Mark Goulston: Part 2 of an interview by Bob Morris

GoulstonIn 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 his latest 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.

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: When and why did you decide to write Just Listen?

Goulston: I wrote it when I began to realize that it was less important what I said to patients and later customers, clients, and executives than what I enabled them to talk about and then when they did, to listen deeply into what they said and continue to build on it.

In simple words, I realized more success the less I talked, the more I asked questions and then deeply listened. It also seemed that the more the people I’ve worked with felt not just understood, but “felt felt” (without one scintilla of my being judgmental), the safer they felt to open up even more. And the more they opened up, the more they were invested in our conversations.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Goulston: I am humbled by its worldwide success and especially by the heartfelt reviews people have given it where a significant number have said they have read it multiple times or listened to the audio multiple times. The revelation is an incredibly painful one at how so few people in the world feel deeply listened to. I can’t prove it, but I’m almost certain that there is a direct connection between people not feeling listened to and even worse, dismissed, belittled, and blown off to people becoming violent and blowing up things.

There’s a saying by William Congreve that “music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.” I think that is because when we hear the right kind of music, we feel “heard” or even known by it. I think deep caring, unfiltered listening “without memory or desire” can do the same and more.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ [begin italics] significantly [end significantly] from what you originally envisioned?

Goulston: I am a person who has a passion for making complex and confusing things more understandable to me and over time I have become someone more articulate in words and speech. I believe the true power and popularity of the book has come not from the concepts but from the many stories that people see themselves in and the counterintuitive “hidden in plain sight” tips that appear to have helped many people.

Morris: Presumably you have received an abundance of feedback from those who have read the book, first published in 2010. Which (if any) of that feedback surprised you the most? Why?

Goulston: The abundance of people from around the world (it’s been translated into 15 languages) who have been so grateful to the book for what it has helped them with in their relationships. Something that hasn’t surprised me is how I feel bothered by the relatively few negative reviews and take them probably too much to heart. I must say that I do learn a great deal from them. It would be just more helpful if I could not take them so personally.

Morris: Which of the feedback (if) suggested some new areas for you to explore in your next book? Please explain.

Goulston: Actually the feedback did lead to my co-authoring with Dr. John Ullmen, my next book which was Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In, which is focused on how to influence people by listening and truly getting where they’re coming from and making sure to become aware of your blind spots and take them out of the picture. I’ve very proud of that book and for the chance to work closely with Dr. Ullmen.

Morris: In your opinion, can introverts master the five-stage “persuasion cycle”? Please explain.

Goulston: I am an introvert. In fact I sometimes jokingly refer to myself as a founding member of the “dread going, but glad I went” club. That means that if I can push myself to just get up and go to things that the introverted part of me doesn’t want to go to, it usually works out well. I think introverts can master the “persuasion cycle” and more importantly their introversion if they care enough about it. People don’t do what’s important to them as much as they do what they care enough about.

I cared enough about it because when my now 34 year old daughter was three months old I was holding her in my arms looking into her eyes. And if you’ve looked into such eyes, you’re not just looking into the eyes of utter trust, it’s as if you’re looking in the eyes of God. At any rate what I saw in her eyes was her saying to me, “Daddy, when I grow up, be someone I’m proud of and not embarrassed about.”

At that moment I realized that if I didn’t change, she wouldn’t be proud of me, because I wasn’t. And that was because I gave into my fears. I didn’t fight against my introversion, I gave into it. And at that moment I decided to say, “Yes,” to all the things I’d said, “No,” to for 30 years because of my introversion. I started raising my hand to say things. I started speaking in public at first to non-critical groups and have worked my way up to some crowds that are incredibly challenging, but that help me become even better.

I now consider myself to be a “role specific extrovert.” That means that I will push my introvert self to the side when I’m speaking so that I can deliver my message with confidence or when I am in a host role to make everyone else’s experience better.

Morris: Which of the five stages seems to be most difficult to master? Why?

Goulston: Considering. The reason is that for you to truly consider what someone else is saying and that may mean considering that what they’re saying is more valid than something you think or firmly believe, it means letting go of your belief. For many people that can be hard to do, because many people live their lives controlled by orientation bias (i.e. looking to see certain things in the world) and then confirmation bias (i.e. upon seeing those things then being able to reassure yourself that you are right) which can cause you to be stuck being a “know it all” when in fact you know very little about something.

Morris: In your opinion, are those who possess charisma better communicators than those who do not? Please explain.

Goulston: I think people who possess charisma are more compelling speakers but they are often poorer listeners. The reason for that is because they: (a) know that the charisma works at overpowering and persuading others at least in the short run which is often more the focus than building long lasting authentic relationships (they will however often have a long standing entourage); (b) talking and having power over an audience for them often creates and adrenaline rush which can be quite intoxicating (and also explain why they have troubled intimate relationships which call for something more slower and more tender); and (c) truly listening and considering what others have to say may mean they’ll need to change a POV or attitude that they don’t want to.

Morris: As I read the new edition of Just Listen, I was again reminded of the fact that recent surveys conducted by Gallup and Towers Watson indicate that both customers and employees rank “feeling appreciated” among the top three of what is most important to them.

How do you explain that?

Goulston: In Just Listen, you may recall my talking about mirror neurons as those neurons in our brains that are connected to imitation, learning and empathy and my notion of the Mirror Neuron Gap in which I explained that the more we do and conform to/empathize with the social, emotional and psychological needs of the world around us without it reciprocating, the greater the mirror neuron gap. “Feeling appreciated” narrows the mirror neuron gap which is why it feels so good.

Morris: How can listening help someone to get out of their own way?

Goulston: I am a great fan of something my late mentor Warren Bennis advised, which was to be a first- class noticer. When you look, watch or see something you’re more of an observer. When you notice something you’re more connected to it and more present. Getting in your own way actually means not being present at all. It means being so self-absorbed that you’re too busy reacting, avoiding, making excuses that you’re not able to be present. In other words instead of deeply and noticing anything objectively, you’re oblivious to what it is and instead are caught up reacting to it based upon old assumptions and presumptions that are frequently wrong.

Morris: What are the core neurological principles of effective communication?

Goulston: There are three main principles I cover in Just Listen. The first is the notion that we have a three part brain composed of a human/rational, mammalian/emotional, reptilian/fight or flight brains. The second is that inside our mammalian brain is something called the amygdala which functions as an emotional sentinel. When we go from stress, during which we can still focus with difficulty on our goals, to distress, where our goal becomes relief from the distress, our amygdala hijacks us away from being able to access our human/rational brain to assess the situation. Instead we are thrown into our hard wired reflex responses that we have learned to deal with situations reminiscent to what we’re now facing. But we’re not really being objective. As you can imagine this can truly make real and honest and present communication impossible. The final principle I discuss is the notion of mirror neurons and the mirror neuron gap that we have discussed elsewhere.

Morris: When and why did you decide to write Real Influence, and do so in collaboration with John Ullmen?

Goulston: John is a wonderful instructor who specializes in communication at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA. I had known him from our both being in the Los Angeles business community. He is also a big fan of Just Listen. He correctly suggested to me that after people listen, they still need to get things done and one way to do that is to influence people in ways that aren’t aggressive and pushy. I agreed with him and because of his assistance with logistics, there are many more stories in Real Influence, than in Just Listen. And they are terrific stories and largely because of John’s collaboration it is a wonderful book.

Morris: Years ago, during a reception at the State Department to honor the new British ambassador to the United States, I asked his chief of staff what the essence of diplomacy is. He replied, “Letting the other chap have it your way.” What do you make of that?

Goulston: I think what it means is that if you listen to someone, consider what they’re saying, validate and value it, if they come from a large mirror neuron gap of having not experienced much of that, they may become overwhelmed with gratitude to you for having closed that gap and may demonstrate that gratitude by giving you your way as an expression of appreciation.

Morris: There are dozens of passages throughout your narrative that caught my eye. For those who have not as yet read the book, please suggest what you view as the most important point or  key take-away in each of these passages.

First, The “Blind Spot” in Our Brains (Pages 10-14)

Goulston: When you practice disconnected influence, you’re stuck in what we call your here. You can see your position, your facts and your intentions clearly. But to connect with people you’re trying to influence, you need to communicate from a perspective we call their there. You need to see their position, their facts and their intentions clearly. And you can’t reach their there if you can’t see it. From your point of view, these people are invisible.

Morris: The Habit Handicap (22-24)

Goulston: The second human nature trap is one we’re deeply vulnerable to when we’re deeply stressed. In this situation, it’s difficult to generate new ideas and find different ways of thinking, feeling and acting. That’s because under pressure, we typically do one or two things: We go into amygdala hijack, or we go to our comfort zone. In the second scenario—habit handicap—we do what we’re used to doing. We do what usually works… The problem is that our old patterns rarely fit our current circumstances… As Albert Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Morris: The Double Curse of Knowledge (28-31)

Goulston: Most of the time, our knowledge and experience serve us well. But when we run into influence challenges—when we’re failing to persuade and finding it difficult to get things done with people – what we “know” can change from asset to obstacle. Why? Because it’s very difficult to “unknow” what you know. And this can create enormous gaps between your here and their there.

Morris: The Connected Influence Model (39)


1. Go for great outcomes
2. Listen past your blind spot
3. Engage them in their there
4. When you’ve done enough, do more

Morris: Building Relationships the Zappos Way (71-72)

Goulston: In his book, Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, writes: “If you’re able to figure out how to be truly interested in someone you meet, with the goal of striking up a friendship, instead of trying to get something out of that person, the funny thing is, that almost always, something happens later down the line that ends up either benefiting your business or yourself personally. I don’t really know why this happens or how it works, but it seems that the benefit from getting to know someone on a personal level usually happens two to three years after you started working on building the relationship, and it’s usually something that you could not have possibly predicted would have happened at the beginning of the relationship.”

Morris: Ray Charles’ Final Recording (84-88)

Goulston: Glen Barros, CEO of Concord Music Group, is at the center of one of the most remarkable stories in the history of modern music… It’s about making the legendary Ray Charles’ final CD titled Genius Loves Company… Glen says it was difficult getting to a deal with Ray through his organization. His advisers were trying to protect his interests, but were making impossible requests…Glen sat down with Ray in Ray’s office. At that point he knew that his most important job was to find out why Ray and his advisers were being so difficult. So instead of trying to sell Ray on the project, he simply listened to learn. And as he did, he found out why he’d had trouble getting through to Ray’s team… It turned out that people had taken advantage of Ray at different parts of his career… Once he understood Ray’s concerns, Glen had no trouble addressing his fears. He affirmed that no one except Ray would make decisions about his money. Glen proposed a non-traditional business arrangement in which one side didn’t benefit before the other. Ray said, I see how that works; that’s fair.” The project was on.

Morris: Four-Level Listening (91-96)


o Level One = Avoidance Listening = Listening Over
o Level Two = Defensive Listening = Listening At
o Level Three = Problem-Solving Listening = Listening To
o Level Four = Connective Listening = Listening Into

Morris: Turning an Angry Mob into an Appreciative Audience (124-128)

Goulston: Joey Gold was a rock musician turned aerospace engineer and had countless stories of keeping things together on the road with his band, Love/Hate — especially when they toured Europe with Ozzy Osbourne… In short, Joey didn’t try to talk his way out of the problem. He talked his way further into it. In doing so, he practiced situational awareness (these people are hot, tired, frustrated and disappointed), personal awareness (they’re our fans and they know they deserve better), and solution awareness (we need to give them something of value to make this encounter worth their while).

Morris: The Seven Most Important Words and Phrases for Engaging Across Cultures (145-149)


1. In your language, how do you say…?
2. Say the person’s name properly in his or her native language
3. Say “Hello”
4. Offer a proper greeting
5. Say “Thank you”
6. Say “I appreciate your time with me”
7. Offer a proper farewell when your interaction comes to a close

Morris: Adding Emotional Value (174-178)

Goulston: So one way in which we add value when we consult with business leaders—especially teams coming to grips with very stressful situations—is to spend time helping them break down their silo walls and see each other as human beings. To do this, we ask them to share and answer questions like:

1. Where were you born?
2. What were your parents like and how did the communicate with each other?
3. What’s a seminal event from your childhood that has shaped your personality and values?
4. What’s the hardest thing you’ve every had to do or overcome?
5. Who or what helped you through that time, and how?

Morris: Bringing a Secret Out in the Open (194-198)

Goulston: When you’re in a vulnerable position, realize that you’re not alone. No matter what you’re experiencing, there are others who’ve been where you are… and, together, you may be able to achieve a great outcome. And often, the first step is simply to ask: “Is anyone else out there scared?”

Morris: Of all the great leaders [entrepreneurs, innovators] throughout history, with which one would you most want to share an evening of conversation if it were possible? Why?

Goulston: Nelson Mandela. I would like to learn how he learned to forgive and how he discovered grace.

Morris: Let’s say that a CEO has read and then (hopefully) re-read Just Listen and Real Influence, and is now determined to establish or strengthen a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive. In your opinion, where to begin?

Goulston: I would actually suggest that that CEO check out this program that I am giving away via this article in Leadership Excellence entitled “Daring to Care – Build a Heartfelt Company.” It’s a program where people share a story of someone who either: stood up for them when they couldn’t, stood by them during a crisis and wouldn’t let them fail and/or stood up to them to push them to do something they didn’t think they could do or stop them from doing something self-destructive. Following that they each commit to paying it forward to someone else in their life and also the find the person they spoke about or their next of kin to give them a Power Thank You, which has three parts: 1. Thank them specifically for what they did; 2. Acknowledge the effort it took for them to do that; 3. Tell them what it personally meant to them.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Just Listen and Real Influence, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Goulston: I think doing a book club with Just Listen in which they cover an agreed-upon section each week and then all commit to putting into practice what they learned during the subsequent week and how it worked out. I have done that via teleconferences with a group of CEO’s/Presidents of companies who found great value in doing that and committing to actions between the calls that they would report back about on the next call.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Goulston: “How would you like to be remembered at the end of your life?” My response, he motivated and inspired people to listen more than they talked and by that lessened conflict and violence and increased cooperation and collaboration in the world.

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To read Part 1, please click here.

Mark cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Mark’s Amazon page link

AMA/Amanet link

Patreon link

Goulston Group link

Heartfelt Leadership link

Twitter link

Facebook link

LinkedIn link

HBR link

C-Suite Quarterly link

Huffington Post link

Psychology Today link

Business Insider link

Leadership Excellence link

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