Story Library

DialogueWORKS Story Library

It happens all the time: examples of the principles and skills taught in the DialogueWORKS courses show up all over the place, once you become aware of them. Unfortunately, the examples that have the greatest impact are usually negative ones! Some are truly inspiring, and many can be humorous. 

If you hear or experience additional stories that you believe are appropriate and work well to illustrate the principles in the course, we would appreciate your contributing them to our library. You can e-mail your suggested contributions to:






Avoiding Conflict

Business Performance

Clarify Assumptions

Creating Results

Deference to Authority






Jumping to Conclusions

Learning Process

Listening and Attending

Mental Models

Observe the Obvious

Open to Other Views

Process of Perception


Receiving Messages

Respectful Sharing

Same Thing = Same Results


Stories: Important

Stories: Reality

Stories: Self

Think the Unthinkable

Transaction Costs




Graduate School Studies

A colleague of ours teaching an interpersonal communications course on a large college campus had a room full of skeptical graduate students—few of whom were willing to believe that the avoidance of conflict was as generally rampant as our colleague suggested. As a result, they were willing to participate in a little social experiment to test the validity of their professor’s hypothesis.

The experiments were simple enough. The students were assigned to experiment in one of two places: 1) the Library; or 2) the Cafeteria in the Student Union.

The first group would go to the Library and sit next to students whom they didn’t know and begin reading over their shoulders. Then, to push the limits, these experimenters were to keep the victims of their study from turning the page under the pretense that the experimenter had not finished reading the text yet. Others even went so far as to take out a highlighter and begin underlining text in the other person’s book!

The second group would sit with people whom they didn’t know while these unsuspecting “subjects” (victims!) were eating. Some just sat next to the individuals and stared at the subjects’ food, while others were daring enough to actually start eating off the subjects’ plates!

With the antics of all these students, some came close to physical altercations. Most reported that their victims simply walked away. Some in the cafeteria even walked away from their own food, leaving it to the experimenter! Not one experimenter reported their subjects simply asking what they were doing and why.

The professor’s hypothesis held water. He predicted that there would be little if any communication that simply called the experimenters’ behavior into question. Rather, he predicted fight and flight—and mostly flight at that. Professor 1—Skeptical Graduate Students 0.


Liar, Liar!

After work one day, a senior executive saw computer technician leaving the office with four copies of Microsoft Office 97 under his arm. The executive knew they had recently installed Microsoft Office throughout the office and some copies were missing.

First thing the next morning, the senior executive called the technician into his office. Rather than sharing his observations and then the conclusions which those observations led to, he stated, “I think you have been stealing from the company because I saw you carrying software under each arm as you left the office.”

The technician walked out of the executive’s office and tendered his resignation within ten minutes. Why?

The technician’s wife was a school teacher at a local elementary school. She had contracted with a computer store in the city where her husband worked, and had purchased eight copies of Microsoft Office by phone. Because the technician rode a motorcycle back and forth to work, he could only carry home four copies at a time.

He was offended by the senior executive’s accusation and chose to leave the company rather than have a supervisor attribute bad motives when, in fact, the technician had been loyal.


A Traveler’s Bag of Cookies

The story is told of a traveler who, after a long week on the road, was sitting at the appropriate gate waiting to board her flight. She’d purchased some of her favorite cookies and was looking forward to relaxing and snacking as she awaited her flight home.

No sooner had she sat down and gotten herself situated than the man seated two chairs over reached into the bag of cookies positioned in the chair between them and began eating! She couldn’t believe it! He was well dressed and seemed to be another business traveler, suit, brief-case, roll-aboard bag and all!

She chose to ignore his aberrant behavior and simply reached into the bag and began nibbling her much-awaited treat. Then he did it again! This pattern continued—alternating turns reaching in the bag until they inevitably reached the bottom! She was incensed! He reached over and noticed that the cookie he was about to devour was the last in the bag. He turned to her and, uttering the first words that had passed between them, said, “Would you like the last one?”

Struggling to maintain her composure at the audacity of the question she squeezed out a simple, “Certainly.” And she finished the bag.

As she boarded the plane, still simmering over the behavior of her fellow traveler, she put a bag in the overhead compartment and sat down with her briefcase on her lap. Opening it to retrieve her expense report forms, there at her fingertips lay an unopened bag of cookies, just waiting for her to devour them.


Medical Deference

The American Medical Association was trying to measure the degree to which nurses defer to doctors’ in hospital settings. In order to test their hypothesis, they designed the following experiment:

A nurse would be called with an order to administer medication to a current hospital patient. There would be four problems with the order. They were:

1.  Orders to administer medication are always to be written, not verbal.

2.  The medication ordered was not approved for use at the hospital.

3.  The dosage ordered was four-times what was indicated and prescribed for use on an adult patient.

4.  The doctor calling in the order was not known nor did he or she have privileges in the hospital.

The question was, under those conditions what percentage of nurses called would follow the order? Would you believe 95 percent? Yup.


Christian Basketball

Recently I participated in what was euphemistically called a Christian Basketball League. The title is a bit of an oxymoron—like jumbo shrimp, military intelligence, and efficient government. The behavior toward the referees had been so disappointing the season before that the league decided not to provide referees this season and to require that the players call their own fouls. Specifically that meant that only the player (or his teammates) could call a foul on himself. It’s a bit like turning the keys to the asylum over to the inmates! Nevertheless, the season proceeded.

In a particular game, we were playing a team that had a 6’8” center. I was the second tallest player on the team our team at 6’0”. Personally, I thought he should have to play on his knees! Beginning in the first quarter and continuing for the remainder of the game, he kept complaining about our team not calling fouls. “You’re hacking me and not calling anything. You guys have got to be the dirtiest team I’ve ever played!”

Looking over to the sidelines, I saw a number of the teenagers from the Sunday School class I taught. Figuring I’d never have any credibility with them if I smacked him, I just kept saying stuff like, “C’mon. Let’s keep it together. It’s just a game.” And, “We’re doing our best.”

That was my Right-Hand Column. On the other hand, lying just below the surface in my Left-Hand Column was stuff like, “You big-for-nothing daisy! You’re lucky I’m not building a ladder up your back!” “No blood, no foul.” And “You think that was a foul?! Wait until you see the next one, you pansy!”

I fouled myself out of the game, but the fifth one was a good one! (And in retrospect, no, I’m not proud of it. But it’s a wonderful example of acting out my LHC.)

See the difference between the LHC and the RHC?


Bullet Proof!

Interviewing an employee who typically has been demeaned or beaten down by her boss, I took the opportunity to ask her what she does to get even.

Shocked, she asked, “What do you mean?”

“Well, when you are being attacked or demeaned, what do you do to get even?”

Smiling, she said, “I do just exactly what I am told. That way I am insulated or made bullet-proof from any negative repercussions.”

We call this malicious compliance—doing exactly what you’re told to do in order to avoid repercussions and to allow the consequences to punish the supervisor. Such behavior costs the company time, money, goodwill and morale.


Jack, You Just Don’t Understand

Jack was a newly-minted graduate of a large business school graduate program in the western U.S. He had been given the second highest offer among his peers and had been happy to accept the offer to work for a large engineering and manufacturing firm in southern California. After spending about a year getting to know the business and being given small projects to work on Jack was finally given a large project to manage and the budget to go with it.

Four months into the twelve-month project, Jack was summoned, along with the other managers, to a meeting in the Executive Conference room with the Division Manager and Controller. As he arrived he noticed that the usual joviality was missing. A few minutes into the Controller’s presentation he understood why. Only five months into the fiscal year the Division had “eroded” 70 percent of the earnings that the Division was to turn over to the Corporation at the end of the year. To say that this was a problem was an understatement.

Budgets were cut in every area. Before the three-and-a-half hour meeting was over, every area had been given specific budgetary marching orders. In fact, Jack’s budget was cut by 60 percent. Having already spent over 40 percent of the allotted budget, Jack thought, “Apparently, we stopped working three weeks ago!”

In the shock that was the end of the meeting, Jack followed the Manager of Engineering and the Product Manager (PM) for the most profitable product line in the Division out of the room. The Product Manager asked the Engineering Manager if he was really going to cease funding the development project he’d just agreed to slash from his budget. “Are you kidding,” came the reply. “That project’s not only the future of the Division, it’s also the future of my career. If you think I’m going to sacrifice that lamb on this alter you’ve got another thing coming!”

One pace back, Jack’s mouth dropped open. Noticing the gaping maw, the Engineering Manager simply put his arm around Jack’s shoulders and said, “Jack, Jack, Jack. Those numbers in there aren’t real. The boss and the controller are paid their bonuses based on how much we turn over to Corporate at the end of the year. They just use those numbers to manipulate us into cutting costs that we wouldn’t otherwise agree to cut. The sooner you learn to take the financial reports around here with a grain of salt, the better off you will be.”

On virtually a monthly basis the “emergency financial meetings” continued recurring—and the hallway conversations continued to reassure Jack that the Division was doing just fine. Left-Hand Columns were vented in private conversations but never saw the light of day at any of the financial reviews. That was true right up until the Division was closed down. The Corporation created a subsidiary with a staff of 350 that integrates products produced by other companies rather than manufacturing the products themselves with the staff of 2,100 that had been the Division.

The numbers were real. The Left-Hand Columns drove the Division right into the ground.


I’m Sick of You Criticizing Me!

One friend told me that out of the blue one Saturday morning his wife said, “I am sick of you criticizing me!”

He responded with, “Tell me what I’ve done!”

She answered, “You know!!” and marched off.

A few hours later, after the dust had settled, she calmly apologized. He then took the opportunity to ask her what had given rise to her tirade. She answered with this example:

“Well, like this morning. You come down the stairs, look around, and say, ‘This place is a dump!’”

“So when I say things like that you think I am really saying that you are not a good housekeeper?”


“Did you notice what I did after I made that statement?”

“Oh, you picked up the paper, got out the vacuum, and started dusting and vacuuming.”

“Could it be perhaps that I just think out loud and then go to work and do my part? And that maybe my statements are not directed towards you at all?”

“I suppose so.”

“Well, I assume that this had been stewing a long time. What can we do to talk about it sooner and not let it fester so long? Honestly, I didn’t mean to criticize you.”

This is a great example of how quick we are to jump to conclusions, assume the worst, and act out of our own perception of reality.


Einstein on IQ

The story is told of Albert Einstein being interviewed by a number of journalists. One of them described how, whenever they asked him a question, Einstein would pause, ponder, and then offer a careful, thoughtful response. The reporter found this a bit paradoxical, given that Einstein was clearly the most intelligent man the reporter had ever interviewed and that the other interviewees—whom the reporters saw as clearly less intelligent and in more need of time and humility—were so apt to respond and react so quickly and authoritatively.

Einstein paused and pondered. Then he turned to the chalkboard and placed a single dot in the center of a larger circle. “The dot is me and the circle represents what I understand. I find that, whenever you ask a question that I learn from that question and the circle grows. I’m also aware that the larger the circle gets, the more I realize I don’t know. I’ve come to believe that the more intelligent a person is, the more willing they are to learn and be shown new ways of looking at the world. Conversely, the less intelligent a person is, the less willing they are to learn from others. In some sense then, I.Q. is just a surrogate for openness to learning from others.” [Paraphrased.]


Newark at Midnight

A close friend of ours—a consultant and avid volleyball player—spent the better part of one year traveling to and from Newark, N.J. to work with AT&T. Given the amount of time he was spending in N.J. he began searching for somewhere to play volleyball at night, rather than sit vegetating in his hotel room. He found some friendly games at local gyms until, one night, he was invited to go to NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology) to play a bit more serious volleyball. Itching to go, he asked the Concierge at the hotel for directions to the school.

“NJIT?” flinched the Concierge.


“In Newark?” whispered the recoiling Concierge.


“I’m not sure you want to go there at night, sir…”

Overcoming the protestations of the protective hotelier, our friend made his way to the gym and played until about 11:30 that night. Sore and tired he made his way to the car and drove from the campus heading for the New Jersey Turnpike to retrace his path to the hotel.

As he sat, half-conscious, staring at the red traffic light, he gazed across the park adjacent to his idling car and spotted her—a woman running at full speed across the park being chased by a large man caped with a trench coat! Quickly the man was upon her, throwing her to the ground and pummeling her now-crumpled figure with his hands and feet.

Rolling down his window—heart pounding a-mile-a-minute—he froze like a deer in headlights. Paralyzed somewhere between his Captain America intentions and the reality of personal risk, seconds passed minutes until he heard from somewhere in the dark, “That looks good guys! Let’s do this one for the cameras…”

Our friend had stumbled onto a group of NJIT students producing a film for one of their classes. Good thing Captain America kept his seatbelt on!


Red Lights Make You Hungry

I was involved in a large change project in Oklahoma City for well over three years. We found little to do in the evenings, so we would retreat to the theaters in the local mall. One night I overheard this conversation between two men sitting behind me as we were waiting for the film to begin.

“Man, they must make a lot of money here!”

“How so, Leroy?”

“Well, everybody knows that red light makes you hungry!”


“Well, look. There is red light shining up on the bottom of the screen. There’s red lights mounted on the walls. And there’s those little red lighty-lights in the floor. You see those red lights, and you get a powerful hunger. You get out of your chair, follow those red lights out into the lobby, where they are shining on the big dogs. Then you buy ‘em and woof ‘em. Man, they must make a lot of money here!”

I bit my tongue and resisted the temptation to lean over and say, “Hey fellas, red light is the light in the spectrum of all light in which you can see the farthest in the dark and not hit the floor!

I was amazed at all of the conclusions used in this exchange:

·  Red lights make you hungry.

·  The amount of red light is proportionate to the amount of money the theater makes.

·  They make a lot of money here!

·  Red light has the power to motivate you out of your seat, up the aisle, and out into the foyer to buy “big dogs.”

·         Although never stated, it was implied was that the theater intentionally manipulated its patrons to buy concession items by using a red light.

How easily we jump to conclusions!


Can’t Judge a Book by its Cover

Recently I had the opportunity to spend three days and four nights in Clarksville, Tennessee. The quaint convention center there has a few rooms for overnight visitors and a large hall which can seat 100-120 individuals. The proprietor, Miss Fila, ran the establishment, cooked, and served the 100+ participants who attended a one-day retreat. For three consecutive days, Miss Fila and her small staff of two ran the entire enterprise and catered to the three different groups who were at the mercy of her hospitality.

Because the establishment was anything but new—it was cluttered with old and dust-covered antiques and was run by a 72-year old, slightly bent-over white-haired woman—it was easy to assume that the company who sponsored the conference was trying to save money, or just didn’t care all that much about the training. Luckily, I didn’t get trapped in my original thinking, and took some free time to try to learn about this woman.

By the end of the week, I had learned that Miss Fila had been an airline flight attendant for a number of years, and that she had actually pioneered the idea of in-flight meals. She had once had her own television program on Southern cooking, and had received an “Exceptional Broadcasting” award for television excellence.

She knows every General in the free world because they have come to eat at her establishment when flying in to Fort Hood, which is not far up the road. She has pictures of herself with Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, to name a few. She received and fed 18 Generals from the Netherlands one of the evenings we were there.

She has received three United Nations Peace medals, and has written and published 18 books. She had given birth to and raised a severely handicapped boy for over 18 years until his death.

In short, she is one of the most amazing women I have ever met—a true Southern Belle. Thank heaven I had the good sense to start asking questions, listen, and learn, rather than sticking by my initial impressions.

Another reminder that we really ought not to judge a book by its cover, although we most certainly do!


Annie, Get Your Guns!

While driving home from the airport, I began listening to a call-in talk show on the radio. The subject of the show was gun control. The interviewer was interested in understanding how people came to hold their views on gun control. One caller began his comments by stating, “Anyone who wants to eliminate guns entirely is an absolute idiot!”

The announcer immediately took exception to the caller’s remark, and asked him for data in support of his point. The announcer seemed to be trying to expose the caller as some kind of uninformed crackpot. What happened next was very surprising.

The caller identified himself as an FBI agent who wished to remain anonymous, but referred everyone to the FBI website. Then he started spouting statistics:

“The 28 states with liberal gun laws or concealed gun permits have 33% fewer crimes of murder, burglary, and assault.

“The states which require gun education programs for minors have 28% fewer youth gun-related accidents than the national average.”

Despite the facts which the caller shared, the announcer kept repeating: “I can’t accept that you call people names. It’s not nice to call people names. Why would you call people idiots?”

When the caller tried to explain, the announcer would interrupt and just keep on repeating the same queries. He never returned to his original purpose of understanding how people came to hold their views on gun control. Finally, he hung up on the caller while he was speaking—mid-sentence.

The whole incident illustrated what happens when we become stuck in our own thinking and are unwilling to consider the views of others. In the end, the announcer really proved himself to be the idiot that the caller had alluded to!


Choose Your Tip

Because of the Dialogue course, I was interested in experimenting with people’s mental models. For a time, whenever I picked up my order at the drive-thru window of a restaurant, I would fan an array of bills; a twenty, a ten, a five and a one, and would say to the restaurant employee, “Pick your tip.”

Puzzled, he or she would respond, “What?”

I would simply say, “Well, you work hard, pick your tip.”

Ninety-eight percent of the time the person would choose the one-dollar bill rather than the higher bills, and the other two percent of the time they would only pick the five.

Even when they questioned me further, I would encourage them, “You know, have at it, you can pick which ever bill you want.” They would almost always pick one of the smaller bills!

The results speak volumes about the people’s thinking and their perceptions of themselves, not about the opportunity to take home a little extra money.


Am I A Witch?

One day an account manager was casually speaking on the phone with one of his distributors in a nearby western state. Out of the blue, the distributor boldly said, “I’ve got to ask you a question. Am I a witch?”

The account manager was caught off guard. “What?” he asked.

The distributor replied, “C’mon, you can be honest with me. Just tell me, am I a witch?”

The account manager thought to himself, ‘How do I dare tell her that—in fact—she is the most difficult person in the entire state to deal with?’ To the distributor he replied, “Well, sometimes you can be a little difficult.”

“I think that I’m a witch,” she said, “so I appreciate the feedback. But let me just tell you, that anytime you and I are talking about product and I get witchy, you should just hang up, because I’m obviously not going to buy anything when I’m in that state of mind.”

Still bewildered, the account manager answered, “Gosh, thanks for the advice.” The conversation continued along normal lines.

Reflecting back on this exchange later, he was surprised at how much mileage the distributor got just by just asking the simple guessing question: “Tell me, am I a witch?” Totally unarmed, he gave her the feedback she asked for. But if he had had a chance to think about it before-hand, it was feedback he probably never would have given.

Note how guessing really allows you to put something out there that might otherwise be difficult for another person to respond to. You enlist a response by allowing the other person to simply respond “yes” or “no.” This is a powerful way to get data when the issue may be a sensitive or difficult one.


Didn’t You Say?

During a discussion of Inquiry skills, one participant asked, “So you’re saying that the way I ask questions is often too aggressive?”

I was surprised at this question. I turned it over to the class, “Did I say anything about Tom being too aggressive in the way he asked questions?”

They replied, “No you didn’t say that.”

A little agitated, Tom then said, “Well, then maybe what you’re saying is that I really offend people by the things that I do.”

Again, I was a little surprised at the question and turned to the class. “Did I in fact say that Tom was offensive in the way he addresses people?”

“No,” was the consensus again. Then I looked at Tom. It was obvious that his frustration had peaked, and he responded, “Well then what the heck did you say?”

This made everybody laugh. In that moment I made the point: often when we hear statements, we filter them through our mental models. In this case, Tom’s interpretation was that I was making a point which was personally applicable to him, when in fact I did not say anything of the sort.

We experience life through our mental models and it is easy to miss important information or to take things personally, even when they’re not meant that way. This is what Tom did.


Call Me When You Can

While teaching a Mental Models course, I once made the statement, “To be honest, most of us don’t know much of anything about anything.”

This statement caused some consternation among the participants. About half an hour later, one participant raised his hand and said, “I’ve got it!”

“You do?” I answered.

“Yeah,” he nodded. “I know everything about writing my name.”

I asked, “Are you sure?”

“Absolutely,” he said.

“Do you know how to write your name in Greek?”

He thought for a minute and said “No, I don’t.”

I replied, “Well, call me when you can.”

Another half hour went by and the same man raised his hand. “I’ve got it!” he said.

I asked, “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure. I know everything about writing my name in English.”

Again I asked, “Are you sure?”

With confidence he replied, “Yes.”

So I asked, “How many times did you write your name in English last year?”

With a frown he responded, “I don’t know.”

I said, “Well, call me when you know.”

Yet another half hour went by. Being very determined, he came up with, “I know everything about writing my name in English once.”

“Are you sure?”


“Do you know how much ink you use when you write your name in English once?”

Feeling a little defeated, he said “No.”

I let it go at that point, and we all had a good laugh. But he had made the point for me: in order to be able to say that he knew everything about something, he literally had to drastically narrow the field of his knowledge.

Most of us really don’t know much about anything.


Rhoda Hits the Road

Recently, a friend was promoted to the job of Manager of Human Resources. When he reported to his new department and the people whom he would be managing, he met his new assistant, whose name was Rhoda.

After a couple of weeks, it became apparent that Rhoda was not adequately able to use technology, work the computer, or even complete her job. The new manager spent a lot of time during the next six months explaining and showing her how to use the computer. He arranged for her to have professional training. But things did not seem to improve; in fact, they seemed to get worse. Work piled up over time—work that was not being completed because Rhoda just couldn’t do the tasks that required her to use the technology.

Finally one straw broke the camel’s back. The head of the Engineering department called the Human Resources manager. “You know we ran an ad for four new engineers over six weeks ago and I haven’t received one new resume,” he said. The HR manager promised to look into it and checked with his assistant. Rhoda told him that no resumes had been received.

Finding that a little odd, the manager had the MIS department check the computer logs. They found out that 65 resumes had in fact been received from outside applicants, but they had been transferred from the website to a company database and then been inexplicably deleted. The manager confronted Rhoda and asked if she had deleted the resumes from the file. She admitted that she had, but that it had been a mistake.

The manager decided to ask Rhoda to find another job. He explained that although he had tried to coach, teach, help, and facilitate, the responsibilities of her job had evolved to one that she was not qualified for because of her lack of ability. He tried to be amicable, but her parting comment was, “You know, I worked for this company for 23 years, and you’re the only person who wasn’t willing to get along with me.” Then she picked up her bags and left.

My friend was deeply saddened by the fact that the assistant was not able to keep her job. More interestingly, he was saddened that in 23 years of working for the company—23 years of performance reviews and evaluations—no one had given her honest feedback about her performance. He wondered how much had been swept under the rug in order to avoid the same type of difficult conversation he had just had with Rhoda. He felt it was unfortunate that this kind of feedback hadn’t been given before so that her skills and capabilities could have upgraded over time. Instead, he had to be the person who finally drew a line in the sand and terminated a person who had probably been a very capable employee at one time.


Seeing Green

One day at lunch, a workshop participant approached me and asked, “Would you be interested in understanding what the problem is around here?”

With enthusiasm I said, “Absolutely!” “Follow me to the window,” he said. I followed him, of course.

Standing at the plate glass window in the cafeteria, he said, “Look at the sky,” I did. Then he asked me, “What color is the sky?”

“Blue,” I responded. He replied, “No it’s not—it’s green.” “Green?” I asked.

“Yes, it’s green,” he repeated. I was a little perplexed.

He asked me again, “What color is the sky?”

Again I answered, “Blue.” He adamantly insisted, “No it’s not, it’s green.”

Then I asked him, “Well, why is it green?”

His face lit up and he exclaimed loudly, “That’s what people don’t do around here!”

Still puzzled, I asked him what he meant. He eagerly answered, “Well, it’s green to me, because I’m color blind, even though it looks blue to you. But when people see things differently around here, no one ever takes the time to ask why, or even to inquire any further as to why the other person sees things differently. Once someone sees something a certain way, that’s the way they continue to see it. That’s what’s wrong around here.”


Sue Me!

Late one Saturday night I checked my messages at the office. I heard one that went something like this: “Mr. Jones, this is lawyer Francine Magillicutty, and we have decided to sue you for violation of intellectual capital. If you would like to discuss this lawsuit, you may call me at 323-434-4000.”

The message had obviously been left from a cell phone and the number was disrupted. Absolutely frantic, I immediately called my attorney at home. He assured me, “Don’t worry about it—I’ll check on the name in the state database on Monday. We’ll find out who it is and I’ll handle it.”

Even though he tried to calm my fears, my imagination ran wild. I continued to turn it over in my mind again and again. Who could the attorney be? Who could the client be?

Needless to say, I couldn’t sleep that night. By noon the next day I was exhausted. I fell into a fitful sleep on the couch with stomach problems, bowel problems, and a migraine headache.

Monday morning my attorney finally called me and said, “There is no attorney by that name in the whole state, so don’t worry about it.”

About two weeks later, a dear friend of mine from Atlanta called and asked, “Hey, how did you like that joke we played on you?” I was confused. She continued, “Well you know, I called and pretended to be Francine Magillicutty who was suing you for violation of intellectual capital.” I started to laugh, although at the time it wasn’t very funny. I told her what my response had been. She was flabbergasted and apologized profusely.

It’s amazing how we are able to take a little bit of information, mentally fill in the gaps, make up the rest, take it in the worst possible way, and then act and live it out as if it’s reality.


You Don’t Listen

At the end of a session a participant approached and said, “I really appreciate the concept of EASE which you taught today, but I’m not quite sure how it applies to me.”

I responded, “Can you give me an example?”

“Sure,” said the participant. “Last night my wife yelled at me while I was watching Monday night football. She screamed, ‘You never listen to me!’ and stomped off.”

I said, “All right, let’s just take that as a great example and go through the acronym.”

“Okay,” he said, “that would be great.”

I said “All right, if you think of ‘E’ or ‘emotion,’ what emotion was she experiencing at the moment?”

“She was obviously angry.”

“So what was the story?” I continued. “What was her story?”

He thought for a minute and answered, “Well, I guess her story is that she doesn’t feel like I listen to her.”

“Great,” I said. “Now let’s take the ‘A’ which stands for ‘aim’ or intention. What was her aim, or what did she want from you?”

“Oh,” he replied with a sigh, “she wanted me to listen to her. She probably also wants to talk or connect or share with me.”

I said, “Fine. And the last ‘E’ stands for ‘ego.’ If you remember, we divided the ego into three categories: capability, acceptability, and lovability. Which of those three do you think was being challenged by your behavior?”

“In this case,” he replied, “it’s probably acceptability from the standpoint that she just wanted to feel like she was on an equal par with me. Now that I think about it, though, it might have been even more about lovability. I bet she took the fact that I didn’t listen to her to mean that I don’t love her.”

“Exactly,” I replied. “Any questions?”

I ended by saying to him, “Notice that when you take the time to go through the EASE model you begin to understand why people are doing what they are doing, By trying to identify the emotion, the story, the aim or intention, and their ego state, you start to understand where they’re coming from. The process also puts you at EASE and gives you both the opportunity to talk about what’s going on rather than just “stomping off.”


Drunk at Work?!

In one workshop we asked people to come up with a positive explanation of a negative behavior, one participant insisted, “That’s impossible!”

“Why?” we queried.

“Well, my co-worker is just a #$%# drunk! That’s it, pure and simple!”

“Do you have any data for that interpretation?” we asked.

“Sure. It’s happened twice. She throws up on her keyboard and then passes out, forehead down, right into the mess. Then I have to call security. She’s just a drunk!”

Turning to the class, we asked if participants could explain this event in a more positive light. Here’s what we heard:

·         “Well, I’m a diabetic, and sometimes this has happened to me. It is difficult to tell what is going on sometimes, because the sugar in the stomach smells kind of fruity, like alcohol.”

·         “My mother did this more than once during the chemotherapy she was undergoing.”

·         “I know women who have done what you’re describing when they were pregnant.”

·         “Maybe this person was so depressed because of something in their life that their answer to dealing with it was to drink.”

The most interesting thing about this incident is that no matter what rational explanation we suggested, the participant refused to accept any of them. She had decided that her co-worker was a drunk—and for her that was that.

The example clearly illustrates the difficulty we all have once we have decided “how things are.” We just find it easier to see things the way we see them than to try to obtain a different point of view.


Adolph Coors and the Pop-top Can

If any of you can remember back that far, Coors beer was one of the first beverages to be sold in a can with an opener on top that didn’t require a church key to open it. If you remember, there was a little ring at the top of the can that you pulled to release the tab. Then, very carefully, you peeled back the tab and the very thin neck that was attached until it got to a wider opening that opened wide enough to drink from.

Unfortunately, the ring would often break off at the little neck when people peeled it back, and when that happened, people wouldn’t be able to drink their beer because you would need a screwdriver to get into the can and not many people had them handy when they sat down to have a beer.

The company got this feedback and it eventually got back to the boss, Adolph Coors: “Sir, people are very frustrated because the pop tops on our cans are breaking and they are complaining.”

His response was, “Well, if they like the dang beer, they’ll figure out how to get into the dang can.” Not surprisingly, the market share dropped because the frustration of getting into the can to get the beer was greater than people were willing to endure—they would rather switch brands.


A Horse’s Behind

Does the statement, “We’ve always done it that way” ring any bells? The U.S. standard railroad gauge (distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches. That’s an exceedingly odd umber.

Why was that gauge used? Because that’s the way they built them in England, and English expatriates built the U.S. railroads.

Why did the English build them like that? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways, and that’s the gauge they used.

Why did “they” use that gauge then? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing.

Okay! Why did the wagons have that particular odd wheel spacing? Well, if they tried to use any other spacing, the wagon wheels would break on some of the old, long distance roads in England, because that’s the spacing of the wheel ruts.

So who built those old rutted roads? Imperial Rome built the first long distance roads in Europe (and England) for their legions. The roads have been in use ever since.

And the ruts in the roads? Roman war chariots formed the initial ruts, which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagon wheels. Since the chariots were made for Imperial Rome, they were all alike in the matter of wheel spacing.

The United States standard railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches is derived from the original specifications for the Imperial Roman war chariot.

So next time you are handed a specification and wonder what horse’s behind came up with it, you may be exactly right, because the Imperial Roman war chariots were made just wide enough to accommodate the back ends of two war horses.

And now the twist to the story:

When you see the Space Shuttle sitting on its launch pad, there are two big booster rockets attached to the sides of the main fuel tank. These are solid rocket boosters, or SRBs. The SRBs are made by Thiokol at their factory in Utah. The engineers who designed the SRBs would have preferred to make them a bit fatter, but the SRBs had to be shipped by train from the factory in Utah to the launch site. The railroad line from the factory happens to run through a tunnel in the mountains. The SRBs had to fit through that tunnel.

The tunnel is slightly wider than the railroad track, and the railroad track, as you now know, is about as wide as two horse’s behinds.

So a major Space Shuttle design feature of what is arguably the world’s most advanced transportation system was determined over two thousand years ago by the width of a horse’s behind.

Notice the power that mental models have to hold us captive in a manner that can be far-reaching indeed!


Basketball or Violin?

My sister is the star forward on the high school basketball team. She is an excellent player and is very popular and well-liked by everyone that she knows.

Recently my little sister and I were having dinner with my mother when my mother said that my sister’s high school music teacher had called to tell her that my sister had not been in music class for over three weeks. Without asking for an explanation my mother lit into my sister in a way that was really quite embarrassing in the middle of a restaurant.

My sister broke down crying, left the restaurant sobbing and eventually walked all the way home. I took the time to tell my mother how out of line she was, and even said that this was neither the time nor place for a scolding like that.

Later that evening, in the quiet of my sister’s room, I took the opportunity to ask her why she hadn’t been to music class. She told me that not long ago she had seen some of her friends berating, teasing, and verbally punishing another girl who was carrying a violin case at school. My sister used to carry her case as well, but she felt that if she continued to do so, she would be picked on by her friends just like the other girl. Not wanting to be teased or made fun of, she had quit bringing her case to school, and therefore quit attending her music class.

It’s interesting, is it not, how once we experience certain data, we create associations in our mind—in this case, my sister actually applied data to her that was never meant to. Her fears of what could possibly happen in the future were justification enough in her mind for her to abandon her violin case and even quit attending music class.


Cold Cocked at the Bar

It was Bill’s birthday and he was excited to go to dinner with his friends. Three of his friends from work met him at a fancy bar with their wives. They waited patiently for Bill’s wife to arrive before they moved into the dining section of the establishment.

While waiting, Bill’s three male friends went to the restroom and left Bill with their three wives. As they were laughing and joking, a couple of the women in the group reached over and hugged Bill and one even kissed him on the cheek.

At the instant of the kiss, Bill’s wife came through the door, stomped over to Bill and the group of women and without even asking a question, pulled back her fist and cold cocked the woman who had given Bill a birthday kiss. The woman fell backward on the floor, knocked out cold.

Bill then suffered the tirade of blaming from his spouse. It wasn’t until a several minutes later that Bill could actually take a moment to explain to his wife that the women he was sitting with were actually the wives of his friends, who were in the restroom.

It’s interesting how quickly we jump to conclusions or make interpretations and get emotional. When our emotion takes over, all rationality goes out the window. This is what happened to Bill’s wife, who took the opportunity to punch out the wife of one of Bill’s friends, an action which she later deeply regretted.


I Just Can’t Do That

Recently I was playing baseball in the backyard with my sons, but my 7-year old boy refused to play. I asked him why he wouldn’t pick up the bat and take a turn batting with us. He said, “I’m just not any good at that.”

I didn’t push the issue at the time, but when we were finally finished playing, I asked him to stay in the yard with me for a while. We sat on the grass for a moment and chatted. Then I asked him why he doesn’t think he is a good batter.

He explained that he had tried to hit the ball once or twice at school, but that he just couldn’t do it. That means he is terrible at batting and he didn’t ever want to try it again. It seems that the sting of failure was just too severe in this particular instance.

I took some time to show him how to hold the bat, and we played with the ball a bit. I tossed it to him and he worked at hitting it. Eventually, after about an hour, he started to have some great success in being able to connect with the ball—once he even hit it over the backyard fence. As we walked together into the house, I asked him what he had learned. He didn’t know, so he asked me, “What should I have learned?”

I told him, “You’re not a hitter, you’re a boy, and you can learn to do anything you want to.”


Ford Motors and Accounts Payable

A while back, Ford was trying to reduce their Accounts Payable department of 500 by 25%. The people at Ford were thinking, “It would be great if we could reduce our department by so much.” Then they bought Mazda and found out that the Mazda AP department was processing approximately the same amount of orders with only 7 people. Ford got bold and decided to reduce head count in AP by 75%.”

A couple of months later, we were sitting in a brain storming session, with tons of people trying to figure out how they could reduce head count and at the same time increase efficiency and effectiveness in AP. We had been at it for three days and the walls were covered with scores flipchart papers with all kinds of ideas.

Finally, someone in the group stopped, looked around, and said, “In looking at all these, what do all of these have in common?” Someone else responded, “paper.” Then a third person wondered, “Gosh, I’m wondering if we could do this electronically.” All of a sudden, a whole bunch of different ideas began to emerge about how to solve the problem.


Inquisitive Zack

My seven-year-old son Zack asked me, “Why did you marry Mom?”

I explained to him that I loved her then and still do. Later that evening before we went to bed, I told my spouse of Zack’s inquiry and she chuckled and said, “Well, let me tell you what he asked me: “Why did you marry Dad, Mom, when you were so young?” (My wife is 18 years younger than I am.) “Why did you marry him when he’s so old? What’s it like to be married? What’s it like to be an adult? Will I like being an adult?”

We were amazed at the curiosity of the seven-year-old, and the profundity of his thinking.


Experiencing the Amygdala

A participant in one of our courses indicated that he had experienced his amygdala firsthand. He explained that he was walking down the trail in the forest on a hiking trip when he saw a huge rattlesnake in his peripheral vision. Without even thinking, he found himself in mid-air, jumping over the trail, then landing on the other side of the snake and continuing down the trail. About six seconds later, further down the trail, all of a sudden he got hit by a huge dump of adrenaline and found himself sweating profusely, short of breath, and having heart palpitations so extreme that he literally had to sit down on a rock for several minutes before he calmed down.

In this particular experience, the guy’s thalamus saw the information and immediately short circuited to the amygdala, which caused an immediate reaction. Then after the six-second lag took place, the adrenaline dump occurred and he had a physiological response.


Patriotism on the Other Side of the World

I was recently chatting with a co-worker and mentioned to him how absolutely ridiculous I thought the current state of politics was. I pointed out how no one seemed to be able to agree on particular issues and how the political parties were absolutely polarized. I told him that I was so frustrated with the goings on in the last election that I had decided to withdraw from involvement in the political process the next time around.

He retorted, “You don’t even understand what politics are all about. Politics demand that we vote in every election, that we stand up and be counted, that we make decisions that benefit not only ourselves but others, too.”

Try as I might to counter his arguments, he just continued to repeat the same argument—repeatedly and adamantly. I admit that I was starting to get a little irritated at the whole situation, but I finally asked him why he felt so strongly. Then he told me that he had grown up his entire life in the country of Czechoslovakia, where no one ever had the freedoms that we enjoy in this country. It was not until he came to this country, he said, that he actually had the opportunity to vote and—from his perspective—make a difference.

It’s interesting how our mental models form the way we see the world and the situation in which we find ourselves. I was raised in a country with many opportunities, and it is interesting to realize how often we take those opportunities for granted in contrast with someone who has never had such opportunity.


I Only Did One Thing Wrong

I am a single mom and have a daughter who is fourteen. Recently she wanted to go to a friend’s house and asked me if I could take her there. I told her that I unfortunately had another commitment and that I was unable to take her to her friend’s house. I suggested that she call her friend and see if the friend’s mother could come and pick her up.

She came up with a different idea: “Why don’t you just let me take the car? I can drive.”

I replied, “No you can’t, you’re only fourteen years old.”

She retorted, “I know how to drive a go-cart, and go-carts are the same as cars.”

Of course I replied, “No they are not, they are entirely different.”

When I was at work the next day, I received a call from a police officer who indicated that my daughter had been involved in a severe accident. I assured him that he must have the wrong person because my daughter was only fourteen years old and couldn’t drive. The officer then proceeded to provide me with the name of my daughter and the description of what once was my car.

It seems my daughter had taken my key off my key ring, had started the car and decided to take herself for a little spin. She soon found out that driving my car was not the same as driving the go-cart. As she tried to make a turn, she lost control and somehow hit two parked cars. She was going fast enough that the car careened over the curb and the sidewalk, damaging both of them as well, before smashing into the plate glass window in a McDonald’s, where several people were standing in line. Fortunately no one was hurt. My car was totaled, and the two parked cars she hit were damaged. Over $250,000 of damage was done to the McDonald’s.

I retrieved her from police custody. I asked her what in the world she was thinking when she took the car. She said that she thought she would just take a little drive and go over to her friend’s house. I reminded her that I had told her that driving a go-cart was not the same as driving a car. She made no reply.

That was a few months ago. At this point she is on probation, and although she is still under house arrest, she continues to follow the directions of her probation officer. At one time he and I both asked her about her apathetic attitude toward the entire situation. Her only response was, “I’m not that bad of a person, I only did one thing wrong.” Apparently she still doesn’t comprehend the consequences of her actions—even to the point of denying the gravity of her own behavior. I am concerned. I have asked the judge to throw the book at her at her next hearing. Maybe that will get her attention.

Isn’t it interesting how once we have decided through our mental models that we can do something, we’ll undertake it no matter what, even though the reality of our experience ought to tell us that we may not know everything that we think we know.

In addition, once the girl was in the car, the amygdala kicked in and the fear, excitement, and emotion of this situation totally eradicated any semblance of rational thought. To this day she still can’t remember exactly what happened or what she did. All she offers up as an excuse or explanation is “I only did one thing wrong,” referring to the fact that she took the keys. There is no accountability for the damage that she caused through her own recklessness.


What’s More Important?

Recently a friend of mine told me that he had taken a job with a major tele­com­mu­ni­cations company. He was attracted to the job because of the emphasis the company seemed to place during the interview process on a strong work/life balance.

After six months he called me to ask whether I had any leads for jobs in his particular area. I asked him what happened to his great new job. He told me that even though the company had made noises about how important they felt it was to have a strong work/life balance, and had emphasized how important it was that employees have a life outside of work and plenty of opportunity to spend time with their families, it turned out that in reality, his boss and director had demanded that he put in 16-hour days, usually 5½ to 6 days a week.

When he talked to his boss and director about the discrepancy between what he had been told initially and what was turning out to be the reality of everyday life in his job, he was told, “We do whatever we need to do to get the job done, anytime, all the time.”

He was caught in the crusher of a misalignment between the mental models that the company reportedly espoused and the mental models of those for whom he actually worked and was supervised by.

Mental models we believe to be important greatly influence the choices we make when we choose one course of action or way of being over another. In my friend’s case, the company lost a talented and dedicated employee because of the discrepancy.


Redesigning Xerox Copiers

In the early 1980’s Xerox experienced big problems. Customers were reporting that their new copiers were unreliable and the Japanese companies (like Canon) were capturing market share.

A closer look revealed that the copiers were actually not unreliable, but that Xerox had added so many functions that customers were not able to troubleshoot or fix the problems when troubles did emerge. The machines were engineered to display error codes on display screens; users were then supposed to find appropriate solutions by leafing through flip cards attached to the machine. Even though the engineering design was intended to “idiot-proof” the copiers, most people simply gave up trying to fix the problems.

When the problem was surfaced, research and design engineers refused to accept the notion that their design was flawed. Finally, someone installed a video camera overlooking a set of machines. The cameras captured very smart people becoming more and more angry and frustrated—and eventually even abusive of the machines. The learning forced the design folks to re-engineer the technology to provide customized display panels that explained problems. Now, when a problem occurs, the display panel shows a picture of what has gone wrong and illustrates how to fix it.

Xerox has experienced dramatic results. Where it once took an average of 28 minutes to clear a paper jam, with the new design it now takes 20 seconds. Breakdowns are much easier to repair and customers are far more tolerant when problems do occur. Increased satisfaction translates directly into increased market share.


It Won’t Hurt Ya

Once a friend of mine visited me in Colorado. She said that she thought it would be terrific to learn how to ski. I asked her why she hadn’t yet undertaken the endeavor, and she replied, “Oh, too many people get hurt skiing.”

I assured her that I had been skiing my whole life and had never had an accident or sustained an injury, and promised her that if she got the proper instruction and was careful, she could learn to ski and have a great time.

Try as I might, I never could convince her to even take a beginning ski lesson. She was absolutely certain that skiing would cause her to break a leg or blow out a knee.

It is interesting that once we determine what reality is, we never stray very far from that perceived reality. For instance, we all ingest things into our body which we know intellectually could be harmful or could cause serious damage to our physical systems, but somewhere in our minds we tell ourselves, “It will never happen to me.” So we continue to do things that might be harmful, and we just may reap the rewards of our indiscretions years down the road.


Which Side Are You On?

Many years ago when I was in Europe, I happened to watch an episode of a television show that was roughly the equivalent of “Candid Camera.” One segment was particularly telling and it has stuck with me through the years.

They had set up the segment outside the restrooms of an Autobahn rest stop. If you have ever driven in Europe, you know that these are far more than the highway truck stops we know here in the States—they are usually located well away from populated areas and include fairly nice restaurants, convenience stores, and sometimes even motels along with the usual “take a break” facilities to cater to highway travelers driving Audis and Mercedes-Benz’.

The patrons are almost always transient and there are very few regulars. This fact was important for the segment, because the tricksters had removed the “Men” and “Women” signs from the restroom doors and replaced them with signs reading “Us” and “Them,” respectively. They then placed the camera in the foyer area outside the restrooms.

If you think about it, that is one place where there is generally at least some degree of urgency to make a decision about which door you should go through—and sometimes you have to make that decision pretty quickly. Without the gender-specific labels they were used to, people had to decide which they were, an “us” or a “them.”

It was fascinating to watch the people. And telling about their mental models, too. Most of the men barely hesitated before pushing open the door to the “Us” room. Most of the women at least paused to wonder, but the majority of them went into the “Them” room. Some tried both doors before finally making a decision, and a few men went into the “Them” room. Very few women marched into “Us” after contemplating the dilemma.

Aside from addressing the obvious mental model that it is only appropriate for one gender to use a particular restroom facility, I believe this television segment, meant to be humorous, reveals the dark reality behind why there is still a perception of gender inequality. As a woman, it doesn’t necessarily surprise me that most men consider themselves to be “Us,” but I am surprised at how many women feel that they belong to “Them.” Perhaps—just perhaps—we women are undermining our forces in the Battle of the Sexes by the mental models we hold about ourselves.


Seven Times Divorced

Most of you know that I was a lawyer in a previous life. One day a woman came into my office and asked me to do her seventh divorce. After we had talked for about an hour I asked her, “Do you mind if I ask you something that’s quite personal?”

“No, not at all,” she replied.

I asked, “Do you ever get the feeling that the universe is trying to tell you something?”

She responded with, “What do you mean by that?”

I continued. “Well something is going on—maybe it’s in the choices that you make; maybe it’s in how you solve problems. But you’ve been married seven times and each time it ends up in the same way. I just think there’s something to learn from this whole process that you are not learning, that’s all.”

“Oh, interesting,” she replied. “Will you do it or not? The divorce.”

“Yes, absolutely.” I responded.

Sometimes we keep doing the same thing over and over again—without being aware of what we’re doing, we get the same results over and over again, too.


When in Rome

During my freshman year I read a book called The History of Civilization, by Arnold Toynbee. There were 23 volumes, but unfortunately I only managed to get through the first one. Toynbee believed that all organizations and/or civilizations are subject to what he called “the challenge change response.” His hypothesis was that as civilizations started out and began facing the challenges of change, they were very flexible in responding to those challenges. As civilizations became bigger and broader and more powerful and mighty, however, they were less able to adapt to change.

For example, let’s take the Roman Empire. In the early days the Romans went to battle with other civilizations and encountered enemies who carried long broadswords. A typical broadsword might be anywhere from 49 to 59 inches long. Why would anyone ever need a sword so long, you ask? Well, they really didn’t want to kill with that sword… just break the opponent’s collarbone. An enemy with a broken collarbone could no longer hold a weapon to do battle. And if they succeeded in breaking an enemy’s bone and managed to inflict some kind of a cut or slice, it would then take a number of other enemies to carry the wounded one off of the battlefield.

Recognizing this, the Romans realized that what they really needed was a longer shield and a short sword, so that they could move in closer, where the broadswords would be ineffective, and from where they could deliver a mortal blow.

That’s what they did in the beginning, and they flourished, as we know from history. In the end, though, the Roman Empire ultimately collapsed because it was unable to adapt to the changes and the needs of the people they governed.



People often talk about improving their results through conversations, but what they don’t talk about is the connection between respect and relationships. And yet, the results we receive are directly affected by the respect between two people and the quality of the relationship.

I recently spoke at a leadership conference of general managers for a national transportation company. One of them told me this story which I will relate from his perspective.

One Saturday after reading your book, I went to a shop to have my windshield replaced. I arrived early for my appointment so I told the receptionist that I was here. She asked me to take a seat.

A little while later, the owner stomped through the office and the waiting room, yelling, “Who’s the Yukon?” A few minutes later I realized that he was probably talking about me. I went and found him.

“I have a Yukon that was to have the windshield replaced, were you looking for that one?” I asked.

“Well, no kidding! Were you just clueless when I came into the waiting room or what?” he demanded.

“Say, I don’t deserve to be spoken to like that!”

“Well, you can take your business elsewhere, then,” he retorted.

“Fine! I will.”

As I went to my truck and prepared to leave I thought, “What am I going to do now? I need my wind­shield replaced. I don’t know where to go. I sure didn’t handle that very well. In fact, I violated most of the principles I just read about, and I didn’t get the results I wanted.” I decided to go back into the store.

I went and found the manager, apologized, introduced myself, shook his hand, and said, “I really need you to fix my windshield.”

He said, “Let’s go take a ride in your vehicle. I need to go pick up some adhesive from my other store.” I went with him.

When we returned, I went and sat in my chair in the waiting room. The gentleman I had been sitting next to said, “Where did you go?” I told him that I had had a fight with the manager, but had returned to try the conversation over again because of a book I had recently read about managing conversation dynamics.

As we talked, I found out that he was a senior executive from an oil company where I had been trying to make inroads to sell our transportation services. After talking awhile we exchanged cards and he told me to call him next week to figure out a way we could work together.

Not long after, the owner of the store found me in the waiting room. He tossed me my keys and said, “Here you go. Your windshield is fixed.” As he walked away, he said, “By the way, the repair today is on the house.”

I was shocked. I never realized how much creating respect and building relationships has to do with results. Not only did I get my windshield replaced for free, but I also made a contact I had been trying to make for six months.

Here is a wonderful quote that summarizes this whole situation, “We are perfectly positioned to get exactly what we receive.” This quote makes the point that we are accountable for the results, the respect, and the relationships that we are currently experiencing. You can’t optimally improve your results without also considering the impact of respect and the relationship in any situation in which you may find yourself.