Kerrying On

Unseen in Plain Sight

“Is that for the Christmas pageant?” Mr. Mulroney asked as I stuffed a six-foot artificial Christmas tree into the passenger seat of our VW bug.

“No,” I answered. “It’s just a little something to dress up my cubicle at school.”

“Well,” our neighbor continued, “you can’t get started too early when it comes to the pageant. No siree! Not when it comes to the pageant.”

The event to which Mr. Mulroney was referring was our congregation’s annual potluck dinner—complete with a visit from Santa Claus, holiday carols, and the ever-favorite nativity play performed by the Sunday school children.

Later that day, as I mentioned the upcoming gathering to my wife, Louise, we both spoke of how enjoyable the pageant had been over the years. Then we quickly added: “Hopefully we’ll be assigned to do something simple—like bake a pie.”

Just then the phone rang.

“But we don’t have money to pay for any incidental expenses that might arise if we take charge of the pageant,” I pled to our pastor. “Plus, I’m in the final stages of graduate school. Louise and I don’t have time to be in charge of an entire Christmas program.”

Naturally, there was parish money set aside for the pageant’s expenses, so my poverty plea faded quickly and my complaint about not having time was . . . well, nobody ever has time to produce a holiday pageant, and yet somehow, we enjoy one every year.

“Actually, the job is easier than you might imagine,” the pastor explained. “You simply delegate the various activities to other congregants. You’re in the business school. You should know all about delegation. Right?”

Low blow.

“Alright,” I acquiesced, “but only under the following conditions. Louise and I will stay within the budget, and assign out all of the work . . . ”

“Joyful preparations,” the pastor corrected.

“We’ll assign out the ‘joyful preparations,’” I continued, “but only if we have total control. We don’t want to be second-guessed.”

“Right down to his last Ho! Ho! Ho!” The pastor agreed. The deal was sealed.

“Here’s our first decision,” Louise proclaimed. “It has to do with Saint Nick.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “There won’t be a Saint Nick at our gathering.”

“Bingo!” she responded. “We’ve had enough Santa calamities to last a lifetime.”

Louise was referring to a couple of recent holiday flops. One year, our pastor thought it would be clever if he himself played the Jolly Old Fellow, but he was so skinny that the pillows he stuffed under his crushed satin costume kept falling out. The overall effect was creepy. Young children cried as he approached them—one emaciated hand clenching a candy cane, the other holding tightly to his leaking torso.

The next year we reversed course by hiring a professional Santa Claus. Unfortunately, the guy was so serious about his craft that he insisted everyone remain absolutely silent as he delivered a lengthy lecture on the evils of consumerism. Eventually, the Old Elf chewed out the celebrants and left in a huff. Between these two events, I don’t know which left the children more scarred.

Since our pageant didn’t include Santa, we had time to add group singing and tree decorating to the program. A vocal orchestration grad student was assigned to lead the music and, as we had hoped, it went off flawlessly. The music was sublime. I can’t say the same for the tree decorating. It turns out (according to the decorators, at least) there are two kinds of Christmas tree aficionados: those who hang tinsel in orderly rows that show proper respect for the sacred holiday, and undisciplined heathens who carelessly hurl fistfuls of tinsel at the angel atop the tree. Let’s just say the activity was tense.

And then there was the nativity play. Screenwriters typically portray them as disasters by having either the bleachers collapse, or the kids fumble the script. The truth is, as the children (particularly the little ones) forget their lines, trip over their bathrobes, and knock down the set pieces, the pageant gets that much more adorable. I’m proud to say that ours was the most adorable ever.

My favorite part of the evening took place in plain sight, and yet (like many acts of kindness) it largely remained unseen. Louise and I had assigned the much-anticipated holiday meal to the Fishers—a grad student in physics, his wife, and their three children. We asked them to organize a pot-luck dinner (easy-peasy), plus they needed to buy a couple dozen precooked turkey breasts that would be the crown jewel of the feast.

In retrospect, the Fishers were probably an unwise choice. As poor as most of us congregants were, they were the poorest. Their view of what was supposed to be a lip-smacking turkey meal had been so distorted by years of going without that, even though they had a generous budget to work from, the Fishers purchased two dozen dirt-cheap, refrigerated, bologna-like concoctions that they thought were delicious and everyone else feared. As each pressed turkey breast was ceremoniously placed on the serving table by the Fishers, it jiggled, in true Christmas fashion, like a bowl full of jelly.

Before the crowd could pounce on the Fishers for choosing egregiously gelatinous, nearly translucent, pressed turkey parts that could be “carved” with a plastic spoon, Louise proclaimed, “Oh look, turkey aspic—just like the elegant food they eat in France. How chic!” From that point on Louise graciously shielded the Fishers from the disappointed crowd with her raw energy and optimistic talk of fancified French food.

Eventually, Louise found a way to set aside most of the untouched pressed turkey breasts and give them to the Fishers who had stayed behind to help with the cleanup. With a few subtle moves, and a well-chosen word or two, Louise had graciously and respectfully provided a needy family with food they were able to freeze and then consume over the entire next semester.

Three decades later when we ran into the Fishers at the local shopping mall, (quite by accident) our conversation quickly turned to that Christmas party. “I still remember all that turkey we were able to take home and freeze.” Pat Fisher enthused. “It was yummy and lasted us for months. It was literally an answer to our prayers.”

I later learned that Louise didn’t remember much about that meal. And why should she? Her handling of what could have been an embarrassing situation was so natural and selfless that it wasn’t something she’d recall, it was just something she did. And so it was with all the parishioners. From cleaning up the little shepherd who ate too much fudge, to learning that there wasn’t going to be a Santa Claus and not freaking out—everyone didn’t merely celebrate the holiday, they lived it. One tiny act at a time.

May your holiday season be similarly real. May you experience joy not only from, say, hosting a pageant, but also from enacting simple deeds of service that for years to come are likely to remain unseen in plain sight.

Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?

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Crucial Conversations QA

Sometimes It’s About the Conversation You Don’t Have

Dear Joseph,

I attend a church with a small congregation. One of our members sings at the top of her lungs and is very much off key. Always. She overpowers the rest of us. I have witnessed people plugging an ear or intentionally sitting farther away. It seems that something could or should be said to her. Everyone wants to be loving and kind. No one wants to offend her. We want to embrace our members and I want her to enjoy her singing. How would you approach this situation?

Silent in The Pew

Dear Silent in The Pew,

I’m going to take a leap since you use the word “church” and assume you worship in a Christian tradition. Please forgive me if my assumption is incorrect and translate what I say to your own faith.

My answer to your question depends on your answer to mine: Why do you go to church? What do you really want?

I could give you advice on giving tough feedback to a potentially defensive person. I could help you manage your emotions, so your judgments wouldn’t corrupt your communication with her. I could even give you tips on how to reconnect with her if she spiraled into defensiveness after you let her know what you think of her singing. But all of these would be like perfuming a pig. Aesthetic treatments don’t change the animal.

Before I elaborate, let me sympathize. I know what it’s like to feel persistent eruptions of judgment and I hate that feeling. I suspect everyone has some pet peeves that trigger an unpleasant cascade of irritation, resentment, and even anger. For example, when I’m on an airplane and the person behind me speaks to the person inches to his left at 96 decibels for almost the entirety of a five-hour flight, I can Crock-Pot my resentments into a malodorous stew for the full journey. The question is, is it his volume that is heating me up?

I’ve learned something absolute about hot-flashes of judgment: my judgments are always about me. His decibels don’t correlate with my derision. I know this is true because I can look to my left and right on the plane and see that others seem to be largely unaffected. They are reading their books, gazing out the window, or carrying on their own conversations without being consumed with vengeful fantasies like I am. How can this be?

It happens this way because his loudness is alchemized by my thoughts: how inconsiderate; he thinks he is so important; he knows better and is doing it anyway; he’s an egotistical jerk . . . you get the idea.

Could thoughts like this happen at church? Yup. Could it be that your feelings about the woman’s singing are not just about the lack of musical quality, but are produced by judgments like these? Yup.

It’s possible you’ll find relief by getting her to lower her volume. But you won’t find growth. So why are you at church? Are you there for music appreciation? If so, by all means, have the conversation. If you’re there because you’re trying to learn to create a Christian community, then her pitch and volume might be the greatest gifts she could give you.

Please don’t read me as self-righteous in what I’m about to say. This sermon is for me, and you’re welcome to listen in. When Jesus organized his small congregation, he first invited lepers with ghastly sores, hated tax collectors, scandalous adulterers, and, perhaps, even a bad singer or two. His offer was to gather all those who were off-key in their own unique way and help them learn to be one. I think the harmony he was after began first with each learning that their judgments were their judgments—and wouldn’t be solved by fixing the other. They would be solved by receiving and then offering grace.

I suggest the best way to find the harmony and beauty you’re after is to ask yourself in those disturbing moments: What do I really want? Then raise your voice in glorious cacophony with your sister.

Best Wishes,

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Crucial Accountability QA

How to Hold Your CEO Accountable

Dear Joseph,

I am on the leadership team of an organization that is in the beginning stages of a significant cultural change. In reflecting on the work in front of us, I realized that I do not trust the CEO to lead us through this change. This is a person I like and respect, but it seems to me that she is not focused enough to keep us moving forward. Priorities are unclear and shift frequently, and often the tasks that she takes on are not completed. How can I engage in a conversation that supports greater clarity, focus and alignment—and helps us all work together to traverse this shift successfully?


Dear C.E.Uh-Oh.,

You have the potential of being the best friend your CEO has. I hope you will be. What you’ve said is that 1) you care about and respect your CEO; 2) you have information that might be crucial for her to know if she is to succeed in one of the most important efforts of her career. This is a no-brainer. The only question is, do you care about her and the company more than you care about your own comfort? If what you really want is to contribute to the company, and help someone you like and respect, then here’s how:

1. Test your story. You seem confident about your perspective. Be sure it’s based on solid data and not just your own judgments and preferences. Ask yourself:

  • Have others called out similar patterns in her?
  • Is this weakness as relevant to the project ahead as you’re making it out to be?
  • Are there people with informed opinions who might see her substantially differently?

If your concerns seem well grounded, then . . .

2. Prepare your case. Gathering facts is the homework required for crucial conversations. If you are to be helpful to the CEO, you will need to have enough evidence of two things to persuade her that this is an issue:

  • Concrete and compelling examples of the focus and follow-through problems you allege. You will need enough evidence to demonstrate that it is a pervasive pattern not easily explained away.
  • A good argument for why these weaknesses will have a damaging effect on the change effort. When you feel you have a strong body of evidence, you must also . . .

3. Prepare a solution. What will you suggest she do? You will be of little help if your implied solution is “Change the basic work style and personality you’ve practiced for decades.” Options might include:

    • Deputize someone with aptitude for this effort.
    • Engage staff support to offset your weakness.
    • Step down in lieu of someone more qualified.

C is an extreme solution—but if it is what you believe is right for the company and for her, make your case. But if A or B could work, bring a proposal for one of those options.

4. Hold the conversation. I suggest the following steps as you engage your boss:

  • Ask permission. Let her know you’ve been thinking deeply about the upcoming change project . . . and that you have some concerns. Ask her if it’s okay if you offer some feedback about it. Asking permission helps others feel more emotionally safe.
  • Give her a “why.” Create more safety by properly framing your motivation for sharing. “I have some reasons to believe that the effort might fail. I’d like to share those. Of course this is my perspective, and you may disagree. But I’d feel less than loyal to you and to the company if I didn’t offer my view.”
  • Offer evidence—if needed. Cut to the chase. Start by letting her know. “I think the most important predictor of success will be consistency and flawless follow-through. Those aren’t always your strengths.” At this point, you may need to share your evidence. If, however, she openly acknowledges these weaknesses, you may not need to prove an admitted fact.
  • Invite dialogue. Having made your case, invite her to poke holes in it. “This is how I see it. And I know I could be wrong. I hope, however, you understand my intentions. Do you see this differently?”
  • Propose a solution. If she shares your view, offer your solutions.

I wish you the best as you offer a gift of true friendship and loyalty.


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