By Kerry Patterson
When I was a little tyke, I loved insects. Sometimes I’d watch ants for hours as they hauled Lilliputian bundles down footprint valleys and up tennis-shoe mountains. On listless summer days, I’d crumble a Necco wafer over our front-porch deck and then sit back and watch as hundreds of tiny stevedores struggled to carry pastel sugar boulders across the mottled surface.
My dad, seeing that insects fascinated me, helped me move from casual observer to ardent hunter. He encouraged me to start a full-fledged collection by scrounging a discarded Roi-Tan cigar box and pouring melted paraffin in the bottom. After the wax hardened, he presented me with a covered pin board to be used for mounting dead bugs.
I delighted in the gift. For a week I scurried around with a quart jar, capturing anything that had the temerity to crawl or fly within my reach. Within a few days, I had packed my homemade display case with spiders, dragonflies, and beetles—all neatly pierced with a pin and exhibited in rows, carefully arranged by species and size.
Surprisingly, despite my original enthusiasm, I quickly became bored with the hobby. My parents chided me for not having “stick-to-itiveness,” but I felt no guilt. I hadn’t loved insects in the first place. What I had loved was insect life. The job of managing a bug cemetery didn’t hold much appeal. I preferred watching two armies of ants battle feverishly over a decaying bird. Catching a glimpse of a beetle taking flight (not unlike a garbage truck going airborne) was equally fascinating. In contrast, gawking at a specimen trapped in a box with a pin stuck through its heart wasn’t the least bit interesting. To me, insect carcasses just weren’t insects.
My mind turned to that Roi-Tan Cemetery one day a few years back when (as part of a nation-wide talk show book tour) I was interviewed on a live, radio talk show. The host asked me questions about our latest book—the one that dealt with the dos and don’ts of high-stakes, emotional conversations.
“So,” queried the host, “how do you use the communication tools you teach in your book to get your boss?”
“Excuse me,” I stammered.
“You know,” the host continued, “your book covers all kinds of ways to talk about touchy subjects. Can’t you use the tricks to get someone—like a controlling boss you’d like to see suffer?”
“Actually,” I replied, “we wrote about skills that help individuals come to a common understanding—one that values mutual respect over manipulation.”
“Yeah, yeah,” the host pushed on, “but to get someone, what do you do?”
This experience (and dozens like it) sets up a related question that people ask me all the time. Individuals read one of our interpersonal-skills books and ask: Can’t people use the techniques the book teaches to serve their own selfish purposes? Can’t angels and devils alike use the same methods?
Which returns me to my bug cemetery. Social skills (from praise, to conflict resolution, to active listening), like the insects I captured as a boy, have a soul. And, like all living creatures, if you dissect interpersonal skills until all that remain are lifeless component parts, you’ve captured the parts but lost the soul. For example, praise (a much practiced and needed social skill) stuck to a wax board with a pin through its heart—despite its toothy smile and flattering language—takes on an aseptic, clinical sheen and becomes nothing more than a divisive tool when wielded by individuals whose only intention is to get or manipulate someone.
The grand prize for stripping a social skill of any vestiges of life, and then using it in a devilish way, has to be given to an MBA student I once taught. He wrote a haunting paper about how he had employed positive reinforcement to entice his roommate’s significant other to leave her boyfriend and, instead, hook up with him. Day by day, he plotted new ways to “reward” his unsuspecting target until he achieved his goal and stole the girl right out from under his roommate’s nose. It was enough to make your skin crawl.
Despite the potential for abuse, today, when people suggest that angels and devils alike can use social skills to their advantage, I don’t become discouraged. Instead, I think of the angels. Oh, the angels and the tales they tell! Scarcely a day passes that a reader of our material doesn’t bless us with a wonderful story of how he or she used newly-acquired skills to strengthen a long-estranged relationship, save a union, or humanely hold others accountable. People can and do learn new interpersonal skills. They can and do apply them professionally. They can and do honor the underlying principles of Mutual Respect and dignity.
But then again, there’s still that chance that you could misapply a well-intended skill, so take care. Stay true to the principles and values that breathe life into any human interaction by starting all influence attempts with a virtuous purpose. Hold true to the goal of improving the lives of everyone concerned. Use your skills to work with, and not on, people. By doing your best to enhance the well-being of the people you’re working with, you can keep the skills you’ve learned alive and kicking rather than on display in a Roi-Tan Cemetery.