Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: Breaking Habits

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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Since the dawn of humanity, philosophers, scientists, and puppeteers alike have been asking the same penetrating questions: Do we have free will? Do we actually make choices on our own, or is our behavior determined by powerful forces from our environment such as nagging parents, our outlook calendar, or the snarling pit bull next door?

During my first year of college I came to the conclusion that by the time I was aware that much (if not all) of what I did was, indeed, a function of my upbringing and surroundings, it was too late for me to undo the effects. The die had been cast. My language, my actions, my very methods of reasoning—all had been shaped before I realized what was going on.

So, I came up with a plan. In order to regain control of my will, I would act in ways that were opposite to my proclivities. Surely, this would put me back in charge. Ah, but this thought too had been shaped by my life’s experiences and was therefore hardly a choice, so I’d do the exact opposite. I’d follow my natural desires. Wait a minute, this couldn’t be right . . . and thus I swirled down an infinite loop of circular thinking until I eventually stumbled on a philosophy of my liking: gluttonism. I’d think about other (more important) issues over a chocolate milkshake.

And so I plodded along unfettered by concerns over free will/determinism until one fateful day—the day my wife and I bought our first home. Along with the automatic dishwasher and two-car garage, our home came equipped with, of all things, a test of my free will. The test was cleverly disguised as a redwood deck, but it was a test nevertheless and I couldn’t easily escape it.

Here’s how the free-will test worked. The first time I walked out on the second-story deck to take in the view, I leaned over the railing, looked down on our new lawn, and spit. I was thirty-four years old and hadn’t spit in more than fifteen years. My wife certainly had never seen me spit. And my kids, well, the whole idea of their father propelling germ-laden loogies into space was beyond the pale.

Before the spit hit the ground my wife pronounced me a filthy beast, and my seven- and nine-year-old daughters squealed in disgust. Normally the three of them saw it as their job to ridicule me for burping aloud or drinking milk straight from the container. Now that we owned a deck, their job had expanded. Because from that moment on, every single time I leaned against the deck’s rail, it pushed my spit button. It was creepy. I couldn’t not spit. When it came to the deck, I was little more than a loogie-marionette, jerked into action at the mere sight of an open space below me.

As a child growing up in Puget Sound I had lived around docks where, like all of my childhood friends, I spit every time I looked over the edge. It’s what boys did. Children, I’m told, often push their food off their high-chair tray, not solely as a means of rebellion, but as a method for learning depth perception. Perhaps my hard-wired act of spitting as I approached a railing was an extension of this mechanism.

In an effort to re-captain my spit reflex I tried personal pep talks. I’d approach my backyard deck and think, “Don’t spit, don’t spit! You can do it!” But then I’d get distracted (“Oh, a pretty butterfly!”), lean against the rail, and—patoohee—I might as well have been a cowpoke leaning over a spittoon.

“Dad spit three times,” my daughters would tell my wife when she returned from the market.

I mention this problem of reflexively jumping into inappropriate actions not because I want to enter the free-will/determinism debate, but because it’s highly relevant to something I do care a great deal about—improving one’s interpersonal skills. Here’s how the two topics relate. Much of our daily social interaction is tightly scripted. We engage in the same conversations so frequently that they become rote. In fact, if pressed, not only could we say what needs to be said without really thinking about it, we could act out both parts.

The good news is that these patterned responses free up our brains to muse about other things. The bad news is, once we start into a script, it’s hard to change what we do and say. We follow the script much like a well-worn and familiar path—actually, more like a steel railway.

For example, one evening my wife asked me to request fry sauce (a local product) when I ordered our food at a hamburger joint. I entered the queue, waited my turn, and then the clerk started into the counter script.

“May I help you?”

“Why yes,” I replied—and off we went. I didn’t merely know what I was going to say, I knew what the clerk was going to say. He was going to ask me if I wanted fries and a drink and when I said yes, he was going to ask: “Large?”

Of course, once I switched into auto pilot, I flew through the interaction without much thought and, you guessed it, I didn’t ask for fry sauce. I was never going to ask for the fry sauce because the interaction was programmed from the beginning. I started into the counter script, and once I did, I fogged over, coasted along, and stopped making decisions.

This particular issue becomes important to people who have decided to improve their ability to communicate with friends and coworkers. For instance, many individuals who attend our Crucial Conversations Training return to work feeling excited about the prospect of using their new skills. However, despite their enthusiasm, they often don’t think to bring what they’ve learned into play when called upon to do so. When a conversation starts to heat up (at the very moment when they should be thinking: “Cool, this is a time to try out some stuff I learned!”) they get sucked into an old script. Only after the conversation has ended do they realize they missed a good chance to behave differently. At the beginning of the conversation, just before they think to try out their new skills, the dominos of habit begin to fall and—clink, clink, clink—routine behaviors tumble down one after another until, once again, they’ve messed up the entire interaction.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. There are ways to bring cognition—and with it, the hope for change—into highly routine interactions if only you can remind yourself to do so. For those of you who have found it hard to change your conversation style, here are a few hints for breaking the bonds of pre-programmed scripts.

Put up a Sign. This was the ultimate solution to my redwood deck challenge. I posted a sign (on the rail itself) that simply stated “Don’t Spit.” I would read it just before I hit my spit button and I eventually broke the habit. When it comes to learning interpersonal skills, trainees often post pictures of the model they’re following right in their office. This visual cue reminds them of the new way of dealing with high-stakes issues at a time and place when they need the reminder.

Set Aside a Time. With certain behaviors or skill sets, it’s best to set aside a block of time where you can practice what you’ve just learned. For instance, when it comes to holding a crucial conversation, devote an hour a week during which you seek out high-stakes discussions. Then, as opinions vary and emotions start to run strong, you’ll be on guard to bring your newest and best skills into play—avoiding the pitfalls of rote scripts.

Get Cues from a Friend. When I become too forceful, pig-headed—and then maybe a tad punishing—my wife calls me on it. If my bad behavior is aimed at her, she says something to the effect of, “You’re doing it again.” She does this in a pleasant way; I stop, take a breath, and then try to get back on my best behavior. In public when she spots the same nasty habits (only I’m applying them to others) she gives me a look that serves the same function. You can contract with a colleague at work to do the same thing. In short, as you head down the highway of interpersonal disaster, trusted friends hold up a stop sign and you backtrack to the right route.

Apologize and Start Over. Sometimes we miss the cue that says we need to bring newer and better skills into play, but we don’t miss the fact that we’re now careening down a dangerous road because we’ve obviously made a wrong turn (i.e., followed our old scripts). When this happens, rather than keep on truckin’ because you’re already well underway, stop, apologize, and start over. With this practice in your arsenal, you don’t have to be perfect, just willing to try again.

Well, it’s time for me to head to lunch with a friend. He wants to go to this Thai restaurant up the street, but I’m a bit apprehensive. It’s not the spicy food that has me worried. It’s the building. You see, the place has this deck . . . with a railing.

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11 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Breaking Habits”

  1. Joe Thigpen

    Kerry’s comments on the challenge of breaking habits is welcomed and appreciated. I think that more attention needs to be given to assisting people in applying the skills they know but do not use when they need them most. Kerry’s suggestions are a wonderful start. Thanks.

  2. Cathy Parsons

    Dear Kerry:
    I laughed aloud several time throughout your story about breaking bad habits – my hallway neighbours at work must have wondered what was going on! Thank you for adding the humour to your stories that make them so memorable.

    During my master’s studies last year we talked quite a bit about the making and breaking of habits. Thank goodness that we now know the ability of the brain to strenghthen different pathways and to create new ones. For myself, I know that the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” has no meaning for me, yet for others it serves as a good excuse.

    All the best. I hope to meet you in person some day. I was unable to make the Salt Lake City get-together but perhaps sometime in the future.

    Cathy Parsons

  3. Linda


    Thanks for your humorous version of “nature versus nurture” and showing us some ways to break habits/programmed scripts. I enjoy your blog and have learned (and will continue learning) so many ways to improve my communications skills with colleagues, friends, and family.

    So what ever happened with the fry sauce? 🙂

  4. Christie Childers

    Dear Kerry,
    Thanks so much for Kerrying On. That your stories are vivid and memorable in themselves makes your message memorable as well. Quite some time ago, I read a wonderful column about a gray fedora and even today, when I’m having difficulty seeing someone else as an individual worthy of my patience or respect, in my mind I pull out the gray fedora. It almost always works!

  5. Keith Miles

    After reading a number of your articles I’m convinced what a talented communicator you are. I especially like the way you weave humor into your insight then follow with practical suggestions. I’m going to be putting up some signs to trigger the cognitive and allow my brain to catch up and stay engaged. Well done and enjoyable.

  6. Jan

    Your article provided valuable insight. Thank you.
    One suggestion though, the spitting thing. Your graphic description using the word “loogie” made me realize I should not have eaten breakfast before reading your article. I lost focus until my stomach settled down –
    Now when I’m on my deck or any other, I have no choice but to think of you. Or do I? Think I’ll go back, read the article again and reprogram myself. Sincerely, Jan

  7. Joanne

    Dear Kerry,

    Thanks for another in a long line of entertaining, insightful stories!

    It was valuable to me to learn that I am not alone in wishing, AFTER a frustrating interaction, that I could have spoken or acted differently. In a past abusive marriage, I found myself getting sucked into the same old conversations in which I felt manipulated and helpless.

    I thought I was somehow socially deficient not to be able to recognize at the time what was really going on.

    I always enjoy your stories, and they almost always teach me something.


  8. Ronald S

    I just started reading a book titled “Presence” authored by several people including Peter Senge, C. Otto Scharmer, Joe Jaworski and Betty Sue Flowers. I mention this because in the introduction they speak to what you have written. Most of our communication is programmed reactive responses. To the degree that we begin to think more deeply about what we are experiencing we have the possibility of formulating more creative and future oriented ways of being. Our thinking may reorient to a future way of being rather then the programed responses and resistance to change that retards our progress.

  9. John Froelich


    I look forward every week to your blog. I loved this week’s and could relate to both aspects. I am sorely tested when I take my children to the Empire State Building or the ultimate test, a one mile spit down the Grand Canyon!!! It’s got a railing.

    I also took to heart the comments on getting out of the rut. I leveraged this approach several months ago during a “routine” sales review call. By backing up I was able to identify a couple of potential train wrecks that we got back on track.

    Thanks for sharing your life and the insights. Be well and keep on blogging.

  10. Neera Khanna

    Hi there,
    this was very useful / I’m going to try the tips

    thankyou Kerry

  11. Joanne Richards

    Hello. I just finished reading “Breaking Habits” & felt the need to respond to the comment about the “snarling pit bull next door.” I wish this had been worded “the snarling dog next door,” as pit bulls are so often portrayed in an undeserved negative light. We have had our Pit Bull (Sandy) for over 5 years & she is a cherished member of our family. She is friendly & loving, often sleeping in our bed or with our daughters or curled up near one of our cats. One night Sandy woke my husband up, nudging him & fussing until he got up to let her outside. When he opened the door to our deck, my husband found our 8 year old daughter sitting on a chair, sound asleep in the dark after an episode of sleep-walking. Our Pit Bull noticed this, knew it wasn’t right, & persisted until she got my husband to get up & check on this. Once our daughter was back in bed, Sandy was fine. Our daughter could easily have gotten lost in the woods or the swamp near our home or at the very least awoken, frightened to find herself outside in the dark. Please don’t add to the hysteria about Pit Bulls. Those who exhibit bad behavior have likely been mistreated or taught to be aggressive. Thank you.

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