Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
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When my best friends and I were kids growing up along the shores of the Puget Sound, the water was our favorite playground. It’s a good thing, because we certainly had a lot of it. It fell from the sky in unrelenting sheets of cold misery until it eventually gathered about us in a giant recreational hodgepodge of lakes, streams, and inlets. Hardly a summer day passed that we didn’t find a way to float in it.
By age fourteen, we had widened our tastes from floating safely in placid lagoons to using the water as a thrill park—particularly the water found underneath the docks. This was back in the early sixties when fish canneries still spewed a red stream of cast-off salmon heads and slimy innards straight into the bay. Sharks gathered at the entry point of the disgusting flow in a feeding frenzy of pink froth, teeth, and terror.
Few people have ever seen a sight such as the one found outside those canneries. Few people would want to see such a sight. Unless, of course, you were fourteen years old and pretty much lived for the chance of throwing yourself smack dab in the middle of just such a biological curiosity. Which is exactly what we did. My buddies and I took one look at the tangle of teeth and fins and knew we had to find a way to study it up close.
After scrounging logs and really thick string for a couple of days, our intrepid gang cobbled together a raft for just such idiotic purposes. We christened our highly unstable craft “Death on a Log” and then promptly paddled straight to the heart of the toothy treasure. It’s hard to describe the sheer visceral pleasure of gliding into a foaming pool of frenzied sharks. There we were, virtually surrounded by a pulsating mass of fins, teeth, and eyeballs—completely swallowed up by the roar of gushing entrails. It was fourteen-year-old heaven.
At first, we just stood there, triumphantly ensconced in the epicenter of this ecological nightmare, drawing strength from the electric energy of the moment. And then, one part adrenaline, two parts testosterone, and ten parts boy took over. First, we smacked the throbbing mass with our paddles. Take that you nasty sharks! Smack! Smack! Smack! Then we poked at the tangle with assorted sticks. Poke. Poke. Poke. We capped off the experience with a series of whoops and grins—shouting and gyrating on the very edge of sanity. It was a perfect teenage moment. And then Frank stepped over the edge and tumbled into the churning waters.
Movies generally show such life-threatening moments in slow motion. That’s because in real life they happen in slow motion. When Frank fell, it was as if time had slowed to one-tenth its normal pace. The tumble took forever. First, Frank’s left leg slipped off the edge. Then his body hung in space between the raft and death for about an hour—until death took the upper hand. As we stood, frozen to the raft, Frank plunged into the roiling sea. Only he didn’t really plunge. He hung in a grotesque, cartoon-like position above the danger below until he finally lurched toward the outstretched hands of his friends. He exerted just enough strength to propel his body to a spot six inches from the raft—except for the back of his head, which found the outside log with a sickening thud. He was out like a light, floating in a boil of ichthyoidal rage.
Tom, closest to the edge of the raft, jumped into the frenetic foam without so much as a second’s hesitation. It was stunning to watch him leap straight into the jaws of death (no metaphor here, these were the jaws of death). Okay, maybe the Puget Sound sharks weren’t thirty-foot great whites. Maybe they were only four to six feet long, but their rows of teeth were deadly enough and the danger was heart stopping. Somehow Tom managed to pull himself and Frank back onto the raft, but not before both had received several nasty bites. For five minutes we huddled together in a mist of foam, blood, fear, and gratitude. Then we slowly made our way back to shore.
For those of you who have never been a fourteen-year-old boy who has just escaped death by a whisker, you might think that we then gleefully returned home. We didn’t. Instead, we did what we always did under such ridiculous circumstances. We struggled to come up with a cover story. We couldn’t tell our moms that Frank and Tom had fallen into a whirlpool of sharks. They would have asked questions about where the sharks came from and how we happened to be so close to them in the first place. So we made up a whopper, sneaked into Frank’s house, and administered to the wounded.
I eventually told the heroic version of the shark story some twenty years later, while standing around a campfire at a father-and-son outing. By the time I was through, the crowd was ready to erect a statue in honor of Tom’s valor. In fact, I made all of us kids out to be a fanciful combination of swarthy adventurers and swashbuckling daredevils. Then, as I noted my own boys’ reactions (they hung on my every word), I reversed course. With time and the advantage of perspective, I took to adding the following editorial comments whenever I told the story anew.
Many acts of modern-day heroism are immediately preceded by acts of utter insanity—requiring the very acts of heroism that we’re bragging about in the first place. If we hadn’t been so completely insane as to paddle straight into the middle of death and then jump and hoot and slip around until one of us fell in, we wouldn’t have needed a hero. Hero stories persist because it’s not nearly as fun to avoid death by five hundred yards as it is to climb into the mouth of the grim reaper himself and then, at the very last second, scamper out in a flamboyant feat of heroism. Now that’s entertainment.
Fortunately, when you’re talking to your own children, reason prevails. You encourage your own precious offspring to avoid danger by a safe margin. With them, you give crystal clear directions: You can go into the water. No problem there. Just don’t swim into the churning waters. In fact, don’t go near the churning waters. Stay a full five hundred yards away from the churning waters.
What Does It Mean to Us?
I tell this story because it reminds me of what typically happens during training sessions when the topic turns to diversity and harassment. As class members discuss the always amazing and sometimes moronic things employees have been known to do to one another, a certain percentage always asks what they can get away with. They want to know how far they can go. Mostly it’s because they’re trying to understand the boundaries. Nobody wants to cut off human interaction in its entirety. A huge part of their life unfolds at work every day. Everyone wants to go into the water. They are going to talk with others. That’s a given. They are going to tell jokes, flirt, and tease. They just want to know where the safe waters end.
After the tenth person has asked if she can still tell blonde jokes (after all, blondes aren’t protected by law), or if he can tell a woman at work how good she looks in a sweater (because it’s about the sweater and not her body), I’m reminded of the sharks. There are some topics and actions that are obviously dangerous. They’re a veritable whirlpool of potential hazards. We all know what they are.
For example, if you start telling jokes that make fun of someone’s race or belief, you’re in dangerous water. If you’re attracted to someone who you’d like to date but who has shown you no interest (save for an occasional “bug off”), and you think to yourself, “Maybe she’s just teasing. I think I’ll keep after her until I wear her down and she finally agrees to go out with me,” you’re in dangerous water. If a coworker has annoyed you and you’re trying to come up with clever ways to get even, you’re in dangerous water.
What did we learn from the shark experience? To stay five hundred yards away from all things dangerous. So here’s what I tell anyone who asks: Don’t engage in socially risky activity. It’s that simple. Don’t tell blonde jokes. Sure, you might get the occasional laugh, but there’s a goo
d chance that you’ll offend someone too. Don’t start a sentence with, “You know the trouble with women . . .” or “You know the trouble with men. . .” You may think that women or men have certain characteristics in common. However, throwing all of them into one big gender bundle (and a negative one at that) is bound to offend people who prefer to be viewed as individuals (i.e., most sentient beings). If you start a discussion with, “I know this might offend someone, but . . .” you’re in dangerous water. Warning people up front doesn’t lessen the risk. Quite the opposite. Warning others is akin to announcing, “Hey everybody, I’m about to say something really offensive, insensitive, and stupid, so listen up.”
Experience has taught me that when we start making exceptions to safety rules, we eventually run risks—and why run a risk when it comes to our lives? It’s just not worth it. Social issues are no different. The stakes are similarly high, so why take risks when there’s so little to be gained? Here’s the punch line: If you know what you’re about to do is risky, then don’t do it. Stay five hundred yards away from all things dangerous. Stay away from the churning waters.
29 thoughts on “Kerrying On: Stay Away from the Churning Waters”
Brilliant article, great analogy I will use in a talk 😉
I thoroughly enjoyed the article. It was entertaining and educational.
Not a comment on this article, but rather on the survey that was attached to the e-mail — you need a comment section at the end of the survey for folks to explain some things — otherwise, the responses lack context for analysis that you are likely to be drawing from the responses
I like your article because it’s challenging. i loved the story of the sharks. However, I disagree with you. I prefer to encourage people to move into the churning waters but move in with wisdom. Staying away from the churning waters is like saying, “Don’t go out your front door, it’s too risky out there.” Every day is a risk and real living is stepping into the churning waters of life hopefully with wisdom and sometimes with stupidity. The churning waters is where life is at.
What a great story-teller!
I have a quote posted in my office that I picked up years ago. It centers me at times like you describe. “There is no right way to do a wrong thing.”
Thanks for an excellent article today. It’s not just a good story, it’s very relevant. I find that it not only applies to HR concerns, but many others, besides: ethical questions, risk management, even non-business concerns such as keeping God’s laws in a world that would have us do otherwise. I think it applies to any situation where you want to do “the right thing” in the face of pressures to do otherwise. I think your insight is on target today.
As I read your story I felt a memory of deep fear rising up within me, for I have raised 4 sons, and it is very easy for my ‘minds eye’ to see and to hear my son’s bravado as they chatter about their exploits with their same age cousins, such as sitting on top of a moving vehicle being driven by their 16 yr old brother. I doubt there is a more difficult and important life lesson to learn than to stop and think before you act.
I am a mother of two teenage boys (16 and 18). I had such a visceral reaction to the story as I could see my 18 year on that raft. He reacts to those scenarios with the same idiotic “gotta try it” bravado! I have seen him jumping off cliffs, scaling mountain walls (without ropes), diving out of our moving boat into 3 feet of water (skinned up his face but no broken bones) without any regard for safety. I loved how you related your message to the story. I will share the story with both of my kids. I fear, however, that there are some whose common sense will never override their bravado!
A gripping article with very wise, practical advice.
As a Seattle/Mt. Baker area native, I had no idea this was going on down on the waterfront! Growing up in Seattle before the freeway held a host of novel activities as a child but I digress. A riveting write; I felt I was there. Point well taken in correlating it to the work place. Kerry on!
I loved the article on the sharks. It had me on the edge of my seat waiting to see what was going to happen next!
I say write more articles like this one.
This is excellent. If the whole world heeded this advice, there would be no wars, disputes,because we’d all respect each other and come to love and help each other through life instead.
You have it half-correct. Yes, one really ought to know better than to “go where Angels fear to tread.” One should know enough not to say certain things in public or workplace situations, but many people are still not educated sufficiently about *why* certain statements might be offensive. On the other hand, in this day and age many people seem to feel entitled to get offended about just about anything…the threshold can seem incredibly low.
My main criticism of your “dangerous waters” analogy is that sometimes people need to hear the truth about what is going on “named out loud” – regardless of who chooses to get offended.
For example, workplaces where sexual and racial stereotypes and derogatory comments are the norm – or tolerated – in a Groupthink manner.
If nobody had “dared to go there” we would not have had the brave pioneering people whose vocal criticisms of various kinds of slurs led to upgrading of social norms (in some locales).
Yes, you paint a target on your back when you confront people with the fact that they are using terms or making statements which you find offensive…people who “rock the boat” are punished often, one way or another….you find yourself not fitting in with the company culture.
Yes, I have found myself prefacing a statement with “Some of you may be offended by what I am about to say…”
However, I still feel that the folks needed to hear what I had to say, i.e. that I find it offensive when people tell racial jokes or use racial epithets in my presence.
I will keep on swimming in those waters, even though your anecdote advises that “those who swim with the sharks are bound to be bitten.”
I will continue to be willing to pay the price for refusing to give acquiescence and approval through my silence.
I am indeed one of those “fools who rush in where Angels fear to tread.” However, I believe I do it – ultimately – to elevate people and the conversation, not to degrade them.
In a different context I used a training tip that seemed to stick with people: A skilled operator can get out of a situation that a real professional would never get into. I think that tip addresses some of the objections to your article. A “professional” (in this instance, someone with standards higher than the group) certainly would take colleagues to task for offensive behaviour, and would try to do it safely, respectfully and effectively. Although it might be challenging, even intimidating, the emotions attached to holding a crucial conversation are altogether different from the guilty pleasure of group indulgence in bad behaviour. Sincerity raises the conversation above that level. Perhaps my tip could be revised: a lucky teenager gets out of situations an adult would never get into.
Great advice. Almost blew it today matter of fact…
Stagecoaches, mass transit of the Old West, offered the talented and adventerous cowboy an opportunity for employment. On one occation, when a stagecoach company was interviewing for drivers, three experienced teamsters applied for the job.
The interviewer asked each one several questions in order to determine who was the best candidate. The most important question he saved for last.
“When you came to a road that was on the side of a steep mountain with many dangerous turns, how would you drive one of our stagecoaches?”
The first said, “I’d wouldn’t slow down one bit and I’d come within a foot of the side of road just to show you how good I am.”
The second said the similar things except he’d “go even faster and come within 6 inches of the side of the road.”
The last said: “Well sir, I’d slow down ,real careful like, and I’d stay as far from the edge as I could.”
The third one got the job.
Laugh out loud funny! Here I sit in the Bellingham, WA airport waiting for my flight (yes – it is raining outside!) and I burst out loud with a laugh. I so enjoy your Kerrying’s On!!
How can we properly react to those phrases “I shouldn’t do this but….” when we know this is the prelude to the dirty joke, etc?
I have responded with a firm but gentle “then don’t”, or “no thanks–would you like me to take a break and come back later?” reminds others that we don’t necessarily want to swim in polluted waters, and invite others to higher grounds.
I followup by making sure the friendliness of the relationship is renewed and strengthened.
Good article and a memorable visual teaching tool.
Great article, takes me back to my childhood. But to influence, you do need to speak up, even for culture change. You know the sharks are there.
Great story. You are a master story teller. I was truly on the edge of my seat. Your warning to stay away from stupid/insensitive/predjudicial statements is well to be heeded. But, like @John Teeling & @DrRuss, I think we need to be careful not to steer away from all dangerous conversations.
Your “punch line” at the end overstates the lesson. By staying away from *all things dangerous* we’re going to miss out on a some of the richest conversations that are to be had. There’s a big difference between being stupidly insensitive to others and avoiding conversational risk. Given the messages of your books, Crucial Conversation and Crucial Confrontations, I suspect that’s not what you meant to say.
An unusually-gripping childhood story told in a wonderful way. But the message – Stay away from churning waters- will not always hold…..for example, a coach hired by a losing team to make them win, or a new CEO hired to bring a company out of troubled waters. Churning waters will always excite intrepid and daring people….just like a breeder is eager to tame wild horses.
Excellent story, but “it’s easy for you to tell” when you took the gamble, had an adventure, and then tell all to stay away. I’m not sure how effective that technique will be.
You are the BEST storyteller because you always use your story to provide a moral to the tale. We need more storytellers like you. I think the power of story is profound and storytelling is a lost art. Thanks for continuing a tradition that I hope never dies.
russ, teeling, etc. here’s an amen to that view. i think our major point is that kerry’s view is myopic and the “moral of the story” blurs the line between offended and offender. i laughed heartily at the story as most others, but i’m surprised they stopped commenting at that point.
in email i said:
“Don’t engage in socially risky activity. It’s that simple. Don’t tell blonde jokes. Sure, you might get the occasional laugh, but there’s a good chance that you’ll offend someone too. […] If you know what you’re about to do is risky, then don’t do it. Stay five hundred yards away from all things dangerous. Stay away from the churning waters.”
please tell me kerry is testing us to see if we can effectively communicate our response to these quotes because here i go:
first and foremost i’m adding to the pool of shared meaning by saying i received an email in which the above quotations caught my attention. without immediate feedback in an email (something that forces one to take full responsibility for their perspective, a theme i’ll come back to later) i’ll continue to my tentative conclusion: i feel like kerry is basically telling us to be robots at our work place out of deference to fragile egos.
now it isn’t that i don’t appreciate him trying to help us avoid bad feelings at work because i certainly would like to be smoother in my social interactions, but i do want to avoid achieving these things at the cost of the variety i add to the workplace. i don’t want to victimize myself with others’s fragile egos.
in order to achieve these things i usually use a combination of bad jokes, inflammatory and hypocritical comments precisely because the people i work with agree that fragile egos have no place in an environment where everyone’s (not just the fragile ego’s) success is at stake; the comments preserve our right to be wrong as long as we keep our egos in check by not getting mad at people for thinking we’re wrong. certainly a lot of communication requires getting over the fragile ego and crucial skills help that process, but telling us to act like robot’s begs the question of why we should be so dedicated to helping these fragile egos.
we’ve all had the fragile ego experience at least as children and even later in life as artists or whenever we go out on a limb to express something unusual that we look for feedback on. the difference is that as adults we rely on the ability of other adults to take responsibility for their perspective. i.e. we rely on adults to tend their own egos to the extent compatible with not being a hypocrite.
Kerry, you are the absolute best story-teller, and this one was riveting. I do agree with others, though, that we also need the people who walk on the edge. That’s how we learn and progress. Keep up the wonderful stories!
Regarding this comment and others that point out we sometimes need to go into the churning waters–you’re right, sometimes there is a NEED to go into those waters. In Kerry’s story and in his caution, however, I see that he is talking about going into the churning waters for entertainment or for personal satisfaction, not to calm the waters or to research what is causing the churning. We need the interveners and researchers; we don’t need folks jumping into the fray just for kicks.
Loved the story! I’ll have to admit, I had no idea where you were going with it, and then was surprised where we ended up. But it’s a perfect analogy for the situation on which you were reflecting. Thank you.
Nice information, many thanks to the author. It really is incomprehensible if you ask me now, playing with general, the usefulness and significance has me overwhelmed. Thank you and good luck!