Book Review & Notes on Just Listen by Mark Goulston

Just Listen, Discover the Secret of Getting Through to Absolutely Everyone by Mark Goulston

Although he might not admit it — he seems a modest type — Mark Goulston knows more than just about anyone else about getting through to people. Not only is he a practicing psychiatrist, a personal counselor and an expert at resolving business conflicts, he’s also a guy police call in when they have a hostage or suicide-threat situation. If anyone can talk-down a crisis, he can.

The knack, he says, boils down to a simple set of techniques that create traction, “that is, they pull people toward me, even if those people are trying to pull away.”

Those techniques form the core of this latest book, which follows on the heels of his previous best-sellers, Get Out of Your Own Way and Get Out of Your Own Way at Work, and reflect decades of experience that has earned him the title of one of America’s Top Psychiatrists by the Consumers’ Research Council of America.

As a business coach, he is also a colleague of Never Eat Alone and Who’s Got Your Back author, Keith Ferrazzi, who tells us in the foreword of this book not to be put off by the fact that Goulston is a psychiatrist: “He’s also one of the best business communicators I’ve ever encountered.” And he adds: “I can tell you why everyone from the FBI to Oprah pays attention when Mark talks about reaching people: his techniques, simple as they sound, really work.”

Given his background in psychiatry, it’s no surprise that Goulston’s approach is grounded in the functionality of the brain and how this can be exploited to achieve an effective rapport with just about anyone. (Not everyone though. Some people are out of reach, he warns, and need to be given a wide berth.)

His techniques revolve around several aspects of human behavior: first, the actual structure of the brain and how different physical levels are responsible for different types of reaction and receptivity; second, the increasingly-recognized role of so-called mirror neurons in influencing our behavior and our search for shared feelings; third, building on the mirror neuron responses, the importance of the human emotion of empathy, which figures prominently in many of his ideas; and finally, developing and honing listening skills.

These attributes all contribute to what Goulston calls the Persuasion Cycle, a sequence of actions that move a recalcitrant person:

  • From resisting to listening.
  • From listening to considering.
  • From considering to “willing to do.”
  • From “willing to do” to doing.
  • From doing to “glad they did” and “continuing to do.”

First, though, a bit about those brain functions …

The Three-part Brain and Mirror Neurons

In very simple terms — and this is steadfastly the hallmark of Goulston’s approach — we actually have three brains, or at least three layers, sometimes working together but oftentimes pulling apart:

  • A primitive, reptilian inner layer that traces back towards our evolutionary starting point. It includes the amygdala and is the instinctive fight-or-flight part that kicks in first when a crisis looms.
  • A more evolved mammal layer, where our emotions and powerful feelings — positive and negative — lurk.
  • A primate level that is, as Goulston explains, like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, weighing a situation logically and rationally, generating a conscious plan of action.

The bad news is that when the reptile kicks in, logic (and Mr. Spock) goes out the window. The amygdala dictates our behavior and may shut out the other functions. Goulston terms this amygdala hijack. Trying to reason with someone who is in amygdala hijack mode is, bluntly, a waste of time.

What we need, to reach out and touch others, whether they are hostage-takers, difficult business associates or hostile family members, is the empathizing balm of mirror neurons. These are the parts of our brains that make us cringe when someone else gets a paper cut and cheer when a movie hero gets his girl. They probably are the source of our tendency to care about other people, and we use them to mirror what we see around us, to relate to others and to conform to their expectations.

Each time we mirror the world, Goulston explains, our action creates a little reciprocal hunger to be mirrored back. If that hunger is not fed, we develop a mirror neuron receptor deficit.

“In today’s world,” he goes on, “it’s easy to imagine that deficit growing into a deep ache. Many of the people I work with … feel that they give their best, only to be met, day after day, with apathy, hostility or (possibly worst of all) no response at all. In my belief, this deficit explains why we feel so overwhelmed when someone (finally) acknowledges either our pain or our triumphs.”

Needless to say, many of his techniques involve mirroring another person’s feelings. But there’s a little more to it than that …

Nine Core Rules

Before you can begin to move people through the Persuasion Cycle, you need to understand and practice certain key behavior principles that Goulston enshrines as Nine Core Rules. These are:

1. Moving yourself from “Oh F#@& to OK.” Essentially this is about speeding your own emotions from an initial reptilian panic to Mr. Spock-like composure as rapidly as possible. The whole emotional sequence we naturally go through is based on 5 Rs: Reaction (the “Oh F#@&” panic moment), Release (realization of the nature and scale of the problem), Re-center (acknowledgment that you’re going to have to fix things), Refocus (start developing a plan to sort things out), Re-engage (doing it!).

If you know this is what is going to happen, the author argues, you can learn to move through it much more rapidly — at least with practice! And the sooner you re-engage, the better.

2. Rewiring yourself to listen. This rule centers on our natural tendency to make snap judgments about people, mostly based on in-built prejudices we have developed over time. As a result, we’re not inclined to listen to others’ explanations and excuses when there’s trouble afoot, even when they have a legitimate foundation. Open your mind and make yourself explore the real reasons behind an individual’s negative behavior. Set aside your biases, schedule a meeting and ask them.

3. Making the other person “feel felt.” Bring on the mirror neurons — because this means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, suggesting to them how you think they might be feeling and letting them know you understand those feelings. They will instantly want to understand you too! Then you can move forward to explore what needs to happen to make them feel better. You will change the dynamics of your relationship with them in a heartbeat, says Goulston.

4. Being more interested that interesting. This is another listening skill. Again, it relies on those mirror neurons because the more interested you are in another person the more intrigued that person becomes in you and the more empathy they feel for you. Forget about talking about yourself and rambling on about your achievements; instead, opt to play detective — finding out as much about the other person as you can. Or, as the author puts it: “Shut up and listen.”

5. Making people feel valuable. This is different from making them feel felt or interesting; you touch them in a deeper way. The technique of letting them know they’re important, that their contribution makes a difference, is paradoxically useful with annoying, high-maintenance folk. This is because people who complain and cause problems typically have a serious mirror receptor deficit and the more others avoid or ignore them, the worse it gets. Next time they complain, let them know what they’re saying is important and you’d value their help in solving it.

6. Helping people exhale, emotionally and mentally. If someone is in distress, don’t add to it. Facts and reasoning don’t work. You need to bring them down, enabling them both metaphorically and literally take a deep breath. Frequently, you can witness the tension in their body language — crossed arms, clenched fists, and so on. So start by trying to undo this. For instance, asking a question that evokes emotion or passion will call their arms into play for gesturing — thereby releasing them. This opens a door to the mind, says Goulston. Now you listen, without interrupting. And when they’re done, invite them to tell you even more. Eventually, they will relax.

7. Checking your dissonance at the door. Dissonance is a misalignment between how you think you’re coming across and how others perceive you. When there’s dissonance, you can’t connect effectively — no mirror neuron activity. For instance, people can’t reflect your confidence if they think it comes across as arrogance. The only reliable way of discovering if you have dissonance is to ask them. Easier said than done? Try making a list of potential negative qualities, give it to the other person(s) and ask them to order the three of them — 1, 2, 3 style — that apply most to you. Prepare to be amazed.

Dissonance may also apply at the corporate as well as individual level, when your beliefs about how people regard your business don’t match reality. For this, Goulston recommends his PEP Challenge, where you question stakeholders on their views about the company’s Passion for fulfilling its vision, its Enthusiasm for serving and delivering to them, and its Pride as exemplified by behaving ethically and honestly. Ask them to grade you from 1 to 10 and learn the lessons from the result.

8. Baring your neck when all seems lost. In other words, don’t be afraid to admit your mistakes and expose your vulnerability. Owning up to fear and uncertainty prevents an amygdala hijack where you could make rash decisions and bad choices. Instead, it encourages the other person to — guess what? — mirror you, confessing their own vulnerabilities and usually wanting fervently to help you. It’s human nature. And if they “fess up to you,” let them know you respect them for having the guts to do so. For more on this fascinating subject of vulnerability, explore Keith Ferrazzi’s book, Who’s Got Your Back.

9. Steering clear of toxic people. Yes, there are some people with whom you just can’t connect — from self-important narcissists, through bullies, to out-and-out psychopaths. They want to suck you dry, con you, fool you, bully you or make you a scapegoat for their mistakes. You might be able to confront them by fighting fire with fire, a particularly useful technique with bullies — after all, you’ll be mirroring their behavior. Or you could neutralize them. For example, tell people who perpetually ask you for favors but offer nothing in return, exactly what you do want in return. But if all else fails, avoid these people. If they are in your employ, just say goodbye.

How to Move People Through the Persuasion Cycle

At the start of the book, Goulston recounts an incident when a hostage negotiator he trained was called in to advise police in a standoff, in which a man sat in his car in a mall parking lot holding a shotgun to his throat. He’d lost his job, wife and kids through his verbal abuse. Then his landlord kicked him out and his wife got a restraining order. It seemed there was nothing left to live for. Earlier police efforts to dissuade him had only tightened his squeeze on the shotgun trigger.

Here’s how the negotiator started: “I’ll bet you feel that nobody knows what it’s like to have tried everything else and be stuck with this as your only way out, isn’t that true?”

The answer: “Yeah …” And, as it turns out, getting to “Yes” is a vital step in the first stage of the Persuasion Cycle — moving from resisting to listening. The conversation goes on to extract a few more affirmatives; then the hostage is invited to “tell me more.” Now we’re moving from listening to considering. Buy-in has begun and the standoff eventually ends without further incident or injury.

This is an example of what Goulston calls the Magic Paradox, in which you shift a person’s thinking that nobody understands them to the notion that at least you do. It works in the same way in a business situation where you gain trust by suggesting the other person feels nobody understands them. When you say that, they know you’re on their side.

It is one of a dozen ways to achieve buy-in and “get-through,” that he explores in the second half of the book. They are not mutually exclusive and some are more appropriate than others for achieving results in specific situations. But all of them are calculated to move people through at least one stage of the Persuasion Cycle.

For instance, another way of moving a person from resistance to listening (though perhaps not in a hostage situation) is to challenge the hyperbole of their claims. In effect, when they deliver some devastating indictment, you’re saying to them: Do you really believe that? This approach is used to best effect when someone bounces at you with an over-the-top complaint about things or individuals being out of control, situations being impossible and, generally, the end of the world looming.

You pull the rug from under them by simply saying, with a concerned, quizzical look: “Really?” Then you can amplify your puzzlement by asking appropriate clarifying questions like: “Are you really saying there isn’t a single competent person in the sales department? This is very serious.” Usually, that will be enough to prompt the complainer to back-pedal and lead to a constructive discussion in which you ask him to offer solutions.

Staying with the theme of claimed impossibility, you can move a person from listening to considering or from “Yes, but” to plain “Yes” by employing what business coach and motivational speaker Dave Hibbard calls the Impossibility Question. For shorthand, Goulston prefers the phrase “kicking but,” but either way, it’s a technique for getting people to tackle something they initially consider impossible or at least downright difficult.

The approach is at once both powerful and disarmingly simple. You ask the other person to name something they dearly want or need but which they consider impossibly out of reach. Then — or if you previously knew a task or achievement they considered impossible — you ask them to name, no holds barred, what would need to happen to make it possible. They will suddenly see a shaft of light, shifting agreeably towards you, to a constructive thinking mode in which they start to figure out ways of making it possible.

The author explains: “When you ask people to tell you something that’s impossible, you are in essence getting them to say something positive: ‘I believe this is impossible.’ Thinking and saying that shifts their minds into a positive (agreeing) movement toward you. Once they’re in that ‘Yes’ vs ‘No’ of ‘Yes, but’ mode and you agree with them but add the twist — ‘What would make it possible?’ — they’re poised to cooperate.”

He likens the approach to a martial arts ploy where you use an opponent’s offensive move against you by pulling the opponent off balance instead of striking back.

You can move a person from resisting to “willing to do” in a single step by changing the dynamics of relationships between individuals, employing what the author calls the Empathy Jolt. This isn’t so much about you empathizing with them one-on-one as about encouraging empathy between individuals where you are acting as an intermediary.

The trick is to ask individual #1 what he thinks individual #2 would say if asked a question about individual #1. Here’s an example:

Two parents sought advice from the author about the not-untypical rebellious behavior of their teenage son. Goulston saw all three of them together. First he asked Mom to say what she thought her son would say about why the meeting was going to be a waste of time. She correctly guessed that the son would think nothing was going to change and that she would continue to nag him.

Then the author asked Dad what he thought his wife would say about his role in the family hostilities and Dad also correctly suggested she thought he would agree with her complaints on the surface but secretly agree with his son that Mom sometimes went over the top. She would feel isolated.

Finally he asked the son if he thought his parents were more likely to say they were disappointed with him or that they were worried about them. They would say they were worried, he conceded.

Suddenly, everyone had an insight into the others’ feelings and the family was able to discuss and resolve their differences. They had received an empathy jolt.

Another version of the empathy jolt, this time employed in a one-on-one situation, might sound something of a high risk strategy but the author assures us it’s more effective than ignoring or confronting bad behavior. It involves doing the opposite of what someone — a slacker for example — expects when they think you’re calling them to account.

In this case, you might tell the individual, who is expecting a dressing down, that you recognize there might be failings on your part in the relationship; then you apologize for anything you did that might have annoyed, or upset her. In doing this, the author argues, you shift the person instantly out of defensive mode and they begin to mirror your humility and concern. He adds: “Taking responsibility for your actions and committing to correcting your faults in the future also demonstrates tremendous graciousness, generosity and poise, and turns you into a person worthy of respect.”

A good deal of Goulston’s approach depends on responses that either take a different direction to those the other person might be expecting, like the example above, or showing a more ponderous even incredulous reaction of the “Really?” variety. Another version of the latter is what he calls the power of “Hmmm”. Instead of your instinctive desire to shut down someone who is venting unreasonably about an issue, you just say “Hmmm” and let them continue.

It’s a good approach when you’re on the receiving end of a customer or client meltdown, allowing them to calm down a little. Instead of trying to shut them up or asking them pointedly to calm down (which won’t work), you signal that you are listening and thinking, trying to understand. Effectively, says the author, you’re telling them: “You’re important to me and so is your problem.” And you can confirm that if they ask you why you’re saying “Hmmm” all the time!

He adds: “‘Hmmm’ is what I call a relationship deepener. It tells people what they are saying … is worthy of some sort of action. You’ll notice however that it commits you to nothing. The sole purpose is to calm a person to the point where you can identify the actual problem and come up with a realistic solution.”

Other techniques the author offers as a means of getting through to people include:

The stipulation gambit, which involves identifying potential issues on which everyone can agree and then sidelining them — as happens when prosecution and defense lawyers agree a point so they don’t have to argue about it in court. That’s a stipulation. In business, it can be used to declare a potential weakness which might be or become apparent. If we hide potential weaknesses, it makes people uncomfortable as soon as they surface. Stipulation neutralizes them.

The author, for instance, finds business audiences may be wary of him because he’s a psychiatrist, so he puts the issue on the table at the outset, noting that he’s a “shrink” without an MBA but then going on to explain how his expertise in handling relationships has valuable application in the workplace and the boardroom.

Or, a person with a stutter, attending a job interview, declares this impediment upfront, telling his interviewer: “If it happens in the interview the best thing is to bear with me and … it will come and go … I apologize in advance for whatever inconvenience this causes you.” Now the interviewer won’t be surprised or edged into discomfort and the interviewee may even stutter less because he’s less nervous.

From transaction to transformation, means moving away from the quid-pro-quo negotiating stance of relationships — “I do that because you do this” — to one in which you ask questions that allow people to tell you about themselves and their ideas. Think: What question will show this person I’m interested in them?” Then ask it.

Side by side. Don’t talk down to people but get alongside them, physically and mentally, to discuss their concerns. Draw parallels from your own experience that match their concerns. Now you’re mirroring.

Fill in the blanks. Instead of asking blunt questions, formulate a statement with a blank space where you invite the other person to fill in the blank using a gesture and a leading question. This turns a question-and-answer session into a conversation. For example, when visiting a potential new client, instead of asking something like “What do you need?” the author, with an inviting hand gesture, says: “You’re thinking of hiring someone like me because you want to ________”

When you ask direct questions, he says, people, especially new acquaintances, can feel challenged, like a schoolchild being put on the spot by a teacher. But the fill-in-the-blanks approach has the opposite effect, drawing a person towards you: “You don’t come off as a demanding teacher … you sound like a trusted uncle.”

Thus, a powerful benefit of this approach is that the other person feels like they are in control of the conversation, not you.

The Power Thank You and The Power Apology. It’s easy to say “Thanks” and “Sorry” but people rarely remember or think you mean it. But they’ll switch on their mirror neurons if you additionally tell them how their contribution has made a positive difference or how you intend to make sure a mistake you made won’t happen again.

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