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Don’t leave home without (fixing) this

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The following is an edited excerpt from the paperback edition of “Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone,”  (March 2015) by Dr. Mark Goulston. @ 2010 Mark Goulston All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books. Division of American Management Association, 1601 Broadway, New York, NY 10019

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The Persuasion Cycle

You probably don’t find yourself in the types of situations that hostage negotiators handle. But on any given day, who are you trying to persuade to do something?

The answer is: nearly everybody you meet. Almost all communication is an effort to get through to people and cause them to do something different than they were doing before. Maybe you’re trying to sell them something. Maybe you’re trying to talk sense into them. Or maybe you need to impress them that you’re the right person for a job, a promotion, or a relationship.

But here’s the challenge: People have their own needs, desires, and agendas. They have secrets they’re hiding from you. And they’re stressed, busy, and often feeling like they’re in over their heads. To cope with their stress and insecurity, they throw up mental barricades that make it difficult to reach them even if they share your goals, and nearly impossible if they’re hostile.

Approach these people armed solely with reason and facts, or resort to arguing or encouraging or pleading, and you’ll expect to get through—but often you won’t. Instead, you’ll get smacked down, and you’ll never have a clue why. (How often have you walked away from a sales pitch, an office meeting, or an argument with your partner or child, shaking your head and saying, “What the heck just happened?”)

The good news is that you can get through, simply by changing your approach. The techniques I describe in this book work for hostage negotiators in the most desperate situations, and they’re equally potent if you’re trying to reach a boss, a coworker, a client, a lover, or even an angry teenager. They’re easy, they’re fast, and you can hit the ground running with them.

These techniques are powerful because they address the core of successful communication: what I call the “Persuasion Cycle” (see Figure 1-1). In developing the Persuasion Cycle, I was inspired by the ground-breaking work and ideas of James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente in their “Transtheoretical Model of Change” and by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick in their creation of “Motivational Interviewing.”

All persuasion moves through the steps of this cycle. To take people from the beginning to the end of the Persuasion Cycle, you need to speak with them in a manner that moves them:

  • 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

The focus, central tenet, and promise of this book, “the secret of getting through to absolutely anyone,” is that you get through to people by having them “buy in.” “Buy-in” occurs when people move from “resisting” to “listening” to “considering” what you’re saying.

Figure 1-1


Ironically, the key to gaining “buy-in” and then moving people through the rest of the cycle is not what you tell them, but what you get them to tell you—and what happens in their minds in the process. …

The Secret: Getting Through Is Simple

There’s nothing magic about the approaches you’ll learn in these pages. In fact, one secret you’ll discover is that reaching people is easier than it looks. To illustrate that point, I’ll share the story of David, a CEO who used my techniques to turn his career around —and to save his family at the same time.

David was technically competent, but heavy handed and dictatorial. His CTO quit David’s firm, saying he loved the company but couldn’t handle the boss. Employees underperformed to retaliate for David’s abuse. Investors found him brusque and condescending, and they passed on the chance to invest in his company.

I was called in by the board to see if David could be rehabilitated. I had strong doubts when I met with him, but I knew I had to make the effort to reach him.

As David and I talked about his management style, I asked him on a whim, “How does your style play at home?” He replied, “Funny you should ask that.”

When I asked why, he responded, “I have a 15-year-old kid who’s bright but lazy, and nothing I try works with him. He gets bad report cards, and my wife just coddles him. I love my kid but I’m almost disgusted by him. We had him evaluated, and he’s got some kind of learning or attention problem. The teachers try to help him, but he just doesn’t follow through with any of their suggestions. I think he’s a good kid, but I just don’t know what to make of it.”

On a hunch, I taught David some quick communication techniques and told him to test them at work and at home. We scheduled a time to speak again a week later, but after just three days I received a message from him. It said: “Dr. Goulston, please give me a call at your earliest convenience. There’s something I’ve got to talk to you about.”

I thought to myself, “Oh God, what the heck happened?,” and called him back. I was surprised to hear the emotion in his voice when he answered.

“Doc,” he said, “I think you might have saved my life.”

“What happened?” I asked, and he replied, “I did exactly what you told me to.”

“With your board and people?” I asked. “How did. . . .”

He interrupted me. “No I haven’t spoken with them yet. It was with my son. I went home and went into his room and said I needed to talk to him. Then I said to him, ‘I’ll bet you feel that none of us know what it’s like to be told you’re smart and not be able to use your intelligence to perform well. Isn’t that so?’ And his eyes started to water—just as you predicted.”

David continued, “I followed up with the next question you suggested: ‘And I’ll bet sometimes you wish you weren’t so smart, so we wouldn’t have all these expectations of you and be on your case all the time about not trying harder, isn’t that true too?’ He started to cry . . . and my eyes began to water up. Then I asked him, ‘How bad does it get for you?’”

David went on in a choked voice, “He could hardly talk. He said, ‘It’s getting worse, and I don’t know how much more of it I can take. I’m disappointing everyone, all the time.’”

By this point, David told me, he was crying himself. “Why didn’t you tell me it was so bad?” he asked his son. David told me with pain in his voice what happened next: “My son stopped crying and looked back at me with the anger and resentment that he must have been feeling for years. And he said, ‘Because you didn’t want to know.’ And he was right.”

“What did you do next?” I asked.

“I couldn’t let him be alone in this.” David said. “So I told him, ‘We’re going to fix this. In the meantime I’m going to bring my laptop and work on your bed and keep you company when you’re doing your homework. I can’t let you be alone when you’re feeling so awful.’ We’ve been doing it each night now for a few days, and I think he and we are starting to turn a corner.”

He paused, and said, “You helped me dodge a bullet, Doc. What can I do in return for you?”

I replied, “Do unto your company as you just did unto your son.”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“You let your son exhale,” I said. “When you did, he told you what was really going on underneath—and to your credit you handled it superbly. You have a load of people—from board members to your management team—who view you exactly as your son did, and they also need to exhale about their frustration with you.”

David set up two meetings, one with his board and one with his executive team. He said the same thing to each group. He started off sternly: “I’ve got to tell you that I’m really very disappointed”— at which point both groups steeled themselves, preparing to take a tongue lashing—“I’m very disappointed in how I’ve jumped on all of you and then have been closed off to input from all of you, when you’ve steadfastly been trying to protect this company and me from me. I didn’t want to listen, but I’m listening now.”

David went on to share the story of his son. He concluded his remarks by saying, “I’m asking you to give me a second chance, because I think we can fix this. If you’ll give me your input one more time, I’ll listen and with your help find a way to implement your ideas.”

His board and his management team not only decided to give him a second chance, they gave him a standing ovation.

What’s the moral of this story? That the right words have tremendous power to heal. In David’s case, a few hundred words saved his job, his company, and his relationship with his son.

But there’s a second lesson here. Look at the two stories in this chapter, and you’ll see that Detective Kramer and David used some of the same approaches to achieve very different goals. Detective Kramer kept a troubled man from killing himself, while David kept his company from firing him and mended the fractures in his family. The power of these techniques, and the others you’ll learn, lies in the fact that they apply to nearly any person and any situation.