Persuasive communication

Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone

One of my absolutely favorite books on communications is Just Listen, by Mark Goulston. Dr. G has graciously consented to be my first guest poster on Practical Eloquence. As you read this, think about what would be the effect on your business if you listened to your customers and your people like this?

by Mark Goulston, M.D.

Q: What do you do when your modem is overloaded and cannot conduct data between your computer and the Internet?

A: Disconnect it, power it down, rest it, reconnect it, boot it up.

What if most of your people are like overloaded modems?  What if they just don’t have any available bandwidth to implement much less even hear and fully consider what you’re telling them? And what if the analogy is all too true?

If it’s your people and you see the futility of pushing any more information at them, you might give them a day off or on their own they might take a long weekend, go exercise, catch a movie, or take a break in some fashion.  That can certainly help.

But what if what’s overloading them is being talked at, demanded of and dictated to by you, their managers, their spouses, their teenagers, their aging parents?  That means that when they come back from their break, the pressure on them will quickly build up and what’s more, they may have to deal with what has built up during the time they were away.

If that’s the case, maybe what they need more than a physical break from having to listen to everyone who is demanding something from them is to be listened to.

Here is an example of how the power of listening to someone can open other people’s minds to you and much more.

Several years ago I spent months trying to schedule a meeting with a CEO, I will call George, only to find him distracted and cold when we finally got together. Frustrated, I finally blurted out, “How much time do you have to meet me?”


He looked at me with a look that said, “I don’t know, but it’s just about over right now!” I thought he was going to throw me out at that point, but he fumbled with his appointment book in an obviously offended manner and replied, “Twenty minutes.”


I took a deep breath. “Look,” I said, “what I have to say is worth your undivided attention which you can’t give me because there is something on your mind that is much more important than meeting with me. So here’s the deal. Let’s stop now at minute three and reschedule our meeting when you can give me all of your attention, but you take the remaining seventeen minutes and make a call to take care of whatever is weighing on your mind, because it’s not fair to your people, people outside like me, and even yourself to not be able to listen.”


There was a pregnant pause and then he looked right at me – he was totally engaged now – and then his eyes started to water. He said, “You’ve known me for three minutes and because I’m a very private person about personal matters, there are several people within twenty yards of where we are sitting who have known me for ten years and don’t know what you know. There is something that is bothering me. My wife is having a biopsy, and it doesn’t look good. She’s stronger than me and told me that I would be better off going to work. So I’m here, but I’m not really here.”


I replied, “I’m sorry to hear that. And maybe you shouldn’t be here.”


Then like a wet dog shaking off his drenched fur, George continued: “Nope. I’m not as strong as my wife, but I am strong. Served two tours of duty in Vietnam. I’m better off being here and taking care of business. You’ve got my undivided attention and you’ve got your full twenty minutes.”*


What happened to cause George to not only stop being preoccupied, irritated with me, give me his full attention, and then give me more of his most precious resource, his time?  George was feeling overwhelmed with pressures possibly from from work (regarding the matters I was called in to speak to him about) but more importantly with worries about his wife. When I not only pointed out to him that he was too preoccupied to listen to me, but then suggested he take my time with him to take care of what was on his mind, he felt I was putting his needs ahead of mine.  In essence he felt cared about.  When that happened, he not only vented, he e-x-h-a-l-e-d emotionally (as shown by his eyes tearing up), calmed down, relaxed and felt grateful to me for my listening and understanding him.

I accomplished that by not only picking up that George was preoccupied, but that there was something troubling him.  I got into his listening, i.e. what he was listening to in his head, and suggested in a caring way that he take care of it.

Let’s pick a subject more close to home.  That might be getting the most and best from your people in very difficult economic times, when you can’t reassure them of future job security and they look at you like “deers in the headlights” of becoming unemployed at any moment.

You don’t have to be an intuitive genius to know that they’re thinking, “I’m afraid of losing my job.”  And you have probably read enough articles about how to talk to them about being honest about what is going on, what steps the company is taking and how it will affect them.

But if you were to stop for a moment to get into their thinking what’s really on their mind that they will not tell you.  What if it’s along the line of: “If I get laid off, I don’t know where I can find another job” or for older employees “If I get laid off, I don’t even know if I’m hirable” or “How do I tell my spouse and kids that we have to cut back and cut back considerably?” or “I’m starting to drink too much to deal with this” or “I don’t know what I am going to do if I get laid off.”  And what if thinking all these things privately is causing their imagination to think the worst?

If you put yourself in their shoes and in their thoughts, you might discover that what they need to know or be reassured of is: a) they will make it through this; b) they have what it takes to get hired in the event they are laid off.

If that is so, you might think: “Hmm, I know they’ve all been through tough times in their life both personally and professionally.  What if I sat them down individually or better yet as a team and had them talk about tough times that they successfully made it through.  And what if I asked them to explain what helped them to do it then?  Wow, that would help them feel less alone, help them to realize they have made it through tough times before, and help them come up with solutions that they have already used to get through tough times that might work now.”

“Or if they worried that they can’t get hired anywhere else, what if someone in HR sat down with them and helped them identify what they are truly extraordinary at that helps our company, and get them to focus on that area of supreme competence and maybe even excellence.  And then what if my HR person and they brainstormed about what kind of company or organization might most need that skill of theirs?  And finally what if we then figured a way to get them an introduction to those companies and organizations.  Wow, what if I as the owner reached out to other business owners on my employee’s behalf to make such an introduction?  That would probably pump up my employee immediately and I’ll even bet that those other companies or organizations might think favorably toward our company and even me, if we are putting that effort into caring about our people (in ways that they may not).”

You may think that I can come up with these things because I am a psychiatrist and intuitive in ways that you aren’t.  That’s not true.  Anyone and any one of you can learn to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and come up with what is on their mind, what is really holding them back and what if addressed can open them up to you.

What is my point?  If you want to get through to anyone, it is usually less a matter of what you say, than what you hear and address.  Or as my mentor Warren Bennis says, “If you deeply listen and get where people are coming from – and care about them when you’re there – they’re more likely to let you take them where you’d like them to go.

* excerpted from “Just Listen” Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone (AMACOM, $24.95)

Mark Goulston, M.D. is the author of the best selling new book, “Just Listen” Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone (AMACOM, $24.95). In addition to serving as a confidential trusted and candid advisor to CEO’s, he is the world’s foremost authority on helping divorced couples get back together and remarry their ex-spouse.
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