Kerrying On

May Day Redemption

The following article was first published on April 26, 2016.

In the fall of 1952, my mom carefully dressed me in my yellow raingear, kissed me on the cheek, and sent me down the long road that would take me to Larrabee Elementary School. There, far from Mother’s focused tutelage, my first year of grade school unfolded at a pace that was so unbearably slow, I feared I would burst into flames out of utter frustration. At home, things moved along nicely. At school, we spent three days studying the letter A. It was if the very fabric of time had been altered.

To measure the rate at which time was passing at school, I set up a test. I decided to stare intently at our classroom clock during our fifteen-minute afternoon nap. I would lay my head on my desk (as required), stare at the clock, and not look away for even a moment as the second-hand slowly marked time. This would give me a feel for the speed at which school life was actually passing. It would not be an easy feat, given that I ate Sugar Corn Pops for breakfast each morning and my lunch always ended with two Twinkies. Under normal conditions, I gave chipmunks the jitters.

As naptime began and my classmates settled into a pleasant respite, I settled into a fixed stare. Not good. It wasn’t long until my body began to vibrate as my skeleton writhed inside my skin. My extremities began to itch as tiny sprites wearing feather slippers skipped across my arms and legs. My eyes bugged as they fought to hold focus on the clock’s plodding second hand.

But I didn’t give up. I hung on until the very last tic of the clock and learned that time in Miss McCloud’s classroom moved at about 1/4 MST (Mom’s Standard Time). It was official. The first grade was going to take four years.

Suffering the slow passage of time was a problem, but it paled in comparison to the challenge of being exposed to foreign thoughts and traditions. The way other people celebrated holidays was particularly unnerving. Wreaths were different. Mom hadn’t made them. Songs were weird. Mom hadn’t sung them. And worst of all, some of the school holidays were completely new to me. Mom hadn’t celebrated them.

For instance, Miss McCloud asked us to pull out our white paste and blunt-nosed scissors one day while she passed out colored construction paper and pipe cleaners. “You can use these materials,” she explained, “to make something special. I’ll teach you how to cut strips of colored construction paper and weave and paste them into a beautiful May basket”—which we faithfully did for the next two days.

When May Day finally arrived, an overzealous PE teacher herded us onto the playground and forced us to weave and careen off one another as we reenacted the pagan ritual of decorating a Maypole. After several false starts, we managed to wrap colored material tightly around a ten-foot pole in one of the least festive and most unattractive holiday productions ever attempted. Teachers declared our Maypole a failure and we kids solemnly marched back to our classrooms.

“I’ve left the best for last,” Miss M. blurted in an effort to lift our spirits. “At the end of today’s class you get to take home your beautiful May basket. And then guess what—you and your parents will fill your basket with candy or flowers and secretly hang it on a neighbor’s front door. It’s a May Day tradition.”

What? I had made my basket for my mother, not strangers. Plus, We didn’t have flowers or candy hanging around the house. Even if we did, I wasn’t about to give any of it away. The plan Miss McCloud was suggesting was heretical—kids giving candy to adults? It was like anti-Halloween.

As the school day came to a close, those children who had bought into the give-candy-to-a-neighbor tradition (meaning, everyone but me) disgorged from the school and raced home in hopes of surprising someone. I hung back because I had my eye on Mrs. Green’s house just up the block. There, right out front for everyone to see, were two rows of dazzling daffodils and tulips. I army-crawled my way across a pinecone-pocked front yard to a bush next to the flowerbed where I kept a keen lookout for anyone who might tattle on me. Finally, as the last student ran off, I bolted to the flowerbed, plucked a dozen flowers, put them in my basket, and made a beeline for home.

Twenty minutes later, I burst through our front door and presented my mother with the most beautiful May basket ever woven, pasted together, and filled with flowers by a seven-year-old boy. Mom smiled weakly and asked me where I found the flowers. Of course, she already knew. Mrs. Green had phoned her and ratted me out. Mom explained that giving her flowers was a lovely gesture, but stealing them from Mrs. Green wasn’t right. What a crummy holiday. The Maypole had been a train wreck and the fact that I had made a stunning May basket had been totally overshadowed by the minor detail that I had pilfered the flowers from an eighty-year-old widow. Never again.

As May Day approached the following year, I vowed to avoid the previous year’s misstep. But then I discovered that there would be no more celebrating May Day at Larrabee Elementary School. Walter, the ex-Boatswain’s mate who lived across the street from us, offered his opinion as to why. It turns out that May Day was becoming known as the Russian holiday for celebrating the imminent downfall of capitalism, and now that Nikita Khrushchev was rattling his saber, May Day was more his holiday than ours.

What? I wasn’t going to be able to redeem myself from last year’s May Day flower filching fiasco because . . . well, I didn’t fully understand what Walter had told me, although I did recognize the name Nikita. By that point in the history of the cold war, every kid knew it was wise to stay clear of Nikita.

So I decided to take matters into my own hands. I secretly made a May basket in our basement. Then, when the first day of May rolled around, I ran straight into the woods behind our house and scampered from one logging site to another. If I got lucky, I’d avoid burrs, thorns, and nettles and find a rare wild flower in full bloom. Of course, nature’s flowers weren’t as large or vibrant as Mrs. Green’s hybrid beauties, but nobody with a phone and the will to use it owned nature’s flowers. Finally I returned home, snuck into the basement, filled my basket with the wild flowers I had worked so hard to collect, and presented it to my mom.

“Oh my!” Mom whispered as a tear rolled down her cheek. “These wild flowers are absolutely beautiful. What a perfect May basket.”

It turns out, I didn’t need Miss McCloud to give me an opportunity to get it right. I realized that trying again and working toward the results I wanted was totally up to me. As confusing as May Day had been to me, I did know what to do about the cancelled celebration. I turned May the first into a second Mother’s day by giving my mom (not a stranger) wild flowers, while everyone else gave up on the holiday altogether. It would take more than the likes of Nikita Khrushchev to keep me from giving my beloved mother a basket of flowers. A lot more.

Crucial Conversations QA

What to Say When Your Boss Pulls Rank

Dear Joseph,

How do you have a crucial conversation when someone pulls rank and shuts down dialogue by saying something like, “Because I’m the boss!”? I’m in a situation where I would like to discuss better solutions, but when I do, the other person uses her authority to stop the conversation.

Signed,
Powerless

Dear Powerless,

You’ve asked the very question that motivated much of our interest in crucial conversations. From the beginning, we wanted to explore how people addressed emotionally and politically-risky issues with people who had far more power than they did. Our belief was that crucial conversations skills would be largely useless unless they worked under these most trying of conditions.

Interestingly, some of the most confirming experiences for me were not observations of others using a proposed skill, but situations where I struggled to use them myself. For example, I once worked with one of the most powerful CEOs in the world. Let’s call him Hank. Hank was a large, square-jawed man with an austere demeanor. You’d recognize him as “the boss” no matter the situation. The project he invited me to help with had global significance. This was early in my career, so the prospect of working with this man in this kind of effort was very exciting. I did not want to do anything wrong.

A few months into the project, we were ready to share the plan with the workforce. After a massive employee meeting/broadcast, we walked together toward the executive offices. I was floating on air, euphoric about the event. Hank said nothing until we neared his office. “Joseph,” he said, sounding not unlike a stern school principal, “I’d like to see you in my office.”

My spine stiffened and my heart stopped. My mind raced as he closed the door to his office and we took our seats. My mouth went dry. “Joseph, I’m concerned. Will you review the plan for me again?”

I was dumbstruck. I had been over this plan with him a half-dozen times. What does he mean, “Review the plan?” He knew it as well as I did. He helped develop it!

“Uh. Okay. Well, the next step is diagnosis. We need to gather data about the kinds of behaviors that are slowing down decision-making and increasing waste.”

He wagged his finger back and forth like a wand. “No. We’re not going to do that. We have enough data around here to choke a horse. We don’t need data. I just want to kill something. Take diagnosis off the list.”

When I read your question, this moment quickly came to mind. What do you do when someone more powerful than you pulls the “boss” card? What do you do when he or she shuts down the conversation? This was one of the many poignant moments in my career when research became real. I was no longer looking at the situation from the safe position of an emotionally detached researcher. This was me, terrified that the most important project of my career was slipping away.

I found myself doing what I counsel others not to do. I began to think I had to choose between telling the truth and keeping a relationship. My convictions began a debate with my fears. Fortunately, my convictions won out. I knew from experience that it’s possible to do both—to speak the truth and not just preserve, but strengthen the relationship. So, I did what I had begun advising others to do when a powerful person attempts to shut down dialogue:

  1. Ask permission. One of the best ways to create safety is to cede control. Honor the fact that the other person has agency. Don’t impose feedback on him or her. Don’t argue. Don’t criticize. Simply ask permission to share.
  2. Give the other person a reason to talk. Find a motivation that will encourage him or her and that also connects logically with what you want to share. Use this value to frame the request to talk. For example, I know Hank cared deeply about the speed and effectiveness of this highly visible project. The future financial health of the company was connected—in his mind—with its success.
  3. Say the thing he or she is afraid to say. People shut down dialogue when it either seems pointless or scary. If avoidance is motivated by fear, a powerful person is unlikely to admit it. You’ll have to address the fear for him or her. I had a suspicion (from toss-away comments I’d heard from Hank in the past) that his unilateral decision to cut diagnosis was a suspicion that it was a way to jack up consulting fees without adding value.
  4. Accept your role. At the end of the day, you are not the boss. The other person is. Accept this reality and affirm your relative positions. This shows respect and creates safety for the boss.
  5. “Hank,” I began, “the first thing I want you to know is that I’m fully aware you’re the boss. At the end of this conversation I will do what you order me to do.” Hank looked a bit confused. I let him absorb that statement, then continued. “Second, if there are elements of this plan you think won’t add value—or worse, a way to jack up worthless consulting fees (at this he smiled uncomfortably), I’d like to know about them. Ultimately, I want a relationship with you where you are okay demanding that I justify the work.” Another pause. He nodded his head appreciatively.

    I continued, “With all that said, I want you to know I have reasons to believe that if we skip diagnosis, the project will suffer significantly. I would be happy to explain those reasons if you want. But if not, I will remove it and do my best to compensate for the problems I think we’ll see.”

    He sat back in his chair and said, “Your nickel.” His way of saying, “Make your point, but do it quickly.” So I did. And we ended up diagnosing. But that wasn’t the most important outcome of the conversation. The most important result was that it set a precedent for how we would handle crucial conversations in the future. We had a very healthy relationship for the next three years and he tended to turn to me for candid feedback. Had I made the “fool’s choice” between telling the truth and keeping a friend, I would have similarly set a precedent of silence rather than dialogue.

    I hope these suggestions help you learn to reopen conversations that appear closed as well.

    Warmly,
    Joseph

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

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Talk to People You Don’t Respect

Dear Justin,

I feel like our current discussions of politics and social issues are so divisive. I struggle to engage with them and frankly, I disagree with many of them—even when they are the opinions of my friends, family, and neighbors. It’s hard for me to understand how people can have the opinions they have. And I honestly struggle to respect some of their perspectives. Yet, it’s important to have respect for those we have relationships with. So, how can I respect someone who’s opinions seem hard to respect? How can I engage in these kinds of conversations when I know I disagree so vehemently?

Disenchanted

Dear Disenchanted,

This is a challenge we all experience—likely on a daily basis. We are constantly exposed to other people’s behavior or ideas we completely disagree with and often disapprove of. However, it is important to find a sense of Mutual Respect and Mutual Purpose in those conversations and interactions. How do we do that when we feel so completely different from the other person and his or her opinions or perspectives? Let me share an experience that helped me see this concept in a new light.

A few years ago, I was taking a trip across the country. I boarded the airplane and settled in my seat. A few minutes later, an older gentleman boarded. He seemed to take quite a bit of time to get settled into his space. He stopped in the middle of the aisle to do a number of things: take off his jacket, pull items from his suitcase, talk to his grandsons standing behind him in the aisle, and then get out toys for them. Meanwhile, the line of passengers behind him piled up. An important point: I am, admittedly, judgmental of people who aren’t self-aware when they travel. It’s unfair and I promise I’m working on it.

In that moment, I was judging him a little harshly. My thoughts sounded something like this: “I can’t believe he’s not being more self-aware. There are more than a hundred passengers still waiting to board and he is just taking his time in the aisle while others wait behind him. He should have figured a lot of this out before he boarded. His behavior is not very respectful to the other people trying to board the airplane. I would never do that. I would have taken care of this stuff long before I got on the plane.”

As he finished his packing, he turned around and I could see the front of his shirt—it was the logo of my alma mater. Immediately, my thoughts shifted. I started to think: “Wow, I bet he’s pretty exhausted traveling with little kids. I have little kids and I know it’s not easy. I wonder how many flights they’ve been on previous to this one? I bet he’s stressed out trying to manage trying to keep those little kids happy and entertained on these flights. He’s a bit older and I bet these young kids are probably tiring the poor guy out.”

I didn’t reflect too much on my mental shift until long after we had landed. But, when I finally realized what I had done, I learned a valuable lesson. When we believe someone’s behavior or opinion is hard to respect, we tend to look for all the reasons that person is different from us. We do this to justify our disrespect for his or her behavior or opinion. We might even take it a step further and continue to emphasize or seek out differences to justify our disrespect for him or her. This mindset gives us justification to engage in all sorts of bad behavior: ignoring a concern, labeling the other person, or even attacking them and their ideas. While this “emphasize differences for justification” approach is easy and convenient, it is also less productive and not based in truth. The way we learn to have crucial conversations with people who have beliefs or behavior we don’t respect is by doing the opposite—look for commonality. Rather than focusing on or emphasizing differences, search for and seize upon any bit of commonality you may share.

Does this mean you have to agree with the other person? No. Does this mean you have to ignore someone’s potentially bad behavior? No. If there is a concern, you should address it. But if your goal is dialogue and meaningful influence, you’ll only achieve those when the relationship and the conversation is built on commonality.

I have yet to see someone in a fiery discussion suddenly change his perspective because of how disrespectful and clever the other party was; not only do people not change, they stop listening. And as I learned on that flight, sometimes the common ground can be small or trivial. When you look for similarities, you have the opportunity to see the other person differently and then engage with him or her differently. You see others a little bit more like you see yourself—normal, reasonable, rational people with opinions, ideas, and flaws.

Incidentally, if I had been better at looking for commonality when I initially started to judge the man on the flight, I might have actually done something productive like help him get his bags into the overhead compartment. My own disrespect made me less of the kind and caring person I’d like to be. The person I “tell myself” I really am.

I feel we as a society are in dire need to engage this principle more in our lives, our homes, our political and social discourse, and our organizations. I often see discussion on social issues or policy on social media where people completely dismiss another person’s perspectives (as different as they may be). They use cutting names and labels to make the other side not only seem different—but almost evil. This approach allows them to dismiss others’ ideas without blinking an eye and often feel not only justified, but proud. So what’s the bottom line? Mutual purpose and commonality can be the HERO in a moment of disrespect and difference.

Let me know in the comments what you think about this idea. Have you tried this approach, and if so, how has it helped?

I look forward to hearing from you,
Justin

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