Kerrying On

Our Red Rock Christmas

I suppose that the Christmas traditions we cling to the most as an adult are the ones we enjoyed the most as children. This means that, for some people, pine trees covered with lead-foil tinsel are a must. For others, if the family wassail doesn’t contain fresh pineapple juice, why, it’s simply unacceptable. And, of course, if somebody doesn’t sing about the time their Grandmother got run over by a reindeer—what kind of holiday season is that?

This being the case, you can imagine what it was like for my wife and me when my parents invited us to spend our 1972 holiday season with them in their new home. This meant that the celebration wouldn’t be held in Northwestern Washington where I had been raised (and where Christmas was done correctly), but in the red rock town of Peach Springs, Arizona, where Dad had taken a job managing the local trading post—a place, I surmised, that would not be the least bit in sync with our family’s time-honored traditions.

“I suppose joyfully sliding down the snow-covered foothills of Mt. Baker atop an inverted car hood is out of the question,” I mumbled to my wife as I envisioned the scratchy, dry, red sandstone celebration Dad was promising us. “Plus,” I continued, “you can bet that I won’t be stuffing myself with the Hoag’s (our Washington neighbors) delicious smoked salmon. You can get excommunicated for less than that,” I mumbled in Louise’s direction. “I’m pretty sure that not eating smoked salmon during the holidays is a vegan sin.”

“Venial sin,” Louise corrected me.

“Either way,” I responded, “I’ll miss the sockeye.”

This whole “let’s expand our horizons” holiday was about to take place because earlier that year, Dad had accepted a job offer to run the Hualapai tribe’s retail businesses located forty-two miles northeast of Kingman, Arizona, just off Route 66. And now, after living almost a year in Peach Springs, he and Mom couldn’t wait for us to come celebrate the holidays with them.

“We also have,” Dad shouted over the phone, “a magnificent gift for you. I swear it’s going to knock your . . . ” but then Mom cut him off: “Hang up the phone before you ruin the big surprise!” Click.

What surprise?

When my parents first arrived at the trading post, Mom immediately fell in love with the Native American artwork that the store proudly displayed. Clay pottery, fancy leather work, turquoise squash blossoms, and other art pieces, all caught her attention. But it was the locally produced basketry that most impressed Mom. Unfortunately, the beautifully woven baskets were expensive. But then again, maybe if she cut back a little here and a tad there she could buy a basket for Louise and me. She’d have to wait and see. A hundred dollars was a lot of money.

And then, as if she had been reading Mom’s mind, Lucy (one of the local basket makers), asked Mom for a favor.

“You own a van,” Lucy observed. “I was wondering if you’d drive me a few miles north to an area where the shoots I use to make my baskets are now the right size to be harvested. I’ll cut them and load them into your van. You just need to haul me and the shoots.”

Of course she would haul the shoots, Mom thought to herself. Better still, she’d help cut them as well.

Two days later, with visions of baskets dancing in her head, Mom and her new friend Lucy climbed into Mom’s Volkswagen van and merrily headed off in pursuit of northern Arizona tree shoots of some sort. It was a miserably hot day, the work would be difficult, and Mom’s heart was soon to be tested (cue ominous music).

After working arduously for eight hours in the heat-cutting enough basket material to nearly fill the Van, Mom signaled to Lucy that she felt sick. Then, to prove her point, she passed out. Lucy thought Mom was dead. (She wasn’t, of course, but she did suffer some sort of episode.) Notwithstanding the frightening setback, a few minutes later when Mom eventually came to, she insisted on finishing the job.

“Plus,” she told Lucy, “I want to buy all the baskets these shoots will make. I almost died for them. I want to purchase every single one of them.”

“Why, Mrs. Patterson!” Lucy responded. “The shoots we’ve gathered today are barely enough to make one basket.” And thus, Mom was introduced to the harsh economics of making handcrafted baskets. Lucy not only gathered an entire van full of shoots, she also dried them, split them, died them, and wove them—until one day, after several weeks of taxing labor, she presented Mom with her finished one-hundred-dollar basket. This was the present Mom couldn’t wait to give us. This was the gift that had almost stopped her heart.

You can imagine the scene that unfolded that Christmas Eve as we sat cheek-to-jowl in the cramped space behind the Hualapai trading post. At the first stroke of gift-giving time, Mom reached under the tree, gathered up a beautifully wrapped box, and placed it at our feet. I had no idea what was inside.

“It’s a handmade Hualapai basket!” Mom explained as she helped Louise tear through the tissue paper. “My friend Lucy made it! Isn’t it gorgeous?” Then Mom went on to explain the meaning contained in the basket’s design and the story of how she had collapsed—all the while staring intently into our faces—taking pleasure from knowing that her gift had brought us joy. That’s right, she wasn’t looking for praise for having given us such a special gift (as is often the case) she was simply reveling in our delight.

It was on this day I realized that all gifts, thoughtfully and lovingly given, are similar to Russian nesting dolls. I know this sounds silly, but it’s true. The basket Mom gave us wasn’t covered with hand-painted babushkas, but it was a nested gift all the same. The external component was the Hualapai basket itself—perfectly shaped and gorgeously designed. Nested inside lay the fascinating Native American history captured in the basket’s intricate pattern. Nested within this lay the story of Mom’s harrowing sacrifice. And finally, if you continued for long enough, you’d come to the centerpiece—the hardest to get to and, in some ways, the loveliest addition. It was the radiant look on Mom’s face.

This concept of nesting several elements into a single gift was made even clearer to me five years later—in a rather odd way. Someone stole our beloved basket. I couldn’t believe that somebody had actually taken our precious art piece. Fortunately, I was now mature enough to realize that only the basket itself was gone. We still had the lion’s share of the gift.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” my nine-year-old granddaughter asked as I told her about my red-rock epiphany.

“Nested, one piece inside the next,” I explained, “we had the appreciation for native history and art, the tender story behind Mom’s sacrifice, and the glorious look on her face as her love washed across the trading post.”

“But the basket’s gone,” my granddaughter exclaimed.

“Not to me,” I answered. “Not to me.”

Crucial Conversations QA

Why “Brutal Honesty” Isn’t Honest At All

Dear Justin,

I get a little tired of dancing around issues. People want me to beat around the bush or butter them up before I come down hard on them. It’s not my problem if they don’t want to hear the truth. I’m just someone who tells it like it is, and sometimes that’s tough for people.

Brutally Honest

Dear Brutally Honest,

Sometimes, it seems easiest to say what you’re thinking and feeling instead of filtering your thoughts and comments. But, as honest as you think you are, I’m guessing your current delivery isn’t actually as honest as it could be. I believe you’re holding back some honesty in an effort to be a little “brutal,” as you stated. I’ll give a little advice here to help you be even more honest—incredibly honest. But not in the way you might think.

1. Your beliefs about something are not the same thing as ultimate truth. I’ve heard dozens of people say, “I just tell it how it is.” They say this as if the way they see things is the same as “how it is.” This fundamental misbelief is where we go wrong. I’m going to encourage you to be crystal clear on “how it is” by separating facts from stories. Make sure you completely understand what the other person said, or what he or she did, that has you concerned. Consider: what did he or she say? What are some of the behaviors he or she exhibited? How many episodes where there? Is there documentation of the situation that supports your concern? Just because you feel very strongly about your opinions doesn’t make them facts. The more you focus on facts—what you saw, heard, observed—the more influential you’ll be in the conversation.

2. Share your opinions as opinions, not as facts. When it’s time to talk, don’t overstate your opinions. Have you ever watched a political debate? Inevitably, during these events you’ll hear one, or both sides, say something to the effect of, “Actually, Representative Hale, the fact of the matter is . . . ” and then they proceed to share their opinion, view, or perspective on the topic. Why do they do that? Because they want to make their opinions seem like facts. They want to add more weight to their views to coerce people into agreeing with them by giving their opinions the façade of fact. You and I do this as well. Try the following:

  • Instead of saying, “Fact of the matter is . . . ” try, “It seems to me . . . “
  • Instead of saying, “You never . . . ” try, “The last three times . . . “
  • Instead of saying, “You don’t have any clue about . . . ” try, “I’m starting to think that . . . “

It’s not false uncertainty when we’re talking opinions. Facts are certain. Stories and opinions can be changed and molded.

3. Realize honesty is not what you think it is. As you mentioned, it’s common for us to feel like we can’t be “too honest” for fear it will hurt people’s feelings. This idea comes from a misunderstanding about what it means to be honest. Being honest has nothing to do with being angry, hurtful, mean, or “letting off steam.” Showing those emotions has nothing to do with honesty, but for some reason, we equate them with each other. Being more honest is about being more clear, more specific, more sincere, and more authentic. So, you DON’T have to raise your voice to increase your honesty. You DO need to be more effective at stating the observable facts of the situation and your honest perspective about those facts. My model for starting even the toughest conversations is this:

  • Share your facts
  • Tell your story (opinion)
  • Ask for others’ perspectives

If you do these steps effectively, there is no limit to how honest you can be . . . only a limit to how brutal you can be.

Take Care,
Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at
Crucial Conversations QA

How to Survive an Abusive Conversation

Dear Steve,

What do you suggest when you try to use the Crucial Conversations skills only to realize the other person is unhealthy, unaware, and unable to communicate effectively, respectfully, or civilly? Many people are healthy and just don’t have the communication skills, and when they are mentored or trained, they can learn to communicate better. But what do you do when you run into people who are not healthy or seem to have issues like anger management, narcissism, etc.?


Dear Stumped,

Some years back, I found myself in, what I considered, a fairly unnerving situation. At the time, I was part of an organization that provided lay counseling to neighbors, by neighbors. While we didn’t handle really significant, chronic, mental health issues, we dealt with some tricky situations.

I remember receiving a call one evening from an older, single woman who wanted to talk with someone. Her adult son, living in another state, had just been incarcerated and she wanted to process it with someone. Once I determined it wasn’t an urgent need, and something that was within my own mandate, I let her know I’d be happy to come over and could be there in about twenty minutes. The silence on the other end of the phone was the first sign of trouble.

After what seemed like an eternity, I checked to see if she was still on the line, “Will that work for you?” I asked again.

“If I wanted someone in twenty minutes, I would have called in twenty minutes!” she stated aggressively.

Now, some of my peers had warned me this person was prone to yell and become abusive. But I had “mastered my story” so I figured I was okay to proceed. I also figured she’d surely respond well if presented with a Crucial Conversations approach. The sublime principles and skills would soothe her fears and bring her back to a healthy interaction. With this inner reassurance, I calmly proceeded back in to the conversation.

I paraphrased back what I understood her concerns to be, reaffirmed my purpose (which was to make sure she got the support she needed), and I rejected all the “either/or” choices as I tried to expand my mind to all the potential “and” options that would create safety. I was in the moment and one with the principles. I was also in deep trouble.

She turned more abusive. Her volume increased, words became more cutting. I felt shell-shocked.

I tried to interrupt her tirade to get us back on track—back to dialogue. I lead with the only thing that came to mind, “Look, I can tell you’re upset and I really want to help you, and yet the way we’re interacting right now is getting in the way.”

Her response let me know she heard my statement as well as how she felt about it. The abuse ratcheted up a notch—something I hadn’t believed possible. I absolutely could not believe a person would treat another person in this manner.

It finally reached a breaking point for me. I reaffirmed that I hoped she’d get the help she was looking for, that it wouldn’t be from me at this time, provided her with the contact information of others who might be able to help, and informed her that I would be hanging up. Which I wasn’t able to do as she hung up first (but not before she fired off some choice, closing remarks).

I was left holding the phone, completely dumbstruck. What had just happened? I’d used my best Crucial Conversations skills and they didn’t work. In fact, it seemed to make the situation worse—much worse. Crucial Conversations skills had failed . . . or had they?

As I reflected on the interaction, I realized I usually thought of success or failure in a dialogue in terms of how the other person responded. But this time it was different. I still thought the skills were of benefit despite the response I received. But why? And how? My understanding started to expand as I realized that the biggest benefit of my Crucial Conversations skills across many different types of interactions was that they helped me to not become part of the problem. It was then that I began to value the impact the principles had on me. It also helped me rethink some of my long held Crucial Conversations assumptions.

Just because you’re engaging in dialogue doesn’t mean the resulting decisions have to be consensus. You always have options to escalate, or even terminate, interactions. When you’re in a position where you believe your safety (psychological or physical) is purposefully being threatened, it’s appropriate to disengage. And you can use your Crucial Conversations skills to do so respectfully.

I’ve also come to better understand the power of telling the rest of the story—especially when it comes to the villain story. So why would a reasonable, rational, decent person continue to berate me despite my best efforts?

Much of what goes into our stories has to do with how we attribute the motives of the person who’s done us wrong. “She did it because she enjoys it!” or “She’s just like that!” are very common attributions we make. It was during tough situations like the one I described above, that I realized even when others’ motives are bad and directed at me, I can still choose to respond in a productive, positive way. I don’t have to be a victim; I can simply choose to get out of the line of fire. There is a powerful and calming connection between these principles of Master My Stories and Start with Heart.

So, while it may be appropriate to stop a particular conversation, it doesn’t mean you have to stop using the skills. Over the years, I’ve become more and more appreciative of the way the skills have positively impacted me—just as much as they have impacted others.

Best of luck,

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at