What The Hell Was John Mayer Thinking?

Whenever public figures are entangled in scandal, I always wonder what’s going through their minds.

I’d be lying if I said that part of my curiosity wasn’t driven by the same human impulse that makes people slow down to examine the car crash they’re driving past. Like most people, my first instinct when I hear of a celebrity in crisis is to wonder, “What the hell were they thinking?

But I’m also fascinated by the psychology of people in crisis – and how I, as a crisis counselor, can use that knowledge to help my clients more effectively.

An article in the current issue of Rolling Stone answers that question regarding a scandal that musician John Mayer created back in February 2010, when he told Playboy that he didn’t date black women because, “My dick is sort of like a white supremacist.” He continued by saying:

“Someone asked me the other day, ‘What does it feel like now to have a ‘hood pass?’ And by the way, it’s sort of a contradiction in terms, because if you really had a ‘hood pass, you could call it a nigger pass.”

His comments sparked a major controversy and led to reams of negative stories. Mayer canceled his Twitter account shortly thereafter, and has spent the past two years mostly out of the spotlight. His interview with Rolling Stone was revelatory. Here are a few key excerpts:

Tell me about the day the “Playboy” interview came out.

“It was a Wednesday in February. I was in my hotel room in Nashville. There was a Chinese restaurant out the window, and the call came in, and I remember staring at the restaurant sign while someone said, “This is a really big deal.” It’s like in a movie when the explosion goes off but you don’t hear it – it just goes black.”

At that point, did you still think, “Oh, you’re overreacting, it’s not so bad?”

“Yeah. You’re just trying to stop yourself from imploding. You’re hoping you can charm your way out of the situation…for about five minutes there, I thought that I could disarm the situation.”

So those interviews came out. And then what happened?

I got the shit kicked out of me. I got sort of disowned…People don’t understand – when you screw up, and you feel that wave of energy of a million people saying, “Shame on you” – 20 minutes on that grill is enough to change your life. The body is not equipped to handle negative energy from so many people.”

As a crisis coach, I have three takeaways from Mayer’s comments.

1. Crisis coaches have never experienced what people in the middle of a major scandal are going through.

Unless the coach has personally endured a major crisis, there’s no way to understand what it’s like to be “on that grill” for 20 minutes.

2. People rationalize before facing the facts.

The Kubler-Ross “Five Stages of Grief” Model begins with denial, then moves to anger, then bargaining. As soon as the crisis struck, Mr. Mayer appears to have experienced both denial (“I thought that I could disarm the situation”) and bargaining (“You’re hoping you can charm your way out of the situation.”)

3. We can’t stop people from rationalizing. But we can move them through the stages of grief more quickly.

People in crisis will experience an emotional reaction before being able to make a rational decision. We can provide people in crisis with all of the evidence regarding stages of a crisis, show them similar case studies, and make recommendations based on experience. But we also have to recognize that they’re emotionally fragile and, often, unable to think with full clarity. The more we understand about the psychology of the person in crisis, the quicker we can help move them from a completely emotional state to a more rational one.

There are many ways to do that, and listing them goes beyond the scope of this article. But I’ve discovered that one of the best ways to do it isn’t by telling people what they should do. It’s by creating a climate in which they can quickly come to those self-realizations on their own.

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John Mayer’s latest album, “Born and Raised,” deals with his self-growth over the past two years. Here’s the video for his single “Shadow Days.”

Photo Credit: Julio Enriquez via Wikimedia Commons