In his career as an organizational consultant, relationship counselor, and hostage-negotiation trainer, Mark Goulston has found what works, consistently, to reach all kinds of people in any type of situation.
In his book Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In, he and co-author John Ullmen share what they learned while interviewing more than 100 influential people and distilled a four-step model that they have in common. As he explains, “We are in a ‘post-selling/post-pushing’ world where most people can’t stand to either of these done to them and don’t enjoy when they have to do it to others.” He says, “There is a way to persuade without pushing and that is by positively influencing people, because influence can last a lifetime, whereas persuasion sometimes doesn’t even last until the end of a conversation.”
In a recent book, Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, Goulston introduces a communication process in a book (first published in 2010) that can help almost anyone get to almost anyone else who may otherwise be inaccessible. Dorothy and her friends were advised to follow the yellow brick road. Goulston advises his reader to follow the five-step “persuasion cycle.” There won’t be any flying monkeys to worry about but there may be distractions so focus on the basic nine rules he identifies and master the twelve “quick techniques” he recommends. Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with the Irrational and Impossible People in Your Life is his latest book, published by AMACOM (October 2015).
Mark blogs or contributes to Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and Business Insider, and writes the “Closing Bell” for C-Suite Quarterly magazine and the Tribune syndicated column, “Solve Anything with Dr. Mark.” He lives in Los Angeles, California.
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Morris: Before discussing Talking to Crazy, a few general questions. First, in your opinion, are personal growth and professional development in today’s workplace culture more likely to thrive, less likely to thrive, or is it about the same as (let’s say) 10-15 years ago? Please explain.
Goulston: How’s this for evasive? It all depends. A major factor is the POV of the CEO with regard to the importance of both of those. If he or she has personally seen the value of both especially with regard to their own increased or enhanced performance, they are likely to be a believer and supporter. If they haven’t, they may either poo-poo it or pay lip service to it. If it’s the latter case they will give off mixed messages, saying it’s important but acting as if “it’s all about the numbers.”
Companies that see a direct correlation between their employees’ happiness, well being and performance will be more likely proponents of personal growth and professional development than those who don’t. The more pressure there is on short term results from shareholders, the less time and effort will be made to be reflective or insightful on anything that doesn’t seem to be directly tied to the bottom line. If you press me to choose regarding thriving, I’d say more likely to thrive because the millennial generation seems more committed to a balanced and healthy work-life balance than prior generations have been.
Morris: What are the unique leadership challenges for C-level executives in today’s workplace culture?
Goulston: Possibly the top challenge is attracting and then holding onto top talent by keeping them motivated and inspired enough to want to stay with your company and not jump to another one that promises them more.
Morris: Why do so many people find it so difficult to assume responsibilities for the consequences of the decisions they make?
Goulston: I believe it’s because much of the work force appears to be highly energized, but tightly wound to the point of agitation. As such, when something goes wrong that people didn’t expect, their first unconscious thought is that they won’t be able to adapt to that unexpected occurrence. This results in a psychological rigidity and causes people to engage in the insanity of “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” The more experience people have had successfully adjusting to unexpected results of their decisions in the past, the more psychologically relaxed they will be and consequently more willing to accept responsibility for the consequences of their decisions because they have increased confidence in being able to handle it.
Morris: In one of his several books, Stephen Covey suggests that executives spend too much time on what is (or seems) urgent and not enough time on what is important. Do you agree? Please explain.
Goulston: In his famous poem, If, Rudyard Kipling said: If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you… Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, and which is more, you’ll be a man my son.” By this, Kipling was extolling the value of self-restraint and discernment. In our rushed and impatient times, urgent too often overrides and obscures what is most important, especially when a person who has little or no self-restraint is pushing into you for an immediate answer. As a result, it seems increasingly difficult to tell someone, “No,” so that you can stay focused on what’s important. And BTW it seems equally as difficult to receive “No” as an answer. A while back I was privileged to have dinner with television icon, Norman Lear, and leadership guru (and my mentor), Warren Bennis. I asked what they viewed as the greatest danger to the world. They each gave the same response, “Expediency.” By that they meant that when people are rushed, important things get missed.
Morris: I have examined the results of all of the major research studies on satisfaction which indicate that both employees and customers rank feeling appreciated among the three attributes of greatest importance to them. Both groups. What do you make of that?
Goulston: I have read that as well. It doesn’t surprise me and I think a better way to understand why those results is by understanding the power of opposites. By that I mean that one of the things that probably frustrates and ticks people off more than anything is to have their hard work and efforts go unappreciated. It may actually be that in those studies, so many people are feeling under- appreciated on the job that when they receive appreciation, it’s like mana from heaven.
Morris: I know you agree with me that being an excellent listener is among the most important (albeit least appreciated) skills that executives, indeed anyone, can have. How best to develop this skill to maximum result?
Goulston: Something else Warren taught me that he learned from playwright Saul Bellow was to “become a first class noticer.” When you notice what people say, you are more focused on it and as a result they feel that you are more present and interested in them. Those are also things other people greatly appreciate in a world that they feel is often oblivious to them.
Morris: Now please shift your attention to Talking to Crazy. When and why did you decide to write it?
Goulston: In my book, Just Listen, there has been a disproportionate amount of interest in two chapters: Steer Clear of Toxic People (which is about dealing with people that were beyond difficult) and Move Yourself from ‘Oh F#@& to OK’” (which is about how to remain calm instead of being provoked by people). I then realized that every day nearly everyone deals with people who are irrational and often impossible. I realized, noticed, readers were telling me that they would like an entire book devoted to it. That’s where the idea of Talking to Crazy came from. Interestingly, nearly everyone I told the title to has responded with a smile of recognition. When I asked them what that was about they replied something like, “I think I do that everyday and if you’ve written a book that will help me deal with it better, I’m smiling from the relief I feel when you show me a better way to deal with them.”
Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
Goulston: I think the main revelation was the power of leaning into people’s irrationality as a way to calm them down and bring them back to their senses. Imagine an irrational and agitated person as a car engine that is racing past the redline. You can try to stop it by stepping on the brakes or instead you can calmly pull over to the side of the road and turn the engine off. Leaning into people’s irrationality is like the latter.
Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?
Goulston: I was hoping that I could use a similar form and structure that worked so well in “Just Listen” with stories that people could identify with combined with counterintuitive insights, strategies and tactics that most people could use that would work. However at the beginning I didn’t know if this book would flow and nearly write itself the same way as “Just Listen.” It was a pleasant and an immense relief when that was exactly what happened.
Morris: You suggest a number of ways to “deal with the irrational and impossible people” in one’s life. Aren’t we all — or at least don’t we all seem to others — somewhat “irrational and impossible” from time to time? Please explain.
Goulston: Absolutely. I do however make a distinction between “irrational” and “non-rational.” From time to time, we are all non-rational. By that I mean that all of us occasionally think and respond to a new situation in a manner that fit a prior situation, but not the present one. When we do that we are being non-rational. Irrational on the other hand is when we are more pushy about how we are thinking and acting with regard to a situation and then want to force others to agree and conform to our POV.
Morris: What exactly do you mean by “everyday craziness”?
Goulston: By “everyday craziness” I mean the frequent interactions between others and us where people are frustrating and exasperating us. I make a distinction between that and mental illness. I see “crazy” and mentally ill as quite different. To me, mentally ill means having a mental disorder that if untreated causes a person to be unable to act differently and will continue until their mental illness is effectively treated. Everyday craziness occurs when people are capable of controlling their behavior, but — for various reasons — choose not to.
Morris: When you refer to “handling” everyday craziness, do you in fact mean “defusing” it? Pleased explain.
Goulston: I like that term “defusing it” in the movie thriller sense of the word. That is what you see in some action films when the hero or his/her team must go in and defuse a bomb before it explodes (usually with seconds to spare). Rather than trying to contain or counter “crazy” behavior, the book explains how to go into the the person’s personality and to the modus operandi and then defusing it before it escalates or explodes into crazy making behavior.
Morris: How to “lean into the crazy”? Why do it? Are there times when it best be done?
Goulston: By leaning into crazy you are not just allowing the person to verbally vent or whine or complain, you are also inviting them to do so. What’s more, you are inviting them to go even deeper into what they’re talking about. By doing this instead of taking issue with them or becoming defensive, you’re enabling them to get more off their chest and out into the air where it can do no harm to them or you. The best times to do it are with people who are stressing you out, causing you to have a pit in your stomach at just the mention of their name and causing you to avoid them. By learning to lean into them, helping them get stuff of their chest and calm down, you’re developing a sense of mastery about something that has always caused you stress.
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Mark cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:
Mark’s Amazon page link
Goulston Group link
Heartfelt Leadership link
C-Suite Quarterly link
Huffington Post link
Psychology Today link
Business Insider link
Leadership Excellence link