On today’s interview, I interviewed Dr. Mark Goulston, who is the founding member of the Newsweek Expert Forum. He is a former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer. He is the author of multiple books, including the bestseller, Just Listen, which has been translated into 28 languages. His newest book is entitled Trauma to Triumph: A Roadmap for Leading Through Disruption and Thriving on the Other Side.
If you’re going to permit me, I’m going to go all the way back to your schooling to kick us off. Your degree, I read, was in zoology. You’re now a leading expert on leadership and communication, and many other things that we’re going to talk about on the show today. Can you talk me through the rollercoaster ride though, from zoology to the place you are now?
That’s quite a roller coaster, Matt. Zoology, I was interested in biology, zoology, animals, and stuff, but that’s a pre-med major. It was like a feeder major to go to medical school. Then I went to medical school and I trained there. Then after medical school, I trained in psychiatry at UCLA, but part of what happened to set me on my journey and I’ve accomplished a lot, but I think my greatest personal accomplishment is I dropped out of medical school twice and finished. I don’t know anyone who did that. I think what I had was untreated depression.
The second time I dropped out, the school wanted to kick me out because they were losing matching funds. I was at a low point and the dean of students who cares about students more than funds, he literally reached out, stepped in, and I think he saved my life. He saw something in me that I didn’t see. He went to bat for me. He stood up against the entire medical school and said, “There’s something about this kid and we’re giving him a second chance.” There was something about feeling really low, and low could have led to something disastrous.
When someone reaches in, grabs you by the nape of the neck, and says, “The world needs you,” when you’re going through a period where you feel pretty useless, and then they go to bat for you at their own risk. He was a Ph.D. He stood up to the heads of these hospitals and said, “No, we’re going to keep this one.” It flipped the switch inside me. On that second year off, I went and I worked at a place called the Menninger Foundation, back then it was in Topeka. Now, it’s all over the place. I think the main places are Houston, but what happened is I somehow discovered this knack to getting through to people.
Probably, I was just paying forward to what the dean of students did to me. I then finished medical school, went to UCLA, trained in psychiatry. Then I had a mentor at UCLA who was probably one of the top three thought leaders in the area of suicide prevention, a guy named Ed Shneidman, and he just started referring me suicidal patients. After my training, here was the discovery I had. It was my good fortune that just as I was finishing training, I was supposed to go into a fellowship, and the fellowship fell apart. I said– Well, I shrug my shoulders. “We’ll go out there and see if anybody comes to see me.”
Ed started referring me these still suicidal inpatients that needed to be discharged, but they weren’t acutely suicidal. Here, my good fortune is because I didn’t work for an institution. Even though I followed a protocol from my training, I didn’t have to worry about making sure that I dotted all the i’s crossed all the t’s. I started to have this experience, Matt, where, when I was with people, I would notice that they would be screaming out at me through their eyes, and what they would be screaming is, “You’re checking boxes and I’m running out of time.”
I could feel that checking the boxes was a way to protect myself, but I couldn’t take the scream away from their eyes. In fact, there’s a brand new blog up at Thrive Global I wrote called the Antidote to The Scream, the famous painting from Edvard Munch. What I did is I put the checking boxes away and I learned to listen into people’s eyes, hence the book, Just Listen. What I discovered is that people who are suicidal, who are stuck, and this may apply also in your businesses, there are some people who are just stuck. You see it in their eyes and you give them suggestions, but they are locked and they’re not being resistant, they can’t move.
In business, you’re not a therapist, you might give them a few chances, recommend some things, but if it doesn’t work, they have a job to do and you probably have to let them go. What I teach around the world now is how do you go inside the people and unlock them with something that I call surgical empathy? I don’t know how your listeners will relate to this, but some people find it interesting. If you’re not suicidal, you won’t relate to what I’m about to say, but if you’ve been suicidal, you will. Death is compassionate to pain that won’t go away.
Death feels your pain if you’re suicidal and you can’t get away from it and it basically says, “I’ll take your pain away.” Suicidal people don’t want to kill themselves. They just want the pain to go away. What I discovered in my book, Just Listen, which has been well around the world is about, how do you cause other people to feel felt, not just understood. When people feel felt, and they’ve been feeling all alone and they suddenly feel un-alone and they feel felt, and you’re not throwing things at them that they can’t access because they’re too locked, they lean towards feeling felt, and they start to cry with relief.
The crying is like draining a hopelessness abscess, and they’ll detach from death. It feels their pain to surgical empathy that feels their pain. If you stay with them, you can walk them out into life.
One thing that’s fascinating to me about your entire origin story and specifically, the part that you talked about there is the listening component, and you were featured on a Harvard Business Review IdeaCast episode that became one of their highest-rated episodes ever, which was entitled, Become a Better Listener. You’ve talked a little bit about it in your first answer, but how should we, as leaders, think about becoming a better listener? Obviously, we might not have the same experience that you had in terms of the people that you were listening to, but we all strive to be better listeners.
Are there other tangible skills that we can add to our repertoire to make us better listeners?
Here’s where I give you some tactics. If I was a betting person, here’s where people are going to start taking notes. There’s something called the HUVA technique, H-U-V-A. We talk about it in our latest book, Trauma to Triumph. If you practice HUVA once a day with a conversation that you want to go well for a week, it will change your relationships forever. I know you’re listening with bated breath, “What is it, Mark? What is the HUVA technique already?” HUVA stands for Heard out, Understood, Valued, and Added Value. Here’s your intention, you want to have an effective conversation, that’s your intention.
At the end of the conversation, you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 10. From their point of view, how much did they feel heard out, or did you interrupt them? Did you change the subject? Were you checking boxes and not listening to them? How much did they feel heard out? How much did they feel understood? You demonstrate that by asking them to say more about something. When I coach people from my hostage negotiation training, try to be what my mentor, Warren Bennis, used to suggest, be a first-class noticer. When someone says words like amazing, awful, terrific, or they raise the inflection of their voice, whenever they do that and they finish you say, say more about the awful, say more about the amazing or, help me to understand what makes something so amazing, and so awful. You show understanding by going deeper. V is on a scale of 1 to 10 they feel valued. What happens is you actually let go of your agenda and you take in something that’s really valuable to you. I do a lot of these interviews and a lot of people love this HUVA technique because they say, “I’m awful at it. I’m not a good HUVA person.”
Don’t beat up on yourself, just have the intention to improve, causing the other person to feel that you’ve heard them out, understood them, valued them, and added value. Then the adding value is, you let go of trying to push them and impress them, but you see things from their value and you add to it. I have a podcast called My Wakeup Call. Wakeup is one word, I get eight requests a week to be on it. I don’t even know what the downloads are. What I do is people open up to me, and I introduce my guests to each other. I say, “Listen to each other’s podcasts. You’re going to like each other. You’re going to trust each other.”
There’s synergy there, and I make introductions. That’s all I do with my podcast. It’s not to sell anything and when people come on, I say, “If you’re selling something, it’s not going to go well. My listeners are looking for people that can have–” Here’s something else about, you want to be a good leader. I developed something called Design Thinking Leadership. What is design thinking? The first step and most important step is to empathize with the people you’re serving, selling, who are investing in you. Design Thinking Leadership me means your people want to feel trust confidence, respect, safety, admiration.
They’d like to like you, and they want to feel inspired by you. You may think, “Oh, that’s too woo-woo.” Really how effective a leader will you be if, instead of trusting you, they distrust you. Instead of having confidence in you, they doubt you, instead of feeling respect, they don’t respect you. Instead of feeling safe, they feel unsafe. Instead of feeling admired, they’re embarrassed for you, and they don’t like you, and they’re not inspired by you. Most people say point taken, and then here are the observable manifest behaviors.
When I do executive coaching, I send people to my Design Thinking Leadership stuff and I say, I’m only interested in you wanting to be this kind of leader, and because I’m somewhat older and I feel the world doesn’t have enough great leaders. I think great leaders cause people to feel trust, confidence, respect, safety, admiration, liking, and inspiration. Here are some of the behaviors that I tell to leaders, in your next meeting in your next conversation, afterwards, rate yourself on these qualities. How unflappable were you?
Unflappable means you were just cool and calm, but second is how present were you. You have to be present. You can’t be a robot. Also in situations, did you take charge without being controlling? People feel safe when someone takes charge? Also, in terms of the other qualities, did you come off as knowledgeable or did you shoot from the hip? Did you come off as wise? Wise means you focused on what was important and you were able to put the less important things to the side. Then also, how much were you enjoyable? Did you have a sense of humor? Did you take yourself too seriously and also were you gracious and humble?
When I coach people, I say, “Look,–” and you can ask your stakeholders, “I want to grow into this person. Can I check in with you and tell me where I can improve?” Does that make any sense to you, Matt?
It does. It leads me into the question that we probably get most frequently from our audience and it’s what would our guests tell their younger self? You’ve had a fascinating career from zoology all the way to where you are today. If you were giving advice to your younger self on your approach as a leader, as the years passed by and you grew into that role, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Here’s a few little tips. One is, when people say no to you, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do something, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. It just means they won’t help you. I would have said that to my younger self. Now that doesn’t mean you should be a rebel without a cause or a rebel without a clue. Something else that has really probably been the best tip that’s kept me going forward against adversity. When I was a practicing psychiatrist and early in my training, we’d sometimes be in the emergency room.
When someone was self-destructive or destructive to others, we put them on a 72-hour hold, which means we could put them in a place where they wouldn’t act on the destructive impulses. One of the things that I do, and I recommend to all the people I work with is I say, whenever you run into adversity or something upsets you, put yourself on a 72-hour hold, which means for 72 hours do not do anything to make it worse. When I speak to audiences– Also, if you teach learning and development, I’m going to give you some nuggets you can use with them and that’ll be, I think helpful.
When I speak to audiences, I will say, “How many of you have had breakthroughs in your life?” The majority of the audience raise their hand. Then I say, “How many of you had breakdowns preceding your breakthrough and the breakdowns were not pretty. They were not invited. Some of them, you didn’t know how you were going to get past, but you did,” and still, a majority of people raised their hands. I said, so here’s the deal. When we have a breakdown, we’re often tempted to do something that makes it worse. We get angry, we go binge, we do something, but it makes it worse.
If you do something that makes it worse, you could miss the breakthrough because you might have to apologize to someone for what you did. You might have to deal with your own inner embarrassment, “Oh, I went off the wagon. Geez. Am I ever going to get this straight?” If you can put yourself on a 72-hour hold, I think that that can really help.
Thank you so much for joining us. Our final two questions that I get to ask all of our guests are rapid-fire in nature. Question number one is this if you could describe your leadership style in just one word, what would that word be?
I would say, I try to be a first-class noticer. Noticing is different from looking, watching, and seeing. When you notice, you connect. Whoever I’m with, wherever I’m with, I tried to be a first-class noticer and I do it without judgment. What happens is when people feel truly noticed, they feel truly seen. When they feel truly noticed, seen, and HUVAd and valued, they just come towards you.
The final rapid-fire question is this, what is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
I was on Oprah Winfrey years ago and in terms of relationships, this may not be about– It could also be about business relationships but advice I once received was to be yourself, as soon as you can in any relationship and get the other person to be themselves as soon as they can, because when you’re in a relationship, why would you want to go forward with someone who doesn’t like you for you?