Crucial Skills®

A Blog by Crucial Learning

Kerrying On

Kerrying On: The Marshmallow Massacre

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.

Develop Your Crucial Skills

Image for

What's Your Style Under Stress?

Discover your dialogue strengths and weaknesses with this short assessment.

Take Assessment

Image for

Subscribe Now

Subscribe to the newsletter and get our best insights and tips every Wednesday.


Image for

Ask a Question

From stubborn habits to difficult people to monumental changes, we can help.

Ask a Question

76 thoughts on “Kerrying On: The Marshmallow Massacre”

  1. Angela Fraser

    I am very saddened at the loss of this truly gifted man. I will miss his articles immensely

  2. Healing Healthcare Solutions/Leagal Healthcare Solutions

    My deepest condolences for Kerry Patterson who was truly not only a brilliant author but fully understood the original goals of Crucial Conversations. He was a man, an author, a scholar and a father who should be a guiding beacon to the current leaders of Crucial Conversations and the two younger generations that will lead not only the US but global consumers in “crucial conversations.”


    My condolence to you and to his family.

  4. Laura Moen

    I am so sorry to hear of Kerry’s passing. This story is an example of what he did so well: he used storytelling to help us understand a concept that might otherwise be forgettable or worse, just bounce off our gray cells. My condolences to the Crucial Learning team for the loss of a wonderful colleague and friend.

  5. Shelby Harvel

    I have always enjoyed his articles. The world has lost a great story teller.

  6. Raven

    I feel sad for the loss of Kerry, and send condolences to his family and close friends. A great life lived and example for others.

  7. Cindy T

    Thank you for sharing Kerry’s story, I extend my heartfelt condolences to you, your staff and his family

  8. L AMOS

    I’m sad and laughing (at the marshmallow story) at the same time. RIP Kerry.

  9. judy kehoe

    So many lessons learned! Thank you!

  10. Julianne Robinson

    So very sorry for your loss…I truly enjoyed and will miss his storytelling and lessons learned! Prayers for peace and comfort.

  11. Deborah Miller

    We have lost a great man who lived with integrity, the crucial conversation principles, and shared the best life and work lessons through his stories. Kerry will be deeply missed. We’re sending you and his family our heartfelt sympathy and condolences.

  12. Don Ajufo

    Saddened by his loss. Over the years, I learnt a lot from reading his articles and his contributions on Crucial Conversations. May His soul rest in peace.

  13. Mary McMurray

    Sincerest sympathies for all of Kerry Patterson’s family and Crucial Learning co-founders and staff for your loss of this great man.

  14. Amy McArthur

    I will miss Kerry’s articles. They are my favorite. Heartfelt sympathy goes to his family.

  15. brucemabee

    I only knew Kerry through his postings, which inevitably surprised me by adding perspective on issues that I had thought I understood well. I felt his greatness, and I am saddened at his passing.

  16. Bonnie Beushausen

    My heart dropped when I read of Kerry’s passing. Though I have read and learned so much in these newsletters, I always looked forward to the “Kerrying On” segments, devoured them immediately and then savored them later again and again. I will miss his contributions.
    My heartfelt sympathies to his wife, family, and working family as you all cope with the loss of such a wonderful human.

  17. Tyler Martin

    Great take on the golden rule. I appreciate this artile.

  18. thompsonwd40

    I have read several of Kerry’s writings. He is brilliant. What I love of the marshmallows article is this obviously gifted, and intelligent man exposes his most embarrassing flubs. What is so special about this article is that I now know I am not alone in this world, there are others who made mistakes like me. Well done! You will indeed be missed, but your memory will live on through your wonderful and inspiring writings.

  19. Marianne Bales

    My heart goes out to all his friends and family. I really enjoyed reading his articles. Not only was there a lesson in each one but the way in which he wrote the article was a joy to read. They truly gave you a sense of how great the man was in his ability to reflect and learn from his experiences.

  20. Dawn T

    My heartfelt condolences for the loss of a man who made the world a better place. His legacy will live on through the stories and the lessons. Rest in Power

  21. Vickie Ford

    I was shock to read about Mr. Kerry’s passing. I never met him in person, but through his stories, I felt like I had a a friend who truly understood the many life lessons I endured. I loved reading his stories and hope they continue to be printed. My deepest condolences to Mr Kerry’s family and the entire Crucial Conversation family!

  22. Sarah Dickinson

    I feel saddened about the loss of Kerry. Even though I never met him, his stories reached my heart and also made me laugh. I hope to see him in paradise.

  23. Stephani Penning

    I’m so sorry to hear of Kerry’s passing and send my deepest condolences to his family and friends. I will miss his valuable and entertaining stories. I hope to see more of his past stories in the future. Thank you for letting me know and sending this enlightening and funny article – I’m sure he would have wanted everyone to be receiving this light hearted story during this sad time. Greatly appreciated!

  24. Laura Eskridge

    When I saw the email title, I was happy, as I had not seen any columns from Kerry in quite some time. This news is saddening, my heart goes out to his family both at home and at work. His wit, sarcasm and wonderful stories will be truly missed.

  25. John Glanville

    Thoughts and prayers to Kerry’s family, friends, colleagues.

  26. Lenore Maglione

    Prayers and condolences for this tremendous loss. His legacy will live on in the lives of his family, friends, and the many who had the privilege of learning from him.

  27. Marvin Burnette

    Such a valuable lesson that most Front Level managers have not learned or been taught. I took a course years ago called “The One Minute Manager”, the basic lesson was to give note worth praise to your employees, or team members, at least one minute a day. The positive effect of this practice blew me away. So simple but effective!

  28. Tom Chilton

    My condolences to Kerry Patterson’s family and the Crucial Learning family. I have loved all of Kerry’s writing through the years and have been touched by his wisdom. I know he is a brother in Christ, and I look forward to meeting him one day in the presence of the Lord.

  29. Robin

    My deepest sympathies to his family and loved ones. He was such an incredible blessing. I’m so thankful this man shared his wisdom, humor, and kindness with us.

  30. Carolyn

    Sincere condolences to friends and family of this giant of a man. Thanks for all the lessons, and rest well, Brother.

  31. Buky

    I have enjoyed Kerry’s articles over the years and will miss them. My condolences to you and his family.

  32. Mike Davis

    One year for my birthday, I asked for, and received, a gift I really wanted; a book entitled The Grey Fedora written by this great man, Kerry Patterson. I will miss his unrivaled wit which he used masterfully to teach life lessons. Condolences to his family – at work and at home.

  33. Kirk Markopoulos

    Thank you Kerry for all the wonderful work you did. RIP and God bless your family and all those at Crucial Learning.

  34. Valerie

    My condolences to family and friends. I have enjoyed reading the articles and using the strategies.

  35. Jenifer B

    My condolences to his family and the CL team. I will miss his humorous and pointed take on the world.

  36. TaraG

    I have always enjoyed receiving these e-mails in my inbox. Kerry had me laughing out loud several times with his stories. My deepest condolences to his family and friends and the crucial conversation community. My thanks to Kerry for his wit, wisdom, and insight- you will be missed. Rest in peace.

  37. Lisa McCune

    Condolences to the crucial learning team, Kerry’s family and friends. I enjoyed meeting him at a crucial learning conference. May his memory be a blessing.

  38. Annette

    I will truly miss his articles, but thankful of the articles he’s written,
    My condolences to the family and crucial conversation family !

  39. Kirk Douglas

    “Kerrying On” has had an impact on my life’s perspective, the tales of adventure and lessons learned. I’m saddened at Kerry’s passing but chose to believe he’s in a better place.
    Kerry will live on forever in my thoughts, and memories.

  40. Amy

    Thank you for this tribute. My sympathies to Kerry’s family and friends. So grateful he shared his gifts with us. God bless

  41. Diane Swengros

    May God bless his soul. Kerry’s books and advice have truly changed my life for the better. I am grateful for all of the gifts he bestowed.

  42. Kathleen Arceo

    Even though he is no longer physically here, and that is sad. He left us with his stories. His ability to look at himself honestly and show his humility and passion for his work is what I will remember. Condolences to his family and to Crucial Learning. He will be missed.

  43. Helen Harry

    I am grieved to learn of Kerry’s death. I always looked forward to his column. My deepest sympathy to his wife and family and to you, his colleagues. Thank you for sharing the account of Kerry’s integrity in your business venture. How much we need more people like him for whom doing the right thing is more important than profit or loss. He certainly had a way of laughing at himself and learning and sharing from his own mistakes. Rest in peace, Kerry.

  44. Julie

    I always enjoyed his articles and insight. My condolences to his family and all who knew him personally.

  45. Justin Hale

    Kerry was a tremendous influence on my life. His personality, humor and wisdom will always be with me. Grateful for the time I had to learn from him.

  46. Carla M. Pujadas

    My heartfelt condolences to the Crucial Conversations family and his family. I always enjoyed his work.

  47. Lety

    Thank you for sharing. Rest in peace, Mr. Patterson.

  48. Dan Helm

    Kerry told so many stories that left a mark on me. I go back to them; they have impacted my thinking and what I do. I will miss those stories.

  49. Janet

    Kerrying On contained such wonderful wisdom! I always looked forward to his columns and am so saddened to hear of his passing.

    My deepest sympathy to his family and his work team mates. We will all miss him.

  50. Beverly Kelly

    Kerry’s stories are magical. They’ve changed my perspective and behavior for the better. I’ve saved many of his stories over the years and I refer to them often to re-learn the lessons he shared. I am sad to hear he passed away. My condolences and love to his family and friends.

  51. Hanne Wulp

    My condolences to all Mr. Patterson left behind…and the marshmallow story is as hilarious as it is insightful.

  52. John Paul

    Will sure miss Kerry Jay Patterson, I have always enjoyed his writing and stories. Condolences to his family. I read his very nice obituary…

  53. MaryBeth Mead

    My heartfelt condolences to Kerry’s family & colleagues. The healthcare system I worked for adapted Crucial Conversation strategies in the early 200? I’ve been getting the news letters ever since. Kerry’s column never failed to make me laugh and cry. He had a gift of stating the truth in palpable and appealing terms. He was a gem *****

  54. DG Huerter

    There was no one more skilled at describing an otherwise mundane situation with humor, and using it to teach us about the things in life that matter most. Kerry On, Sir, in peace!

  55. Lori Brown

    Goodness, this was very sad news. I pray for comfort to Kerry’s family, collogues, and friends. I could always count on Kerry’s stories/articles to make me laugh or smile. Just from reading a story, I could tell he was the author. I so appreciated his wit and ability to convey see life’s lessons in the experiences of life. Hopefully, the team will continue to publish Kerry reruns for all of us who love his work.

  56. Sharon Delparte

    I am very sorry to hear of Kerry’s passing. Condolences to his friends and family. I have always enjoyed the humor, honesty and lessons from his articles.

  57. KayCee

    I am so sorry for your loss….I have enjoyed Crucial Conversations stories, lessons, tips and pointers for several years. Our organization participated in Crucial Conversations training in the early 2000’s. I can say that I have taken so many of these lessons ‘home’ with me, and I feel like I’ve gotten to know Kerry and Joseph on a level. You folks are people of integrity, and hope. Hold each other close and remember all the truly good you’ve shared. Bless you all.

  58. Jane T.

    My condolences on your loss and ours. I started reading Kerry’s posts so many years ago, I’ve lost track. Although they had to be random on his part, they always provided some insight into something going on in that day in my life. It is with profound gratitude that I thank Kerry for his posts and wish him a peaceful transition. I will be forever grateful to him.

  59. Marianne Wygant

    I am so sorry to hear of the passing of Kerry Patterson. He will be missed. His words of wisdom live on. May you all be surrounded by the love of family and friends as you mourn his death.

  60. Robyn Phillips-Madson

    I have learned so much from and often laughed out loud when reading Kerry’s articles over the years. His humor and wisdom will be missed. My deepest condolences to his family and colleagues.

  61. Mellie Bukovsky-Reyes

    The areas and topics that Kerry would elaborate on to present us with a situation best not occurring or one that would recurre always made me laugh out loud. He did not mince with words. Kerry would craft his words in such a manner to convey a message clear enough to see through mugged lenses. My condolences to his family and friends. I am truly saddened by his loss.

  62. Heather

    I loved to get in my email with Keerying on. Each story brought me joy with Kerry’s wit and insight. Many made me laugh out loud. His willingness to be vulnerable and wise.
    Fantastic story teller! My prayers for the family and friends. He’ll truly be missed by us all!

  63. Toni Preston

    I’m heartbroken to hear of Kerry’s passing. Although, I never met him in person, I felt like I knew him from reading his articles, and I looked forward to each and every one. He was so authentic and relatable. Truly a gifted storyteller, and I’m so thankful he shared that gift with the world. Sending prayers for his family, friends, and the Crucial Learning team. I know you all will miss him terribly.

  64. Rafaela

    Deepest condolences to the Patterson family. What a loss. I have great appreciation for his work and the impact it had on my life, personal and professional.

  65. Connie Puckett

    I was saddened to hear of Mr. Patterson’s death. I have learned a lot from his books and articles, My favorite was one about his mother teaching him to clean the toilet and telling all of her friends!

  66. Sandy Stewart

    I never met Mr. Patterson, but I still became teary-eyed by your announcement. His stories (someone should put them into a collection and publish it!), were like a modern version of Aesop’s Fables. They often left me with a new perspective and they definitely made me feel that this was a person that I would have liked to have known personally and had as a friend.

    My condolences to his family and to all his co-workers! I know I will certainly miss his stories and wisdom.

  67. Despina Deroukakis

    So sad to hear of Kerry’s passing. Over the years I have thoroughly enjoyed his colorful stories, and never pass up reading his posts. He had a gift of transmitting a life lesson in a most entertaining way. Condolences to his friends, colleagues and family members.

  68. Laurie Schellenberger

    Love reading “Kerrying On” and will miss Kerry’s insights.
    Sending hugs to all who worked closely with him.

  69. Dawn Brown

    Deepest condolences to all on the loss of Kerry. I always enjoyed his humor, his reflections and compassion through his stories! May his legacy of caring for others continue on. Wishing you strength to bear his loss and do your best to celebrate him.

  70. Jill Buckner

    So influential in my career. He will be greatly missed. My heart aches.

  71. Julia Pham

    I’m shocked and saddened to hear of Kerry’s passing. I’m based in Melbourne, Australia and have been a subscriber to this blog since early 2000’s after reading Crucial Conversations. I’ve never met Kerry but feel like I know him through his stories of experiences with people around him over the years, written with such candour, humour and meaning. He’s influenced me from afar, for which I’m grateful.

    My deepest condolences to Joseph and the team and to Kerry’s family and loved ones. May we continue to remember him.

  72. Christopher B

    My CL favorite article writer. Kerry’s story telling was compulsive listening and a source of learning. The comments above reflect a man of great wisdom, great conviction and faith who has shared his life with so many over so many years. Thank you.

  73. Ben W

    Wow. That deep belly laughter was good for my heart. What better way to celebrate his memory than with this hilarious story. I think Kerry truly lives on in his fabulously funny and insightful stories.

  74. Eric R

    I will miss reading Kerrying On. His stories were always an eventful read that could take you directly to the time and place of the story. My condolences Patterson family and to the CL team.

    1. Marilla

      Somewhat belatedly I opened this message and could not believe it. I have so enjoyed Kerry’s truths and stories over the years; a style all his own with such integrity. My thoughts are with his family, who I feel we know so well through his writings, and the team at CL.

  75. David

    A truly great talent and a truly great soul. He will be missed.

Leave a Reply

Get your copies
The ideas and insights expressed on Crucial Skills hail from five New York Times bestsellers.


Take advantage of our free, award-winning newsletter—delivered straight to your inbox