Kerrying On

How to Nail a Difficult Social Script

The following article was first published on September 17, 2008.

The doorbell rang and Becca, my then seven-year-old daughter, skidded up to the door, opened it, and found her best friend Crystal standing there. “Can you come out and play?” Crystal asked.

“No!” Becca abruptly responded. And then our sweet, sensitive, and normally thoughtful daughter slammed the door in Crystal’s face. I was mortified. How could this have happened? When had Becca become so rude? I asked her what was going on.

“I’d like to play with Crystal,” Becca explained, “But Mom says I have to clean my room first.”

“Do you have any idea how Crystal felt when you slammed the door in her face?” I asked.

“No,” Becca said as she blinked her eyes in confusion. “Well, let’s go take a look.” I walked Becca upstairs and looked out the window where the two of us spotted Crystal walking back to her house with a gate and demeanor that said, “My best friend just rejected me.”

“It looks like she feels bad,” Becca commented.

“Why do you think that is?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered.

“You just implied that you didn’t want to play with her and then you slammed the door in her face. That can hurt.”

“Oh,” Becca responded with a frown.

“What could you have done instead?” I inquired.

“I don’t know,” Becca offered with a weak smile.

At first I thought Becca was trying to avoid a scolding by claiming ignorance, but I quickly realized that she wasn’t playing a game. She really didn’t have a clue. And why is that? Because as a member of the human species, Becca was born with a tabula rasa—or “blank slate.” Her brain didn’t come hard-wired with all sorts of knowledge. She certainly wasn’t born with the knowledge of how to handle a peer’s request to play with her when she already had conflicting orders from her mother.

Contrast my daughter’s blank slate with, say, your typical guppy. When baby guppies, or “fry,” are first born, they immediately swim to a piece of plant-life. Then they undulate next to the plant in perfect synchronization as the plant moves in the current. They disguise themselves in this manner because they are born to parents who don’t nurture and protect them, but rather hunt them down and eat them. The bad news: tough parenting. The good news: guppy parents imbue their offspring with knowledge before birth that serves them the rest of their lives. The second they are born, guppy fry know how to hide themselves, swim to perfection, feed themselves, etc.

Humans aren’t born with such instincts. This gives them the invaluable ability to make choices. However, this ability comes at a heavy cost. Humans’ tabula rasa makes them both ignorant and vulnerable. Humans aren’t born street-wise like the leery guppy.

In order to survive, human parents have to protect their young for a long time. In fact, humans are given what has been labeled an “extended” childhood. They are treated as tots for much longer than any other living creature. (And with the advent of the in-home theater, big-screen TV, and video games, human childhood now often extends into the 30s. But that’s another issue.)

I mention this whole tabula rasa deal because as a parent, I often expect my own children to know things that they have no way of knowing. Becca didn’t know the polite and effective way of saying “I can’t play right now.” She wasn’t born with this knowledge and she hadn’t learned that particular script from people she had observed. But for some reason, I expected her to know it. Fortunately, I caught myself before I chastised Becca and decided to teach her how to better handle the situation.

“Let’s role-play,” I suggested to Becca who looked back at me with suspicion. “I’ll go outside, ring the doorbell, and ask you to come out and play. What could you say to me that wouldn’t hurt my feelings?”

Once again Becca peered up and shyly admitted, “I don’t know.” I kept forgetting. Becca didn’t have this script in hand yet. I’d have to help her out a bit.

“How about this?” I suggest. “You say: ‘I’d like to play with you, but Mom says I have to clean my room first. Afterward I’ll come over and get you.’ This lets Crystal know that you’re excited to see her but have to do something first.”

I step outside and ring our doorbell. Becca opens the door and I cheerfully inquire, “Can you come out and play?”

Becca repeats back to me the exact words I told her. She’s on the right track. Unfortunately, she says the right words in a rather abrupt tone.

“Try it again,” I suggest. “This time, smile when you say it.” So she tries it again. “Now, this time, emphasize the word ‘like.’” She tries the interaction one more time and nails it.

I took a moment to teach my daughter a social-interaction script. I didn’t wait for her to pick it up from the street or awkwardly fashion one of her own. I didn’t talk about it in the abstract. Instead, I used what is known as deliberate practice. I suggested a specific set of actions and words. I live-modeled the actions. Becca then tried the actions on her own and I gave her immediate feedback. She tried again and I gave her more feedback. Only after she mastered the script—both words and delivery—did I stop.

Right now, tens of thousands of people are attending workshops and seminars that teach leadership, parenting, and other human-interaction skills. Participants frequently attend these courses with the expectation that they’ll learn how to better perform as a leader or parent. But most training participants will only be taught how to think like a leader or parent. There will be no scripts or practice. There will be no feedback. People attending traditional classes will learn theories, not master new behaviors.

Exclusively cognitive (as opposed to cognitive and behavioral) instructional methods continue to remain popular despite the fact that much of what should be taught is behavioral in nature. Leaders and parents do a lot of behaving, and just like my daughter who needed deliberate practice in order to master the door script, they require instructional methods to master the leadership and parental scripts they’ll need to survive.

Imagine if people took this attitude when learning how to figure skate. Suppose that you’re a gifted skater and a potential student asks you to coach her, but with the following request. “I want to learn how to be a master figure skater, but please don’t demonstrate what I need to do. If you do demonstrate, don’t ask me to watch. If you do ask me to watch you do something, don’t ask me to do it. If you do ask me to do it, don’t give me feedback. And finally, if you do give me feedback, wait a long time—and then make it vague.”

If you want to learn how to do something, you must observe prototypes, practice what you observed, receive detailed and clear feedback, practice again, and receive more feedback. Anything short of this and you’re tinkering, not learning.

So I got it right that morning with Becca. I recognized that she didn’t know how to handle the door script. She hadn’t been born with the idea firmly wired into her brain and after watching others in action, her tabula was still pretty rasa. I didn’t lecture Becca about what to do. Instead, we engaged in deliberate practice.

I wish I had done more of that—not that Becca didn’t grow into a sensitive and caring adult. She did. It’s just, I wonder what the world would be like if adults, parent, leaders, and training designers alike didn’t merely offer up heaps of generic advice or clever lectures on changing behaviors, but instead actually taught and coached effective behaviors? One can only imagine.

Crucial Conversations QA

How to Approach a Suspected Thief

The following article was first published on January 23, 2008.

Dear Crucial Skills,

Someone stole money from me and I have a hunch it was a roommate. How would you approach this confrontation? Our relationship is neither strong nor bad, just fairly new.

I’m not sure how to ask her without making her feel unsafe. And I definitely can’t imagine her saying “yes” even if she really did take the money. What should I say?


Dear Baffled,

I sympathize with your situation. Something bad has happened. You can’t generate any plausible explanation other than theft. And yet, it’s hard to see this new roommate as a thief.

One of the hardest times to motivate yourself to speak up is when you aren’t whipped-up in righteous indignation. You doubt yourself and you don’t want to cause pain to a potentially innocent person. On the other hand, this is also the best time to speak up because you are in exactly the right frame of mind for real dialogue. You’re humble enough to be wrong and caring enough to worry about the impact of your approach.

Of course, what you do depends upon the strength of the story you’re currently telling yourself. So I’ll offer some advice for three scenarios. You choose which fits:

1. No evidence. The only reason you’re even thinking your roommate may have taken your money is by process of elimination. In other words, you don’t think she stole it but you can’t think of any other explanation.

In this circumstance you should bring up the missing money. Share the facts—not your story (that you wonder if your roommate stole it). If your roommate had nothing to do with it, this will help involve her in the search or alert her to problems that could continue to plague both of you. Simply say something like, “Last night, I had two $100 bills in my purse. I left it in the kitchen and this morning they were gone. Have you had anything come up missing recently?” If your roommate was involved, this conversation will either put her on notice that you’re aware of something fishy or lay the groundwork for a future, more direct, conversation. But, I don’t recommend this very vague approach if you have more reason to suspect your roommate.

2. A little more evidence but a lot of fear. You have a number of reasons to suspect her (e.g., she had two $100 bills when you went out to eat last night) but have reasons to believe a conversation would do more harm than good (she has a hot temper and carries a Taser).

In this situation, you’ve concluded that the potential upside of a conversation is not worth the downside risk of conflict. The big mistake people make in this situation is indecision. They waste time feeling resentful about reality rather than simply accepting their own assessment and making a hard choice to either a) adapt to the insecure environment by securing your valuables; or b) move. Get over it—if you’ve decided you aren’t going to speak up, accept responsibility for that choice and decide how you’ll deal with the future.

3. A little more evidence but nothing to lose. You have a number of reasons to suspect her and nothing to lose by trying the conversation. The worst that can happen is that she denies it, resents you, and you move out. The only difference from the second option is that you’ve opened up the possibility for her to acknowledge her actions and for you to come to some resolve. Here are some ideas for holding the conversation.

  • Don’t open your mouth until you’ve committed to Plan B. Decide what you’ll do if either she denies it and you’re still suspicious or she denies it and the relationship sours. If you’re prepared for this eventuality, you’ll feel a bit less stress in the conversation.
  • Begin with a sincere and emphatic apology. “I have a concern and I feel terrible about even bringing it up. But I know if I don’t, it will nag and bug me and get in the way of our relationship. May I talk with you about it?”
  • Take her carefully down your path to action. Carefully and non-judgmentally share your data. Take all the time you need and don’t skip any element of what feeds your concern. Then, very tentatively, share your conclusion. “The other night I had two $100 bills in my purse when I left it on the counter. I know I did because I opened my billfold to remove $5 for cab fare when I got home. The next morning it was gone. I racked my brains to think of what could have happened to it. Then when you and I went out to eat that night you had two $100 bills.”
  • Acknowledge your suspicion but be tentative. At this point she knows what you’re leading to. You must very quickly restore safety in two ways: 1) by letting her know you hate this conclusion—even though you worry about it; and 2) by letting her know if she made a mistake you can still respect her. “I know this sounds horrible for me to even ask. But can you see why I’d be wondering? Since I can’t come up with any other explanation about how it could be missing, I decided I needed to talk to you rather than leave it festering between us. And I want you to know if you did make a mistake, I’ve done so in my life too.”
  • Open the dialogue. Now it’s her turn. “Did you—for any reason—take the money from my purse?” Be prepared for her to be hurt and defensive. If she is, do not back down. Continue to ask her to help you reconcile the concerns while assuring her all you want to do is work it out.

This is tough, but the costs of not speaking up will be much higher than the risks of taking action now. Be humble and honest and you’ll have done all you can. Finally, if you decide to leave, do so quickly and graciously. When you refuse to let others paint you as a villain, you enable them to examine themselves rather than justify their transgressions using your vengeful response.

Best wishes,

Crucial Accountability QA

Confronting a Rude and Disrespectful Coworker

The following article was first published on December 18, 2012.

Dear Ron,

I am currently a medical director of emergency services at a small community hospital, and I have an ongoing problem physician who provides outstanding medical care but can’t keep his mouth shut. He offends nursing staff with his obnoxious, condescending, and judgmental comments, and his patient satisfaction scores are horrific, as you might imagine.

I have talked to him about this issue several times, as has the emergency department director at another hospital. I would rather help him improve than fire him and make him someone else’s problem. How can I confront this problem physician about his rude and disrespectful behavior?

Sympathetic Director

Dear Sympathetic,

I admire your concern for this “problem physician.” Too often we, as leaders, treat individuals as cogs in the machine—interchangeable parts to be hired and used. Sometimes we use them up, discard them, and hire some more. This is the danger of literally believing the label that people are only “human resources.” Your concern for the individual is an important starting point for solving this problem.

Another common mistake leaders make is to put our concern about individuals above all other people in the organization. We often hold on to problematic individuals or underperformers at the expense of fellow teammates. In your organization, these teammates might include the nursing staff, patients, and other doctors.

When we allow someone to stay in their position and it results in others being abused, team values being sacrificed, and work being inefficient, it’s not compassion, it’s negligence. The difficult challenge of leadership requires balancing our concern for all the stakeholders and working through their often conflicting needs.

At a minimum, direct reports deserve their leader’s honest evaluation of their work. They deserve targeted, behaviorally specific feedback, and improvement suggestions. Anything less shortchanges the individual and undercuts team and organizational effectiveness.

As leaders, we should also provide the resources and means to make the needed improvements. Many leaders assume the problem with poor performers is they lack motivation; therefore, the obvious way to fix the problem is to motivate their employees. However, motivation is only one of three possible causes of poor performance. It is also possible that the employee wants to perform but is unable to do so because of a lack of skills, knowledge, or resources. A third possible cause is a combination of motivation and ability—they are unable to do what’s required and don’t want to do it even if they could. To try and skill up the unmotivated is a waste of time and resources. To motivate the unable only creates depression, not progress.

You describe the physician’s behavior as “offensive, obnoxious, condescending, and judgmental.” You mention that you and others have talked to him several times with no discernible improvement. Has he expressed a willingness to change, then failed to improve? It might be an ability problem. Has he shrugged off your feedback and shown no interest in trying to change? If this is the case, he probably lacks motivation.

Going forward, here’s my recommendation. Have a crucial conversation with the physician. Don’t try to solve the most recent occurrence; rather, use it as an example of the pattern of behavior you want changed. Be specific. Be factual. Compare what you expected with what occurred. Note that you and others have had several talks with him about this subject, with no discernible improvement. Explain that it’s time to take action, then give him two choices. If he is willing to make a heartfelt effort to stop his hurtful behaviors, offer to give him your complete support. This assistance could include training, coaching, counseling, pairing him with a partner, frequent accountability, or feedback sessions to gauge progress and provide support.

If he is willing to try, set behaviorally specific objectives such as, “You will not call anyone in the hospital a ‘fat head.'” Identify how you will measure his progress—such as peer interviews, surveys, key observer reports—and set specific dates and deadlines to review progress as well as make modifications and changes. Set a final date by which he must demonstrate specific changes or explain that termination will result. Make sure all expectations are absolutely clear about deadlines, the behavior to be changed, and how it will be measured. You don’t require perfection, but you do require sustained, significant improvement. If he agrees, follow the plan.

If he does not agree to the development plan you propose and cannot propose an acceptable alternative, initiate the removal process. Allow no more delays or chances.

Responsible leaders care about their people—the one and the many. They don’t callously fire individuals, nor do they allow a single employee to disrespect, abuse, or negatively impact others. They don’t demand change without helping people have the means to change and reasonable time to do it. Responsible leaders give actionable feedback and recognize progress. And they follow through.

I wish you all the best in the difficult and worthwhile effort of leading and serving others.


Crucial Conversations QA

Owning Up To a Crucial Conversation

The following article was first published on March 12, 2008.

Dear Al,

A relatively new male hire in my wife’s company invited the other men out to a “male bonding lunch.” He asked a female coworker at equal level for advice on where to go and to call in their reservation.

While the men were gone the women discussed this occurrence and felt it was rude and sexist. Some of the men were embarrassed as well when they realized none of the women were invited. Now, there is a sexual discrimination feeling that did not exist before.

What crucial conversations need to happen and who needs to be involved? How can these conversations be handled sensitively?

What To Do?

Dear What To Do,

Knowing when to speak up and how? And who needs to be involved? Ah, those are the tough, life-changing questions. Let me address a couple of points.

First, who owns a crucial conversation? And, how do you know when you should own it? Over the years, I have found two principles that help answer these questions:

1. That little voice in your head either screams or won’t go away. When the “new male hire” asked the question, the “female coworker” probably had a little voice that said, “Male bonding lunch? Is this a good thing?” or “Me call in the reservation? This is not a good thing!” She could have brought up one or both issues right then. She could have also caught herself getting ticked and asked the humanizing question (“Why would a reasonable, rational, decent human ask this?”), concluded he was new, and then simply asked if they could talk about both issues.

Or, the male hire could have noted his female coworker’s subtle non-verbal signals (rolled eyes and white knuckles wrenching a budget document) and noted that she seemed upset and asked why. Either person could have owned the conversation in real time, which is the ideal situation.

2. We start acting it out, instead of talking it out. This is another indicator that we are failing to own up to a crucial conversation. When this happens, we talk about people instead of to people.

The two biggest ways we act it out instead of talk it out are 1) gossip and 2) non-verbal signals like avoidance, frowning, sarcasm, etc. Bystanders can defuse the situation by helping others realize that their gossip or non-verbals are a sign that they are avoiding a crucial conversation.

In this case, instead of keeping her conclusions to herself and talking to her male cowoker, she talked to others about the issue. She opened that proverbial can of worms and now everyone is dealing with numerous trust and respect issues. Any colleague could have stopped her by saying, “Whoa. He’s new. Let’s help him understand when he comes back,” but that also didn’t happen.

Second, how do you start such a conversation? Since both of the coworkers failed to catch the mistake before lunch, it needs to be addressed as soon as it is safe. To create safety, she must first master her story by reminding herself that she doesn’t really know why he did what he did. This will help her control her emotions and conclusions.

The first crucial conversation needs to be a private conversation between the female coworker and her male coworker. She must lead with observations and questions, rather than emotions and conclusions. This one step alone can make a huge difference.

The second crucial conversation should be with the entire company. To help defuse the tension that has been introduced into the culture, gather the entire company together and set clear expectations around what behaviors are and are not acceptable. Make sure you reach complete agreement between everyone before concluding the meeting. This conversation is the first step to avoiding future instances, creating guidelines to hold others accountable to, and ensuring that everyone operates under common expectations. Make sure to communicate these expectations to new employees upon hire.

I have only scratched the surface. But what I have covered is powerful. Anyone can own a crucial conversation—whether it’s real time (the best) or next time (which is still good).

Best wishes,

Influencer QA

Staying Motivated When the End is Near

The following article was first published on May 9, 2012.

Dear David,

I am part of a group of employees who work as internal consultants focused on motivating and improving others to reach excellence. We use several tools to accomplish this and are fairly well versed in VitalSmarts’ training programs.

Our issue is that our Government employer has let it slip that our program and positions will be cut next year. I’d like to find a way to influence my coworkers to not give up and stay motivated. One option I have considered is sending a friendly e-mail to our group with some motivating words. Another option is to point out that when employers look at resumes, they look for previous work accomplishments. This next year is a great opportunity for our team to strive for certain accomplishments that are resume-worthy.

Can you share some additional thoughts on motivating people who know their positions will soon be cut?

Wanting to Help

Dear Wanting to Help,

I’m very sorry you and your colleagues find yourselves in such an unfortunate position. Knowing your job is ending has to be extremely frustrating, disappointing, and stressful. Undoubtedly, it changes people’s priorities. The fact that you work in the public service adds a twist to your situation, but I will try to make my answer relevant to both private and public sector employees.

When humans feel threatened, we go into survival mode. We focus on the short-term and on our own security. You and your colleagues are doubtlessly trying to figure out how to survive, get other jobs, and take care of yourselves and your families. It’s easy to see how your customers could become a distant priority.

And yet, you want to do the right thing for yourselves, your families, and your customers. For some, the right thing might be to quickly find another job; for others, it might be to stay and double down on their efforts at work. Each of your colleagues will need to make his or her own decision.

Discretionary effort. My focus won’t be on how to get your colleagues to do the minimum to get by. The managers at your organization need to hold people accountable for doing their jobs. That hasn’t changed. I think your question focuses on discretionary effort—the extra effort employees often invest beyond what’s required. The question is, how do you influence yourself and your colleagues to continue to go above and beyond?

Emphasize choice. It’s easy to fall into the trap of telling people what they ought to do. Before we know it, we’re giving sermons and lectures to people who haven’t asked for our advice. Consider using the communication tool called Motivational Interviewing. The goal of this tool is to help other people explore the pluses and minuses of their choices—instead of telling them what you think they should do. Here is an example of this approach.

You: “On a scale from 1 to 10, how motivated are you to provide the best possible service to this customer?”

Your Colleague: “Not very motivated at all. I’d say about a 3.”

You: “But not a 1? Why would you say a 3 instead of something lower like a 2 or a 1?”

Your Colleague: “I can think of several reasons. I see myself as a professional who does what’s right. I enjoy this work and I’m good at it, and I realize that the individual customers I support didn’t make the decision to terminate us. I also need to keep this paycheck for as many months as I can, and I want to take advantage of the outplacement counseling and bonus our employer has promised us if we stay.”

Notice that your colleague is the one who is explaining the pluses of serving the customer. Of course, your colleague is still very much aware of the minuses as well, but you haven’t forced him or her into a debate. Again, I want to emphasize that your colleague’s reasoned decision—after weighing the pluses and minuses—might be to focus on finding a new job. Motivational interviewing, when done well, helps people analyze their options; it doesn’t push one option over another.

Mutual Purpose. The end of a contract and the end of employment would seem to sever the Mutual Purpose that used to exist between yourselves and your customer. The natural reaction is, “You don’t care about us, so why should we care about you?” Instead of rejecting the possibility of Mutual Purpose, I recommend looking for new common ground.

You and your colleagues have a new set of goals: landing on your feet financially, getting other jobs, and protecting your families from economic ruin. Recognize that these goals are legitimate and may need to be your first priority. And, obviously, they may conflict with serving your customer.

Some people will exaggerate this conflict. They’ll say, “You need to choose between yourself and your customer. If you choose yourself, then you need to quit your job. If you choose the customer, then you’re walking your family off the edge of a cliff.” Instead of exaggerating this conflict ask: “How can I help myself and my family, and provide quality service to my customer at the same time?”

Use personal and vicarious experience. Sharing motivational statements in an e-mail or a meeting won’t be convincing enough for your colleagues to bet their families’ financial security. They need to see examples of real people—colleagues and former colleagues—who’ve been in the same boat, have modeled a solution, and proven it works. These successful colleagues need to share their stories—in person if possible. They need to explain what they did and tell how it helped their customers, themselves, and their families. They also need to be prepared to answer skeptics’ questions.

Retention incentives. Some organizations (but rarely government agencies) will use incentives such as transfers, outplacement services, and retention bonuses to motivate employees to stay through the end of a contract. It doesn’t sound as if your employer was prepared with these options. If they did offer retention incentives, it might help to remind your colleagues of this motivating factor.

Take action. My final bit of advice is to ask yourself what you want long term and take immediate action to get there. Don’t wait to see what happens. Instead, take charge of your career. Recognize that you’ve been dealt a very bad hand, and that it will take a lot of extra effort on your part to get back to where you were. You may need to learn new skills or take a second job—maybe even a volunteer job that puts experience on your resume. Leverage your relationships with your customers. They may be a wonderful source for recommendations and opportunities.

I’m sorry you and your colleagues are in this difficult position and wish you the best as you search for a solution that works for you and encourage your colleagues to do so as well.


Kerrying On

The Bombs Bursting in Error

If you’ve ever watched Pawn Stars, then you’ll appreciate where this story is going. With each new episode, Rick Harrison (co-owner of the Gold and Silver Pawn Shop) along with a few family members and colleagues, haggle with customers over how much a Civil War wooden leg is worth—or it might be a Picasso print. Either way, the show doesn’t really hit its stride until Rick and crew barter for a blunderbuss, pistol, rifle, cannon, or some other ancient explosive device. Then the real fun begins. After they’ve purchased an antique firearm, the pawn team gleefully piles into an SUV and hotfoots it to a nearby shooting range where they test the worthiness of their recent purchase by firing it at cans and boxes filled with gunpowder.

With each new explosion, the pawn stars leap with joy. The day they touched off a mortar that shot a bowling ball several hundred yards, the entire team fell to the ground in a paroxysm of laughter. Their joy was so contagious, it took all I could muster to keep from running out and buying a bowling-ball mortar of my own.

I mention this because here in America, we’re about to enter a period of patriotic devotion manifested by the time-honored tradition of blowing things up—the Fourth of July. Similar to Rick’s crew, which is drawn to cannons like moths to a flame, many of us will be drawn to roadside firework stands. There we’ll purchase large bags filled with colorful pyrotechnics sporting names such as “The Punisher,” “Nuclear Sunrise,” and “Red, White, and Boom.” We’ll buy these celebratory explosives because the skill of blowing things up provides humans a genetic advantage that has been passed on by their prehistoric predecessors and it simply won’t be denied. Plus, admit it, we’re comforted by the knowledge that a panel of experts examined the fireworks and deemed them to be legal (and presumably safe) for use in our neighborhood.

But what is it about the ability to blow something to smithereens that inclines us to abandon basic common sense? Don’t get me wrong, I love fireworks shows. I attend them regularly. I love fireworks. I buy them regularly. As a kid I made rockets and bombs. If I could get permission to do so today, I’d shoot flaming bowling balls at abandoned greenhouses filled with gunpowder. And like Rick, I’d fall over in a fit of joy with each shattering explosion.

But now I have children and grandchildren, so let’s get serious. There isn’t a twelve-year-old kid in the country who can’t transform legal fireworks into weapons of destruction. Twist this, bend that, (and now for the real secret) wrap seven layers of duct tape around this part and voilà—what was once an innocent, sparkling pinwheel now has the potential to earn you the nickname of “Lefty.” I’ve heard friends’ stories of bottle-rocket races (humans run, rockets follow) and activities so bizarre and dangerous I don’t dare mention them.

Even when you don’t grossly abuse fireworks, they present a serious risk. I, of all people, know this. On July the fourth, 1960, my friend Ed Biery’s parents dropped the two of us off at the Lummi Indian Reservation where all manner of fireworks were legally sold and detonated. I started the day by casually lighting and throwing firecrackers at rocks and pieces of beach wood until I grew bored (roughly four minutes). Next, Ed brought out the sacred Revell plastic model planes and boats he had built, treasured, and protected since he was old enough to hold a pair of tweezers—the same plastic models he had meticulously glued together and fastidiously painted for several hundred hours. Now, at age fourteen, the two of us callously blew up his masterpieces—like mad bombers on a rampage.

At one point during the destructive frenzy, I lit a firecracker and forgot to throw it. Silly me. Eventually the firework reminded me that I hadn’t released it by exploding in my hand. My right index finger and thumb throbbed for two days. They still throb when I think about that painful explosion.

But this setback didn’t stop the insanity. The escalation continued until Ed and I placed a three-shot aerial bomb on a log. The first shot flew an explosive fifty feet in the air where it detonated with a frightening roar. It also knocked the remaining firework to the ground. The second “aerial” shot (now aimed at my head) zipped past my right ear and landed under a passing police car, which took the full force of the explosion. Two officers leaped out of the vehicle and headed our way until the third and final shot ricocheted off a log and landed next to me and Ed. It lay a few feet away from us on a patch of seaweed for what felt like a week—the fuse spitting and hissing like a snake. Suddenly it detonated with a force so concussive it knocked the two of us off our feet.

The police officers quickly scanned the beach, concluded that we weren’t attacking them (after all, we had nearly blown ourselves up), and chastised us for using sloppy ordinance-handling techniques. What else could they say? The fireworks were legal. The damage was temporary. And we’d been extremely lucky.

This year, as Independence Day approaches, I wish you the best of holidays. Go ahead and be independent. Refuse to give in to British domination. Don’t listen to One Direction, Adele, or Mumford and Sons. Refuse to pay excessive taxes on tea. Go nuts. Just don’t become independent from all vestiges of reason and logic. Try establishing ground rules before the first fuse is lit. Start with Mutual Purpose. “I know we all want to have a safe experience, so why don’t we set up some rules to ensure our safety?” Ask others what they want to avoid and then jointly create guidelines. Better to set expectations before people act unsafely than to deal with infractions after they occur and others become defensive. As I tell my children, when you or your neighbor comes up with a crazy firework idea, ask yourself: “What would Dad do?” Then don’t do it anyway. And finally, to all you blunderbuss and cannon lovers out there—stop referring to your left eye, hand, and foot as “spares.” That’s just asking for trouble.

If you enjoyed this story, you’ll love Kerry’s new book, The Gray Fedora—a collection of stories from Kerrying On. The book is now available on

BS Guys

Got an Awkward Conversation?

Everyone has an awkward conversation they are avoiding. Perhaps you have a co-worker who smells bad, a boss who’s impossible, or a regular, well-paying customer with outrageous demands. Sometimes the situation is temporary, or we don’t deal with it very often, so we don’t address it. Sometimes we bottle up our feelings in situations we deal with regularly—and do so for extended periods of time. Instead of finding a way to deal with an awkward situation in a healthy way, we endure years of pain and torment.

In the hit 90’s sitcom Seinfeld, Elaine, along with Jerry, George, and Kramer, lock away their darkest secrets in the vault (“I’m putting it in the vault! I’m locking the vault!”), a place where their confidences—too awkward or damaging to tell—were supposed to go to die. Sometimes we do the exact same thing.

So, why do we do this? Because we focus on the immediate risks involved in speaking up, but completely ignore the certain and ongoing costs of not speaking up.

We recently conducted a study of 1,409 participants asking about their “vault” (this study is the latest subject of our new BS Guys video). Fifty-six percent of respondents stated they have been safeguarding toxic secrets or workplace grievances for more than a year! Keeping these secrets “in the vault” creates problems that are decidedly non-comedic and can be costly to an organization.

We asked people to imagine that we just handed them a “magical free pass” that would allow them to say anything they wanted to one person at work—with immunity from any consequences. Then we asked them what they thought would happen if they could actually follow through and hold that conversation. These were the surprising results:

• 66% believed their organization would be helped
• 57% believed everyone who interacts with this person would be helped
• 43% believed the person themself would be helped
• 39% believed a huge emotional burden would be lifted

We were amazed at the things employees have bottled-up for years, and were dying to tell a colleague, and yet were too scared or worried to discuss. For example, one school principal longed to tell her aging school media specialist:

“You need to retire. You’re overpaid, unhealthy, and out of touch—you can’t move well enough to even answer your phone. Oh, and you have a serious problem with hoarding.”

In spite of the enduring and substantial cost to the school, the principal, the students—and likely even to this employee—the principal’s concerns have stayed locked in “the vault” for more than a year.

People’s suppressed concerns ran the gamut, from terrifying to disgusting to heartbreaking. Common examples included:

• Speaking truth to those in power (50%): “You are the worst boss I’ve ever had. I used to fantasize you’d get into a car wreck on the way to work. My heart goes out to anyone who has to report to you.”
• Criticizing a peer’s performance (31%): “Your fake, sugar-sweet ‘kindness’ tinged with sarcasm and bullying to everyone, as well as your lying and backbiting, has made me not trust you or believe a word you say.”
• Talking about the elephant in the room (2%): “Your hygiene and habits are repulsive and offensive. No one wants to hear or smell your bodily functions. Stop leaving food garbage at your desk and using the bathroom sink to wash up like a squirrel at a birdbath.”

The most surprising finding of this study is how much pain we are willing to endure and for how long—for years and years in many cases—rather than open the vault. We are so intimidated by the initial conflict that could arise, we risk losing the incredible payoff of resolving the awkward issue.

This study uncovered another problem—these secrets are not truly locked away. When it comes to frustrations, if you don’t talk it out with the person and resolve it, you’ll act it out in unhealthy ways. Consider all the people who hate their managers. More than half of the respondents stated that they had either shared their resentments with others or have hinted about it to their boss.

So how do we open up the vault? Here are some tips to help you have “serenity now and avoid insanity later” as you follow through with that awkward conversation you’re avoiding:

Assume people can change. More than half of respondents haven’t spoken up because they don’t believe the person could or would change. But people do change all the time. Ask yourself, “If I were in the other person’s shoes, and I had a true friend who knew what I know, would I want them to tell me?” Most of us say “Yes!” because we care and have confidence we can change. Do the person the favor of letting them try to change.

Determine what you really want. Many of people’s grievances sound like, “You are a jerk!” These are accusations, rather than aspirations. Before speaking up, ask yourself what you want to accomplish—not just for yourself, but for the other person and for your working relationship. Use this long-term, inclusive goal to make the conversation constructive rather than destructive.

Approach as a friend, not a foe. We live in a low-accountability culture, where speaking up is often seen as an attack. Avoid this misconception by explaining your positive motives up front. For example, “I’d like to discuss a concern. My goal is to support you and to help us achieve the metrics you’ve set for our team . . . ”

Stick to the facts. Concerns that have been in the vault for months or years grow big and hairy. Specific incidents and facts are hidden beneath layers of conclusions. Avoid broad conclusions such as, “you don’t care” or “you’re incompetent.” Instead, focus on specific incidents, events, and actions such as, “The last three staffing decisions were made without input from the managers in the affected areas.”

I hope these tips help you have the courage to step up to the awkward conversation locked away in your vault.