The power of making people 'feel felt'

Mark Goulston, the psychiatrist and difficult conversations expert explains the power of making people 'feel felt'

Published: Apr 17, 2015
The power of making people 'feel felt'
Dr. Mark Goulston is a prominent psychiatrist, consultant to major organizations and confidant to CEOs

Q. People often think good communication relates to how well we express ourselves. But you believe being a great listener is equally important. What advantages do effective listeners have?
The biggest advantage is that effective listeners face much less risk of turning other people off.  When you listen well and with sincere interest, people are more likely to open up to you.  The fact is, many people just don’t feel listened to, and if given the opportunity, they will talk about things that really matter to them, or that really bother them. The more people open up to you, the more they will be invested in the conversation, and interested in how you respond after listening to them.

Q. Tell us a bit about your background and what inspired you to write Just Listen.
I’m a clinical psychiatrist, and initially I specialized in the areas of death and dying. I would do house calls to dying patients and their families, and at the 11th hour, I could often resolve conflicts that had been going on between them for decades. The problem, I realized, was that nobody was listening to one another. They were just talking at each other and over each other, and taking things far too personally. I hadn’t come up with a title for my book at the time, but whenever I would be with these families, inside my head I was always screaming at them, “Just listen!”  

I segued into the business world because sometimes, the founder of a company would be my client, and the next generation would say to me, “Please come in and work with my team, because you helped my family resolve things that we never could before.” I would say to them, “Remember, I’m a shrink, so what I know most about are things like jealousy, backstabbing, undermining and envy; do you have any of that at your office?” And they would say to me, “That’s pretty much all we have!”

I have also trained FBI and police-hostage negotiators—where listening is a life-or-death skill—on how to do a very special kind of listening. In some negotiation situations, when perpetrators feel really understood and listened to, it helps them to lean away from the corner they’ve placed themselves in, and lean into the conversation with the hostage negotiator. Teaching negotiators to listen differently often enabled the hostage taker to come back to their senses.

These days I’m training people to be able to identify the elephant in the room, and very often, that elephant is the fact that people are just not listening to, understanding or valuing each other. In many cases, they’re doing the opposite.  And when people don’t feel listened to, they become reactive.  Being and remaining reactive is one of the chief obstacles to cooperation; as Indira Gandhi said, “You can’t shake hands with a clenched fist.”

Q. What are some of the most common issues you are brought in to address?
I once worked with a CEO who said to me, “I love my company and I love mankind; but I can’t stand people.” This is a common issue I run into with CEOs, from start-ups all the way to the Fortune 50.  They say to me, ‘I just can’t stand the people stuff — all the drama, the manipulation. It really distracts me from staying focused on our vision and strategy, so I delegate these responsibilities to a COO or the head of HR. However, I do need to learn some of these skills myself’. They see the need to get better at having difficult conversations because they often become aware that people’s respect often rises or falls based on their ability to do so.  And that’s really what I am: a difficult-conversation specialist.

Q. An early chapter of Just Listen is dedicated to brain science. What do we need to understand about how our brains work to help tackle everyday communication challenges?
One concept that people find fascinating is something I call the ‘mirror-neuron gap’. When you feel that you are emotionally conforming to the needs of people in the outside world—like you’re caring for people and being responsible and cooperative—it creates a hunger within you to have the outside world do the same for you. And the greater the hunger, the greater the mirror-neuron gap.

Mirror neurons were discovered in the late 1990s in macaque monkeys, and were originally called ‘monkey see, monkey do’ neurons. They seemed to be associated with imitation, learning and empathy and when defective or deficient, with autism. What widens the mirror neuron gap is when you feel another person has not heard, understood  or valued you, which closes you down.  What narrows the gap is when you feel heard, understood and valued, and that causes you to open your mind to them.

Q. Striving to make someone ‘feel felt’ can be emotionally impactful; as you have noted, sometimes there are tears. Is it a mistake to expect people to park their feelings at the door of the workplace?
When you feel felt, you feel less alone, and it is my experience that an increasing number of people feel very alone. When you can communicate with them so that they feel felt, it’s incredibly powerful. One time I went to see a CEO after months of trying to schedule a meeting with him. I didn’t know it going in, but he was extremely worried that his wife had breast cancer. She had gone for a biopsy that very day, and just my being in the room with this man was creating a huge gap, because he wasn’t really ‘there’ with me; he was totally focused on something else.

I could tell there was something deeply troubling him, so I said, “There’s something much more important on your mind than meeting with me. Why don’t you take care of that, and we’ll do this another time?” He then revealed to me the situation regarding his wife and began to tear up because he was very private about this.  My understanding of it, dropping my agenda and directing him to take care of what was eating away at him caused him to let down his guard.  When you help someone to feel felt, that often happens, because they feel a great sense of relief at not being so alone in something that is deeply troubling them. I’m not advocating that people should be walking through the hallways crying, but when someone feels cared about, their amount of gratitude towards you goes through the roof.

Q. Why are ‘transformational questions’ so much better than ‘transactional’ ones?
In transactional conversations, you’re talking to another person and you’re listening responsibly. It’s business as usual. A transformational question lifts a conversation above the purely transactional. This is a question you ask that someone really wants to think about. You know you’ve asked a transformational question if the other person suddenly breaks eye contact and looks up towards the ceiling, because it’s a delectable question that captures their imagination.

Often, job interviews are transactional. Even when interviewers say, ‘Tell me a story’, or ‘How did you solve that problem?’, they are often checking-off boxes. You won’t be able to do this all the time, but the next time you’re being interviewed, ask the interviewer if you can pose a hypothetical question. If they agree, say, “Imagine that it’s a year from now, and your boss is talking to you about the person you hired for this position. She has a big smile on her face and she says, ‘Get us three more like that; that was one of the best hires we’ve had for a very long time.’ Tell me, what would cause them to say that? What are this person’s strengths and attitudes? What are some of the things they always do, and what are some of the things they would never do?”

I tried this with my daughter, who is now 29. When she was 23 she asked me for a good question for an informal, walk-around interview. “Try this one,” I said. “If it works, he’s going to stop walking, pause and look up at the ceiling.” She beeped me an hour later and said, “You’re a mind reader, Dad. He stopped, he looked up at the ceiling, and then he looked at me very differently, and said, ‘That’s an amazing question and I don’t have an answer, but I’m going to think about it.’” I said to my daughter, “That is going to make you memorable, because you just gave him the gift of what he should actually be focusing on when he hires someone.”

Q. What are some tools for getting people to open up?
I often use medical metaphors because I’m a medical doctor. There’s a technique I use that I call the ‘I&D and P’. I&D stands for incise and drain (it’s what you do with an abscess) and P stands for prioritize. Here’s how it works.

When you’re having a conversation, keep a mental note of the words the other person uses that have an emotional charge, or hyperbole, words such as always or never, awful or amazing. Then after they’ve stopped speaking—even if they ask you a question—use what I call a conversation deepener: “Tell me more about that ‘amazing’ thing” or, “Say more about the ‘awful’ thing.” What you’ll notice is that their hands will start to rise up. That’s because you’re inviting them to open up more about something emotional and they will use their hands to express themselves because words alone don’t communicate it adequately.  

Another conversation-deepening tool is to say, “Really?” with sincere interest and invite them to say more, which has a similar effect. That’s why I refer to this as the I&D, because you’re going in deeper, and you’re pulling out all kinds of stuff, and as you do that, the person you are speaking with becomes more invested in the conversation.

Then the P stands for ‘prioritize’. At this point, they may ask what you think, and what you can say is, “I can tell you what I think, but first I’d like to ‘take what we’re talking about to the ICU’ [another medical metaphor] which means, I want to understand what is most important, critical and urgent about what you just said. ‘Important’ is something that can wait a year, ‘critical’ maybe a couple of months and ‘urgent’ means, you have to deal with it this week. I can guess what those things are, but why don’t you just tell me?”

What’s happened is, you’ve gotten them to get everything off their chest, and then you’ve gotten them to prioritize, and this is amazingly powerful. If you can then start to talk with them in a collaborative way, they are going to be eager to work with you again.

Q. Are there any other especially powerful techniques for leaders to improve their listening, and that of those around them?
If you want to have much better meetings—and who doesn’t—something you might try is a pop quiz at the end of the meeting. Tell people up front that you want them to ‘take the meeting to the ICU’—i.e., identify what is important, critical and urgent. Hand out Post-it notes, and at the end, ask everybody to write down the most important, critical and urgent things they gleaned from the meeting. At first, you’ll look around and see confusion, but rest assured, it will be good exercise.

Gather and shuffle the Post-it notes, and then read them aloud. If everyone is on the same page about the most important, critical and urgent things that came out of the meeting, that’s great—and you should tell them so. If everyone’s not on the same page, what you say is, “I’ve got good and bad news: the bad news is, nobody’s on the same page, and the good news is, I blew it. I’m the one running this meeting, so it’s my responsibility: I’m going to get better at this. And by the way, what I wrote down that I thought was most important, critical and urgent is the following…” This is a great tip for making sure everyone stays focused on the same goals.

Dr. Mark Goulston is a prominent psychiatrist, consultant to major organizations and confidant to CEOs. He is the author of Just Listen: Discover the Secret of Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone (AMACOM, 2009) and Real Influence: Persuade Without Pushing and Gain Without Giving In (AMACOM, 2013.) He has been named one of America's Top Psychiatrists four times by the Consumers Research Council, and for over 20 years, has been a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medicine at UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. He blogs for the Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Fast Company, and Business Insider.

[This article has been reprinted, with permission, from Rotman Management, the magazine of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management]

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