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Questions for Mark Goulston

Interview by: Jessica Leigh Johnston

A renowned psychiatrist and difficult conversations expert describes the power of making someone 'feel felt'.

People often think good communication relates to how well we express ourselves. But you believe listening is equally important. Please explain.

When you listen well and with sincere interest, people are more likely to open up to you. The fact is, many people just don’t feel listened to, and if given the opportunity, they will talk about things that really matter to them. The more someone opens up to you, the more invested they will be in the conversation, and the more interested they will be in how you respond after listening to them.

Tell us a bit about your background and what inspired you to write Just Listen.

I’m a clinical psychiatrist, and initially I specialized in the areas of death and dying. I would make house calls to dying patients and their families, and at the 11th hour, I was often able to help them resolve conflicts that had been going on for decades. The problem, I realized, was that nobody was listening to one another. They were just talking at and over each other, and taking things far too personally. I hadn’t come up with a title for my book at the time, but whenever I spend time with these families, in my head I was screaming at them, “Just listen!”

I segued into the business world because, on more than one occasion, the head of a company was my client, and the younger relatives would say to me, “Please come in and work with my team, because you helped my family resolve things that we never could before.” I would say to them, “Remember, I’m a shrink, so what I know most about are things like jealousy, backstabbing, undermining and envy; do you have any of that at your office?” And they would say to me, “That’s pretty much all we have!”

These days I’m training business people to identify the elephant in the room, and very often, that elephant is the fact that people are just not listening to, understanding or valuing each other. In many cases, they’re doing the opposite. And when people don’t feel listened to, they become reactive. Being and remaining reactive is one of the chief obstacles to cooperation. As Indira Gandhi said, “You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.”

What are some of the most common workplace issues you are brought in to address?

I once worked with a CEO who said to me, “I love my company and I love mankind; but I can’t stand people.” This is a common issue I run into with CEOs, from start-ups all the way to the Fortune 50. They say to me, ‘I hate all the people stuff — the drama, the manipulation. It distracts me from our vision and strategy’, so they often delegate those responsibilities to the COO or the head of HR. However, the smartest among them realize that they need to learn some of these skills themselves.

An early chapter of Just Listen is dedicated to brain science. What do we need to understand about how our brains work to help tackle everyday communication challenges?

One concept that people find fascinating is what I call the ‘mirror-neuron gap’. When you feel that you are emotionally conforming to the needs of people in the outside world — like you’re caring for people and being responsible and cooperative — it creates a hunger within you to have the outside world do the same for you. And the greater the hunger, the greater the mirror-neuron gap.

Mirror neurons were discovered in the late 1990s in macaque monkeys, and were originally called ‘monkey see, monkey do’ neurons. They seemed to be associated with imitation, learning and empathy, and when defective or deficient, with autism. What widens the mirror neuron gap is when you feel another person has not heard, understood or valued you, which closes you down. What narrows the gap is when you feel ‘felt”: you feel heard, understood and valued, and that causes you to open your mind.

Striving to make someone feel ‘felt’ can be emotionally impactful. Is it a mistake to expect people to park their feelings at the door of the workplace?

It is my experience that an increasing number of people feel very alone. When you can communicate with them so that they feel felt, it’s incredibly powerful. One time I went to see a CEO after months of trying to schedule a meeting with him. I didn’t know it going in, but he was extremely worried that his wife might have breast cancer. She had gone for a biopsy that very day, and just my being in the room was creating a huge gap, because he wasn’t really ‘there’ with me; he was totally focused on something else.

I could tell he was deeply troubled, so I said, “There’s something much more important on your mind than meeting with me. Why don’t you take care of whatever that is, and we’ll do this another time?” He then revealed to me the situation regarding his wife and began to tear up. He was very private, but my understanding of the situation caused him to let down his guard. When you help someone feel felt, that often happens, because they feel a great sense of relief at not being so alone with something that is deeply troubling them. When someone feels cared about, their amount of gratitude towards you goes through the roof.

In making people feel felt, why are ‘transformational questions’ so much better than ‘transactional’ ones?

In transactional conversations, you’re talking to another person and you’re listening responsibly. It’s business as usual. But a transformational question lifts a conversation above the purely transactional. You will know you’ve asked a transformational question when the other person suddenly breaks eye contact and looks up towards the ceiling, because it’s a delectable question that has captured their imagination.

Often, job interviews are transactional. Even when interviewers say, ‘Tell me a story’, or ‘How did you solve that problem?’, they are often checking-off boxes. The next time you’re being interviewed, ask the interviewer if you can pose a hypothetical question. If they agree, say, ‘Imagine that it’s a year from now, and your boss is talking to you about the person you hired for this position. She has a big smile on her face and she says, ‘Get us three more like that! That was one of the best hires we’ve had for a long time.’ Tell me, what would cause her to say that? What are this person’s strengths and attitudes? What are some of the things they always do, and what are some of the things they never do?’

I tried this with my daughter. When she was 23, she asked me for a good question for an informal, walk-around interview. “Try this one,” I said. “If it works, he’s going to stop walking, pause and look up at the ceiling.” She messaged me an hour later and said, “You’re a mind reader, Dad. He stopped, looked up at the ceiling, and then he looked at me — very differently — and said, ‘That’s an amazing question, and I don’t have an answer; but I’m going to think about it.’” I said to my daughter, “That is going to make you memorable, because you just gave him the gift of recognizing what he should be focusing on when he hires someone.”

What are some other tools for getting people to open up?

Because I’m a medical doctor, I often use medical metaphors. There’s a technique I use that I call the ‘I&D and P’. I&D stands for incise and drain (it’s what you do with an abscess) and P stands for prioritize. Here’s how it works.

When you’re having a conversation, keep a mental note of the words the other person uses that have an emotional charge, to them — words such as always, never, awful, or amazing. Then after they’ve stopped speaking — even if they ask you a question — use what I call a conversation deepener: ‘Tell me more about that ‘amazing’ thing’ or, ‘Say more about the ‘awful’ thing.’ What you’ll notice is that their hands will start to rise up, because you’ve invited them to open up about something emotional that words alone can’t communicate.

Another conversation-deepening tool is to say, “Really?” with sincere interest and invite the person to say more, which has a similar effect. That’s why I refer to this as the I&D, because you’re going in deeper, and you’re pulling out all kinds of stuff. As you do that, the person you are speaking with becomes more invested in the conversation.

Now it’s time to prioritize. At this point, the person might ask what you think, and you can say, ‘I’ll tell you what I think, but first I’d like to ‘take what we’re talking about to the ICU’ (another medical metaphor) which means, I want to understand what is most Important, Critical and Urgent about what you just said. ‘Important’ is something that can wait a year, ‘Critical’ maybe a couple of months and ‘Urgent’ means, it must be dealt with this week. I can guess what those things are, but why don’t you just tell me?’

What’s happened is, you’ve enabled them to get everything off their chest and prioritize a response, and this is amazingly powerful.

Are there any especially powerful listening techniques for meetings?

If you want to have much better meetings — and who doesn’t — something you might try is a pop quiz at the end of the meeting. Tell people up front that you want them to ‘take the meeting to the ICU’ — i.e., identify what is important, critical and urgent. Hand out Post-it notes, and at the end, ask everybody to write down the most important, critical and urgent things they gleaned from the meeting. At first, you’ll look around and see confusion, but rest assured, it will be a good exercise.

Gather and shuffle the Post-it notes, and then read them aloud. If everyone is on the same page about the most important, critical and urgent things that came out of the meeting, that’s great — and you should tell them so. If everyone is not on the same page, you can say, ‘I’ve got good and bad news: the bad news is, nobody’s on the same page, and the good news is, I blew it. I’m the one running this meeting, so it’s my responsibility to ensure we’re on the same page. I’m going to get better at this. And by the way, what I wrote down as the most important, critical and urgent is the following...’ This is a great tip for making sure everyone stays focused on the same goals.

Dr. Mark Goulston is a prominent psychiatrist, consultant to major organizations and confidant to CEOs. He is the author of Just Listen: Discover the Secret of Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone (AMACOM, 2009) and Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In (AMACOM, 2013). He has been named one of America’s Top Psychiatrists four times by the Consumers Research Council, and for over 20 years, has been a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. He blogs for the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Fast Company, and Business Insider.

This article originally appeared in 'Wicked Problems III' (Winter 2015).

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