Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Confessions of a Professional Trick-or-Treater

One crisp October day as I walked home from school with Rick Eherenfield (my grade-school best friend), he asked me a rather naïve question: “Would you like to go trick-or-treating with me next week?” What a rube! Didn’t he know anything about the finer art of extracting candy from strangers? First of all, it’s a huge mistake to go door-to-door with friends. When you travel with friends, you slow down as you talk.

Trick-or-treat rule number one: Don’t slow down for anything. During the precious few hours of the one night of the year when candy is free for the asking, chatting with a friend could cost you a chocolate candy bar—which, by the way, just happens to be your only reason for going out in the first place. (It’s all about the chocolate.) One Halloween, I sprinted by a house that was on fire and didn’t break stride. You think I’m going to go trick-or-treating with a friend?

Here’s another time-related hint. Today’s kids typically tote plastic pumpkins and similar store-bought containers for holding their goodies. I carried, and I’m not making this up, a burlap bag that had once contained a hundred pounds of potatoes. I didn’t have time to be swapping out tiny totes in the middle of the evening—ergo, the massive potato sack. Of course, the bag came at a cost. By the end of the evening it weighed just as much as I did and looked positively gluttonous. “Look at that thing!” adults would shout as I held open a bag large enough to schlep a yak. “It’s disgusting!”

Rule number two: Run from door to door. When you only have a four-hour window to get free candy, you run between houses. You don’t walk, you don’t jog, and you don’t even trot. You run. You also need to take advantage of the entire evening. I was always the first and last kid on the street. Every year my Halloween adventure started with someone shouting: “It’s not time yet you moron! I’m still doing the lunch dishes!” and ended with: “You woke me out of a dead sleep!”

Rule number three: Put the trick back in trick-or-treat. The candy companies of the fifties didn’t produce the pathetic miniature bars they now make in such abundance, so when someone gave you a candy bar back in my day (and I firmly believe this qualified them for sainthood), you got a full-sized one. This didn’t happen very often, but when it did, you scored big.

So, here was the trick. I’d carry several masks. I didn’t normally don a mask because it would limit my vision and slow me down. But if someone gave me, say, a Hershey bar (most people gave out penny candy) I’d hit a couple of nearby doors, put on one of my masks, and return to the place that was giving out the mother lode. I would repeat this stunt with a different mask until I got caught. “Say, haven’t you been here before?” Using the mask trick, you could score as many as a half dozen full-sized candy bars at a single house.

Rule number four: Beware of baked goods. I was raised at a time when a handful of elderly homemakers still made pumpkin-shaped cupcakes frosted with an inch of gooey chocolate icing. They’d beam with pride when they opened their front door. “Here you go, sonny,” they’d say as they held out a tray full of their sticky creations while eyeing my burlap bag suspiciously. Now, what was I supposed to do with a gooey cupcake? Consuming it was out of the question. That violated the fifth rule of trick-or-treating: Never eat on the job.

One year, I made the grievous error of letting a well-intended grandmother drop a cupcake into the center of my burlap bag. I swear the chocolate-covered treat had its own gravitational field—sucking every decent piece of candy into its icing atmosphere until, by the end of the evening, it had grown to the size of a basketball. I learned to take cupcakes gingerly in my hand and then use them to mulch the neighbors’ flower beds.

Now for today’s broader (and less Halloween-y) lesson. Before chronicling my trick-or-treating habits for this column, I had never shared my Halloween techniques with my own children. As helpful as the information might have been for them, I kept my goofy methods a secret for fear of revealing that at one time I was greedy, weird, and (dare I say it) a bit of a nerd. I wanted my kids to think I was cool. Is that asking so much? This reluctance to share an unflattering side of our personality comes at a tremendous cost. When we eagerly share our accomplishments but not our embarrassing moments, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities, we’re less human. We’re hard to connect to. We’re not particularly interesting to hang out with.

This desire to keep up an impeccable image also plays a big role at work. I’m confident in assuming that almost everyone in corporate America has a file full of stories similar to my Halloween tale that they’d rather keep locked away rather than air them in front of their friends and coworkers. To ensure our rosy reputations and bolster our own self-esteem, we primarily share lists of accomplishments, notable experiences, and tales that make us out to be a hero.

Ironically, sharing a steady stream of accomplishments can create more fragmentation than unity. Perfection is tiring. It feeds jealousy. It’s hard to relate to. At a time when organizations expect employees to coalesce into high-performance teams, it becomes just that much more difficult for employees to bond with others when all that coworkers know about each other is what can be found on their hyperbolic, sanitized resumes.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Unity finds a foothold in any environment where individuals willingly share a more balanced picture of themselves than is currently the rage. By occasionally sharing fears, missteps, and trick-or-treating oddities we become unthreatening, relatable, and likable. We become someone who makes a good friend or teammate.

So, let’s strip away our masks this Halloween season and dare to be the normal (quirky) people that we are. Consider sharing a more complete image of yourself, not one that’s hidden behind masks of solemnity, perfection, and accomplishments; rather, share with friends, family, and coworkers glimpses of the more interesting you—the childlike you—the oddball you. For instance, did you dunk for apples as a teenager until you choked and spit up on your date? Did you make your own costume for a neighborhood competition only to have critical parts of it fall off during the awards ceremony? Or, as related earlier, did you aggressively knock doors on Halloween night until someone finally shouted: “Hey kid, it’s time for you to haul your potato sack home!”

Sharing stuff like that binds people together.

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Getting Things Done QA

The To-Do List: Do or Do Not. There is No Try.

Dear David,

I’ve been reading and hearing about the trend to gravitate away from to-do lists. The consensus is that lists get too long, people suffer from to-do fatigue, and despite having things listed out, they continue to procrastinate. But somehow, I still need to keep track of my tasks. What do you suggest? Is the to-do list dead?

Hesitant Organizer

Dear Hesitant,

I understand the resistance to to-do lists and the complaints about keeping them. I think there are a couple of reasons for this reticence.

People dislike the to-do list because most to-do lists are incomplete and unclear. Looking at a poorly constructed list causes as much stress as making the list might have initially relieved. Typically, what people have on their lists (if they have them at all) are things like “Mom” and “bank” and “marketing VP.” It’s great that they have captured something that has their attention, but there is still some critical thinking to do about that content. Why “Mom”? Well, her birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks. What are you going to do about Mom’s birthday? Gee, I’m not sure yet. So, looking at “Mom” on a list reminds you that you still have thinking to do and decisions to make. And, at the moment, you don’t have the energy or mental bandwidth to think or make decisions. So, some part of you says to your to-do list, “Stop reminding me that I’m overwhelmed!”

To-do lists are not uncomfortable per se—but when their content is unclear they quickly become a nuisance. The key to overcoming this is to clarify next actions for any task that requires or has your attention. For example, if a specific next action has been determined about “Mom,” such as “Call sister to get her input on how to celebrate Mom’s birthday,” it becomes a lot more attractive and easier to engage with. Are lists bad? I doubt anyone would say that a grocery list is a bad thing when you go to the market to shop for Mom’s birthday dinner, no matter how large the list.

A second reason people often resist to-do lists is because their lists are incomplete. When you work with incomplete lists, you can’t trust your brain or your lists to give you the full story. There are things on your to-do lists, but you’re also still trying to track things in your head (and your head is a terrible office!) So, you don’t trust your “external brain,” and you can’t trust your memory! Eek! This is a major source of mental fatigue and stress for most people.

What are your options? Simply put, track all your commitments on lists, out of your head, or track none of them! I would be fascinated if someone could rationally explain a successful in-between method. Either your head is the place to hold reminders, or it isn’t. I find it somewhat amusing when, during our workshops, people list everything occupying their attention and then get upset with us because of the size of their lists. Look—those are your lists, not ours! We just help get them out of your head.

The problem with tracking tasks and commitments in your head is that the psyche seems to have no sense of past or future. All tasks are “Do now!” messages in that place. So you’ll be awakened at 3:00 a.m. with the thought about Mom’s birthday when you can’t do anything about it. Stress.

That said, if you are able to simplify your life such that you keep track of nothing in an external system and you simply follow your hunches and inclinations and the appropriate things show up spontaneously for you to focus on in the moment—yay! I love planning nothing and doing what I feel like doing when I feel like doing it. But I still need to keep track of the things I need to do to justify the money I’m being paid by clients. That requires I keep track of appointments, phone numbers, projects to complete, and actions I need to take—to produce the value I’m asked to produce.

Gravitate away from to-do lists? Go for it. Or don’t. Just do one or the other—don’t be shy.

Best of luck,

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Crucial Conversations QA

How to Listen Actively

Dear Steve,

My husband and I have had a communication problem for years—due, I think, to our different communication styles. I crave active conversations, yet he prefers I remain silent and listen any time he has an issue he wants to tell me about. When I begin to talk during what I feel should be a discussion, he tells me I’m not a good listener and shuts down. These conversations are not of a personal nature; they can be about something as simple as what he saw on the way home. I have done my best to remain silent when he speaks because this is what he needs, but I feel we lack communicative interaction as a result. What am I missing here? I am willing to try anything.

Lonesome Listener

Dear Lonesome,

I think many people have experienced some form of this at one time or another—a classic clash of communication preferences or styles. It can manifest itself in a number of different ways. The person with whom you’re talking may repeat the same comment or circle back to the same idea over the course of different conversations, silently brood, or, as in your case, express overall frustration with the interaction. Regardless of the symptoms, the root cause is often the same: you want to move the conversation forward while the person with whom you are speaking isn’t quite ready for that.

With this in mind, I have some suggestions that I think will help. As you think about these ideas, remember that consistently employing them over time is crucial to making them work. It usually takes some time for the other person to recognize a shift in your behavior that feels more permanent.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

It sounds like your husband is trying to convey, “It’s not about you right now, it’s about me—or at least I’d like it to be.” You may want to consider what it is that he really wants in these situations. In my own interactions, I’ve found that some just want to get things out of their head. They just need to process something out loud. They aren’t looking for input, commentary, or any response other than acknowledgement. Often their primary purpose is to be understood. A small shift in how you approach these conversations can make a big difference, especially with some of the conversations that seem more pedestrian.

Put Your Motive Where Your Mouth Is

Here’s where it can get tricky. Most are interested in what their partner is saying but unintentionally send the message that they are not. So while I may chip in with a comment or a perspective to show I’m engaged, my partner sees that as being self-interested. You might be totally focused on what your husband is saying as well as what it means to him, and yet he says you aren’t listening. It’s times like these that drive many people to exclaim, “Serenity Now!”

Fortunately, there are some alternatives to the “Serenity Now!” option and the best are strategies that embody your motive. If what you really want is for your partner to feel deeply understood, then look for skills that clearly communicate that intent. Let me suggest a couple from the Explore skill set within Crucial Conversations, specifically the skill cousins Paraphrase and Prime. Both keep you in the conversation, keep you focused on what your partner is saying, and at the same time communicate respect.

Call on the Cousins

While both Paraphrase and Prime can produce an immediate and measurable impact on an interaction, Paraphrase is the more well-known of the cousins. Simply taking time to repeat back what you’ve heard can have a big impact on your partner. There’s something about hearing your message echoed back to you that really communicates, “I care about what you’re saying.” Instead of formulating a response, focus on what is being said. It’s not only important that you use this skill, but how you use this skill. The message you want to send is not only that you’re staying on track with the conversation, but also that you’re okay with what’s being shared.

Now on to Paraphrase’s less well-known cousin, Prime. You prime the conversation by paraphrasing with a little inference. Priming is where empathy and paraphrasing meet. To do it well you have to put yourself in the other’s position, take what’s been shared, and make an educated guess as to how they are thinking and feeling about the topic. A prime typically starts with something like “Could it be . . . ,” “Are you concerned . . . ,” or “Do you feel . . . ,” followed by your inference. This one’s nice because it allows you to offer your perspective but remain focused on the other person, their point of view, and how it’s impacting them.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you must totally give up your desire to contribute. Just change the mix. See if you can paraphrase and prime until your husband feels understood. Ask him if you got it right, and don’t move ahead until he says he feels you understood.

Good luck,

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