Kerrying On

The Perfect Amount of Abuse

In the spring of 1964, as I approached my eighteenth birthday, my dad concocted a harebrained scheme (is there any other kind?) to help save money. His plan was to take advantage of our family’s health insurance by having me undergo medical procedures that our carrier would stop paying for—the day I turned eighteen. So, a few months before my eighteenth birthday, Dad put his plan into action. One day he dragged me into the hospital and had my tonsils removed. Two weeks later I was tested for allergies. Following that I had my nose straightened, and so forth.

In addition to providing me with “free medical care,” Dad’s demented scheme led to an experience I remember to this day. As I lay in my hospital bed sleeping off the anesthetic from my nose surgery, I was abruptly awakened by the sound of someone shouting. There, standing next to my bed, was my surgeon—madly cranking a large metal handle and screaming at a nurse.

Shortly following my surgery, the nurse—that is, the young woman who was now being shouted at—lowered my bed to a flat position. Her goal had been to make me more comfortable. When the doctor saw me lying flat on my back (a dangerous position for patients recovering from nose surgery), he verbally attacked the nurse. The scene that followed was positively jaw-dropping.

Until that moment, I’d never seen one adult shriek at another one (not even my own parents). I most certainly had never seen a doctor curse and threaten a nurse. The effect was not good. I feared that the nurse was about to have a breakdown and I felt ashamed for the shrieking surgeon. True, the doctor was watching out for me, and the nurse had, indeed, made a colossal blunder, but all I could think about in the midst of the dreadful verbal attack was that surely there had to be a way to deal with medical errors that didn’t rely on scathing threats and insults.

A decade later, when I finished graduate school and began conducting research in hospitals and other organizations, I quickly learned that the abuse my nose surgeon had so readily demonstrated back in the Sixties was still common, not only in hospitals, but just about everywhere. Crank up the pressure at work, and somebody somewhere starts verbally abusing somebody else—particularly if there’s a power difference between the conflicting parties.

For instance, yesterday I witnessed a verbal attack at a sporting event when a twenty-year-old football player zigged when he should have zagged. Unhappy with the flagrant zigging, one of the coaches grabbed the running back’s face mask and then yanked it hither and thither while yelling full volume into the player’s face. This tirade was acted out in front of thousands of fans while a massive screen above the end zone displayed every moment in living color. Later that day, during a TV interview, that same coach pointed out that the player he had yelled at needed to be reminded of what he was supposed to be doing.

“So,” the coach explained, “I gave the young man a refresher course.” Both the coach and the interviewer chuckled at the remark. I didn’t see the humor.

I am happy to report that, in recent years, healthcare employees (along with most professionals) have made tremendous progress in eliminating verbal abuse from the workplace. HR specialists have worked hard to eradicate all forms of unprofessional treatment. Unfortunately, these improvements often have been achieved with little or no help from the surrounding community. For instance, scores of politicians, celebrities, and, yes, even neighbors, disagree with each other so frequently and with such ferocity that it’s hard to hear the arguments they make over the roar of the methods they employ.

Consider the home. My son once told me that every time he and his buddies visited a certain friend up the street, the teenager’s mother (Martha), would find something to get upset about—and then she’d scream at them until they fled. This came as a surprise to me given that Martha presented such a gentle image in public. As I probed further, my son suggested that a full third of his friends’ parents, when upset, became abusive.

One day, while seated next to Martha at a little league game, the conversation turned to childrearing. Martha casually mentioned that she frequently raised her voice and, to the untrained eye, she might appear mean. However, since she was committed to disciplining her children (in an effort to keep them on the straight-and-narrow) her verbal tirades were the cure to what she called “spineless parenting.” Martha figured that strongly expressing her views (including screeching at, ridiculing, and threatening her children) was exactly what she needed to do to help restore accountability to a generation that was being coddled. From where Martha sat, delivering an occasional dose of verbal abuse was beneficial to everyone concerned.

I guess I see it differently. After decades of interviewing employees about what they most and least admire in their leaders (and coworkers), I’ve learned that the answer generally centers on the topic of verbal abuse. Individuals who shout, threaten, demean, insult, and curse others aren’t admired. They may be feared, or even loathed, but they’re never admired. “Country club” bosses who don’t step up to problems for fear of being accused of being hardnosed or controlling aren’t respected either. They’re criticized for showing no moxie and allowing problems to fester. Who’s left? Individuals who step up to problems and manage to keep their emotions in check (even when they strongly disagree) and who do so in a respectful fashion—these are the people who are regularly singled out as the best person to work for, and with.

You have to be impressed by individuals who routinely take part in highly charged conversations and yet still find a way to remain on topic and respectful. It’s not easy. Homes don’t come staffed with HR departments. The human brain offers no help whatsoever. When facing a perceived threat, the amygdala actually sounds a warning to fight or take flight. A lot of good that does. Perhaps worst of all, we find ourselves surrounded by scores of abusive role models. It’s difficult to conclude that verbally abusing others is abnormal or even unacceptable—given that accomplished citizens, influential leaders, lauded politicians, and Hollywood celebrities verbally attack each other at every turn. Congratulations to individuals who do find ways to remain respectful—even when under fire.

Finally, some advice to those of you who are struggling to find the right approach to take when dealing with individuals you believe might actually need a bit of verbal abuse. Perhaps their misstep was egregious, or they only respond to threats, or they show no remorse. Regardless of why you believe verbal abuse is called for, when considering how much to deliver, consider also this guideline: verbally abuse others exactly as much as you personally like to be abused. It’s the perfect amount.

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

Getting Things Done QA

Paper vs. Apps—The Tools in Your GTD® System

Dear David,

I can’t seem to get rid of my paper and pencil system. I love to write down lists, track things on sticky notes, and hoard notebooks and handouts from my meetings. In today’s world of fancy phone apps and calendaring systems, I feel a bit archaic. Am I doing it wrong if I stick to my paper and pencil way of getting things done? It hasn’t let me down yet.

Low-Tech Scribe

Dear Low-Tech,

There is absolutely nothing wrong with your tools, nor with you. As a matter of fact, paper, in many cases for many people, works better than digital media. I know quite a few tech-savvy people who have gone back to using paper-based systems—especially those who have attention issues or are simply too impatient to deal with all the digital “clicks” necessary to input or access reminders in your phone or computer.

Physical tools like pen and paper also give us a kinesthetic experience that many find more satisfying than typing or texting. The touch and feel of pen, pencil, paper, sticky notes, and notebooks does foster a kind of magical quality in our thinking as we use them. And the more attractive our tools, the more functional they will be.

Additionally, a paper planner or notebook, properly used and organized, can actually give you a more comprehensive, quick overview and gestalt of your multi-level commitments than a combination of software applications. I used an elegant notebook organizer for fifteen years, for note-taking, creative thinking, calendar and action reminders, and functional portable reference material. Though I have transitioned to digital tools, I still miss that compact, coordinated, leather-encased tool. Tech has not been able to replicate that for me, in that way, as much as I would like it to.

I did switch to digital for organizing lists and some note taking when the Palm Pilot debuted in the 1990’s. Since then, I’ve primarily stuck to software apps for much of what I need to manage and access. Given the nature of my work, my collaboration with others, and the integration of things like email, calendar, and digital information I can easily cut and paste, high-tech won out as my medium of choice. But it does have its limitations.

I still use pen and paper for capturing random thoughts I’d like to address later (I’ve carried a notepad in my pocket wallet for thirty-five years and I’ll never give it up!). I also always keep a small notepad and pen at my desk. I would find it absurdly inefficient to have to unlock my smartphone to capture a random idea or input. My wife and I maintain a running notecard in the kitchen to remind ourselves of items we need to get at the market.

That said, a paper-based environment of inputs and note-taking can be as ineffective as anything else! I have spent thousands of hours hand-holding sophisticated executives as they plow through the notebooks, sticky-notes, random meeting notes, printed reports, receipts, and scraps of paper that have accumulated and constipated their environments and their heads. If your system is completely paper-based, you still need to apply the rigor it takes to distinguish between simply capturing ideas on paper to clarifying and listing these inputs. If you’ve taken meeting notes or thoughts in a journal or notebook, and haven’t curated them to distinguish what needs to be kept as reference, what requires action to be taken, and what can be simply tossed (and rewritten and reorganized in that way), then the whole situation will be quite pressured and sub-optimal.

As long as you have discrete categories into which to channel your handwritten notes (random inputs, reminders of projects and specific actions to take, reference material, etc.), it can function as a self-management system as well as any other.

Here’s a warning: if you’re avoiding going digital and sticking with your low-tech tools because you’re uncomfortable and unfamiliar with that world, watch out. Our world is becoming increasingly digital. Given your lifestyle and situation, it may not make that much difference to you. Just pay attention to what you need to manage and take care of and what the optimal way to deal with that might be. Don’t stick with what you’re doing because you’re not willing to explore something that might be more effective. But, if you’re sufficiently digitally savvy and decide to stick with a paper-based system, good for you.

Obviously, there is no perfect set of tools—each component has an upside and a downside. There are only excellent ways to use whatever tools you choose to use.

Best of luck,

Crucial Conversations QA

Surviving a Messy Roommate

Dear Joseph,

How do I get my roommates to clean up after themselves? They don’t seem to care about the mess they make and how dirty our house gets. I tried to talk to them about it but any attempt to reform their behavior only lasts a day or two. I end up being the one to have to take responsibility for everyone else’s mess. It drives me nuts. Please help!

Angry Roommate

Dear Angry Roommate,

There are three possible reasons for your roommates’ behavior.

  1. They don’t care about your cleanliness standards as much as you do.
  2. They resent your attempts to cajole them into changing.
  3. All of the above.

Problems in relationships begin anytime you try to “get them to do” something. If your goal is changing someone else’s behavior, your motives are essentially manipulative. You begin to scheme and strategize on covert tactics to achieve your self-centered goal. After a recent lecture, a man approached me excitedly to explain that he now had some great ideas for how to “get my wife to lose weight.” Can you hear the problem?

Please don’t hear this as criticism. Hear it as autobiography. My greatest parenting and leadership failures have come when I have given myself the task of changing another person’s behavior. This goal resulted in feelings of judgment, alienation, and resentment. When I would “succeed” in “changing someone’s behavior,” I rewarded myself with self-deceptive hubris—which inevitably led to future episodes of judgment, alienation, and resentment.

With that said, you are fully within your rights to want a clean apartment. There are two ethical and effective ways to get there:

  1. Explore preferences. Hold a conversation with your roommates to see if there is any mutual dissatisfaction with the status quo. If there is sufficient dissatisfaction to agree on a new system of responsibility and consequences, then you’re home free. If not, then move to #2.
  2. Negotiate. They may not care about having a clean living room, but they may care about having a preferable parking spot, or an evening with the house to themselves, etc. If there is a basis for negotiation, be sure you come to clear expectations and consequences for failure that you and they can live with.

If you’ve tried both exploring and negotiating with little success or progress, then you really only have two options moving forward.

  1. Do it yourself—for yourself. If your roommates don’t care enough to take any additional action, you have the option of cleaning the house the way you want (so long as they don’t mind the smell of Febreze). To take this step, you’ll need to surrender the resentment you feel from their failure to live up to your standards. Let go of the burden of manipulation and pick up the broom or dishrag yourself—for yourself. Don’t hope for appreciation from them—just appreciate the state of things yourself.
  2. Move. The only person whose behavior you can control is you. And nothing makes you feel more like a victim than hanging your happiness on making others change. It absolves you of emotional responsibility as your moods become the product of others’ choices. You trade contentment for resentment. Not a great trade. At the end of the day, if you don’t like how your roommates behave, you’ve got a choice to make. In the aggregate, are the pluses bigger than the minuses? If so, choose to stay—and take responsibility for your choice. If not, move. Take responsibility for your needs not their behavior.

I hope some of these suggestions help you find peace and cleanliness!


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