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.


Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

19 thoughts on “The Roi-Tan Cemetery”

  1. This is something I wrote 7-8 years ago. Replace the word ‘recognition’ with any of the pro-social, relationship building skills, and the same point is made – if your purpose is manipulation, the insincerity will shine through. It may work in the moment, but will be seen through by most people, which they will never tell you, and will damage you in the long run.

    Recognition can be effective or counterproductive, depending on how and when it is used. That is why there is an ongoing debate on the efficacy of recognition and praise – it is perceived as both influential and manipulative, healing and harmful, that it enhances as sense of self-worth and damages it. Everyone has probably experienced both sides of this: received recognition that felt wonderful, motivating and reinforcing; and received ‘recognition’ that felt deadening, de-motivating and even disgusting.

    The underlying core element to successful recognition is this: It is in the eye of the beholder. Perception makes all the difference. Successful, effective recognition is perceived as:

    • True – it is for something you personally do or have control over.
    • Sincere – you believe the person who is praising you means it.
    • Deserved – it is for something you consider praiseworthy.
    • Meaningful – you value the opinion of the person who is praising you.

    If any of these tests fail, the interaction will not be seen as real recognition.

    This is the problem with trying to operationalize recognition programs in organizations: we are trying to get people to use it to reinforce wanted behaviors, foster self-esteem, or create a positive and influential environment; unfortunately, using recognition for these reasons renders it ineffective and will not move these goals forward. These must be an effect, not a cause; when you recognize people because it is true and you believe it, then your belief makes it both real – and helpful.

    1. Kerry

      I read this with great interest. I have wrestled with that old question about manipulation myself. It can’t be helped. If you make a good hammer someone can always smash someone over the head with it. I hate to think what the wrong person could do with that lever that’s large enough to move the world.

      In the end the solution I took to myself, and I can only speak for myself, was to make a commitment to always be mindful of the law of survival of the fittest. Now survival of the fittest is a wonderful doctrine because it proves itself. The fittest survive to breed therefore its all true. The problem that comes up though, is that many of the fans of survival of the fittest completely miss what makes a human being fit to survive. Of all the things that it doesn’t mean, most of all it doesn’t mean strapping on your Rambo boots and stepping on other people. Because fundamentally, a human being isn’t at the top of the food chain. Human beings (plural} are. You can’t do it by yourself. Let me take an example or two:

      If you drop one human being into a jungle you have a meal waiting to happen for something bigger and meaner and faster. (Sorry guys there are plenty of things that can chew through Rambo boots).

      Now drop ten people into a jungle and (if they get along) you have a team. Now you stand a chance.

      Drop a hundred people into a jungle and you have a village, a support network, the beginnings of a culture.

      Drop a thousand people and you have enough people to divide up labor, give people time to solve problems better and a culture.

      Ten thousand and you can really build. Suddenly you have a civilization.

      OK, it’s not all perfect. Drop a 100,000 and you have an ecological disaster and a nasty little civil war, ostensibly about whether it’s better to worship the god of the Smoking Mountain on a Tuesday or a Wednesday (but actually it’s more to do with the Tuesday worshipers living upstream and emptying their sewer into the same river the Wednesday worshipers do their laundry in – but that’s a whole other debate).

      The point is, as an absolute truth, empathy and compassion are survival traits. The ability to achieve genuine co-operation, and to bring the best out in people, are survival traits. Short term thinking in your dealings with people is not. I wonder what happened to the MBA student you mentioned? Certainly he ended up sharing a room with a guy who probably wasn’t going to have his back when the chips were down. The girlfriend would have realized what happened sooner or later. That’s two people already that no longer had his best interests at heart. That’s before they talked to anyone else about their woes.

      If you treat people with respect and integrity it will come back one way or another. If not from that particular person (we all fail sooner or later) then from the others who see your behavior. The bottom line is, and I do really mean bottom line here, that being a manipulator is not a survival trait. Never has been.

      Back when the proof of who was fit to survive was all a little bit more abrupt than the world we live in now, and something big, with teeth and claws jumped over the wall you can bet no-one went back for the guy that nobody trusted. The guy that taught someone’s kid how to fish and finally got the guy with the goat and the guy with the sheep to stop arguing all the time……well when he goes down, you just turn round, grab a big stick and hope for the best don’t you? At least everyone else is with you.

      Sorry, might have gotten a bit sentimental at the end there. I stick by my point though. It’s a moral duty not to manipulate and to help manipulators understand why they’re wrong. It really is for their own good.

  2. Brilliantly said, Mr. Patterson, and so needed today in this often times self-consumed world we live in. Very much appreciated and encouraged by your thoughts (save the insect part – yuk!)

  3. I always look forward to any of Kerry Patterson’s writing ! He is extremely good, and this article just advances this. Every article he writes is well worded and thought out, with excellent examples included.

  4. Another wonderful article (the first paragraph is pure poetry)…I always get excited when I see a “Kerrying On” in my email inbox!

    I’m dying to know how you responded to that chilling paper from the MBA student, though…

  5. Would love to see a column on the communication skills and styles of the two presidential candidates objective rather than slanted highlighting the pros and cons of each.

    All of your newsletters are very much appreciated. Thank you

  6. As always, great article. And I am encouraged that you have not become discouraged by people who misuse the skills, because they never truly acquired them to begin with. They only pretended. While pretending might get you a temporary something you think you desire, it will not get you what you truly desire, which is what we all desire. Peace. Acceptance. Respect. The skills you teach have enriched my life in the most meaningful ways. I was able to repair a long damaged relationship with my mother. I have been able to have difficult conversations with people who report to me, people to whom I report, and colleagues. I have learned to differentiate between “me problems” and “them problems” and to forgive myself for the me problems and forgive them for the them problems, and recognize my role and decisions in each. My life is better as a result. Thank you.

  7. Kerry – just want you to know that even if I’m extremely busy and can’t get to every email, I read your articles. Your wit, your stories, your experience, so echo my own, that I relate in some way with all the things you write. Thank you for sharing your life and insights with us. I’m a better person because of what you write. Keep up the good work!

  8. Well done!! And the reason I have been an advocate for your books and approaches for many years now 😉 Thanks for fighting the good fight and helping folks understand anything can be used as a weapon or a tool..held with the hands or the heart makes a big difference in outcome and determines it’s use 😉 and I am glad to say your organization has done a great deal to help, not hurt or hinder…blessings, lil

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