Crucial Skills®

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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Bert's Visit

Kerry Patterson

Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.


Kerrying On

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Every family has at least one kooky relative, and mine is no exception. In our case it was my step-grandfather Bert who routinely provided us with endless tales of quirkiness and interpersonal insensitivity. For instance, once when my wife and I had not seen Bert and my grandmother Dorothy for years, they dropped unannounced into our apartment in the town where I was attending school at the time. When it comes to social interaction, Bert is a train wreck, so, true to form, he initiated his conversation by stating, “You’ve certainly porked out since I last saw you. It looks like you swallowed your own eight-year-old self. Ha ha!”

After Bert ranked on me for an hour or so, he eventually asked for a tour of the campus. Glad to escape the insensitive humor and all-around rudeness, my wife and I buckled our two baby girls into our VW bus and, along with Bert and Dorothy, started out on what we hoped would be a pleasant tour of the campus—one where we would putt along amicably while discussing the university’s architecture, history, and curriculum.

Bert wasn’t interested in any such “foo-foo crapola” (his words, not mine). No, Bert wanted to walk inside the buildings and see stuff up-close-and-personal. After walking through the humanities quad, where he never once raised his eyes above the kick plates, Bert asked me to take him to the janitor’s closet. As if students carried a pass key or knew the entry code. Eventually, Bert found the custodial nerve center where he enthusiastically examined cleaning solutions while my wife and I tried our best to keep our toddlers from eating them.

As you’ve probably guessed, Bert was a custodian. To him, visiting a university didn’t mean examining the curriculum or listening to a lecture, it meant exploring the things that needed to be cleaned. It was the world Bert cared about and, as near as I could tell, pretty much the only one he saw.

The fact that Bert was interested in taking a custodial tour wasn’t the problem. Granted, it’s a bit odd to be touching and sniffing cleaning chemicals when touring a college campus with your grandchildren, but the issue here wasn’t Bert’s quirkiness, it was his insensitivity. Bert took my wife, my children, and me on a lengthy janitorial journey with no thought whatsoever of our needs or interests. In fact, the more we hinted and complained about stepping over sewer pipes or avoiding the flames that were leaping out of the power plant, the more Bert threw himself into the tour.

And it only grew worse. The sun kept beating down, my youngest daughter actually wedged her binky under a wrecking ball, my wife gave me one of her “he’s your relative” stares—and Bert? Well, he droned on.

Now, don’t get me wrong. You can care passionately about a lot of different things and still be socially well adjusted. Unfortunately, like Bert, many of us follow our interest in a subject with such fire and focus that we lose our social graces in the process—even if just temporarily. For instance, when caught in a debate at work we turn our attention so intensely on our side of the argument that we often miss the net effect of our actions. It may not be wax on the floor beneath us that we obsess over, but like Bert, when we’re caught up in the details of our own viewpoint, we often fail to notice that we’re turning people off to it. Or if we do notice that we’re not having the effect we had hoped for, we’re not sure what to do instead.

The good news is that not only can we easily improve our ability to note when we’re losing our social sensibility, but we can also improve the skills we employ when trying to express our views. That’s because the tools for enhancing our social repertoire are all around us. We actually live in the best laboratories available. We call them kitchens and offices and meeting rooms, but they are laboratories nevertheless.

How do these labs work? To quote from the renowned social commentator Yogi Berra: “Sometimes you can observe a lot by just watching.” If we take our focus off the arguments we and others are making and carefully watch others in action, noting what works and what doesn’t, we can turn every social venue into a learning lab. For instance, Jean Piaget made some great discoveries in the field of child development simply by watching his own children at home. Socially gifted people aren’t born gifted. They learn the skills by watching social interactions with the same level of interest Bert had for studying floor wax.

So, take a lesson from my experience with Bert. As you become more and more drawn into an argument, take your focus off “your thing.” Step out of the argument and observe how others are responding and note if communication ceases—even while you’re still talking. If that is the case, take the opportunity to apologize, open the conversation up to everyone, and get back on track. And drawing on these same observational skills, on those occasions when you yourself aren’t in the middle of the debate but are on the sidelines (perhaps in a meeting), observe gifted people in action. Focus on what they do, what works and why. Turn every high-stakes, emotionally charged discussion into a learning opportunity.

Turn your world into a stimulating learning lab, not just a place that needs to be waxed.

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11 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Bert's Visit”

  1. Thea

    Hi Kerry,

    I couldn’t help but think that Bert felt the same frustration when you were succumbing him to your “foo-foo crapola” tour.

    I understand the point you are making and it makes logical sense, however, may I propose that you were also “caught in the details of your own viewpoint” while maintaining your social grace.

    At the risk of presenting myself as the advocate for a man with little social graces I would say Bert was getting even.

  2. BB

    Thea- I read this the same way. It’s a bit one-sided and didn’t exhibit any balance.

  3. Charlie


    I’m a big fan, but have to say that though you pulled out before crashing and burning, you were none-the-less heading for the wall on this one. You start by showing Bert’s insensitivity through his crass comments about your weight, point taken. Then you go on to talk about how you hoped for “a pleasant tour of the campus—one where we would putt along amicably while discussing the university’s architecture, history, and curriculum”. Where was your sensitivity that this clearly less educated man may not find discussing the university’s architecture and history very stimulating? Apparently it took an hour or so (and much ranking on you) for you to see his viewpoint. You say “the issue here wasn’t Bert’s quirkiness, it was his insensitivity”, but I’d challenge you to consider your part in this problem. First, recognize his needs, second suggest that you would be more than happy to give him the “sanitation tour”, but first let’s drop off the kids and possibly the wives and we can do a guys day out… or tell him no and not kvetch about it later. As a reader, I never felt that you understood his viewpoint as being valid, just different.


  4. Letty

    I agree with Charlie. I have two masters degrees and have worked for 15 years as an administrator in higher education. I spent part of that career in residence life at 3 universities. I love being on a university campus and all the foo-foo crapola!! However, at one point in my res life career I supervised custodians and was responsible for building maintenance. To this day I look at the stuff; machines, chemicals that the office custodial staff use(and make sure bottles are labeled!). When I travel I unconciously check for the broken and dirty stuff in hotels and conference rooms. I pick up trash I find on the floor in the office out of respect for the custodial staff. Old habits die hard! It seems that if Bert was your guest and you knew he was a custodian that you could have reached out and made a connection by considering what he would find interesting. I hate to say it, but it is behavior like this that gives us “educated” folks a bad rep. Maybe that’s why they don’t visit often?

  5. Karen Lasnick-McNeil

    While I sympathize with having to suffer the slings and arrows of grandfather Bert, I feel that using Bert was a bad example for the point you were trying to make. Bert’s “quirkiness” has all the marks of Asperger’s Syndrome. People who have have this autism spectrum disorder are often viewed as insenstive to other’s feelings (brutally honest is closer), are obsessed with their own hobbies, likes and dislikes to the point of boring everyone else. They are usually very bright individuals, but do not understand facial cues and body language. With proper behavioral and/or social skills classes and support, people with Asperger’s Syndrome can learn to overcome these behaviors. As a parent of a daughter with Asperger’s, I have seen wonderful improvement in my child with such support.

  6. Peter West

    Kerry, I never thought you were a mouse until I read about this visit from Bert and Dorthy. Did you not have other plans for that evening? Did this tour not go past your kids bedtime? Had you and your partner not have enough of the university tour after a few hours? Can you not say to Bert that this is not a good time? Is there not a way you could say that you are not really interested?

  7. Al Thomas

    My reaction when reading this was that the advice you gave was great but did not really address how to handle insensitiviey in either yourself or others and that the illustrative example given was very far off the mark. This is the first time I have read something from Crucial Skills that was disappointingly off the mark.
    There are insenstive people in this world and there are often many reasons for their insenstivity. In this case, I assume that Bert, the janitor and STEP-grandfather (so we know that there is NO genitic link) was uncomfortable in his educated step-grandson’s presence. He probably felt very uncomfortable and his ragging was his effort to level the social playing field. My father-in-law was a butcher and had a small grocery store. He never visited any place for more than a day without wandering around the supermarket, checking out the meat etc. It was not my favorite pasttime, but I loved the man and enjoyed his enjoyment which also gave him a chance of passing some practical wisdom about meat to his son-in-law. Hopefully Bert was insensitive enough not to notice that you were not interested in the things that interested him, or not enough interested in him enough to fake it.

  8. Al Thomas

    It would be great if I could change the tone of the last sentence. It is so JUDGEMENTAL, and probably not necessary. There were several other comments on maturity (then and now), possible embarrassment being related to someone like this and explaining this to university friends. I thought there was no evidence, so I didn’t, but they are still nagging after thoughts. This is so shockingly unlike anything I have ever read from you (individually and collectively). I have never written a criticism like this before.

  9. Lesia Stone

    Wow, Kerry. Talk about unintended consequences – first of all, as always, I admire your ability to so eloquently entertain while teaching us concrete ways of using the skills. This is clearly a demonstration of one not using the “learn to look” skills from others'(i.e., your and your wife’s) perspective.

    That said, I’m thinking you may have missed an opportunity to tie in several of the other CC skills with this example, e.g., mutual purpose/mutual respect (OK, maybe a stretch for Bert but the swallowed eight year old is probably a separate CC), contrasting, and using STATE skills to address Bert. Something like, “Bert when you suggested we tour the campus, I had in mind a family walk around the lovely grounds, pointing out the highlights of the campus and giving the little ones an opportunity to expend some extra energy before bedtime. Since we got here, you seem interested in learning more about how the custodial crew operates and touring the inside of the buildings. AS a matter of fact, we haven’t left this janitor’s closet for over one hour(or whatever fact is relevant). I can see where that would be interesting to you with your past career and I’d like to give you an opportunity to spend more time doing just that. Am I correct that you would like to learn more about the custodial aspects of the campus?”

    “I don’t want to rain on your parade, however, I do want to be certain that the children are safe and entertained, as well. Since we arrived in this building, (child 1) has come into contact with poisonous substances and (child 2) has lost her binky under heavy equipment. My thought is that the children are too small to appreciate what we are doing and it is perhaps unresaonable to expect them to be able to control themselves with all of the cool and poisonous stuff around.”

    “I’m thinking this might be a better tour for you and I to take without the children. Would you agree that just you and I come back at a better time?”

    That’s my input. As always, it is always easy to critique others and I continue to seek opportunities to learn how to address my often most difficult audience – my family – when using the CC skills. Thanks for the feedback loop as it provides more examples of how we can tap into the knowledge and experiences of others to hone our own skills.

  10. Dawne L. Hole

    You are always so excellent, thank you for remindering me about the Earth being a lab!

  11. JamesP

    So he drops in unexpectedly, insults you endlessly and you proceed to take him on a tour that is highly unpleasant for you and your family (and dangerous to your children). I don’t allow my family a free pass in how they treat me. Treat me like dirt, and you won’t be in my life. Especially not in front of my wife and child. While Bert may have other problems, he doesn’t get to abuse you at will. If he wants to wander around the campus looking at the floor, he can go right ahead – alone.
    I like how Bert is described as quirky. I was thinking more along the lines of a-hole. And speaking as an influencer, I never really find any learning from the truly broken people, I find that life is much more powerful when they are confronted and sidelined. In your book you talk about focusing on the opinion leaders, as well as how Delancey keeps their residents away from the street and all the negativity and abuse that festers there. Relatives like this make up the nasty kind of environment that makes families toxic, and they need to be dealt with firmly so that they don’t poison the system.

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