Crucial Skills®

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Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Marshmallow Massacre

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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This article was first published on April 19, 2006.

Over the years I’ve written several pieces on the need for more frequent, creative, and sincere recognition. No matter the time, place, or location, if you survey employees about what sits in their craw, people routinely point out that they aren’t given enough recognition for their performance. As far as the average person is concerned, their bosses, friends, and family members just don’t value them as much as they should.

The first piece I ever wrote about the need for an increased dose of praise highlighted the importance of knowing what the other person values. After all, if you spot an exceptional performance and then reward it with something you value but others don’t—well, you miss the mark. Not only do you fail at a chance to give praise, but you can appear insensitive and uncaring. I’ve learned this valuable lesson the hard way. For instance, once I gave my wife a nice stereo for her birthday. I really wanted the stereo, she didn’t, and she called me on it. “So, this is your gift; where’s mine?” Uh-oh.

But the very first time I learned the lesson deserves special attention. I discovered the importance of knowing what the other person values the summer of 1963—on my very first date.

Most of us can recall our first date as if it were yesterday—some with fond memories, others with slightly tainted recollections, and still others with sheer horror. Mine fell into the horror category. It actually started out okay. I had a date with a nonrelative. This was a plus. We went to a party at a friend’s house. My date seemed amused with my nervous chatter. We even danced and talked—just like I knew what I was doing.

Then came the games. Some of the couples were starting to dance too close for the parents’ taste. A few even began to seek out dark places. And then, as if on cue, my friend’s father jumped in and shouted, “Let’s turn the lights on and play some good old-fashioned games!” I hardly knew the girl I was with, so the prospect of competing in a coeducational arena appealed to me. I liked to compete. I figured that my date would be impressed if I won an event or two. I would be. My friends would be. It only stood to reason that she would be. Guess again.

The first competition was a game of the “bobbing for apples” genre. Only instead of apples, we used marshmallows; and instead of floating in water, they hung by string from the ceiling. Each boy was asked to put his hands behind his back and then eat, unassisted, six marshmallows that had been spaced a few inches apart on two feet of string.

Now here was an event tailored to my unique skills. It involved eating sugar—and I had been in training since birth. When the whistle blew, I chomped into the marshmallows like a jackal on a fallen wildebeest. My competitors gingerly nibbled away. What a rout! I grazed straight up the string, swallowing all six marshmallows in about thirty seconds. The other guys hadn’t even finished one. They simply stood by, dabbing their cheeks with the corners of their napkins.

When I announced my victory, all eyes turned to me in shock. Nobody in the crowd could believe I had finished already. Then, within three ticks of the clock, looks turned from surprise to admiration to disgust. Not only had I eaten the marshmallows, I had swallowed the string as well. Hanging out of the corner of my mouth was six inches of unswallowed evidence.

As people looked on in revulsion, I was faced with a puzzling question. Do I swallow the rest of the string and run the risk of it getting tangled in my intestinal tract? Or do I pull back the two feet I had swallowed and chance whatever happens when you retrieve something from your stomach?

In retrospect, swallowing may have been the more prudent tactic. Or perhaps retrieving the string in the privacy of the bathroom would have worked. Yanking back the string in the midst of the crowd was a definite mistake. But what did I know? I was sixteen. To be truthful, in the heat of the moment I actually thought it might be “cool” to pull a string out of my stomach. Surely that would impress my date.

What I hadn’t counted on was the marshmallows. They came back with the string—slimy and dripping with the orange soda I had swallowed as a pre-competition pick-me-up.

As I awkwardly jerked the string out of my gullet, I retched on each marshmallow.

The overall effect was not good. I yanked on the string—choking and spitting. The crowd looked on in horror. Well, not everybody. The guys cheered raucously, counting each marshmallow as it emerged—as if each were a touchdown or an extra point. The girls, on the other hand, covered their eyes, backed off in horror, and raced to the bathroom.

I didn’t get a good-night kiss when the party came to an end that evening. After all, this was the early 1960s, a first date—and my companion had gone home with a girlfriend. All things considered, things could have gone better.

As I lay awake that night trying to figure out where I had gone wrong, it came to me in a flash of insight. The fact that I choked on the string was not the problem. Although gagging on the marshmallows probably detracted from my mystique, what really had gone wrong was my assumption. I had assumed my date cared about what I cared about. I actually believed that she would be impressed with my ability to gobble marshmallows and then retrieve them. The guys were impressed. My date, on the other hand, marched to the beat of a different drummer. She wasn’t interested in dating freako-marshmallow boy. She had been mortified by my performance.

The point is that I sought to give her something she didn’t really want. I looked into her heart and saw my own wants and desires—and I was wrong.

So, what’s the takeaway here besides “Don’t try to retrieve a slimy string from your stomach”? Before you offer up a heart-felt reward, learn what others value. Reward them with what they want, not with what you want. Learn the true meaning of the Golden Rule. Do unto others as they would have you do unto them, not as you would do unto yourself. And trust me, if you don’t, you’ll be taking that stereo back.

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