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The Author Speaks: What’s Really on Someone’s Mind

Interview with Mark Goulston, author of “Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone.”

When I first got on the phone with psychiatrist and business coach Mark Goulston, M.D., I planned to find out how boomers might use the communication techniques he describes in his new book, Just Listen, to navigate job quandaries, sticky situations with relatives and other personal challenges.

And I did. But I also received my very own, free-of-charge advice—and experienced Goulston’s tactics firsthand. I can attest, they work.

Goulston has trained FBI and police to handle hostage and suicide situations. He’s helped CEOs motivate employees, thereby boosting their bottom lines. He’s coached many married couples through muddy, deeply entrenched differences. And he believes he can teach you to get the most difficult-to-reach people to really hear what you’re saying. He told the AARP Bulletin how. (Read an excerpt from Just Listen.)

Q. You write that people don’t truly listen.

A. Wilfred Bion, a psychoanalyst, said the purest form of listening is to listen without memory or desire. When you listen with memory, you have an old agenda, and when you listen with desire, you have a new one. You can’t listen to the other person if your agenda is overtaking you.

Q. For example?

A. We just experienced it. When I first called, you were having trouble with your tape recorder. I put myself in your shoes and thought, geez, if she’s used to a tape recorder and not used to taking notes, this interview’s going to be exhausting for her. So why don’t we take the five minutes to get it fixed. So I offered to call back in five minutes. It’s not that difficult to do; it just means pausing.

Q. And after getting the tape recorder set, I was ready to listen.

A. That’s the whole basis of the book; put yourself in the other person’s shoes, clarify where the person is coming from and then be of service. Everybody but the dyed–in-the-wool takers will be grateful.

Q. I was! What’s the biggest mistake people make when they try to convince someone else of their point of view?

A. They haven’t earned the right to the other person’s mind or consideration because they haven’t taken time to find out where he is coming from. Out of anxiety that you won’t get your way, or get the person to do what you want, you appear pushy. This results in resistance.

Q. How should you begin?

A. Help people exhale. Very often when you get into a conversation that’s more of a debate, you’ll pick up that the other person is venting at you. And when someone vents at you, it triggers a reaction. You get defensive and vent back.

Q. Right. How do you get people to exhale?

A. Ask about what’s really going on underneath. Maybe you say, “So tell me, how’s it really going for you?” If you care about the person and can convince him to share, he will relax and open his mind to you. If you don’t care and ask questions, it’s actually insulting. It’s like if your husband says … you’re married, right?

Q. Yep.

A. Women work and feel like they have to take care of so many details. Sometimes they don’t get much help from their husbands. Their husbands keep asking them over and over again how to do a certain chore. The wife will say, “We’ve been doing this for three years! If you don’t know by now, write it down!”

Q. That never gets me very far.

A. But suppose you said, “I bet you sometimes feel that I’ve gone from the woman who used to adore you to someone who’s annoyed with you a lot of the time and it really gets in the way of you coming home and looking forward to seeing me.” If that’s true, the guy will stop in his tracks and exhale.

Q. And that helps because ...

A. You’re saying what he’s feeling. You’re not slapping him verbally across the face. It changes the interaction.

Q. This works with a more volatile person?

A. If you can articulate what the other person is feeling, especially if it’s negative, he will lean into that. Often what he’s thinking but hasn’t put it into words is “I’ve really messed everything up, I’ve tried everything, and this is what I’m stuck with.”

So if a hostage negotiator says, “I’ll bet you’re feeling right now that no one knows what it’s like to have tried everything else in your life and be stuck with this. Isn’t that true?” If I’m the agitated person and it’s true, I might say, “Yeah, nobody gets where I’m coming from and nobody gives a flying F.”

What’s happened is the person believes you understand where he’s coming from.

Q. Then what?                

A. You could say, “I bet you feel nobody knows what it’s like to start most of your days thinking there’s a greater chance of blowing up than going well.” Isn’t that true? And if they responded, “Yes, nobody gets that my life is a mess and nothing goes right.”

You can hear how that changes the tone of the conversation.

Q. Which seems like it might work in many less extreme situations.

A. Absolutely. You’re accurately mirroring people. You’re telling them what they might be feeling—only can’t put into words.

Q. How could one talk to a boss who might be contemplating layoffs?

A. Unless that person just delights in laying people off, it’s really hard on the boss. I know CEOs and they get sick when they have to lay people off, especially around Christmas. I think if you said to your boss, “I’ve been so worried about getting laid off but I took a moment and wondered what it was like for you. It must be awful for you to have to put people on the street, especially those who may not easily find another job. But it’s necessary and you don’t have a choice. That must be a pretty tough position to be in. And I’m sorry this economy has been hard on all of us.”

Q. That could be earthshattering for a boss to hear.

A. I bet in 50 percent of the cases the boss will start to cry. With relief! This kind of conversation changes things.

Q. What if you’re trying to communicate with someone who you literally can’t reach—like an aging parent?

A. Let me tell you a story. A CEO of a Fortune 100 company, a terrific leader, once told me about his mother who has Alzheimer’s. The tense situation was really getting to him. When his mother is aware, she’s aware of everything she’s lost. When she’s not aware, it’s hell on his dad and sister, who are taking care of her.

Q. What advice did you give him?

A. I said, “If she’s aware, I want you to say to your mom: ‘I bet you sometimes feel that nobody knows what it’s like to wish that it’s over already. Isn’t that true?’ She’ll grab onto this if it hits her. Then you might follow up with, ‘I bet you sometimes feel that you don’t know how much longer you can do this.’ ”

Q. What happened?

A. A month later I met him at his big office. He said he did exactly what I advised and she responded. She cried. He said she looked lighter and he felt some relief.

Q. She exhaled.

A. Exactly.

Q. How can you help parents go through a big change, like moving out of their home or giving up driving?

A. This is a common problem. When I’m dealing with the kids, I have to enable them to exhale first. I say, “What are Mom and Dad like now? What are they like compared to 10 years ago? What do you notice?”

They start to tear up. They know that so much has been taken away from their parents by getting older and they have to take even more away from them.

Q. Then, what can the adult children say to their parents?

A. If the parents are becoming more incompetent, you’re really not going to get cooperation. But you can say, “Mom and Dad, I know that on a daily basis it’s so easy to focus on what you no longer have than what you still have. And if you focus on what you no longer have, it’s going to make life pretty miserable for you. But if you focus on what you do have, it can make it pretty bearable.”

Q. Focusing on what’s left, not lost.

A. I had a patient come in, hunkered down over a cane. But instead of being angry, she was smiling ear to ear. I asked her why she was smiling. She said, “I was just thinking how great this cane’s going to look when I’m in a wheelchair!”

Carol Kaufmann is a contributing editor at the AARP Bulletin.

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