Who among us hasn’t encountered an irrational person? Whether at home or in the workplace, encounters with these people leave us feeling drained, defeated, and anxious. What we do know is that reasoning and logic don’t work. In his #1 Non-Fiction Bestseller, Talking to Crazy, Mark Goulston, M.D. teaches us all a revolutionary new way to deal with the irrational people in our lives by leaning into crazy.
Mark Goulston, M.D. may be best known as a “people hacker.” He is a business advisor, consultant, speaker, trainer, and coach to CEOs and Founders. Mark’s rich and diverse background and experience include FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer, UCLA professor of psychiatry, and Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. He contributes to the Harvard Business Review, Business Insider, Fast Company, Huffington Post, and Psychology Today. Mark is a frequent media guest on all the major networks and cable television. He hosted a PBS special, “Just Listen with Dr. Mark Goulston,” authored and co-authored seven books and set the Citrix webinar attendee record with 9,200 participants. Mark is also the co-founder of Heartfelt Leadership and Resident Big Brother at Business Women Rising. He serves on the Board of Advisors of American Women Veterans and Dr. Oz’s foundation, Health Corps.
I loved Mark’s book so much that I asked him to sit down with me to share with all of us some insights and strategies that will help us best “lean” into the crazy so that we can learn how to change the dynamic and transform ourselves from a threat into an ally. I feel very privileged to have had this conversation with Mark and to be able to share it with you as part of our Leadership Compound Conversations Series. I hope you enjoy reading Part One of our two-part conversation.
Susan Gilell Stuy: Mark, thank you for joining me as part of the Leadership Compound Conversation series. I’m looking forward to talking about your new book, Talking to Crazy, and to your teaching us all a revolutionary way to deal with the irrational people in our lives by leaning into the crazy.
Mark Goulston: I’m glad to be aboard.
SGS: You’ve authored or co-authored seven books, and I’d like to begin our conversation today by learning more about when you decided to write Talking To Crazy and why?
MG: As you mentioned, I have written seven books and one of my books was called, Just Listen: Discover the Secret To Getting Through To Absolutely Anyone. I’m humbled by how well that has done around the world, and it’s largely through word of mouth. There wasn’t a book tour, and there wasn’t any particular advertising, but it actually became the top book on listening in the world, so that was a nice honor to have. In that book, there were two chapters that seemed to grab people’s attention. One chapter was called “Steer Clear of Toxic People,” and another chapter was “How To Move From Oh F#@& To OK.” Let’s call it ”oh fudge,” but you know it could mean something else. And it’s a way to calm yourself down so that you can listen more effectively. There seemed to be a lot of interest in those two chapters because the people that you really want to get through to are the people that are difficult to get through to, and so out of that, Talking to Crazy came about. One of the differences—and we’ll get into this—is that Just Listen was about the power of listening into people, and when you listen into people, they open up to you. The key is that you listen into people without a personal agenda—other than to really find out where they’re coming from—as opposed to trying to push them somewhere. And when you do this, people open up to you.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Wilfred Bion, who was a British psychoanalyst. One of the things he said was, “The purest form of communication is to listen without memory or desire.” Because when you listen with memory, you have a past personal agenda that you’re trying to plug someone into. And when you listen with desire, you have a present or future personal agenda that you’re trying to plug people into. In neither case, are you really listening to their agenda? So I came up with a suggestion in my books called, “Try to be a PAL when you’re dealing with people.” PAL stands for purposeful agendaless listening.
And your purpose is to really get where people are coming from underneath what they’re saying and then to be of service to them and never take advantage of them. If you can do that and want to do that —especially if you can do that in a way that more transactional people who are focused on closing a sale don’t— people will open up to you. Not only that, people will feel grateful to you. Just Listen was about listening into people, and Talking to Crazy is about how to then lean in to people, which is a step further. When you lean into people they not only open up, but when they’re on the attack or on the defensive, it disarms them, calms them down, and that can cause them to listen to reason. And then, you can have a rational and constructive conversation.
SGS: You use the term “crazy” throughout the book interchangeably with ”irrational.” Are the terms one and the same? And if not, can you share with us what you mean by ”crazy”?
MG: It was a dicey choice to call a book Talking to Crazy since I am a board-certified psychiatrist, and I knew I would take a lot of criticism from the psychiatric and psychological professions, which I have. That’s because they say, “How could you write a book called Talking To Crazy when we already have so much stigma that we’re dealing with? And you’re a psychiatrist!”
What I’ve said in response is, “I am a psychiatrist, and I have great compassion and patience for people struggling with mental illness, but the title is a way to grab people’s attention and motivate them to read it. When they do that, they’ll see that it is a book about empathizing with difficult people so you can have better conversations with them.” I make a distinction between the crazy people I’m talking about in this book and mentally ill people. However, there was a chapter in the book at the end about how to deal with people who have a mental illness.
To me, mentally ill people can’t act in any way other than the way they’re acting until their mental illness is treated. So they actually don’t have a choice. The people I’m referring to are the people who drive us crazy. And these are people who actually do have a choice in how they interact, but they choose not to exercise it. One of the ways you can tell the difference between people with a true mental illness compared to the people I’m talking about is how their interaction with you goes. Someone who has a true mental illness is, unfortunately, dancing to the beat of their own mental illness drum. So they’re often that way with everyone. Often, people who are depressed, anxious, autistic, or schizophrenic—they’re going to be that way with nearly everyone they interact with. On the other hand, with people who drive us crazy, there are situations where they act differently. This is a book about how you interact with those latter people, so they don’t drive you crazy.
SGS: Before we talk about some of the techniques that people can use to diffuse and turn these situations to their advantage, can you share with us why people act irrationally in the first place, and why this is important for us to understand?
MG: I did a webinar with people in Saudi Arabia on overcoming resistance to change in others and yourself. You could also apply that to people who seem to make us crazy. They seem resistant to change. The core hypothesis of that webinar was that resistance to change doesn’t exist. What exists is non-rational, non-functional self-preservation. Meaning these people are acting the way they do as a way of preserving their self. Irrational people are actually doing what they feel they need to do to survive, or if they’re interacting with you, to make sure they don’t lose or to get the better of a situation with you.
It’s important to recognize that even though they’re triggering us, they’re doing this because it’s their way of dealing with us and trying to get their way. Sometimes people who drive us crazy do get their way with us because they can push all our buttons. However, before they push that last button where we want to rip their throat out—which doesn’t go along with our identity as a caring person—we will back off. And when we’re in retreat, they can often get their way.
One of the things they do—and this can be the bullies, the complainers, the whiners, the venters and all the people who, when you hear the mention of their name, cause you to get a knot in your stomach—is push us to a point where we really want to get even with them, where we want to retaliate, where we want actually to be mean to them.
When we reach that point, we will often back off because that’s not who we see ourselves as being, and when we back off and we’re off balance, that’s when they can often deliver the coup de gras to get their way. They do this to get their way in the short run, but over time they turn into high-maintenance people. High-maintenance people are difficult to please and easy to upset. What happens is that anyone with a brain in their head starts avoiding these people.
SGS: And we all know them, don’t we?
MG: Absolutely. I’m sure we’re both thinking of a handful of people. And at least two of the people in that handful, Susan, are people we need to cut our losses with. We just haven’t figured out how to do it yet.
SGS: True. I’m interested in neuroscience and brain science as tools to understand better what goes on with people and how we interact with others. How important is understanding that there’s a brain science component to people acting irrationally? And then, how important is it to the person interacting with that irrational individual to understand what’s being triggered in their brain as well?
MG: I find it very important, and am passionate about brain science and neuroscience. I’m passionate about it and how it can help us understand virtually everything that goes on within people and between people, and I’m very excited about that. But in terms of how necessary it is, what I’ve discovered in my presentations is that, especially when I’m speaking to analytical type people, left-brain people, people who are very transactional, what I’ve discovered—and these are sometimes CEOs—is that they have no desire to understand brain science, or understand how or why the stuff we talk about works. What they do is look at me as an expert in this area, and they say, “Once you get a sense of what we’re dealing with, tell us what to do.”
It’s kind of funny. I was doing a teleconference call every couple of weeks for 13 CEOs and Presidents after they had seen me speak on listening at a big business conference. We were doing this, and I think I was three months into it, and I said, “Let me ask you, you have no desire to understand how or why what I’m talking to you about works. You want me to tell you what to do. You want to give me situations and tell you what to do. Is that true?” And they said, “Yes.” And I said, “Then why do you let me go on and on about this neuroscience stuff?” And they said, “Because we like you, Mark, and you seem to be having a good time.” And this will give you the mindset of decision-makers who are clear about what they want to focus on. I said, “But if I tell you what to do, and it backfires, and you don’t understand it, you won’t have a backup plan.” And what they said is, “Mark, we’ll take our chances.”
So in answer to your questions, what I also realize is, in all fairness, we’re all in our own silos. I coach a lot of people in IT about how to get a place at the strategy table with business types, and I say to them, “Business-type people and people like me have absolutely no interest in how and why technology works. We just want to use it and have it not break down.” As soon as you start weighing in and explaining something, what’s going to happen is people’s eyes are going to glaze over. They’re going to get frustrated, especially because the longer you talk about that, the more stupid they’re going to feel.
What I’ve learned is when we’re crossing specialties, when you’re with a different kind of duck, you have to quack like that duck. That’s why people in the coaching professions, and that’s why when I try to write—and I hope I’ve been pretty good so far in this interview—I say stay away from any psychobabble or jargon. Often we use jargon because we’re feeling anxious and we want to show our expertise or possibly hide behind it. But when you use jargon across specialties, it doesn’t impress people—people just disconnect. So something I’ve learned and that I try to practice is what I call experience-near language versus experience-distant language. Experience-near language is language that when the other person hears, they immediately understand it without having to work around, “What the heck does that mean?”
Experience-distant language—especially when you’re in these meetings and people are using all these abbreviations that nobody outside your specialty understands: RO this, ISG, or something—the person saying that doesn’t realize that often a third of the people at that table have no idea what that abbreviation means, but they have too much pride to say, “What does that mean?”
Because I used to be a suicide specialist and a hostage negotiation trainer, I became very sensitive to using language where there was a disconnect. I realized with my highly suicidal patients, as soon as I sounded clinical or academic, they would look at me with a smile that said, “Nice try, doc, but you missed.”
That’s really been a lesson for me as I try to coach. I do a lot of executive coaching and coaching on executive presence. I think a key part of executive presence is to be able to convey language in a way where you’re not dumbing it down—you’re just using common sense words that people can immediately understand and buy into. When you use jargon that other people don’t understand, what they’re thinking is that you’re clueless about them, and that creates a disconnect in their mind when you’re doing that. The disconnect is thinking, “If they don’t get that, then they’re not getting where we’re coming from and there’s probably a lot of other ways they don’t get what we’re saying.” Is this making sense to you, Susan?
SGS: Absolutely, I think that’s a great lesson. If you want to be understood, you need to listen and ask questions so that you understand the other person before you expect to be understood by them.
MG: Exactly. That’s, I think, Stephen Covey saying seek first to understand and then be understood. I’ve been blessed to have six mentors, and they’ve all since passed away and I miss them every day. Especially my last mentor, a fellow named Warren Bennis. Warren Bennis was one of the gurus and pioneers in the field of leadership. He has also been described as a “deep listener” by David Gergen, the CNN political analyst and also someone Warren mentored.
Here are a couple of Warren-isms that are like “seek first to understand” but are much simpler. He says, “Be more interested than interesting. Be more fascinated than fascinating, and try to be a first-class noticer.” I really like that latter recommendation because when you’re focused on being interested or fascinated, you are most present.
You can be fascinating and come off as brilliant, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re present—it just means you’re brilliant. I loved his term “be a first-class noticer” because when you notice, it’s different than watching, looking, seeing, and merely hearing. When you’re doing those things, you’re an observer. When you actually notice what the other person’s saying, how they’re saying it, and you’re wondering why they’re saying it, that’s when you’re actually most present. I will tell you if you can practice that, people open up to you, and they just throw themselves at you because, sadly, most of the world feels that nobody gets where they’re coming from, and nobody wants to make an effort to get it.
SGS: If we’re in that mode of noticing, is there only one type of crazy that we’re going to notice? And if not, how can people learn to spot the preferred way of operating in the person they’re interacting with?
MG: First of all, in terms of how you notice the people who like to drive you crazy, it’s actually very simple. When you hear their name either on a voicemail, you get an email from them, or someone mentions their name, you have a physiologic response. You get a knot in your stomach, and you feel something in your chest. The reason you’re feeling that is because you’re thinking to yourself, “Oh, no, not them again.” That’s because there’s something about that person that you need to confront, and you’ve been avoiding it. You need to confront them, but you just don’t know how. I wrote Talking to Crazy, which is a book on how to confront all these people in a direct way, in a diffusing way, and in a disarming way so that you can then have a rational conversation with them. In terms of all the different kinds of crazy, here is a chart that readers can download as a supplement if they’d like.
That chart in the book is called “The Nine Common MOs Of Irrational People.” I will mention some of them. People whose MO is that they get emotional, people who are manipulative and needy, people who play the martyr role, people who are bullies, people who act like know-it-alls, and so what’s helpful—and I’m happy to share that with you—is in that chart. It describes those people’s behavior and then your reaction. When you read it, you’ll think, “That’s exactly how I react to those people.” Just understanding their MO, their behavior, and your reaction will be calming because you’ll feel more in control.
This has actually been a very good marketing tool, and here’s a side trip, but it’s worth it and be something that your readers will hopefully find useful—it will be Marketing 101 in 45 seconds.
The reason I used the title, Talking To Crazy, is because when I ran that by people, as soon as they heard the title, they smiled. I said, “What are you smiling about?” and they said, “I think I do that (i.e., talk to crazy) every day.” And people immediately imagine those situations. When you’re marketing, you’ve got to grab people’s attention inside their attention deficit disorder, through their obsessions and compulsions, or whatever is distracting them, and Talking To Crazy as a title gets through.
I then hand out this graphic, which I’ll give to you, and when you read the MOs that I’ve mentioned of these irrational people, you’ll think, “That’s my situation. I’ve got one of those people. I’ve got one of those other people too.” And then right next to it, it describes your reaction, and when you read that, you’ll think, “That’s exactly how I react.” Then what will happen is after you read that, you then think, “What is this book about?” And then the subtitle is the answer: “How to deal with the irrational, impossible people in your life.”
So when you’re marketing, those are the four steps. You’ve got to grab people, and while you still have their attention, what they need to know is that you get their situation, you get them in their situation, you get them personally, and you open up their problem, and then you give them the promise of a solution to that problem. That’s Marketing 101.
SGS: It grabbed me. The minute I saw it, those people’s faces came to mind.
MG: I’ve got to add this because there was an oversight and another lesson about not thinking about a marketing idea all the way through. More people buy it on Kindle than the actual book. Because my best friends said they loved the book title, I asked them, “Well, what did you think of it?” They said, “I didn’t buy the book.” And I asked, “Why didn’t you?” They replied, “I love the title, but it’s like buying pornography. I can’t put the book anywhere. If I put it on my table as a manager and someone comes in, they’ll think I’m talking about them, which by the way, I often am. If I put it on my nightstand and my spouse sees the book Talking To Crazy, they’ll look at me and say, “So you think I’m crazy?” Which again, I do. And so the problem is, it’s a great title, but I can’t let anyone see that I’m reading it.” So I reply, “Buy the Kindle version, or buy the hardcover of Just Listen and then take the cover flap off of Just Listen and put it over Talking To Crazy because no one’s going to care about a book that says ‘just listen,’ and nobody wants to listen.” I kid you not. That’s what happened. It’s a great title, but many people say, “I can’t let anyone know I’m reading this.”
SGS: Because they’ll think it’s about them.
MG: That’s right. Fortunately, and despite that, it’s catching on. It recently reached #1 in four Amazon categories, was excerpted in the Oprah.com book club, became a finalist in the audible book Oscars and became the #1 non-fiction audiobook for Audible.
SGS: Wow, that’s amazing! Congratulations! I’m curious to learn what you think are the most common types of irrational behavior people see inside and outside of the workplace. Are there some that are easier to handle than others? And if so, how and why?
MG: Well, I think the most common type that causes you to have a bigger knot in your stomach is the most bothersome ones. Often people who are bullies, or when you’re in a leadership position or manager position, and you know that they’re bullying other people, may not be the most common. Still, they’re often the kind of people that are most upsetting. That’s because if you’re in a leadership position, it’s really up to you to intervene, especially if someone underneath this person can’t stand up to them. I don’t know if bullying is that common, but it will undoubtedly grab most of your attention because if you’re a good person and you’re just turning a blind eye to someone bullying another person in an organization, I think you’re not living up to your responsibility. And if you’re a good person, you know that inside yourself.
Other people are the complainers, the whiners, and the venters. At a lower level, if you’re talking about people who are under management, it’s people who manage up but don’t manage down. Those people have a way of making all the bosses think they’re terrific, and they throw you under the bus if you’re their peer or underneath them. That’s an insidiously—I wouldn’t call it toxic necessarily—but that’s a sign of an insidiously lousy culture because you actually lose respect for the bosses that are easy to manipulate by such people.
That’s kind of an array of what you see in a workplace. In fact, a company that allows such behavior is a deal breaker for me, and I’ve lost money by refusing to work with them unless they address it.
To me, it’s important to know what your values are, what you stand for, and what you won’t stand for. And so, when I’m about to work with a company, I’ll say, “Here is my deal breaker. I will not work with a company where anyone is afraid to come to work because of another person’s personality.”
“If someone’s afraid to come to work because they don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re not accountable, they haven’t done what they’re supposed to, that’s understandable. You need to fix that. But part of the reason I’m so adamant about this is my background as a psychiatrist, as a suicide interventionist, and someone who’s dealt with more than a few people who were abused and molested as children. Given that background, I cannot work with a company that condones bullying or abuse. Especially of subordinates, to make money. I can’t do it. I can’t be like the parent who didn’t take the kids away from the abusive parent.”
And as I said, it’s cost me a fair amount of money because people will say, “So you will walk away from good money?” I’d say, “I’ll walk away from that money. I don’t know if it’s good money. To me, it’s dirty money.” And I remember someone said, “Well, how can you do that?” And I said, “Look, I have one perk that none of you have. I don’t have a 401k plan. I don’t have someone paying for my healthcare. I don’t have vacation time off when I’m just doing this on my own. The one perk that I have that you don’t have is I get to walk away from BS, and you don’t. I’d be foolish not to exercise that perk.”
SGS: I agree. As people, we always have the choice to walk away when we believe our values may be compromised. It also takes a great deal of courage to do that, as evidenced by the number of leaders who had destroyed their businesses and careers over the past decades when they made a very different choice. I recently read an analysis of the fall of the prestigious accounting firm Arthur Anderson. In the end, judgments made by those in key leadership roles moved the firm away from its core values and principles toward generating hefty consulting fees from companies like Enron and WorldCom. The result was a focus vastly different than the original value proposition that guided Anderson for decades and resulted in their demise.
MG: Yeah, yeah. And I’m not putting myself up as a saint. I’m thinking, “Is that true? Is there a price that someone could buy me off for?” And I’m not sure of that. I guess the thing is, no one has offered me that much for me to have that internal conflict. It’s easy to walk away from something that’s a five-figure kind of thing, but if someone said, “We’ll give you equity, and we’ll give you something in the seven to eight figures,” I’m not a saint. I will tell you, I’d have to pause. But I hope I’d walk away.
SGS: We’ve talked about irrational people we actually encounter, and yet, in your book, you mention that that’s really only half the story. Can you share with us why facing down our own crazy—even though it might be an uncomfortable thing to do—is important in our process of being able to handle the encounters we have with other people?
MG: Well, this takes us back to neuroscience. We got away from that because neither of us, like my CEO teleconference client, wanted to even hear about it, but we’re going to get back to it despite ourselves. It’s only half the story because someone can be crazy-making, but it doesn’t mean you have to go crazy. So one of the things that all the crazy-making people have in common is they actually push into our emotional brain. So back to neuroscience.
I’m a great fan of Paul MacLean’s triune brain, which is more figurative than real. But he mentioned that we have three brains. We have a human rational brain that’s been around 250,000 years. We have a mammalian emotional brain that’s been around 65 million years, and we have a reptile fight or flight brain that’s been around 250 million years. The key component is the mammalian brain because inside the mammalian is something called the amygdala, and I’m sure you’re very familiar with it. That’s because anyone who knows anything about emotional intelligence, which I’m guessing you are, is familiar with it because Dan Goleman, the creator of Emotional Intelligence, first coined the term. The amygdala is the emotional point guard in the middle brain, and what happens is when the amygdala gets overloaded, it highjacks us away from being able to think our way rationally through a situation. Instead, it throws us into a reflex reaction. And that reflex reaction is based on previous reflex reactions in which we’re not really looking at the situation that’s facing us objectively. When difficult people are pressing our buttons, what that means it triggers our amygdala into preventing us from thinking and assessing the situation on its own merits.
I make a distinction between stress and distress. Stress, I think to a certain extent, is good for you. It enables you to test your mettle. It tests your resilience. It’s actually good, but you shouldn’t have it all the time. The difference between stress and distress is when you’re under stress, you can focus on your goals. It’s difficult, but you can focus on them and head toward them. When it gets too much—when your amygdala gets too overstimulated and hijacks you—stress crosses over into distress. When you’re in a state of distress, your focus is relieving the distress, so you let go of your goals, and you do something hasty to get out of distress.
There is the dance between a crazy-making person and you or me. Often crazy-making people act that way because they’re hiding something. They’re hiding incompetence. They’re hiding irresponsibility. They’re hiding from being exposed. And so that triggers an amygdala hijack in them, and they then start their crazy-making behavior, which is aimed at provoking us so much that instead of being able to think logically—and then question them in a calm way about what they’re saying—we get agitated instead. And if we reach that point where we actually want to say something unkind, mean, or cruel, before we reach that point, we may say something instead like, “Do the best you can, and we’ll talk about it next week,” or “I think we’ve talked long enough about it. Just do what we talked about” after which we might walk away in disgust, but at least we won’t verbally say something truly mean to them.
What’s happening is their trying to stay away from the distress of being exposed triggers this behavior, and again, that’s their self-preservation: “If I’m exposed as being incompetent or a liar, I’m going to get fired.” They then provoke us, and our amygdala hijacks us away from exposing them. And so it’s this deadly dance in which they get away with how they act, and we try to get away from them. That’s why they can stay around longer than their value deserves. Does that make sense, Susan?
SGS: Yes, they are pulling you onto their turf, and that’s not necessarily where you want to stay or where you can change the dynamic. When I was reading the book, the lyrics to the Kenny Rogers song “The Gambler” kept playing in my head: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” And so, when should someone ask him or herself if this is the time to run from those situations?
MG: Well, first of all, I think I’m going to re-title Talking To Crazy with those lyrics because people won’t be afraid to have people catch them reading a book called Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em. That’s a bestseller! In fact, I’m going to tell them. Let’s change Talking To Crazy in our next addition. I’m only half joking, Susan!
I think part of it is, first of all, you want to step away and try to calm yourself down, and then you want to ask yourself, ”Am I taking something personally that’s really not meant personally?” In other words, are they pressing buttons in me that other people press in me because I’m oversensitive about certain things?
If you have oversensitivity in you about certain behaviors that various people do, then you have to take that into consideration. Because sometimes, when someone’s talking loud at us, we can feel that they’re screaming at us because they reminded us of screamers when we grew up. It may be the reason they talk loud is that they came from a family in which everybody talked loudly to get attention. And so they’re not actually screaming—they’re just talking loud because they came from a boisterous Italian family that lovingly yelled at each other, and you, on the other hand, came from a neurotic, repressed family where no one would say “boo.” So you have to check out where your “too easy to press” buttons are coming from.
What you have to ask yourself is, “Am I avoiding anything having to do with this person?” And if you’re avoiding anything to do with them, that’s almost directly equal to avoiding having to confront them. Now if that’s the case, be honest with yourself. If you are avoiding some confrontation because you don’t know what to say, ask yourself, “Before I cut my losses, are there some behaviors that the person is exhibiting that, if I could confront more effectively, then I might deal with it?”
The reason I suggest—especially to managers and leaders—why it’s a good thing to become effective at confronting difficult people is difficult people are unavoidable. They’re in our lives, they’re in our companies, and the respect that people have for you, including your own respect for yourself, rises and falls according to how you deal with those difficult people. So if you’re a CEO or a manager and you’re avoiding confronting people who really ride roughshod over other people, people are going to lose respect for you. They’re going to think, “Jeez, look at this leader. He or she leaves the room because they don’t want to deal with this person who’s bullying us.” And so there’s a great opportunity in confronting almost any person to increase respect from others and yourself.
What are the ones that you should cut your losses with? This will be a shameless plug for the book. If you read Talking To Crazy and you see all the different ways of approaching people, find the ways that work for you, read about other resources. You’ve done your best to confront this person and what they’re doing is hurting the productivity of your unit or your company—or hurting the culture—then I think it’s time to have a moment of true conversation and make a change. And there are ways to do that. There are ways in the book that you can say, “This is a way to bring up something to such a person.”
Here’s a tip, by the way. I believe one of the best ways to confront another person—an analytic type, decision-makers—they hate this, but I’m going to say it anyway. I think we all have a particular personal authority when we’re being authentic, present, and genuine. It’s what I call “having skin in the game.” I think when we’re being frustrated and reacting, we’re not really being present—we’re being reactive. Therefore, one of the tips that I give managers or leaders is to take that person aside and tell me if you can feel my conviction in my voice, Susan.
I would suggest to that manager or leader to take them aside and say, “I’m dangerously close to rooting against you. And it makes no sense for me to have anyone on my team that I don’t root for. I don’t even want a neutral. I only want people I can root for. I’m close to rooting against you because when these following situations occur and specifically describe them, this is what you do. And before I reach the point that I start to root against you, we’ll make changes, and you’ll need to leave. So consider this conversation something that I’m not going to write up. Instead, let’s consider this a warning, but do you understand that I will get you out of this department or company before I reach the point of rooting against you?” Can you feel the conviction in that voice, Susan?
SGS: Definitely conviction and candor as well.
MG: That’s right. But I’ll tell you, when you exercise that kind of candor, the respect you feel for yourself, and the respect everybody else feels for you, goes through the roof. That reminds me of an anecdote that I have to share.
There’s a formula that people seem to like that I’ve used over the years, and the formula is: aggression plus principle equals conviction. Or it can be aggression plus mission. Because it’s good to be aggressive—to be an aggressive athlete, for example—but it needs to be tied to a principle or a mission. Aggression minus principle equals hostility. So aggression plus principle equal conviction. Aggression minus principle equals hostility. And conviction makes you strong; hostility makes you wild. So when I tell people my deal breaker, it’s aggressive, but there’s a principle. I won’t work with a company where people are afraid to come to work because of someone else’s personality. It’s a non-starter for me. I hope you can hear the conviction in my voice when I say that.
The best example I’ve ever seen of this was in 1995, when Colin Powell was being considered as a potential presidential candidate. I was doing a workshop at an international real estate convention in Dallas, and he was one of the keynote speakers. These were real estate brokers and very transactional people, and sometimes-inspirational talks aren’t as well received as motivational rah-rah talks. But General Powell was a total inspiration. And about 10,000 people were filling the Dallas Auditorium, and he was talking about the importance of giving back to your community and how grateful he was. He was amazing. Then came the question and answer period.
So consider this. It’s 11:30 on a weekday, meaning it’s too early for someone to be drunk to come up with what follows. This is one of the questions, Susan.
Someone says, “General Powell, I understand that your wife was depressed. I think she had shock treatment. I think she was in a hospital. Do you want to comment on that?” The whole auditorium was aghast. They just went quiet. I thought, “What is Colin Powell going to say? Is he going to ignore it?” He’s not going to cry like Edmund Muskie did many years before when someone said something about his wife. I mean, he’s a General! Is he going to say something politically correct, like, “I’m glad you brought that up because there should be parity between mental illnesses and regular medical illnesses”? I thought, “What’s he going to say?” See if you can feel the power of aggression plus principle. This is what he said. He said, “Excuse me, sir. The person you love more than anyone else in this world is living in hell, and you don’t do everything in your power to get him or her out? Do you have a problem with that, sir?” What do you think of them apples, Susan?
MG: Yeah. I thought I’d buy a used country from this guy. But what he was saying was, “Talk to me about anything, but bring up my wife? You don’t want to go there.” But can you feel the aggression plus principle?
SGS: You can feel the power and the forceful projection of the intention.
MG: Absolutely. So that’s why when I coach people, I often share that story and tell them I’m trying to be like Colin Powell was as I get older. That’s because after my last living mentor, Warren Bennis, died, rather than adding a new mentor to my life, I decided to take in all the confidence, belief and, most importantly, love, Susan, that Warren and my prior five mentors had for me and had this crazy thought of, “Why don’t I carry the torch?” Why don’t I become a person filled with aggression and principle and a mission? So I’m about to co-found the Warren G. Bennis Center for Leadership at ExecuNet, a prominent online company with 750,000+ vice presidents and executive members, because I loved Warren, and what he stood for, and I miss him every day. I want to stand up for what he wanted to do for leadership in the world, to make leaders better.
SGS: You are one of my mentors. I want to thank you for all that you do.
MG: Thank you. Now you’ve so embarrassed me I’m going to be tongue-tied, which is probably good because you couldn’t shut me up.
If you’d like to purchase Mark Goulston’s book, please click here.
And click here for Part Two of my interview with Mark!