Kerrying On

Space: The Final Frontier

Now that I’m retired and have time on my hands, I’ve decided to work on something I’ve been avoiding for years—old photos. I’m going to sift through dozens of shoe boxes, envelopes, and albums, and not only organize the photos contained therein, but also scan the pictures as a means of transforming them into digital files.

Here’s why. Once you scan photos, you can send their electronic essence (along with the digital photos you’ve taken since around 2002) to the cloud. Then your kids and grandkids can look at everything from your great grandfather’s baby picture taken in 1880, to something you shot on your smart phone yesterday. Plus, you can crop, clean, lighten, darken, and otherwise edit photos once you’ve reduced them to digital records.

I figure that the long and tedious job of digitizing photos falls on me because the world upgraded to digital platforms fifteen years ago and most people (including my kids and grandkids) won’t give a second’s thought to the once-cherished family snapshots that are currently stuffed away in corners, boxes, and drawers. Worse still, younger folks aren’t exactly losing sleep over what’s going to happen to vintage family photos as they age out of memory and fade out of sight. Plus, old fogies such as myself may be the last people around who know anything about the stories behind each photo—which is what makes them so interesting in the first place.

For instance, I was poring through a box of black-and-white pictures my great-grandparents passed along and, to my surprise, written on the back of one of them was the following note: “This little darling is your cousin Elizabeth. The vase on the table next to her is Tiffany (New York). I’m surprised that Elizabeth’s mother Mary hasn’t broken it yet. She breaks more dishes than a green maid.”

I stumbled on this treasure when my mother was still alive and she could tell me about the photo and the story behind it. The person who wrote the note was my great-grandmother Lilly Davis. She was raised in a wealthy home where she had been trained in everything from oil painting to opera. In fact, her voice was so beautiful, she auditioned for the New York Opera in the late 1890s and was scheduled to start performing in the fall. That is, until she bumped into a young man (in her front yard no less) who instantly captured her heart. “It was love at first sight,” my mother explained. “They knew they had found their life companion the moment they locked eyes.”

Their sudden love also initiated a disaster. Lilly wouldn’t be preparing for the opera that summer—not with her parent’s support, at least—because Lilly had fallen in love with the gardener. The poor fellow knew nothing of Tiffany vases, green maids, and opera. And then Lilly’s mother did exactly what you’d expect from a person raised on old money, she forbade her daughter from seeing the common laborer. When the young couple disobeyed her, she banished the two from the family.

In response, the two snuck away, were married by the justice of the peace, and headed west for a better life. Wagons, surreys, shoe leather, and trains (no cars or highways back then), took the newlyweds to coastal Oregon where they settled down and raised four boys and four girls—including my grandmother Priscilla.

As the Booths were raising their family in Oregon, half way across the country in Dyersville, Iowa, Billy Noonan, the curious son of Irish immigrants, was being raised by his fraternal aunt and uncle (his parents had passed). The two unlikely parents possessed such harsh temperaments that they routinely beat Billy for the smallest of infractions. At age 12, tiring of the sting of the whip, Billy packed a bag and walked across the entire state of Iowa to find his late mother’s sister and family. Billy found love and support in western Iowa and remained dear friends with his cousin Mae for the next 80 years—all of which was captured in notes written on the back of old photos.

After graduating from high school, traveling the country, and working in everything from trapping to riverboat gambling, Billy (now Bill) landed in a coastal Oregon town where he found work as a lumber inspector. On the first evening, Bill sat down for a meal at his new boarding house, Priscilla, the attractive young woman serving the food, stole his heart. A man who had once hiked, hitched, and huffed his way across the country, and a woman whose parents had made a similarly arduous journey, met over a bowl of beef stew in a tiny berg located miles from everywhere. The pair fell in love, married, and eventually had a baby girl they named Melba—my mother.

As you might imagine, I would love for my offspring to pore over our old family photos and the digital records I’m now creating, and learn about the people who supplied their DNA. But who’s going to scrounge through boxes and envelopes, or search through computer files, and discuss the people and events found in the images? You can’t lecture, guilt, or otherwise inspire your kids into doing such a thing—not with live friends vying for their attention on their smart phones.

Fortunately, where wielding guilt may come up short, there is one source of influence that just might plunge young people into their fascinating histories: space. Use it correctly and Billy, Priscilla, and their folks won’t be forgotten. There’s an entire literature devoted to using space to one’s advantage. Propinquity Theory, as the field is known, offers up such tidbits as: if you want to avoid eating candy, move the bowl farther away; or, if you want to marry a science major, eat lunch in the engineering building. You get the idea. It’s the science of bump-into.

So, here’s how I plan to use propinquity to my advantage. I’m creating a special space—a legacy corner near our piano made up of a dozen framed heritage photos that I’ll rotate every few months. When the grandkids come to visit, we’ll gather around the newly rotated photos and discuss the people and their stories. Here’s what the conversation might sound like: “Do you see the fellow in the dark suit? He’s the gardener who married Priscilla. His name was Frank Lincoln Booth. Does that name raise any questions in your mind?” (It turns out that Frank, the lovesick gardener, was born three months after John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln. Frank was given the middle name Lincoln, to clarify his allegiances. Fascinating, right?)

So, for the next few weeks, I’ll continue to scan our family photos—taking care to capture the stories behind each (you can record the stories in the “comments” section of the JPEG file—keeping photo and story forever linked). If I manage my space wisely, by bringing photo histories into the center of our living quarters where my children and their children will constantly bump into them, my offspring will be blessed with a host of fascinating stories about the people who made their lives possible.

Oh, yes, and should you drop by my home one day and spot a photo of a fourteen-year-old boy standing in the middle of a scorched bedroom, holding on to a spent container of rocket fuel looking guilty, that would be a snapshot of me.

But that’s another story for another day.

Crucial Conversations QA

Crucial Conversations in a Crowd and Other Less Than Ideal Circumstances

Dear Emily,

I have enjoyed reading your guidance. Your advice and books tend to assume an ideal environment for communication: face-to-face, alone, and with no distractions. Those conditions are ideal, but rare. Most interactions are constrained: in an open-plan office, with family members, on a car or train, with background noise, or amidst distractions, lack of sleep, and preexisting stress. The communication channel may limit tone of voice and facial expression: email / text / IM / phone / handheld radio / voice mail / Slack / Skype. Often, the presence of others may change the way people act.

In these conditions, a conversation is more likely to turn crucial. That has happened to me recently. It may be hard to even schedule a crucial conversation. Please describe how to plan, arrange, and conduct a constrained crucial conversation.

Best,
Living in the Real World

Dear Real World,

What a great way to describe this—a constrained crucial conversation! Constrained by all the realities of life. Here is what I love about your question: you are putting the power of Crucial Conversations to the test. If crucial conversations skills only work under ideal circumstances, they aren’t really all that valuable. If, on the other hand, crucial conversations skills can stand up to the test of real life, then they are of immense value.

Consider a spectrum of conditions in which you face a crucial conversation. On one end of the spectrum, you have the ideal conditions; on the other, you have the suboptimal conditions you describe above. When faced with those suboptimal conditions, it can be easy to use the situation as a rationalization for our silence: “I can’t have a crucial conversation with this person because it won’t be private, quiet, in-person,” . . . fill in the blank. Or, we attempt the conversation, it doesn’t go well, and then we use those suboptimal conditions to justify our poor results: “Of course it didn’t go well! It was so noisy, distracting, stressful,” etc. Rather than waiting for the ideal conditions to appear or using less than ideal conditions as an excuse, I would suggest you ask yourself, “How can I move along the spectrum, even a step or two, toward improved conditions?”

Ideal conditions are those that make it easier to engage in the core principles of crucial conversations: creating safety, mastering our stories, and encouraging others to share their meaning. They allow us to be present and focused, attuned to the responses of ourselves and others in the conversation. Certainly, those things are easier to do under some conditions than others, but if you focus on the goal of creating safety and being present, you can creatively solve most conditional challenges.

Here are four quick tips you can consider for some common challenging conditions:

1. Capitalize on the privacy of crowds. We often assume you need to be in a private place in order to successfully hold a crucial conversation. Privacy certainly helps, but why? Because it helps the other person feel safe. Choosing a private place demonstrates to the other person your good intent and to allow them to express themselves without fear of judgment. That being said, I am often amazed at the intimacy, intensity, and candor of the conversations that are held in a training room. When I ask training participants to turn to a partner and share a difficult message, it can get very real. But because everyone is doing it at once, we are all paying attention to the conversations we are having, not the conversations we are overhearing. Likewise, a crowded coffee shop can be a great place to hold a crucial conversation; we are safe amidst people who are more interested in their own conversations than in yours.

2. Walk and talk. One of the best ways to hold a crucial conversation when in an open office environment is to take a walk. I love the walking crucial conversation for several reasons. Walking side-by-side takes some pressure off the other person from having to make eye contact in what might be an uncomfortable situation. Walking also introduces natural pauses in the conversation. For example: passing through doors, moving to the side to allow someone else to pass, taking a moment to decide which way to turn next, etc. Those pauses allow both you and the other person to gather your thoughts and refocus on your intent. Walking, even in a crowded area, also ensures that no single person will overhear your entire conversation, though someone may catch a word or two.

3. Call out the less than ideal conditions and why they matter. Simply acknowledging the less than ideal conditions can help to neutralize them. For example, you might begin a conversation like this:

“I would like to talk about something important. I know there are a lot of distractions right now and that is really less than ideal. Additionally, we only have about fifteen minutes and that will put time pressure on this conversation. At the same time, it doesn’t seem fair to wait because I fear we won’t ever have the perfect time and place for this conversation. Please know I will do everything I can to focus on this conversation because I believe that it, and you, are important. Hopefully, we can each give each other the benefit of the doubt if we get distracted or this doesn’t go perfectly.”

Making the conditions visible, acknowledging why they matter, and committing to the core crucial conversations principle of good intent can provide a buffer to poor conditions.

4. Use more and fewer words when you don’t have visuals. We all know how challenging it can be to have a crucial conversation over the phone or email. The reason? We are blind to all of the visual cues of how someone else is reacting to our message. We can’t see if the other person is upset, defensive, hurt, anxious, or engaged. Without that visual feedback, we often stumble blindly on and can get caught off-guard when a conversation blows up or shuts down. When deprived of visual cues, compensate with words and silence to frequently check to see how they are receiving your message. For example: “I wish we were face-to-face so I could see how this message is impacting you. Since we aren’t, can you share with me how you are feeling about what I have said?” A statement like this is the “more” words part. Pair these statements with “fewer” words i.e., silence. Learn to be okay with the pause that allows someone to consider and respond.

These are just a few ideas for the myriad situations in which we find ourselves communicating with others. What other tips have you found for holding constrained crucial conversations in your life? There are more than 350,000 very wise readers of this newsletter. I invite you to share your experiences and tips with us by adding a comment below.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Emily

One note: Some crucial conversations demand complete privacy. For example, a conversation in a hospital about a patient should not be held in a place where someone else might overhear confidential and legally protected information. In cases like these, you must delay the conversation until an appropriate location can be secured.

Change Anything QA

Helping an Unmotivated Teenager

Dear Steve,

I have a thirteen-year-old son who thinks everything in life sucks. He tends to think everything will be better somewhere else. He asks for things and when we get them for him, he decides he doesn’t want it anymore and wants something else. For example, we bought him a guitar so he could learn how to play. He gave up saying, “It’s too hard, I suck at it.” If he can’t do it naturally the first time, he gives up. I’m not sure where he gets that mentality from; he’s seen many people in our family struggle at things, keep going, and finally succeed. Any insight on how to help him?

Signed,
Frustrated Father

Dear Frustrated,

I, too, have a thirteen-year-old and he also finds “suckiness” in an increasing number of things. I suspect it has something to do with junior high and the general feeling of awkwardness that young people experience during that period of their life. And while it would be really convenient to attribute this attitude to his age, I don’t think that is entirely accurate.

My thirteen-year-old is also my third thirteen-year-old and so my experience tells me that you can’t take the “life sucks” attitude out of the boy or girl completely. However, there are some things you can do as a parent. Let me offer three ideas to help you avoid pulling out your hair as you think about and approach your son.

Unfix the fixed mind set. Find a copy of Mindset by Carol Dweck and study it. She’s a professor at Standford University who has studied the difference between fixed and growth mindsets. In essence, a fixed mindset is one that believes that people (themselves in particular) are either naturally good or bad at an activity. For example, one of my colleagues is the son of two math professors. So naturally everyone, including him, thought he’d be good at math. He succeeded early in his school career and both parents are involved in the field. His mindset became fixed in the belief that he no longer needed to put in time and effort to practice or do homework because he was inherently gifted in math. That is exactly the point where his grades began to slip. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one that assumes that if you take the time to practice, study, or otherwise apply yourself, you can learn to become better. He stopped putting in the effort to learn because he assumed it would come naturally.

Along with the many wonderful ideas you’ll get directly from Dweck, you might want to sprinkle in some vicarious experiences. It may be useful to expose your child to the background stories of those who’ve succeeded in their areas of potential interest so they can get a better sense of the amount of effort required to achieve different levels of competence.

When I was a boy, I loved Tony Hawk. He rolled his way into my life when I was about fourteen. As a skater, I thought it was awesome that he turned pro two years earlier (he is two years older than I am). I was even more impressed when I learned how much time he spent on his board to become that good. I had assumed he was just naturally gifted. When I learned how hard he had worked at skating, it changed my perspective on my drive and determination.

See if you can find short articles or YouTube videos that feature successful people in whom your child might be interested. Share them with him and ask questions like, “How good is he/she?” and more importantly, “How long did it take him/her to get that good?” and, “What’s their daily routine?” Get your child to experience the process required to succeed.

Change the frame. This second idea is related to the first. Sounds like your son views many of his efforts that fall short of complete competence as failure: “I suck at guitar! I wasn’t able play this song, so I’m no good!” In addition to being untrue, this attitude also feeds into the fixed mindset described in the first idea.

We’ve found it useful to start framing their beginning experiences in this way: turn bad days, jam sessions, performances, etc. into good data. People often give up because they take a setback of any kind to mean they are no good. Instead, we encourage people to examine the setback for information they can use to improve. And let me be clear, this is not about discounting frustrations. It’s okay to acknowledge these as legitimate feelings. Just make sure you help your child see how the root of these emotions are based in their experience—which can be changed and improved.

It can also be useful to help your child reframe challenges as opportunities. For example, when you notice he is struggling with learning a song on the guitar, try something like, “How many stanzas do you think you could learn in twenty minutes?” When it comes time to hear the progress, praise the work and effort, and ask him about what helped and/or hindered (back to the idea of turning bad days into good data).

Try it out. Now for all this to work, you ought to find ways for your child to “try it out” before having to fully commit to something of interest. And, it’s got to be something in which your child shows interest. Once it seems that you found a good fit, it will be useful for you to help him identify some quick wins that will keep this interest and allow you to practice some of the ideas above.

Hope this helps you steer clear of the “suck,” or at least helps to reduce the amount of “suck-i-tude” you have to endure.

P.S. Don’t say suck.

Best of Luck,
Steve