All posts by Kerry Patterson

Kerrying On

The Wide World of Noonan Grocery

The other day, as I drove my fourteen-year-old grandson, Nate, to a local theater-in-the-round to watch a live performance of To Kill a Mockingbird, he stopped texting a friend for just long enough to learn that not only had I seen the play before, but I had also read the book and watched the movie.

“Why not just watch the movie?” Nate asked.

“Each format has certain advantages,” I explained.

“I’m not sure what that means,” Nate responded.

“Well, for instance, you just chose to text a friend rather than talk with me—even though I’m sitting right next to you.”

“But I had to take care of something before it got worse,” Nate explained.

“I’m not saying that you made the wrong communication choice, just that you made a choice and it came with advantages and disadvantages.”

“Is this due to the invention of the smart phone?” Nate asked.

“Partly,” I explained, “but having to choose between communication tools and venues has been a part of daily life for centuries. I learned this for the first time over fifty years ago when I was just about your age.”

“How’s that?” Nate asked.

And so, I spent the remainder of our car ride recounting to Nate about the time when I learned who my grandfather really was.

It all started at five o’clock on a Saturday afternoon in 1962 when I sat (as I had done more than 200 times before) in the room behind my grandfather’s grocery store and watched TV. Grandpa Noonan had just returned from shopping at the wholesale house and playing poker with his cronies. I had just completed an eight-hour shift where I waited on customers at Grandpa’s store while he was away.

Normally, as my Saturday job came to an end and I waited a half hour for the city bus to roll up, I watched the Wide World of Sports. I loved that program as much as anything on television. While Grandpa puttered around the store, I gave my undivided attention to Jim McKay as he hosted every sport imaginablefrom jai alai to wrist wrestling. Grandpa and I shared the same space, but we said little to each other—after all, a wrist wrestling competition was underway.

But not on this Saturday. As I turned to see what Wide World was airing, a news alert announced a shooting in Seattle. I asked Grandpa if he’d ever witnessed a similar crime. Born in 1880, my mother’s father was a contemporary of some of the Wild West characters I had seen in the movies; maybe he had been privy to a gunfight.

“As a matter of fact,” Grandpa answered, “I once saw a man gunned down in cold blood. I was riding in a boxcar as I made my way across the country to a job I had arranged for in Raymond, Washington. On this particular trip, I was traveling with Walter, an acquaintance I made when he boarded the train somewhere around Kansas City. A dodgy-looking character wearing jackboots joined us a couple days later, and that evening, a sad fellow clothed in rags climbed into the car. “Around midnight,” Gramps continued, “as I settled into a deep sleep, a loud shot rang through the boxcar. Walter and I awoke to find the man in jackboots standing over the dead body of the man in rags. He had shot the poor fellow in the chest and was beginning to rifle through his meager belongings. Fearing for our own lives, Walter and I tackled the shooter, wrestled away his gun, and constrained him until the train came to a stop early the next morning. Eventually, we waved down a railroad employee, and together we hauled the criminal to the local authorities while someone cared for the victim’s body.

“Now here’s where it gets interesting,” Grandpa continued (as if wrestling with a murderer had been boring). “We had been eye witnesses to a murder and the local law enforcement officials needed us to stick around for the trial. The crime happened in the middle of nowhere, and the whistle-stop where the train paused to take on cargo had no place to board us, so the sheriff put us up in the only free room in town—a jail cell. The cell worked out okay because we only used it for sleeping. The rest of the time, we shot pool and played cards at the nearby bar where we were served delicious meals cooked by the sheriff’s wife.”

Being eyewitnesses to a murder had turned gramps and Walter into persons of interest in a town where the arrival of the mail was a cause célèbre. As the trial unfolded, people from all around the county came to talk with the exotic out-of-towners.

Sometime, a few minutes into my Grandpa’s tragic tale, I turned off the television and listened intently as he vividly described a trial where, among other things, the accused (still in jackboots) tried to leap over a table and choke Grandpa to death for “squealing!”

That was the last time I turned on Jim McKay and his sports anthology. From that day on, while I waited for my Saturday-afternoon bus, I talked to Grandpa about the jobs he held before he met grandma and settled down. It turns out; he had worked as a professional gambler, a trapper, a butcher, and a dozen or so other occupations. This made Grandpa a veritable library of stories. As I look back, I cherish those Saturday-afternoon conversations and I don’t regret for a second having given up ABC’s premier sports program as the price of admission.

“Wow!” my grandson Nate responded as we pulled up to the theater and I brought Grandpa’s story to a close. “So you’re saying that talking to someone in person is better than watching a TV show or texting a message?”

“Actually, I’m not.” I responded.

Having recently been promoted from early baby boomer to old coot, I’m reluctant to say that old forms of communicating are inherently better than new ones.

“So what are you recommending?” Nate asked, a bit puzzled. “I’m saying that there is no single communication tool that’s perfectly suited for every form of interaction. We have to weigh the pros and cons of each tool and make good choices.”

And my response was not just lip service in order to stay in the good graces of my tech-loving grandson. Each year, the latest and greatest device will be introduced, and it, like all its predecessors in the form of devices, methods, and channels, will come with costs and benefits. So, spend time experimenting with a variety of tools and venues—both old and new. Be critical of the costs and welcoming of the benefits. Find ways to use these tools for good and see them as tools to make important personal and interpersonal connections.

And, should you, by chance, choose to talk face-to-face to an aging raconteur, you may discover (as I once did) that a TV broadcast of the Wide World of Sports isn’t always more interesting than a story told in the backroom of the Wide World of Noonan’s Grocery.

“But a TV broadcast could be more interesting than someone telling a story,” Nate added to my soap box.

“Not if Grandpa Noonan is doing the telling,” I responded.

“Or maybe you, Grandpa,” Nate added.

“Or maybe me.”

Kerrying On

Sam’s Gift

Gifts come in all shapes, types, and sizes. Some arrive with the sounds and excitement of the holiday season and some do not. Some are beautifully packaged while others aren’t bundled at all because they’re completely intangible. Still others are not only intangible, but when they’re given away, the giver doesn’t even know he’s shared a gift. Imagine that—giving someone a present without knowing you’ve done so. Sounds odd, right? But you’ve done it yourself. Probably lots of times.

My first encounter with such a mysterious exchange took place in September of 1958 when I entered my seventh grade homeroom class for the first time and sat down next to Sam Baker. When our homeroom teacher called for the nomination of classroom officers, Sam raised his hand and eagerly nominated himself for the position of president. I was surprised. What kind of knucklehead nominates himself? Apparently Sam did, but to no benefit. He eventually lost to the immensely affable Caroline Stimpson.

A few minutes later, our teacher wrote his full name (Louie T. Lallas) on the chalkboard. Suspecting that it might be on the final, Dorothy Newman asked Mr. Lallas what the T stood for. Before the seasoned educator could bark his standard answer, “Tough!”, Sam shouted, “Tub-of-lard!”

The earth stood still. Insulting a teacher—and in front of the class—was unthinkable. Since he was mostly kidding (Mr. Lallas wasn’t the least bit tubish), Sam only had to suffer two days of detention. Nevertheless, he still had broken the granddaddy of all rules. He had disrespected an authority figure.

I immediately liked him.

Enough so that it was Sam who accompanied me a few weeks later when the two of us decided to take up tennis. We had become fast friends, and on this particular day, we were on our way to see if the tennis court located behind the Stimpson mansion was open to the public. Rumor had it that the venerable Dr. Stimpson generously allowed the unwashed masses to play on his private court as long as his family members weren’t using it. Sam and I were hoping the rumor was true and the court was open.

The two of us made a curious looking pair as we walked down Garden Street that day. Sam’s outfit included a snappy-looking racket and matching sweater and shorts. I wore frayed cut-off jeans and a hand-me-down T-shirt while carrying a warped wooden racket that once belonged to my grandfather—a racket that had been strung—not with shiny nylon—but with gnarled catgut. Mom assured me that no cats had been harmed in the construction of grandpa’s racket because the strings were made of (get this) sheep intestines. Like that made me feel better. One look at me and you’d have guessed Sam had invited a vagrant to play tennis with him.

As luck would have it, the Stimpson court was free so the two of us merrily hacked away until I saw the back door of the Stimpson’s lavish manor slowly open. Had we been characters in a movie, the background music would have turned ominous. In one quick move, out stepped Caroline, our homeroom class president and the youngest daughter of the good doctor Stimpson. I feared she was about to order us off the grounds and instinctively turned to flee when Sam smiled confidently and told me to wait.

“Hey, guys!” Caroline warmly greeted us. “Would you like to come inside for some lemonade?” I couldn’t believe it. The castle doors were opening.

When we walked into the Stimpson home, it was like entering a lavish movie set. Caroline escorted us into a room that showcased a spectacular hand-carved Brazilian rosewood pool table. Several hundred gilt-tooled, 19th-century, literary masterpieces lined the walls. I was speechless.

Caroline broke the silence by asking a maid dressed in a French embroidered pinafore apron to serve us lemonade. It turns out the “maid” was actually Caroline’s older sister, but we didn’t know it at the time. In any case, I was desperately trying to figure out how to fit into a world of posh tennis ensembles while wearing tattered cut-off jeans and a Mad Magazine T-shirt that had the phrase printed across the front: What, Me Worry?

I had seen swanky estates similar to the Stimpson’s before, but had never imagined what they might look like inside. The Stimpson home was remarkable. It was a place suitable for the Vanderbilts and Kennedys; a place for keen political debate; a place, I figured, I’d never lay eyes on again.

“What did you think of that?” Sam asked as we returned to the court. “It’s probably the coolest house in town.”

“It wasn’t a house,” I replied. “We live in houses. Caroline lives in a mansion.”

“Well, get over it,” Sam added. “One day, I’m going to own a place just like it.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Two years from now, when it’s offered, I’ll be taking Latin while you’re taking woodshop. And you know why that is?”

“Because you’re more interested in dead Italians than I am,” I replied.

“No,” Sam continued. “I’ll be studying Latin to prepare myself to go to law school so I can get a job with a big law firm, work my way to the top, and one day buy a beautiful home for my family—maybe even the Stimpson’s place.”

“You can do that? I asked.

“Yup,” Sam answered, “And so can you.”

“Just by taking Latin?”

It had never occurred to me that if I combined well-established plans with the right education and hard work, I could improve my station in life. For my first six years of schooling, my buddies and I had blindly stuck to a foreordained path that would eventually lead to a horrible education (i.e., we thought studying was for nerds) followed by a life of living hand-to-mouth. It was a cherished neighborhood tradition.

Sam, from his view farther up the hill, saw what he wanted from life and was in hot pursuit of a law degree. Better still, his vision and self-assurance were infectious. His brash belief that he could achieve anything he worked to accomplish altered my view of what was attainable—even to a scruffy kid carrying borrowed sheep intestines.

Sam moved to Alaska at the end of that school year, but not before he caused a substantial shift in my worldview. He didn’t lecture me, ridicule my mistakes, mock my naiveté, or act the least bit superior. Instead, Sam gave me the greatest of all gifts—the gift of hope. If the fun-loving kid who nominated himself for class president and daringly called a teacher a “tub-of-lard” could apply himself and become somebody, I could become somebody. No doubt Sam is unaware of the gift he gave me that autumn day on Garden Street. It wasn’t a holiday offering, it wasn’t tangible, and it certainly wasn’t wrapped. Nevertheless, when a new world opened its doors to me, it was Sam’s gift of hope that gave me the courage to cross the threshold.

Gratias Sam. Multas Gratias.

Kerrying On

You’re Not A Good Enough Actor

In the early 1980s, I slowly transitioned from teaching MBA classes to designing corporate training programs. Surprisingly, with this change in focus, my design partners and I soon found ourselves in, of all places, Hollywood—not the glamorous version that produces dazzling movies, but the not-so-glamorous version that produces industrial videos.

Here’s what took us to Tinsel Town. Our typical training design project consisted of following around top-performing leaders and watching how they handled challenges such as missed deadlines. From these observations, we extracted behavioral tactics (best practices) that we could teach to other leaders. The down-side being that merely talking in a training session about these valuable tactics required trainers to be gifted at describing behaviors and trainees to be talented at turning abstractions into action. Instead, we opted to demonstrate the skills on video—which took us to Hollywood.

As you might suspect, this demand to produce and direct mini-movies of leaders in action called for a huge change in the lives of training designers. My colleagues and I knew a fair amount about social science theory and practice but little about video production. Okay, we knew nothing about video production.

With time and coaching, we eventually figured out how to develop video snippets that could be used in our training but, sadly, not ones that suited everybody. Our acting team appeared a bit too white-collar. To balance out the mix, we needed to find an actor who could embody someone who was used to getting his hands dirty at work (for clients who did just that). One evening, after watching the sitcom Alf on TV, it struck me that John LaMotta, the talented actor who played the role of Alf’s neighbor Trevor Ochmonek, would be perfect for the part of a heavy-duty production worker. I called him, sent him a script, and picked him up at the airport a few weeks later to join our acting troupe as we began work on a new video project.

The next morning, I directed the first rehearsal. When it came time for John to—in his own words—“make magic,” he stormed onto the set. The situation was simple. John portrayed a gruff-looking production worker whose co-worker had failed to deliver materials to him on time—causing him problems. John’s job was to resolve the issue. To keep the scene fresh, I gave John no direction except to deliver his lines in a way that felt comfortable to him. I wanted John to calmly describe the problem in a respectful and professional way, but would he interpret the scene in that manner? Time would tell.

With the shout of “Action!” John walked onto the set, hit his mark, and delivered his opening line: “You said you’d have product to me by noon, but it never arrived. What happened?” Note: the script we had written contained no inflammatory words, insults, threats, or attacks—just a simple description of the problem followed by a diagnostic question. John delivered the correct words—no problem there—but he said them with such force and disgust that the other actor nearly melted.

“Cut!” I shouted as I leaped into the set and explained to John that he sounded furious and needed to try the scene anew but without the acrimony. Once again, I didn’t tell John how to interpret the script because I had been taught that if you over-direct, or worse still, show actors the delivery you want, they tend to mimic your performance and you lose their unique interpretation.

This time, John walked onto the set with his arms folded, slowly circled the other actor, shook his head in utter disgust, and delivered his line in a deadly whisper. It was chilling. For the third take, John poked the fellow with his massive index finger. Thump, thump, thump. It hurt just watching. Next, John sneered at the other actor so malignantly that it caused a camera operator to flinch.

For another five takes, John found five new ways to accost his coworker while I patiently waited for him to deliver an opening line that would lead to a respectful discussion. Each time, John expressed the same neutral words we had written but with new punitive body twitches, facial tics, and voice fluctuations that turned what should have been a professional, problem-solving conversation into an attack.

Finally, I gave up. I broke the rule of offering minimum direction by telling John that the fellow who had let him down was his good friend and that John was curious as to why his coworker hadn’t delivered the goods on time.

“He’s my friend, and I’m curious?” John repeated. “Yup,” I answered.

Then John delivered the lines perfectly—clearly, correctly, and full of respect.

This experience affected every scene I’ve directed from that day forward. It has also influenced how my partners and I teach how to deal with disappointments, infractions, and bad behavior. No matter how talented an actor you believe you are, if you choose to talk to others about infractions while retaining negative thoughts about how they fowled-up, your harsh judgments invariably creep into your body and facial movements. You can try to be nice, but some part of you (seemingly of its own accord) tenses up and you look upset. First a strained smile, then a contortion of the muscles in your neck, then a tapping foot, then a vein madly pulsing in your forehead—all implying a threat—all reflecting your underlying negative judgment. If you were playing poker, you’d call these revealing reactions “tells”—slight body movements or facial expressions that give away your underlying emotion (in John’s case, disappointment and anger).

John taught us that if you desire to respectfully deal with people who have let you down or behaved badly, you can’t focus solely on managing the “tells” that so readily take over your body. It’s insufficient. As soon as you fix one tell, another one replaces it. So you have to work on your underlying thinking by replacing harsh judgments with genuine curiosity. If not, no matter how nice or “professionally” you think you’re behaving, or how under control you feel, your body is emitting signals that plainly reveal your underlying disappointment, disrespect, and disgust.

So, start problem-solving discussions with sincere respect for the individual who has taken a misstep. Take care to maintain a healthy curiosity regarding the circumstances. If you assume the best—not the worst—of others, the correct body language (from a relaxed jaw to a pleasant tone) will naturally follow. In short, don’t condemn others in your heart and then try to mask your harsh judgments one “tell” at a time. You’re not a good enough actor to pull it off. John certainly wasn’t—and the same is true for the rest of us.

Kerrying On

Surviving Freedom

As a child, my parents fiercely protected me. At their insistence, I remained close to home and under their tight watch. And then, one day in early 1959, they let go. When I turned thirteen, my Mom and Dad either tired of regulating my every move or began to trust me. Either way, it was as if the door to my cage had been left unlocked. Since my friends were similarly liberated, it wasn’t long until a small band of thirteen-year-old boys was roaming the area around Bellingham Bay, mostly unfettered, and completely unsupervised. We didn’t know it, but we had entered our Huck Finn years.

During this period of newly-granted independence, my friends and I became one with the earth and her treasures. We walked for miles along her pine needle paths in a quest to discover caves, explore abandoned buildings, scale cliffs, build rafts, and gaff dogfish. We ran barefoot across tide flats and meadows as we chased each other with kelp whips, puffballs, and rose-hip seeds (nature’s itching powder).

We didn’t merely explore the earth’s surface; we attacked it. We tore into the hillside to make caves, cut down trees to build forts and rafts, and heaped up massive sandcastles on tide flats. And then (as the returning water crept back), we fought to keep the flowing enemy from devouring our towers. If this wasn’t earthy enough, we played mumblety-peg, a pocketknife game that required the loser to pull a three-inch, hand carved peg out of the earth (with only his teeth)—painting his mouth, gums, and face with dark brown muck.

Having little money, we were provided for by Mother Earth until we returned home each day. For a taste of nature’s menu, we chewed sour grass and sipped from honeysuckles. As our hunger grew, we dined from the fruit of the thorny Himalayan blackberry vines that spread across the countryside like an angry rash. As we moved into the forest, we switched to huckleberries, salmon berries, and black caps. If we stumbled on a tree laden with ripe cherries, pears, or apples, we gorged on the bonanza and moved on, grimacing from the inevitable upset stomach that followed. On a dare, we chewed wild rhubarb.

As we grew more experienced, stronger, and confident, we commandeered materials from our parents. Once equipped, we built rope swings that soared thirty feet into the air. We constructed tree houses that hid us from adults. When July rolled around, we built rockets of all types. Should a rocket start a fire in the dry grass near the shore, we’d beat out the flames with wet burlap bags, strip to our cut-off jeans, and emit a savage howl as we leaped triumphantly into the bay.

We did all of this unlicensed cavorting on foot because we came from one-car families. Plus, we had a desire for seclusion. This meant that on the days we hiked to Cedar Lake, we walked five miles simply to arrive at the trailhead and another two miles up Chuckanut Mountain to get to the lake. When we arrived, it would be our voices, and our voices alone, that echoed across the mist-covered water. Jogging hadn’t been invented yet, mountain biking was unheard of, and clothing outfitters hadn’t popularized hiking. Consequently, on most of our excursions, when we arrived at our destination we were completely alone. Exactly the way we liked it.

Had we slipped into a hole in the earth on any one of these sorties, nobody would have ever found us. Our parents would never have known where to look because we gave them phony itineraries. We told our folks that we were going to safe, well-groomed parks near our homes so they wouldn’t worry about the dangers we’d face when we practiced spelunking and free-climbing without a shred of equipment or know-how.

Our folks had no idea that when the canneries jutting over the bay closed for the day, the gigantic steel tubs used to haul crabs out of fishermen’s boats were repurposed by us as we stood inside them and mechanically lowered ourselves into the water—competing for who could descend the deepest. On days our parents thought we were playing safely in a nearby park, we were waiting for the tide to go out, so we could jump from a cannery roof sixty feet in the air into ten feet of water. With each leap, our bare feet dug deep into thousand-year-old muck, the earth providing us the cushion we needed as we knifed into the bay. We did all this unbeknownst to our parents. For three years, my buddies and I scampered across, fed from, and explored the earth—unnoticed and unimpeded. She was our laboratory, cafeteria, and playground.

Should one of today’s helicopter parents look back at what my friends and I did, they’d be mortified by our casual recklessness. My mom would have been mortified had she not been so busy taking college courses and working two jobs. To be honest, I can’t believe that we, the feral boys of Bellingham, actually survived unharmed.

Now for the intriguing part. According to a recent study exploring how certain parents had reared several extraordinarily successful adults within the same family, the freedom my friends and I enjoyed might actually have been to our benefit. Child-rearing research suggests that a “free-range childhood” fuels a sense of confidence and independence that can lead to superior accomplishment later in life. More than a few scholars are now suggesting that if you want your offspring to truly excel as adults, retire the helicopter—or at least give it a rest.

But who can do that? If I had teenage kids today, I’d never allow them to roam the earth like my friends and I did. Unsupervised cavorting is just as dangerous today as it was fifty years ago. But, then again, I’d hate to think that risk-averse parenting might come at the cost of the next generation’s confidence and independence. Plus, there’s the fact that adopting a hands-off approach isn’t exactly an untested idea. When it comes to the workplace, non-hovering leadership is referred to as empowerment, and empowerment has generally proven to be a good thing. Just ask the empowered.

So what’s a person to do? I, for one, can’t imagine purposely exposing adolescents to unnecessary risks. Nevertheless, the earth will most certainly call out to them. She’ll offer up her fruits and spread forth her tide flats. She’ll tempt our youngsters to scramble across her boulders and swim in her streams. And they’ll answer. You can bet on that. So, be prepared. Take the time to teach your offspring safe practices. Warn them of common dangers and excessive risks. Empower them with skills that help them flourish in the freedom of nature’s classroom. And most important of all, refuse the sucker’s choice that says you can raise kids to be either safe or self-assured. Aim for both. Your kids deserve no less.

Kerrying On

The Roi-Tan Cemetery

When I was a little tyke, I loved insects. Sometimes I’d watch ants for hours as they hauled Lilliputian bundles down footprint valleys and up tennis-shoe mountains. On listless summer days, I’d crumble a Necco wafer over our front-porch deck and then sit back and watch as hundreds of tiny stevedores struggled to carry pastel sugar boulders across the mottled surface.

My dad, seeing that insects fascinated me, helped me move from casual observer to ardent hunter. He encouraged me to start a full-fledged collection by scrounging a discarded Roi-Tan cigar box and pouring melted paraffin in the bottom. After the wax hardened, he presented me with a covered pin board to be used for mounting dead bugs.

I delighted in the gift. For a week I scurried around with a quart jar, capturing anything that had the temerity to crawl or fly within my reach. Within a few days, I had packed my homemade display case with spiders, dragonflies, and beetles—all neatly pierced with a pin and exhibited in rows, carefully arranged by species and size.

Surprisingly, despite my original enthusiasm, I quickly became bored with the hobby. My parents chided me for not having “stick-to-itiveness,” but I felt no guilt. I hadn’t loved insects in the first place. What I had loved was insect life. The job of managing a bug cemetery didn’t hold much appeal. I preferred watching two armies of ants battle feverishly over a decaying bird. Catching a glimpse of a beetle taking flight (not unlike a garbage truck going airborne) was equally fascinating. In contrast, gawking at a specimen trapped in a box with a pin stuck through its heart wasn’t the least bit interesting. To me, insect carcasses just weren’t insects.

My mind turned to that Roi-Tan Cemetery one day a few years back when (as part of a nation-wide talk show book tour) I was interviewed on a live, radio talk show. The host asked me questions about our latest book—the one that dealt with the dos and don’ts of high-stakes, emotional conversations.

“So,” queried the host, “how do you use the communication tools you teach in your book to get your boss?”

“Excuse me,” I stammered.

“You know,” the host continued, “your book covers all kinds of ways to talk about touchy subjects. Can’t you use the tricks to get someone—like a controlling boss you’d like to see suffer?”

“Actually,” I replied, “we wrote about skills that help individuals come to a common understanding—one that values mutual respect over manipulation.”

“Yeah, yeah,” the host pushed on, “but to get someone, what do you do?”

This experience (and dozens like it) sets up a related question that people ask me all the time. Individuals read one of our interpersonal-skills books and ask: Can’t people use the techniques the book teaches to serve their own selfish purposes? Can’t angels and devils alike use the same methods?

Which returns me to my bug cemetery. Social skills (from praise, to conflict resolution, to active listening), like the insects I captured as a boy, have a soul. And, like all living creatures, if you dissect interpersonal skills until all that remain are lifeless component parts, you’ve captured the parts but lost the soul. For example, praise (a much practiced and needed social skill) stuck to a wax board with a pin through its heart—despite its toothy smile and flattering language—takes on an aseptic, clinical sheen and becomes nothing more than a divisive tool when wielded by individuals whose only intention is to get or manipulate someone.

The grand prize for stripping a social skill of any vestiges of life, and then using it in a devilish way, has to be given to an MBA student I once taught. He wrote a haunting paper about how he had employed positive reinforcement to entice his roommate’s significant other to leave her boyfriend and, instead, hook up with him. Day by day, he plotted new ways to “reward” his unsuspecting target until he achieved his goal and stole the girl right out from under his roommate’s nose. It was enough to make your skin crawl.

Despite the potential for abuse, today, when people suggest that angels and devils alike can use social skills to their advantage, I don’t become discouraged. Instead, I think of the angels. Oh, the angels and the tales they tell! Scarcely a day passes that a reader of our material doesn’t bless us with a wonderful story of how he or she used newly-acquired skills to strengthen a long-estranged relationship, save a union, or humanely hold others accountable. People can and do learn new interpersonal skills. They can and do apply them professionally. They can and do honor the underlying principles of Mutual Respect and dignity.

But then again, there’s still that chance that you could misapply a well-intended skill, so take care. Stay true to the principles and values that breathe life into any human interaction by starting all influence attempts with a virtuous purpose. Hold true to the goal of improving the lives of everyone concerned. Use your skills to work with, and not on, people. By doing your best to enhance the well-being of the people you’re working with, you can keep the skills you’ve learned alive and kicking rather than on display in a Roi-Tan Cemetery.

Kerrying On

The Importance of Intent

When I was twelve years old and William “Pop” Noonan first invited me to operate his corner grocery store while he spent his Saturdays running errands, I quickly accepted the job—and then repeatedly botched it. I took so many missteps that I’m sure he would have fired me were it not for the fact that he was my grandfather.

For example, on the very first day at work, Mrs. O’Malley asked me for two pounds of cheese for the casserole she was making. I cut off a hunk from the bulk slab, weighed it, cut another chunk, weighed it, and continued whacking and weighing until there were two chunks and nine odd-shaped chips and clumps of cheese that came to exactly two pounds—just as requested.

Mrs. O’Malley took one look at the motley stack, shook her head and muttered, “Kids!” I was only a kid, so grandpa didn’t fire me simply because I didn’t know proper cheese-cutting protocol.

He probably should have fired me when I invited a couple of friends to visit me at the store one Saturday, and we produced and distributed our very own candy invention—chili powder gum. Noonan’s Grocery sold hollow gumballs and cans of chili powder, plus there were lots of kids coming and going. It was the perfect storm, and many a neighborhood kid was caught by surprise when he or she unsuspectingly bit into one of our concoctions. Despite the outcries of the neighborhood kids, Grandpa still didn’t dismiss me.

The biggest mistake I made came a couple of years later, when business for corner grocery stores had slowed to a trickle. Because of this, I agreed to help my friend Rick Eherenfield with his algebra during the long breaks between customers. I was a year ahead of Rick in math, and could be of some use to him. By my estimation, I was doing a nice thing.

Rick and I were in the back room noodling over his algebra assignment when the brass bell hanging over the front door rang. I jumped to my feet and ran through the swinging door that hung between the store and the back room and up to the counter. There stood Mrs. Kratz. Uh oh. Not Mrs. Kratz. She was one of those rare customers who still did all of her shopping at the corner store. One look at her resolve and I could tell that fetching and bagging her groceries was going to take a long time. Rick was waiting in the back room. We had algebra to do. And then there was the fact that Mrs. Kratz criticized my every move. The overall effect was to put me in a big hurry to finish the job and return to the back room where the meaning of X was still waiting to be discovered.

Mrs. Kratz was having none of it. “I’ll have a dozen slices of bologna,” she drawled. Next came a carton of cigarettes, needles for her sewing kit, and a package of Rit Dye for a faded shirt she was reclaiming. What did I prefer—dark purple or a slightly less dark purple? It plodded along like this for fifteen minutes.

Finally came the summing of the bill. I looked down on a paper bag that I had used to write the prices of her purchases, added them up, and pronounced the total: “Twelve seventy-three.” Mrs. Kratz made me sum it again. Then again. Eventually, she snatched up her two bags, I opened the front door for her, and the bell rang twice—Ding! Ding!—announcing my escape from her tyranny. I bolted to the back room and continued helping Rick with his algebra.

Three days later, Grandpa summoned Mom, Dad, and me to the store for a short visit. Once gathered, Grandpa explained that I had lost him his longest standing and most loyal customer—Mrs. Kratz. She complained that while serving her, I had been in such a hurry to get her out the front door that it was disrespectful. According to her, I kept looking at my watch and rapidly tapping a pencil. She had never seen such impertinence and would “never darken the door” of Grandpa’s store again. It was then that I learned that even though I had gone through all the motions and had helped a demanding customer, my intent toward her had been evident, and I had failed in my customer service duties. Even though I had been in a hurry because I wanted to help a friend with algebra (a nice thing), it didn’t matter. I would have to prove myself a worthy merchant once more.

The next Saturday, I set about the task of doing just that. First, I swept and cleaned the store—but that clearly wasn’t enough to tip the balance. Then I stumbled on a real opportunity to make amends. Sitting in the sink of the kitchenette was the filthiest frying pan in recorded culinary history. The pan wasn’t just stained; it was pitch black. Gunk and gook had been overheated and chemically bonded into an impenetrable layer that now covered the entire inner surface. Here was my chance to redeem myself. Restore this pan to its original shine, and surely I’d be forgiven for the Kratz disaster.

I grabbed a box of steel wool pads and feverishly scrubbed the pan until my fingers bled. Not to be denied, I donned rubber gloves and scrubbed until I finally uncovered a one-inch patch of shiny steel. Then, for six hours (between customers) I scrubbed the pan until the entire thing looked like it had just come out of its original box.

When grandpa returned from his errands I couldn’t wait to show him his good-as-new frying pan. He took one look at the shining pan, smiled broadly, and gave me a hug. “How did you get off all the black stuff?” He asked. I answered by pointing at a stack of used steel wool pads. Then Grandpa hugged me again.

Time passed, I went off to college, Mom and Dad moved to Phoenix, Grandpa passed away, and I hadn’t seen the frying pan for years until one day, I spotted it in Mom’s pantry. She saw me looking at the pan and came over and gave me a hug.

“I kept the pan as a keepsake,” she said.

“Of what?” I asked.

“Of love,” she explained.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“The week before you cleaned this pan,” Mom explained, “I had given it to your grandpa as a gift. It was a new invention called a “non-stick” pan because it was covered with a special substance called Teflon that stuck to nothing. That’s what you scrubbed off the frying pan that day. Teflon, not gunk.”

“No!” I responded.

“Yes,” Mom explained. “Grandpa was so touched by the enormous effort you put in to redeem yourself that he wouldn’t let me tell you that you had ruined his brand new frying pan. Your intentions were pure and that’s all that mattered to him. He understood the importance of intent, so he honored your good intentions by not saying a word about the frying pan fiasco to another living soul.”

“Really?” I exclaimed. “I kept the pan,” Mom continued, “as a shiny reminder of his love for you.”

“And my love for him,” I added.

The pan itself had no real value. In fact, it’s actually been ruined past its value. But the intent behind my cleaning it, and the intent behind Grandpa’s keeping it have made it priceless to me.

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Speaking the Unspeakable

The following article was first published on March 22, 2006.

A couple of decades ago, I started a long and painful battle of trying to help save American manufacturing. In a quest to find out what needed to change in the good old U. S. of A. where companies were routinely losing jobs and market share, I interviewed hundreds of managers and employees. The first question I asked was, “If you could change one thing around here, what would it be?” The very first person I talked to responded without hesitation. “Get the skilled trades to work six hours a day. We currently pay them for ten to twelve hours, but they don’t work much. Get them to work six hours and we can turn a profit.”

This seemed a bit harsh. Surely there were a lot of people who put in an honest day’s work. Surely there were plenty of model employees. And indeed there were. However, it wasn’t long until I learned that a lot of people—managers, employees, and yes, even many skilled craftspeople themselves—were worried. Despite the rhetoric spoken at every election about the unbeatable American worker, they worried because many facilities were embarrassingly less productive than their offshore counterparts. They produced at a rate far lower than the best. Output per employee (the gold standard of productivity) ran as low as 40 percent below best-in-class.

The solution seemed obvious: people needed to know about this enormous gap. We needed to shout from the rooftops about the impending doom. Then maybe we could get back on track. But then I remembered—that first guy I interviewed had leaned forward and whispered his recommendation to me, despite the fact that we were alone in an office. He was nervous about bringing up the topic in public.

In fact, this was always the case. Dozens of people brought up the issue, but nobody mentioned it in front of others—or with much volume. After all, to say that a certain group of employees wasn’t putting in a full day could be viewed as insensitive and insulting. To further explain that many were delaying their efforts on purpose—in order to fall behind schedule and then earn overtime wages—well, that was politically incorrect. Never mind that it was largely true—you couldn’t say it aloud.

I argued with the executives I was working with that we needed to gather every single employee under one roof and announce that at the current production rates, it wouldn’t be long until all of us would be working for minimum wage. That should get some attention. They chose to say nothing. Later, when I worked with a facility that had just lost the right to manufacture half of the parts they had been assembling, I called for a funeral. I wanted to put each part that would now be manufactured off shore in a coffin and parade the dead hunks of metal around in order to mourn their loss. Nobody was having it. You couldn’t make a big deal about lost work. You couldn’t even talk about it.

I was growing so frustrated with this shared silence that a couple of years later, when I was working in still another plant and it came time to negotiate the contract, I implored the HR folks to hammer home the issue of productivity. But it never happened. Yield and output per employee discussions were actually disallowed. Eventually, after much bitter debate between management and the union, nobody was even permitted to say the word “productivity” aloud. It could only be referred to as “The P Word” (I’m not making this up). If things continued to deteriorate, one day most, if not all, of their manufacturing jobs would be lost, and yet nobody could talk about one of the primary causes.

How could anyone fix this? I didn’t have a clue.

Now, travel with me around the world to find a solution I discovered quite by accident. It’s twenty years later, and my partners and I are studying what is known as entertainment-education. It’s a branch of communication theory that has had a remarkable impact on change theory. Two of us met with Professor Arvind Singhal of Ohio University in his office in Athens, Ohio. He energetically explained what recently happened in northern India, not far from his hometown.

After watching others fruitlessly fight the devastating impact of a caste system that had been deeply rooted for hundreds of years, professor Singhal and other change agents decided to take a new path. Inspired by the work of Everett Rogers, they created a radio soap opera as a means of changing long-held norms. Here’s how radio waves were aimed at shared values.

Three times a week, listeners would tune in to the adventures of a handful of engaging characters who faced many of the same problems the listeners themselves faced every day. However, the writers behind these radio programs were interested in more than mere ratings (and their ratings were quite high). They wanted to encourage people to talk about the debilitating caste system. It was high time it was abolished, but as long as there were people who had been cast as “untouchables,” and as long as untouchables were largely a taboo topic, the system would continue.

Nobody preached anything on the show; the characters simply lived through problems the writers wanted to address. At the end of each program, a renowned figure from the region would recap the events by asking pointed questions such as, “What will they do next?” “How should they handle this tough problem?”

After each episode, people would gather at work or at a pub or around a well and talk about what was taking place in the show. Everyone wanted to discuss the latest goings-on. The impact was nothing short of sensational. Dr. Singhal tells of a family who routinely listened to the show and was inspired to make a bold move. The oldest daughter in the family was soon to be married. They decided to use the wedding celebration (which lasts for several days) to take a stand on the caste system by inviting untouchables.

To avoid a total scandal, the family encouraged their unlikely guests to clean up for the celebration and even bought them some new but inexpensive clothing. The first day of the celebration, the father, surrounded by friends and family, asked one of his unexpected guests to bring him a glass of water. (These are people who are not allowed to cast a shadow on others.) The guest did so and the father then “ingested” something poured by an untouchable.

The server then offered water to the rest of the guests. Several took it, others said they weren’t thirsty, and still others got up and left. As the celebration continued, the family took more and more steps to involve these “untouchables” until they achieved a more widespread acceptance. Multiply these powerful events by thousands of people across hundreds of communities and eventually values change. In fact, this radio drama alone eliminated many of the debilitating practices in the region in less than a year.

Why were these creative change agents able to succeed where others had failed? Because they found a way to get thousands of people to openly talk about what previously had been an undiscussable issue. Audience members identified with the radio characters, talked about their challenges, and came to agreements about the need for change.

At the heart of this effort, lies one key principle: You can’t change something you can’t talk about. If you want to see long-held but debilitating traditions go away, you have to find a way to hold what had once been “undicussable” crucial conversations.

Now, let’s go back to the manufacturing problem I referred to earlier—one that has recently led to the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs in Middle America. What if we had talked openly twenty years ago about what leaders referred to as the “opiate of overtime”? What if we had been able to go public with the fact that thousands of people were purposely slowing down in order to maximize their own income?

To this day, political candidates and talk show hosts wring their hands in public about the loss of American jobs, but nobody dares talk about what really happened. Sure, we now go head on with employees who do the same job offshore for far less money, but how will we ever know what would have happened had we been able to improve our output numbers to competitive levels? And how would we ever improve without making the problem part of the public debate?

This challenge cuts across every area of our lives. If you’ve ever broken into a sweat over the prospect of having the “sex talk” with your pre-teen, then you know what it’s like to step up to a topic you’re not quite sure how to discuss in the open. Or, how about this one? If you’re a nurse watching a doctor fail to follow protocol and possibly put a patient at risk, you know how difficult it can be to speak openly about something nobody else talks about. Even more likely, you know what it’s like not to say anything. Who is stupid enough to bring up a taboo topic?

So, what’s a person to do? I won’t be developing a radio show anytime soon, but I’ll never again work on a problem that people can only whisper to me as they glance around nervously without first examining what it’ll take to move the topic into the public spotlight. When it comes to widely held social norms, you have to get a whole lot of people talking about the need to change. That’s the only way you can make it safe to first talk about and then resolve chronic problems.