaching MBA classes to designing corporate training programs. Surprisingly, with this change in focus, my design partners and I soon found ourselves in, of all places, Hollywood—not the glamorous version that produces dazzling movies, but the not-so-glamorous version that produces industrial videos.

Here’s what took us to Tinsel Town. Our typical training design project consisted of following around top-performing leaders and watching how they handled challenges such as missed deadlines. From these observations, we extracted behavioral tactics (best practices) that we could teach to other leaders. The down-side being that merely talking in a training session about these valuable tactics required trainers to be gifted at describing behaviors and trainees to be talented at turning abstractions into action. Instead, we opted to demonstrate the skills on video—which took us to Hollywood.

As you might suspect, this demand to produce and direct mini-movies of leaders in action called for a huge change in the lives of training designers. My colleagues and I knew a fair amount about social science theory and practice but little about video production. Okay, we knew nothing about video production.

With time and coaching, we eventually figured out how to develop video snippets that could be used in our training but, sadly, not ones that suited everybody. Our acting team appeared a bit too white-collar. To balance out the mix, we needed to find an actor who could embody someone who was used to getting his hands dirty at work (for clients who did just that). One evening, after watching the sitcom Alf on TV, it struck me that John LaMotta, the talented actor who played the role of Alf’s neighbor Trevor Ochmonek, would be perfect for the part of a heavy-duty production worker. I called him, sent him a script, and picked him up at the airport a few weeks later to join our acting troupe as we began work on a new video project.

The next morning, I directed the first rehearsal. When it came time for John to—in his own words—“make magic,” he stormed onto the set. The situation was simple. John portrayed a gruff-looking production worker whose co-worker had failed to deliver materials to him on time—causing him problems. John’s job was to resolve the issue. To keep the scene fresh, I gave John no direction except to deliver his lines in a way that felt comfortable to him. I wanted John to calmly describe the problem in a respectful and professional way, but would he interpret the scene in that manner? Time would tell.

With the shout of “Action!” John walked onto the set, hit his mark, and delivered his opening line: “You said you’d have product to me by noon, but it never arrived. What happened?” Note: the script we had written contained no inflammatory words, insults, threats, or attacks—just a simple description of the problem followed by a diagnostic question. John delivered the correct words—no problem there—but he said them with such force and disgust that the other actor nearly melted.

“Cut!” I shouted as I leaped into the set and explained to John that he sounded furious and needed to try the scene anew but without the acrimony. Once again, I didn’t tell John how to interpret the script because I had been taught that if you over-direct, or worse still, show actors the delivery you want, they tend to mimic your performance and you lose their unique interpretation.

This time, John walked onto the set with his arms folded, slowly circled the other actor, shook his head in utter disgust, and delivered his line in a deadly whisper. It was chilling. For the third take, John poked the fellow with his massive index finger. Thump, thump, thump. It hurt just watching. Next, John sneered at the other actor so malignantly that it caused a camera operator to flinch.

For another five takes, John found five new ways to accost his coworker while I patiently waited for him to deliver an opening line that would lead to a respectful discussion. Each time, John expressed the same neutral words we had written but with new punitive body twitches, facial tics, and voice fluctuations that turned what should have been a professional, problem-solving conversation into an attack.

Finally, I gave up. I broke the rule of offering minimum direction by telling John that the fellow who had let him down was his good friend and that John was curious as to why his coworker hadn’t delivered the goods on time.

“He’s my friend, and I’m curious?” John repeated. “Yup,” I answered.

Then John delivered the lines perfectly—clearly, correctly, and full of respect.

This experience affected every scene I’ve directed from that day forward. It has also influenced how my partners and I teach how to deal with disappointments, infractions, and bad behavior. No matter how talented an actor you believe you are, if you choose to talk to others about infractions while retaining negative thoughts about how they fowled-up, your harsh judgments invariably creep into your body and facial movements. You can try to be nice, but some part of you (seemingly of its own accord) tenses up and you look upset. First a strained smile, then a contortion of the muscles in your neck, then a tapping foot, then a vein madly pulsing in your forehead—all implying a threat—all reflecting your underlying negative judgment. If you were playing poker, you’d call these revealing reactions “tells”—slight body movements or facial expressions that give away your underlying emotion (in John’s case, disappointment and anger).

John taught us that if you desire to respectfully deal with people who have let you down or behaved badly, you can’t focus solely on managing the “tells” that so readily take over your body. It’s insufficient. As soon as you fix one tell, another one replaces it. So you have to work on your underlying thinking by replacing harsh judgments with genuine curiosity. If not, no matter how nice or “professionally” you think you’re behaving, or how under control you feel, your body is emitting signals that plainly reveal your underlying disappointment, disrespect, and disgust.

So, start problem-solving discussions with sincere respect for the individual who has taken a misstep. Take care to maintain a healthy curiosity regarding the circumstances. If you assume the best—not the worst—of others, the correct body language (from a relaxed jaw to a pleasant tone) will naturally follow. In short, don’t condemn others in your heart and then try to mask your harsh judgments one “tell” at a time. You’re not a good enough actor to pull it off. John certainly wasn’t—and the same is true for the rest of us.

Crucial Conversations QA

Feasting with Unruly Relatives

The following article was first published on November 17, 2010.

Dear Crucial Skills,

With the holidays quickly approaching, I have found myself caught in a sucker’s choice with my family. My wife and I have made it a tradition to travel to my parents’ home seven hours away for Thanksgiving. This year, my parents informed me that my sister will also stay there. My sister is a drug addict and has been in and out of jail for thirty years. Every time she gets out, she claims to clean up her life and my parents roll out the red carpet to help her. When she returns to her destructive patterns, they turn a blind eye.

For years, this has caused all kinds of problems between my parents and five siblings. I would love to keep my tradition of spending Thanksgiving with my parents, but I don’t feel comfortable staying in the same home with my sister. It’s a rural area so there are no hotels or other arrangements available.

I see only two options: either continue with the tradition and hate the experience (which could also be potentially dangerous), or forgo the tradition and hurt my relationship with my parents. I can’t find a win-win here. Please help.

Signed,
Stuck

Dear Stuck,

If you’ll give me some latitude, I’m going to wax philosophical and share my perspective on the purpose of life. My goal is not to persuade you that my view of life is right, but simply to share one perspective that gives context to my suggestions.

In my view, life is about achieving intimacy with those we’re inseparably connected to. Family is first and foremost in that category.

Now, how is that relevant to my dialogue with you? Because I walk in your shoes. I have dear ones who also struggle with addiction. Some of the most searing pain of my life has been watching them destroy months of progress—only to land once again in jail or on the street. Almost equally painful is watching those who care about them behave in ways that positively enable their self-destruction. It’s agonizing. And my natural reflexes toggle between an overwhelming urge to either take control of the situation or to distance myself from it.

And yet, neither impulse is consistent with my view of the purpose of my life, which is to develop the character to achieve intimacy with imperfect people. When I try to take control or distance myself from my struggling loved ones, I find that my life is the poorer and my character weakens.

When I find myself in your shoes, the question now becomes, how can I remain close in a way that exerts positive influence on those who are the most troubled?

Enough with the philosophy. So what about your situation?

First of all, you made a reference to danger. If by that you mean you might take children into a situation when your sister is using, I would decline and explain this concern to your parents. And when doing so, cleanse yourself of any intention of using this decision as a threat to get them to exclude your sister. Simply explain that you can appreciate their desire to include your sister—and hope it is a good experience for them and her—but that your children give you other considerations. You may even want to make a call on Thanksgiving Day and wish your parents and sister well so they don’t misinterpret the decision.

If you choose to participate in the Thanksgiving tradition, there are a couple of crucial conversations you’ll need to have:

1. Motives. You need to change your motives. This year may not be about peace and harmony in the home. It may be filled with uncertainty and awkwardness, but it might still be meaningful. In fact, it could be more meaningful than many others. Your goal will not be to fix your sister or to correct your parents. It will be to improve your relationships with all of them—to try to achieve greater intimacy. Doing so may increase your positive influence in the future in all their lives.

2. Boundaries. You can’t control your sister or your parents, but you can control yourself. Decide in advance what kinds of situations may play out. Then ask yourself, “If what I really want is to be a positive influence on my sister and my parents, how will I respond?” Don’t wait until the resentment of the moment hits to make this decision. Think it through in advance.

Then discuss these boundary conditions with your parents. Let them know you love them and want to be part of this holiday, and that you have your own view of how to deal with some of the potential challenges. You don’t ask that they agree with you, you just want to explain your intentions so they can understand your motives in case you behave in a way they find jarring.

For example, if your sister uses, you may choose to leave or you may call the police. Before you arrive, discuss these boundaries with your parents and see if you can come to terms on them. If you disagree in important ways, you may elect not to participate. If that is the case, do not announce that decision in a punishing way. Don’t use your decision as a way of provoking your parents to concede to you on these points. Honor their right to disagree. Affirm them. Express your love. Ask if it’s okay if you arrange another visit with them when things are simpler.

If after working through these two conversations you find yourself at the family gathering, be as good as your word. Take small steps to show love to your sister. Expose yourself to the discomfort of possible disappointment or rejection. You may well find, in some future situation, that your improved relationship with her puts you in a position of influence to help her take a steadier step toward sobriety. It may be one step forward and two steps back (it certainly has been with some of those I love).

While these situations are complex and difficult, I can tell you that this Thanksgiving, one of the blessings I will feel most intensely is the intimacy I now have with one who looked the most helpless for the longest time.

I hope I haven’t been too presumptuous. If I’ve misunderstood your situation or imposed my own views inappropriately, please forgive me and don’t let my imperfection drive distance between you and me.

Sincerely,
Joseph

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Broach a Difficult Topic

Dear Crucial Skills,

As the mother of two adult children who are each very intelligent and gainfully employed, I try and stay out of their personal decisions. However, one of them started smoking during his high school years. The smoking has continued for almost twenty years. His father and I worry about his health but have trouble understanding how to (or if we should) broach this topic productively with him.

Signed,
Uneasy Parents

Dear Uneasy Parents,

To broach or not to broach—that is the question. Or even better, how to broach without reproach? And it’s not simply a question of whether or not to bring up a particular topic, but also how to do it in way that’s positive and impactful. I find that when people are facing this, and similar challenges, they merge these two separate and distinct questions into one. And since they usually don’t have a good response to how to be positive and impactful, they easily dismiss the answer regarding whether to bring up the topic in the first place. In essence we think, “I’m not sure I’d be able to address (fill in your concern here), so it’s probably not worth bringing up.” We choose to “live” with the situation despite the negative consequences. So let’s tackle these questions one at a time.

First, to broach or not broach? The outcome from either choice seems to have a big downside—accept his smoking habit or ruin the relationship—especially in light of the current strains on an already weak relationship. In Crucial Conversations, we describe the pull toward these two alternatives as choosing between silence and violence. And in case you didn’t already notice, regardless of which you choose, you lose. So we end up choosing the more palatable option out of two bad alternatives—silence. Essentially, this means we’ve lost from the outset, before we’ve even taken any action. By choosing silence, we believe that we’re voting in favor of maintaining the relationship while really undermining the relationship we’re trying so hard to maintain. Let me give you an example:

Years ago, my wife’s sister and her husband had their first child—happy day for everyone! Well, maybe not everyone. In my wife’s family, it is assumed that her mother will be invited to the home to help take care of the new arrival. So my mother-in-law started to make travel arrangements even before the baby was born. However, these arrangements had to be undone because my sister-in-law had already invited someone else to come and help with the new baby without alerting her mother. You see, my brother-in-law had some mother-in-law issues. Instead of addressing the concerns in the open, my sister-in-law tried to brush them under the rug and created a whole new set of mother/daughter issues. This is a good example of the principle that what we don’t talk out, we act out. It never ends well.

To get out of this trap, try drafting a more complete consequence list for smoking. What do I mean by that? When faced with a difficult conversation, our head quickly volunteers to do the hard work of calculating the potential outcomes for speaking up and quickly saves itself from any additional hard work by quickly convincing you that a conversation won’t be worth it. We tend to focus on the short-term, negative consequences (like straining your relationship) and look past the long-term, positive consequences of actually sharing our concerns (like helping your son avoid a terminal illness). Relieve your brain of this responsibility by capturing all of the consequences on paper. When you’re able to consider a more complete and accurate list, you can make a more informed decision about how to proceed.

Once you decide the topic’s worth broaching, how do you go about it? Most often in these types of situations, my first thoughts are aligned with the STATE skills in Crucial Conversations. They provide the perfect framework to help people raise tough, controversial issues or concerns in a way that minimizes defensiveness and invites the other person into the conversation. And yet, how you describe your son in your question pulls me in a different direction—especially your description of his intelligence.

Many times, when talking with intelligent people about strongly entrenched habits like smoking, our approach invites defensiveness—even when using STATE skills. Why? Because we approach it as if the person needs more information about the negative impacts of his or her choices (the unsavory smell, coughing, emphysema, lung cancer, the list goes on). The other person has seen the ads, and likely know the statistics. More information is not the problem. Your son is already well-informed. Instead, try getting him to consider an insightful question.

Here’s what we’ve found: it’s very natural for people to resist when confronted head-on about issues that require significant effort to change. They hear your argument and treat it as an argument. That means taking a position, digging in to defend the position, and actively looking for ways to reinforce that position—which is not very conducive to an honest exploration. If you’re looking to create motivation, don’t start with sharing more information.

Bill Miller pioneered an approach that focused on influential questions. He found that exploration can be more powerful in creating the conditions conducive to change than explanation. For example, lead with a question like, “I was wondering how smoking interferes with (insert your son’s favorite activity or even an important role he plays, like at work, for example)?” This probing question produces far less defensiveness than, “let me tell you why I wish you wouldn’t smoke.” You’re not forcing him to take the opposite position from you, and it’s directing him towards something he regularly experiences. Get him to explore the implications of his choices so he is less ambivalent about making different choices.

These types of conversations are tricky and usually require a lot of love, concern, and patience. Hopefully these ideas will give you some options for approaching your son. I wish you the best in beginning this conversation and as you create the conditions to explore and reinforce the motivations for change that he probably already has.

All the best,
Steve