Leaning into Crazy (Part 2)

An Interview With Mark Goulston

Jun 28

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 includes 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 Two of our two-part conversation.


Susan Gilell-Stuy: When we know that a person we are interacting with is behaving irrationally and also know that it isn’t time to run or to avoid the encounter altogether, what comes next? And what’s that one thing that we’re most inclined to do that we really should avoid doing in that situation?

Mark Goulston: This is the process that you can use. Identify those crazy-making people—make a list of them—and next, never expect them not to act that way when they want to get out of something when they want to push you into doing something that’s really unfair and unreasonable regarding other people. Identify who they are and never be blindsided by the conversation, because sometimes what happens is you’re dealing with one of those people—you’re kind of like Bambi wandering through the woods—and you give everyone the benefit of the doubt, and what happens with these people is you forget to realize that they’ll say something in the conversation that knocks you off balance just like Bambi hearing the hunters’ rifles, and what it does is it triggers your amygdala to hijack you, and pushes you into wanting to rip their throat out, which goes against your core identity, and then once they do that you’re off balance, and then they can go for your jugular.

So the first thing is to identify who they are and never expect them not to do it. If they don’t do it, it’s gravy, but don’t expect that to happen. Therefore, hold a little bit of yourself back, so you’re not caught off balance. But that doesn’t mean being aloof. Expect them to do that. And then what happens is when the conversation happens, and they move in that provoking direction, what you say to yourself—and this is what the people I coach say to themselves, “Dang, it happens every time. This is just like the trains being on time. They do it every time!” But don’t smile in front of the other person because then they’ll know that you’re onto them. And remember that at that moment when they do it, they’re going to expect you to be provoked.

I’ll give you some of the steps that you can take. Let them finish whatever they’re saying to knock you off balance. First, say to yourself, “Okay, there they go.” And if you’re with them, look into their eyes. Not in an angry way, but in a very calm and intent and unwavering way, in which your look basically says, “I’m onto you,” or, “You just did this again, didn’t you?” That’s what you’re saying with your eyes.

They may not notice it because they think they’re going along, trying to provoke you, and then it didn’t happen. After they say whatever they say, pause for two to four seconds and keep looking into their eyes. What’s going to happen is they’re going to become anxious, and they’re going to become anxious because their plan to provoke you didn’t work. In all likelihood, when you’re doing that, and you’re still looking into their eyes—and maybe it’s one to three seconds since you have to pick the right time for you—they’re going to say, “What?” in an offended accusatory tone. And they’re going to bark at you because they’re nervous. They’re nervous because they’re afraid that you’re onto them.

At that point, there are a variety of things that you can say. One of those is, “Would you repeat what you just said in the last few minutes because my mind wandered?” And they’re going to go, “What?” And you repeat, “My mind wandered, and I started thinking about something else.” That’s going to discombobulate them.

Or you can say, “Could you run that by me again in a different voice because the way you said it to me before just triggered me, and when I get triggered, I get reactive, and then I don’t think very clearly, so can you take it from the top again in a calmer voice so that I can think about what you said?”

Probably the shortest version is you look at them, and you tilt your head, and you go, “Huh?”

But if, in your mind’s eye, you can picture that, and then you watch them, they may get agitated and may even say, “That’s stupid! Why weren’t you listening?” And then you say, “I was trying to listen, but then I got distracted.” Or, “I was trying to listen, but your tone of voice reminded me of someone else’s tone of voice, and I started thinking about them, and I forgot what you were saying, so can you run it by me again?” And so those are for people who tend to try to bully you.

Here’s another tip for people who are either bullies, venters, or complainers. This technique is called the FUDN technique. F-U-D-N. What FUDN stands for is frustrated, upset, and disappointed; now what? And the way that works is when they’re complaining, or whining, or venting—but not bullying you—again, you let them finish whatever they’re saying, what they’re complaining about. You look into their eyes, you pause, and then the first thing you say to them is, “You sound frustrated; what’s that about?” The reason you start with frustrated is that almost everybody will own up to being frustrated. If you were to say to them instead, “You sound angry,” then they’re likely to become defensive, and it will escalate.

Most people will talk about what they’re frustrated about. And something you can learn in both my books Just Listen and Talking To Crazy is using something I call “conversation deepeners,” and a conversation deepener is getting people to say more about what they’re feeling underneath.

So when they tell you what they’re frustrated about, there are four things you want to notice that reveal emotion you want to have them go deeper about. First, there’s hyperbole. For instance, if they use “awful” or “horrendous,” that’s hyperbole. Next is inflection. That’s when they raise their voice and say loudly, “We’ve got to do something about that!” Both hyperbole and inflection reveal emotion.

For people who really like this training and want to go further, I tell them to notice adverbs and adjectives because an adverb is a way to embellish a verb, and an adjective is a way to embellish a noun. Those also have emotional juice on them. So if you notice those four things—hyperbole, inflection, adverbs, and adjectives—as they speak, they finish and imagine they’re talking about being frustrated. If they say the word “awful” or ”horrendous,” you pause again and say, “Say more about the ‘horrendous’ thing.” What you’re doing is that instead of shushing them, you’re helping them even get more off their chest but without having it upset you. You’re not becoming upset because you’re in charge of the conversation and because you’re learning a way to be present with these crazy-making people.

After they talk about that, say, “If I were you,” and you say it that way. You don’t want to talk about anger. “If I were you, I’d feel upset. I wouldn’t just feel frustrated; I’d feel upset. What’s that about?” That’s different than saying, “You sound upset,” because that’s like, “You sound angry,” and they’re going to get defensive. You say, “If I were you, I’d feel not just frustrated but upset. What’s that about?” Then let them talk about that. Then use the conversation deepeners to get more out of them.

The real game changer is what you say next, which is: “If I were you, I wouldn’t just feel frustrated or upset; I’d feel disappointed. And I don’t know if I’d feel disappointed in the company, in me, in yourself, but I’d really feel disappointed. So what are you disappointed about?” There’s something about the word “disappointed” that’s very calming and is very powerful.

That’s why it’s difficult to say to your child, “I’m not angry at you; I love you. I’m just disappointed.” When you enable irrational people to express their disappointment, you’re actually going to see them calm down. Then what you do is when they finish, and after you’ve again used conversation deepeners to have them go deeper, you say, “This is really important, so I want to be sure that I got exactly what you said.” When you use the word ”important,” that further calms people down, you’re not telling them they’re right— you’re just saying what they said was important because it was important to them. It doesn’t have to be important to you.

Then say, “So let me see if I got this right. What you said you were frustrated about is (repeat what they said). What you said you were upset about is (repeat what they said). What you said you were disappointed about is (repeat what they said). That correct?” Causing them to have to listen to you repeat to them what they said—because it was “important”—further calms them down.

Hopefully, they will say, “Yes,” or correct what you said, and having that kind of dialogue further calms them down.

Then say, “Well, given that all of that or some of that might be true, now what?” They’re going to go, “What?” Say, “Yes, given that a lot of that is possibly true, and I can understand how you feel all those things, now what?”

Can you feel and see, Susan, in your mind’s eye, that you’re actually taking charge of a conversation with someone who drives you crazy?

You’re actually calming down their amygdala and your own, and you’re letting them vent into you without getting defensive, you’re re-framing it, and you’re letting it all come out.

It’s almost like if you think of the amygdala as boiling water, and when an amygdala hijack happens is like turning up the boiling water too high, and it just goes all over the stove. What you’ve done with the FUDN technique is you’ve lowered the heat under the boiling amygdala, at which point it doesn’t need to hijack anyone anywhere, and you can now have a rational conversation.

Now I know this seems so artificial, and the reason that sounds too complicated if you’re reading this is that you’ve had your amygdala hijacked so many times you’d rather go to plan A, which is to rip their throat out, which would feel great but it probably wouldn’t be that effective.

SGS: Sometimes crazy gets the best of us; how do we recalibrate, learn, and prepare for the next time?

MG: There are a number of things you can do. One thing is one of my favorites, but people who want to really get even with the people don’t like it. What I would say is to identify those people ahead of time, so they don’t blindside you, and then when they do their crazy-making behavior, what you say to yourself—and what I say to the people I coach is, “Use my words talking to you, if you can’t use your own… think of me as a benevolent big brother or whatever and say to yourself ‘opportunity for poise.’”

Poise is rare in this world. And when we see people showing poise—and by poise, I don’t mean being shut off like Mitt Romney was in the last presidential election—I mean being poised and present. That was the problem with Mitt Romney. I think he was a pretty decent guy, but people experienced him as a shut-off. Poised is being present. But if you say to yourself, “opportunity for poise”—and if you know that every time these difficult people act up, you’re going to get another opportunity to build that muscle—then it becomes something to be motivated to do. You take a conversation you want to avoid and turn it into an exercise, and you can use all the different approaches you can learn from my book and other people’s books.

Now people get angry at me because most people bark in their mind’s eye at me, “I don’t want an opportunity for poise. I do want to rip their throat out. I don’t want to think reasonably. I don’t want to think rationally.” What’s happened is your amygdala just hijacked you, and you just left the barn. You better lasso yourself and bring yourself back in there. Using the “opportunity for poise” internal script, I think, is a really neat thing to be able to develop because if you do it, and you handle the situation with poise, you’re going to leave a situation feeling classy, and I don’t mean that in an arrogant way. You’re going to leave and say, “I can’t believe I handled that situation in such a classy way,” and you’re going to feel better about yourself. And if other people see you handling it with poise, they’re going to say, “Wow, that person’s classy.” Then you start to be looked at as a potential leader because there’s a hunger to have leaders who are classy in the way they act, especially during confrontations.

Another technique that I use that’s near and dear to my heart is I think of my mentors. All my mentors have died, and I think how they made a difference in me not only because they believed in and respected me but all my mentors enjoyed me. What I realized is that while respecting me was great, when I would see them, I’d put a huge smile on their face just for who I was. Just feeling enjoyed like that healed something in me, and it didn’t just make me a better leader or coach—it made me a better person. It made me more giving, generous and even loving.

Now, what I say to mentors and bosses is, “You have a grand opportunity to heal the people in your company because many people in your company did not come from the happiest of homes. They came from negative homes in which not only did they not feel enjoyed, but nobody enjoyed anyone.” It’s amazing when I feel my mentors’ enjoyment of me. I immediately feel blessed that they were in my life, I immediately feel appreciative of them, and the reason that works for me is whatever chunk this crazy-making person is taking out of me immediately gets filled.

I can picture any of the mentors smiling and saying something to me. One of my earliest mentors was the Dean of Students at my medical school, and he died too young of lung cancer. In my mind’s eye, he has an Irish Catholic Boston accent, and he’ll say in a thick Bostonian accent, “M-a-h-k. M-a-r-k, get a hold of it. M-a-h-k, be poised. Come on; it’s not a big deal.”

As I’m repeating it to you, you’re laughing, and in turn, I’m laughing, but I just got a buzz right now from loving and missing and being grateful to him. I don’t even know what I was ticked off about now. So to me, I think that’s one of the best ways to center one’s self because it’s very human and interactive. It’s making the most of the people who cared or still care about you. That’s my favorite approach. So those are a couple of techniques, and there are more in the book if you like those kinds of ways to deal with the crazymakers.

SGS: Great. We’ve talked about situations where someone we know is behaving irrationally, and yet there are times when someone’s irrational behavior could be a sign of a more significant issue. How do we distinguish between the two? And in those cases, what should we do?

MG: You don’t have to be a psychologist or psychotherapist to pause and say to yourself, “Are they crazy-making, or are they mentally ill?” I think what happens is if you can calm yourself down and know a way to deal with crazy-making behavior, you’re able to think more rationally. And so part of what you can do is part of the way psychiatrists assess mentally ill people: they kind of pause and say, “I wonder how they’re functioning in different parts of their life or different parts of their life within their company?” Are they withdrawing from other people? Are they on the defensive? Is there increased absenteeism? Is there something where they could be really depressed? Hopefully, it will change with the millennials because they appear to be more forthcoming than prior generations, but sadly what’s happening in older generations is something in their private life has happened that they just haven’t shared. You’ll find out that their grandpa or grandma died, or their parent died. They don’t talk about that at work because people don’t talk about that stuff.

Here is another tip for calming yourself down from one of the people I speak about in Talking To Crazy, whose name is Bob Pratt. He is president of Volunteers of America, Los Angeles. There was something about him. I told him, “I’ve never seen a person who is so positive and not a Pollyanna. How do you do that?” What he said is, “I assume innocence. If someone cuts me off in traffic, I assume someone cuts them off at the office. I just assume innocence.”

That’s something I aspire to be able to do because I think it’s a great way to go into the world. My view of the world is that there are really not that many evil people. When you identify evil people, stop them, keep them from hurting others, avoid them, and cut your losses. But everybody else is just flawed. I’m flawed. You’re flawed. Assume innocence and cut them some slack.

SGS: I’d like to shift the focus and discuss your experience writing the book. Was there something that you learned that you didn’t expect to learn about yourself? If so, what was it, and how has it affected you since?

MG: I think the insight—which I wasn’t aware of while I was writing the book, but now it’s one of the key things that I talk about—is the power of leaning into people to calm them down and getting them to listen to reason. And part of why that works— and I’ll go back to a little bit of neuroscience—is when people are stressed, their cortisol is high. High cortisol and stress correlate with each other. And when people feel close to another person, cortisol goes down, and oxytocin goes up. Oxytocin is the hormone related to bondedness. It’s what causes mothers to be able to bond with screaming children. If mothers didn’t have oxytocin and that child was having a tantrum, they’d throw them out of the car.

What I realized is that a number of people that are acting crazy do so because their cortisol is high, nobody is bonding with them, and they’re taking it out on the world. So when you can connect with them by leaning into them, it immediately gives them a burst of bonding oxytocin and lowers their cortisol. I think in the first chapter, or an early chapter, there’s an anecdote, which is a favorite anecdote of many readers, from when I was moonlighting in a psychiatric state hospital.

When I did that, I’d be on call for 48 hours, and I’d be taking turns with another psychiatrist, 12 hours on, 12 off. Basically, this would be the weekend: I’d go in, I’d get calls to order medications for someone who was acting up and tearing apart the day room and put them in restraints, something like that. I remember when I was called to write an order for security to come in and restrain this large man and get him a shot of an antipsychotic tranquilizer. I remember when I entered the room; all the nurses were in the nurses’ station. The day room, which is where patients spend their day outside their rooms, was all torn apart. Chairs everywhere. There was this big hulk of a man standing with his back to me. If you saw the movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, he was very reminiscent of the American Indian character who was central to that movie. So he’s just standing there.

He wasn’t throwing things around actively when I got there. I think he’d done what he needed to do. I walked into the unit, and the nurses said, “Where are you going?” Because I didn’t go into the nurses’ station. I said, “I’m going to go talk to him.” They said to me, “You’re crazy.” I smiled at them, and I said, “Why don’t you make two orders for restraining orders [laughter]? One for him, one for me. I said, ‘I’m going to see what’s going on.’” This was an example of leaning into people and going into their world. One of the things that happen in state hospitals in the day room is that nearly all patients smoke cigarettes. They’re even smoking parts of cigarettes. That’s what they did. You’d often see cigarettes and ashtrays on the floor with burn marks on the linoleum. And the favorite cigarette back then was Camel because there was no filter on it. You just went directly into the tobacco and got a straight hit from the nicotine.

I got about ten feet from him, and his back was to me; we’ll call him John. I called out, “Hey, John,” and I said it in an inviting vs. confrontational tone. I said, “Hey, John.” And he said, “What?” He turns around and looks at me. And I said, “Do you think they have any Camels in the cigarette machine outside?” He said, “What?” I said, “Do you think they have any Camels in the cigarette machine outside?” And he says, “Yeah, I guess so.” And I said, “Do you think they have any matches?” He looked at me, and he laughed. He said, “What are you crazy? This is a mental hospital. They’re not going to have matches!”

And I said, “Well, you’re probably right.” By the way, I noticed it looked like he had calmed down already, even though they were still sending security over. I said, “Well, I’m going to go get a pack of Camels and bring you a few and leave the rest for you in the nurses’ station. That will be yours, and you can have some of those later. And by the way, some people from security are going to come around and assess this situation, and they may have to put you down with restraints. John, you’ve been here long enough. You know the routine. Are you okay?” What happened is I leaned into his world, a world where he had had his tantrum—it’s kind of like after you have sex, you want a cigarette [laughter]. He’d had his “sex” in the day room in the form of a tantrum, and he wanted a cigarette. So I ordered that for him, and I was immediately his friend.

He even said to me, “Jeez, I kind of went crazy. I kind of went bonkers.” I said, “John, look, I’ll get you the Camels. They’ll come. They may not even have to put you in restraints, but cut yourself some slack; you’re in a mental hospital. Going crazy happens, so don’t be too hard on yourself. They can rearrange the furniture; it’ll be okay.” And that worked out. I think that was an example of the power of leaning into someone.

By the way, when we talked about FUDN, that was also a perfect example without using the specific steps overtly. Taking someone who’s agitated and you go through all the levels of their agitation: frustrated, upset, disappointed, and then now what? And you can see it’s a way of leaning into where they’re coming from. When you lean in, and you’re there helping them talk it through, their oxytocin goes up, and they feel bonded to you as opposed to alienated. They don’t feel judged by you—they feel cared about by you, which is all the stuff they feel is missing in the world. Then they bond with you, and they’re more agreeable.

SGS: As we draw near the end of our time together, there are two things that I want to talk about. The first is, what mix of skills and abilities do you think makes up your unique success compound, or what I would call your leadership compound? And then secondly, I’d like to give you a chance to share with everyone what you’re doing now and what they should be on the lookout for from you in the future.

MG: I’ll share a very personal story, and this will actually explain nearly everything I’ve said and answer a question that might be on your mind, namely, “How did you learn this?”

One of my greatest personal accomplishments in life, other than my great family and kids, is that I dropped out of medical school twice before finishing. I don’t know anyone who dropped out of medical school twice and finished. I didn’t drop out to see the world. I dropped out because I hit a wall where I was highlighting all the books I was reading, and I was retaining nothing. I probably had untreated depression.

I took an initial leave of absence and worked in blue-collar jobs, which I loved. My mind came back to a blue-collar level. I went back to medical school after my first leave of absence, and my mind came back for a few months, and then I lost it once more and where I was just highlighting books again and not retaining anything. So I asked for a second leave of absence, and I was passing everything so they couldn’t kick me out.

Then I got a call from the Dean of Students with a deep Irish Catholic Bostonian accent, Dean McNary. I was of the mindset—not an unusual mindset—where you’re only worth what you can do in the world, and if you can’t do anything, you’re worthless. You may not even deserve to be in the world.

I was at a point where I really couldn’t do anything, so I wasn’t worth anything, maybe not even being in the world. Hopefully, you get my mindset. So I get this call from Dean McNary, and he says in his Bostonian accent, “M-a-h-k, come in heah, I got a letter heah from the dean of the school, you gotta read this thing.”

So I go in there, and the letter is from the dean of the medical school who is focused on finances and every time someone takes a leave of absence, the school loses matching funds. By asking for another leave of absence, I was becoming a real financial liability.

And the letter said, “I’ve met with Mr. Goulston and suggested an alternate career. Perhaps the cello.” I have no idea where “cello” came from. “And so I’m advising the promotions committee that he be asked to withdraw.” Again, they couldn’t kick me out because I was passing my classes.

I think a miracle actually happened, and I mean that in the literal sense because what happened is I think I said to Dean McNary, “What does that mean?” He said, “You’re being kicked out, M-a-h-k.” And so I’m there, and I didn’t become sarcastic where I could’ve said, “They can’t do that to me. I’m passing; they can’t kick me out!” I was too far gone. It was my good fortune that I also didn’t go into some “woe is me,” pathetic kind of sobbing thing either.

Instead, when he said that, I just became quiet, and about 20 seconds passed, and I felt my cheeks getting wet. I kept touching them. I was crying. I wasn’t sobbing; I was crying. It was like I was bleeding. I remember touching my cheeks and looking at my hands. Hopefully, you get a sense of my mindset. You’re only worth what you do, and I couldn’t do anything. So at that point, I didn’t feel worth anything.

Then imagine hearing this, Susan. Dean McNary says, “M-a-h-k, you didn’t screw up because you’re passing. I don’t know how you’re passing. But you are screwed up. But if you get unscrewed up, I think this school will one day be glad that they gave you a second chance. And even if you don’t get unscrewed up, M-a-h-k. Even if you don’t become a doctor. Even if you don’t do another thing in your life.” Which is about what I thought I was capable of.

He said, “I’d be proud to know you because you have goodness in you, and you have no idea how much the world needs that goodness. And you’re not going to know it until you’re 35. But you have to make it to 35.” I’m crying because he’s pummeling me with kindness, and I’m just standing there. He’s just there with me. He’s listening to me, and he leaning into me, and I can’t even look at him. Then he says, “M-a-h-k, look at me.” And with difficulty, because I was so vulnerable and exposed, I looked at him, and he pointed his finger and me, and he said, “You deserve to be on this planet. Do you understand me? And you’re going to let me help you.” Then he set up an appeal.

Basically, what happened in the appeal is people could see—I don’t know if they saw my goodness, I didn’t see it—but they saw something. So they gave me another leave of absence. I then actually went to work in Kansas.

I grew up in Boston and went to undergraduate school at Berkeley, but I went to a place called the Menninger Foundation, a psychiatric center in Topeka, Kansas. It’s now in Texas. I remember going there, and I thought, “Well, I don’t know much about psychiatry. I’m going to find myself or they’ll lock me up. So either way, I’m in a good location here.”

What happened is that I found a way to connect with schizophrenic farm boys. I’m from suburban Boston, and I don’t know how I was able to do that. I remember going to other psychiatrists there, and I said, “Is this legitimate? Is this a legitimate profession?” And they said, “What?” I said, “Just talking to people, trying to find out where they’re coming from and going on walks with them in the snow here in the middle of winter.” And they said, “Yes, it’s legitimate. It’s different from the other medical professions, but it’s legitimate. And you have a knack for it, Mark.” And so I held onto that as kind of my true north and went back to medical school and was able to finish it and go into psychiatry and to become a suicide expert.

That takes me to today, and what I hope people will find out about me is that I’m on a mission to end violence in the world, and my first focus is adolescent and teenage violence. I interviewed Sue Klebold. She’s the mother of Dylan Klebold, who was one of the shooters at Columbine. She had a book that came out called A Mother’s Reckoning, and I interviewed her for The Huffington Post in three parts, but you get it in one full chunk in Psychology Today. It’s heart-wrenching and touching. And so I am now pulling together people to further this mission.

There’s a movie that’s being distributed through high schools, but I think it needs to be distributed through theaters. I’m doing my best to get it out there. If it does, I believe it will win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s called Listen. You can see the trailer, the official trailer, Listen. The filmmaker, Erahm Christopher, went around the world for nine years and listened to over a million teenagers—and just listened to them in a program called Teen Truth. He asked them, “What are you so frustrated about? What are you so angry about?” It’s a magnificent and absolutely riveting movie.

What I’m trying to do is pull together those elements. And I’m also co-authoring a book with a 47-year-old man called Inside The Mind of a School Shooter, who 29 years ago had 1000 rounds of ammunition and guns in his rural Minnesota high school, where he was also going to kill many people, including students, teachers and the principal after being bullied for years. Then five days before he was to do it, he had a religious experience, changed his mind and safely removed the guns and ammo. He went on to graduate from a police academy and work at a prison and is now in construction, but he never told his story to anyone but his wife. He wants to tell it now because of the increase in adolescent violence and shootings and because he believes sharing his story might lessen the violence. I agree with him completely. In fact, I think he’s an angel from God who has come to earth to help with ending adolescent rage and violence. And so I’m putting all these pieces together because it’s something else I think others will want to join in to help.

Something that I’ve discovered about life is I think there are three phases. The first phase of life—and maybe this is your professional life—is doing what you should do. You can’t be a rebel without a cause when you’re in your 20s or 30s. If you’re a genius, maybe you can get away with it. If you’re not a genius, doing what you should do is about not being stubborn and rebellious and contrary. That doesn’t mean you must be obedient and let yourself be walked over, but you’re building credibility. You actually accomplish things and can work with a team.

Then, by about age 35 to 55, it’s doing what you could do. That’s your work-life balance and spiritual balance. That’s when you look to fulfill your potential. And what’s the best use of my potential?

I’m in the last stage of life. And that’s when you’re above 60. That is what you are meant and born to do. Why am I on this earth? What is my purpose?

Maybe you can hear some emotion in my voice as I say that because that is where I am. What was I born to do? Why the heck am I here?

And so, I have two focuses. My purpose is to help, find, develop, and support the leaders that the world needs because my late mentor Warren Bennis shared with me the Schindler moment towards the end of his life where he felt leaders were worse than ever and that perhaps he hadn’t done enough. And he invented the field of leadership studies. That really bothered me because I loved him, and he’s right.

It’s helping develop—I don’t know how it’s going to happen—something about leadership. I have a site called Heartfelt Leadership. If you go there and look at the “Be Inspired” videos, these are examples of the leaders we need.

My other passion and mission are stopping violence. Partially it’s because as I’ve gotten to know the author of Inside The Mind of a School Shooter, I can feel the pain under his anger. It’s really amazing how he got through this.

I can’t wait to introduce him to Sue Klebold because every question she never got to ask her son, who was one of the shooters at Columbine, this co-author of mine will be able to answer. So she’ll finally get some answers. So stay tuned.

By the way, if this speaks to people, what I really need is people who can implement this stuff, or partner, or whatever, because I’m more of an initiator and creator, but I need help after that. I know that was long-winded, and I apologize for that. You gave me the green light, and I took it.

SGS: I so appreciate our conversation today. I’m looking forward to traveling that journey with you, and if I can help in any way, Mark, I’d be more than happy to do so.

MG: Well, let’s stay in touch because things are picking up speed in a positive way, and people are hearing it, and what I’m looking for is for people to say, “Let’s do this together.” And I say, “As long as you’re happy to be the doer in any of these projects, let’s do it.”

If you’d like to purchase Mark Goulston’s book, please click here.

In case you missed it, read Part One of my interview with Mark here and be sure to keep your eye out for the next Leadership Compound Conversation!


Leaning into Crazy (Part 1)

An Interview With Mark Goulston

Jun 21

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 ConversationTalking to Crazy by Mark Goulston 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?

SGS: Wow.

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!


An Interview With Chris Coffey (Part 2)

Feb 23

Part Two of our two-part conversation. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Susan Gilell-Stuy: What are the top 3 or 4 strategies that people can use to create the safe space necessary to really see another perspective and listen?

Chris Coffey: I’m a big believer in clarity. I say I’d rather have clarity than agreement. So with that little tidbit of information, if we get clarity on the desired result that we want, and we take the time upfront, we can discuss and debate how to get there, as long as we’re clear on the desired result. Now in any situation, there are going to be different goals. How do we go about getting to different things and becoming cognizant of these things?

There are four different types of goals; you have topic goals, relationship goals, identity goals, and process goals. Each person has these, consciously or unconsciously.

Topic Goals: What are the words actually saying? What are the words people are using?

Relationship Goals: What’s the relationship you have with this person, and what’s the relationship that you want to have? Is it what you want it to be?

Identity Goals: How does this person see you versus how do you want to be seen?

Process Goals: How are we going to go about resolving our different points of view? Is it going to be an autocratic approach, where the person with the power makes the decision? Is it going to be a democratic approach where the majority rules? Or are we going to attempt to come to a consensus? What is consensus? How do you define consensus?

And I’ll often ask people how they define consensus, as it’s a word that’s used a lot out there today. And, interestingly, listening to most people define consensus as, “The majority of people agree.” And I say, “The majority: Is that 51% or 98%?”

SGS: You talk about gaining consensus in the book before acting. What does consensus mean, then, how is it defined, and how does understanding that gives people an advantage in accomplishing what they need to do?

CC: One of my expressions, again, is “Words have meanings.” You have to define the meaning of consensus. Come to an agreement with the people you work with: “Let’s define consensus.” You can look it up in the dictionary and extrapolate from that what it means to you in this particular situation. The way I define it is: You commit to the decision that is made, even if you argued against it in the decision-making process and even if you still disagree with it. So consensus doesn’t mean the majority or agreement.

One of the things you have to come to peace with is that the person with the power in the room is the decision-maker in corporate America, in companies. The owner, the President / CEO: they’re the ultimate decision-makers. They may delegate that decision to others, but ultimately it’s their decision. It’s our job as coaches to say, “I think you’re going in the wrong direction. How can I influence

that decision?” In other words: What is it that I’m aware of that they’re not? And what is it that I need to do to influence the decision in the direction that I think it should go?

Now, at the end of the day, the question I ask is: “Do you feel you had a fair opportunity to influence it? Were you heard and understood?”

And if the answer to that is “Yes,” then the powers that be made a decision to go in the other direction.

The first thing I tell people is, “How would you rate your effectiveness at communicating your point of view? Did you have a fair opportunity to influence the decision? Were you listened to? Were you understood? Did you articulate your point of view in a way, so they understood what you meant?”

And if the answer to that is “Yes,” then you have a choice. You can either buy into the decision that was made, even if you still disagree with it, or you can leave. And those are choices we all have to come up with.

SGS: Defining consensus relative to the people in the room is definitely more meaningful than defining it as agreement or a 51% share. Usually, in meetings, we hear people say, “Well, this is the successful outcome that I’d like to have,” or, “These are the goals that we want to achieve.” Can you share the difference between an outcome, a goal, and the concept you share in the book of creating an ideal final result? Why do you feel that it is the approach to take in situations where you’re trying to define either for yourself or for a group what comes at the end?

CC: I think you hit on a couple of little key things there. I like the words ideal final result. I think the words help people think a little differently versus just goals or objectives, which I think tend to be vague. Now that doesn’t mean at the end, you may be very clear on your objectives and the goal, and you’ve gotten to the ideal final result just by using those words. I like the ideal final result because it makes people think a little differently. How would we define success? What are measurements along the way to show us that we’re on that track? How will we know when we cross the goal line?

I’m a big believer in making people stop for a moment and think. I think we’ve come a long way in not wanting to make people uncomfortable. So if you ask a difficult question—that makes people think—they have to pause and think. And sometimes, we get uncomfortable with that silence, and so we answer the question ourselves. Or we ask two or three questions at the same time, and the person will answer the question they want to answer. And so you’ve never drilled down.

I think the skill of having that underneath the ideal final result: What are some other questions? How would we define success? What will it look like? If you could wave a magic wand, what would you do differently? What are measurements and milestones along the way so we’ll know we’re on track? What are the resources we have? What are the resources we’re going to need? What would make this successful for you and your group?

I had a former client of mine say to me, “What do you do with someone who’s really articulate, and they’re very persuasive, and you know it’s always just about them? And they’re really able to put together a good argument, a good claim, and they back it all up, and it’s always just about them or their group How do you counter them? What’s a question I could ask?”

And I thought for a second, and I said, “Well, you could listen and say, Listening to what you said, it’s very persuasive in terms of you doing A, B, C, and D. And I really see how that benefits you and your organization really well. I commend you on that. What I do not see as clearly is how does that benefit the organization or our customer? What am I missing? I mean, that’s a great presentation for you, but somewhere I’m lost in how that benefits the customer or the other part of the organization in the big picture.”

And now, instead of arguing with them, or telling them they’re wrong or self-centered, come back with a question. What am I missing? And see if they can answer the question. And be open, and listen.

When people say words, it leads to being able to ask a question. I had a senior VP of an insurance company, who was big, 6 foot 5—he was accused of being a bully and hollering and screaming and all that. So we get going, and we go through the interviews; based on the stakeholders’ feedback, he identifies that he has to collaborate better and treat people with respect. We build an action plan. And he doesn’t much like me—he doesn’t want to be doing this—but the President said, “Look, you’re creating a hostile work environment, and you have to learn how to work with people better. As valuable as you are, we just can’t continue to have this hostile work environment.”

So he called me on a Monday morning, and he said, “Chris, I was sitting in a meeting on Friday, and the VP of Marketing was just flapping his gums. And I was sitting there thinking: he’s off the rails. But I could hear you on my shoulder saying, ‘Let him get all the air out. Don’t argue with him. What’s a question you could ask?’”

“And then I thought, you know, in the action plan, this VP of Marketing reads one of Chris’s bullets that says, ’I will distinguish between my opinion and facts, and I will ask others to do the same.’ The VP of Marketing gets all done talking, and I said, ’Now, is that your opinion, or do you have some empirical data to back up your point of view?’ The room went silent. And he looked at me, and he said, ’It’s my opinion.’ I replied, ’Well, that’s nice, but we’re going to need a little bit more.’ And I leaned back in my chair, and I thought, My God, is this going to be fun.’”

You know, you can talk about all this in a vacuum. But when someone calls you and tells you, “Here’s what I did differently”—and you use the word “uncomfortable.” I love when an executive says to me, “Well, that makes me uncomfortable,” and my response is, “I have no interest in your comfort level. That’s irrelevant to me. You’re a big boy or girl with a lot of money. And you told me that you wanted to get better. If you think that this is going to be comfortable for the next year, you know, you’re dreaming. Get another coach.”

Any time we push ourselves out of our comfort zone, there’s a certain amount of anxiety, and especially for successful people who believe what they’ve done has gotten them to where they are. It’s the willingness to say, “Look, I’m going try to hit this 4-iron 190 yards over water. And instead of putting down a 25-cent ball, I’m going to put down a $3.50 Pro-V1.” Well, you know, if somebody’s going to hit the ball over, I visualize this, and then if they put down a 10-cent golf ball, a driving range ball, you know they don’t have the confidence to do it. So confidence is key, and how do you take that confidence and not let it turn into arrogance?

SGS: In the book, you talk about change being difficult even when we know that we have to change and fundamentally want to improve. You use Lao Tzu’s quote, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step,” to illustrate that change must take place in small but perceivable steps so that our fear response isn’t triggered. How do you use this concept with the people you work with, and how do you get them to incorporate it into their leadership style to change the behavior of the people they work with?

CC: I think you go right back to a lot of what we talked about in the coaching process—the Stakeholder Centered Coaching process that Marshall Goldsmith has made famous, and Frank Wagner, Willy Lissen and I are the guys who really put together the workshops—it’s taking it down to that micro-level of creating a daily sheet, where you start to say, “Do this.” Because of the way we’re wired, we can only hold so much in that pre-frontal cortex part of our brain. You know, a lot of studies have been done: You can hold six or seven unrelated items at a time, just like cramming for a test.

So you can read a book, and you can take some notes, but you have to get these down into the hard wire of your brain, so you can utilize them in the moment. I mean, how many times have we come out of a meeting and said, “I wish I said this,” or, “I wish I said that,” or “I wish I hadn’t articulated this way.” We’re all familiar with the concept of regret: “I wish I had done this. A choice made. A choice not made.” So the daily sheet, to really answer your question, is part of the magic potion.

Marshall talks a lot about it in his new book, Triggers, and I talk about it, and there are copies of them in The New IQ. It really is taking the action plan that you share with the stakeholders, and create a daily sheet and measuring yourself. So, for instance, when I start to work with somebody, we build an action plan based on the stakeholder’s suggestions, and then it’s almost like an actor’s subtext. The author writes the words that you have to say as the actor, and what’s the subtext you’re playing? For example, Marlon Brando, in A Streetcar Named Desire, had the image of Stanley Kowalski, the character he played, as a caged tiger. He’d go to the Bronx zoo a couple of times a week and just sit there and watch that caged tiger walk back and forth and back and forth, and that was the image he had in his head, going on stage at night as a caged tiger.

So it’s the same thing in a daily sheet. Let’s say in the morning; you read it over. And then, at night, you say, “Did I ask innovative questions today? Did I assist someone’s readiness level today? Did I aim to create a win-win solution today? Did I come across as trying to help somebody else today? Did I create ground rules today?” So if you have to answer those questions—“Did I do this today?”—every day, you’re a successful person. It takes 2 or 3 weeks until you have those placed into your hard wiring, and you go into meetings looking for things. And if you know people know you’re going to ask that question—about it being an opinion or being backed up by empirical data—then they’ll also come more prepared to meetings. It’s the discipline to do this, and getting people to do it is the difficult part.

SGS: In the book, you talk about assessing people’s readiness and a leader needing to do that as part of helping change occur. Can you share with the readers what readiness is and how to assess and know that their team is ready to implement change?

CC: That goes right back to my work with Situational Leadership. If I go back to 1980, the word was “maturity,” and maturity was a component of ability and willingness. And then Paul Hersey changed the word maturity to ”readiness.” Kenny Blanchard changed it to the word ”development.” So readiness as a concept in Situational Leadership is – the person’s readiness for a specific task you’re asking them to do.

Let’s say you need to have a marketing proposal written. And you’re going to have somebody else do that. You have to ask yourself: Do they have the ability to do that, and how do I know that? Do they have task-specific experience? Do they have task-specific training? Are they clear in the priority of the specific task at this point in time? And willingness. What are the components of willingness? Does the person have the task-specific confidence to do this? Do they have the desire to do it? Did they have the incentive to do?

So those are the components of readiness—right out of Situational Leadership. And based upon your answers to those, if they don’t have the ability to write this proposal, then how am I going to coach them to do it? How am I going to help them be able to do it? Because so often, leadership training says, “You have to delegate, delegate, delegate.” Well, if you delegate to somebody who doesn’t know how to do it, you’re going get a bad decision quickly.

The whole idea of Situational Leadership is how you contrast styles. What can I delegate to you? And one of the great questions around that is, when you work with somebody, let’s say, “We need to build this porch on the house. Have you done it before? How successful were you? What do you think a budget would be?” Getting answers to these questions center around readiness. On my website, I think there’s an article on Situational Leadership that lays all those out. So that’s the concept of readiness as seen through Situational Leadership.

SGS: We talked about your approach with clients, your strategies, tips and methods for bringing about change. We’ve talked about how your book gives people a practical way to begin to use them in their lives. What advice would you give someone as they begin to implement those strategies and start to do some of the practices in the book? How can they tell they’re being successful?

CC: Great question. I think in terms of the Stakeholder Centered Coaching process—what are the most difficult things to get a successful leader to do? And the daily sheet is certainly one of them. And again, not completing it is not an option I give somebody when they start working with me. So let me just talk about that for a second.

Once that daily sheet is created—and there are six or eight items on there—like “Did I defer to somebody’s point of view,” “Did I differentiate between my opinion and fact?” Things like that, depending again on the goal you pick. They have to fill that out every day. And then, they email it to me at the end of the week. It’s just a little spreadsheet. Every day. And literally, it only takes… less than a minute?

So no one can give me the excuse they don’t have time to do it. And if they do, the only thing I can extrapolate from that is it wasn’t important enough for them to spend a minute in a day to do. I love to say to an executive, “The quality of your excuses is exquisite.” They’ll come up with blaming this or that. And I’ll say at the end, “Anyone else you want to blame?” And they’ll say, “No, I think I covered everybody.” And I said, “What part of this problem do you own?” And they’ll say, “No one’s asked me that question before.” And I say, “Well, I just did. You told me all the others that impacted why this didn’t happen. What part of this problem do you own?”

So much of what’s in the book, and what I do, and what I really wanted to get into the book, is that these are all learnable skills. When people say, “How do you get going?” I say, “Memorize 10 questions,” and in the back of the book, there are probably 10 pages of questions. Read through them, and highlight some. Like opinion versus fact: On a scale of 1 to 10, where would you put yourself? No matter what number somebody gives, “I’m committed on about a 7 level,” you say, “OK, well, what would it take to get it to an 8 or an 8 and a half?” There’s a question. You’re trying to drive them to think.

Now, the next one after the daily sheet: There’s a monthly check-in where you have to check in with your stakeholders. This is another magic move. Again, it’s a little spreadsheet. And I teach people to say this: “You know that I’m working at fill-in-the-blank. Building consensus. In the last month or so, have you noticed a difference?” That’s a question. And the person you’re asking might say, “Well, quite frankly, I haven’t.” And they’re going to be truthful—maybe you’re just starting this. You can say, “OK, fair enough, we haven’t been together that much. As you know, as one of my stakeholders, periodically, I’m going to be asking you this. By the way, any suggestions for me moving forward on how to be more effective in driving consensus?” You shut up, and you listen—that the conversation takes 2 minutes or less.

Again, this is not about, “Let’s set a meeting and talk about me.” You could do this walking down the hall or at the end of a phone call. And then, monthly, they have to send me the comments that the stakeholders have given them. This is the way I force people into doing the things that they told me they wanted to do. These are just tactics to use to do it.

Now, you ask the question again: “You know that I’m working at delegating more effectively. In the last month or so, have you noticed a difference?” The person can say, “Yeah, I have.” Then the follow-up question: “Is there anything specific you can point to?” They may say, “I can’t think of anything right now.” And I’d say, “That’s alright, fair enough. Periodically I’m going to be asking you. By the way, any suggestions moving forward?” Getting an executive to do that is monumentally challenging. And they don’t have the option if they’re going to work with me. I don’t get paid unless they improve, so there’s no option on this.

When I’m interviewing for an engagement, I lay it right out there because what I don’t want is someone saying, “Well, I didn’t know I was going to have to do this.” And I love saying to them, “I want to make this as easy as possible.” Back to what Marshall and I say: You pick the right people who want to get better at things. You get somebody who thinks they’re being put upon, they don’t want to do this, it’s another HR deal—you can get them to do some things, but will the success be sustained? Probably not.

An analogy I use is you put on the suit you want to wear to a wedding in a month, and it doesn’t fit. And you’ve gained 7 or 8 pounds, and you just can’t wear it, and you don’t want to go buy another one. And for the next three weeks, you lose 5 or 6 pounds to get into it, and then what happens after the wedding? You start putting the weight back on again. Unless you say, “You know what, I’m going to wear this suit every week, so I’m going to have to maintain this weight.”

But what we know is that 2/3s of people who lost significant weight put it all back on two years later. To quote Newton, “Every system in the universe looks to go back to a state of homeostasis—where it’s comfortable.” That’s our weight—we’re comfortable at a certain weight. Our behavior: we’re comfortable with it. So I love when somebody says, “Well, I’m uncomfortable doing it,” and as I said before, I say, “I have no interest in your comfort level. My job is to push and pull and get you to where you tell me you want to do—not to keep you comfortable. If you want to stay comfortable, get another coach.”

SGS: These concepts we’ve discussed and those in the book certainly transcend the corporate setting. How can people use the same strategies within their personal relationships or outside of the office? What would you say to those people who are not necessarily leaders as to why innovative questions and the Stakeholder Centered Coaching process can work for them in their personal life?

CC: You said, “People who are not necessarily leaders.” But leadership is merely trying to influence somebody to do something. So one of my questions always to people is, “Do you attempt to influence your boss?” And I’ve never had anybody say no. And so, in that situation, you are attempting to lead. Leadership, in a word, is influence. Leadership potential is power. And we all have different power bases that we can use to influence somebody to do something.

If you have the position of power, you can say, “Look, I’m the President and do what I told you. I’m your father—do what I told you, and don’t argue with me.” So we can use that power if we’re the powerful person in the room… for a while. Now you’ll get compliance, but will you get that person’s commitment long-term? Probably not. Are there times when you use your position power to make a decision to move forward? Absolutely.

There’s a point at which you say, “OK, is there any information that I haven’t gotten? We need to make a decision. Time is the new currency of business.” One of my favorite expressions is, “Good enough decisions, aggressively executed, improve as you move. Speed is the new currency.”

So when we say “leadership,” doing this can be life-changing—not just at work but also with the people you love, people that are important to you, to your kids. My kids are in their thirties, and they call me for advice. And one of the things I’ll often say is, “Well, do you want my opinion on what I would do if I were you, or do you want to bounce your ideas off of me?” They know I’m not going to lecture. I can be decisive. I am decisive. And I can push them to be decisive. But they know I don’t just lecture them as their father. They’re adults now, and they have to make choices on their own. I help them think it through, which is also what I do with other people.

So leadership, regardless of where you are in the organization, how do you use it? How do you influence up? If you’re going to influence up, the first thing you have to say is, “What’s important to the person above me?” I get too often people trying to lead up but go in and talk about, “Let me tell you what I need, let me tell you what I need,” versus really starting to think about the person that’s in the room who’s going to make the decision is the person above them. They better be making sure they’re positioning this in a way that makes sense to them.

The whole concept of power is important. I talk a bit about the types of power bases that people have in the book: legitimate, reward, punishment, connections, information, expertise, and charisma.

I mean, there are half a dozen power bases that we talk about. So, know what your power bases are, and then how do you use them effectively? An analogy I often give is: You’re the CEO, and your computer crashes and up comes the IT guy from the bowels or the organization, and he says to the CEO, “Look, here’s what you need to do if you don’t want this problem again.” And the CEO sits there and says, “OK, OK.” I mean, he’s not going to say, “I’m the boss here—let me tell you what I’m going to do.”

So you need to know your subject matter expertise, what you bring to it, and, even more importantly, how you position it that way. I think it was Ronald Reagan who had a great quote. He said, “You can get anything done in Washington if you let other people take the credit.” That’s an art, to lead up, as well as leading across. So often, we position it from our point of view without having the perspective and empathy for the other person’s needs. And there are some other things we talk about in the book: How do you develop that empathy and that perspective-taking? Which are key.

SGS: As our time together draws to a close, I wanted to give you an opportunity to talk about what you wanted the reader to walk away with after reading the book. Is there an overriding message that you want people to take with them?

CC: If there’s an overriding message walking away, I want people to be able to say, “I can influence situations better than I have in the past.” You know, often I’ll hear people say, “It takes two to have an effective conversation.” My response is, “Well, that’s great if you have two people who are willing and focused. But I disagree with that it takes two. One who is skilled at the art and skill of effective decision-making, dealing with conflict, and argumentation can do a lot to effect a more beneficial outcome by asking the right questions at the right time and leaving unsaid the wrong thing at a very tempting moment.

If someone comes in very emotional, how do you help to diffuse that and get the person refocused? By the statements you make. “I can see this has upset you. What were you hoping I could do?” The worst thing to say is, “Well, there’s nothing to be upset about.” If someone’s upset, they’re upset.

Again, we only do three things: think, feel, and behave. You cannot control your feelings. You see what happened in Paris over the weekend, and you turn on the TV—what’s going through your head, and your feelings are not controllable. Now your behavior is what we as adults need to be able to control. I may be turning inside tremendously. What do I need to do if I need to get in front of an audience? If you’re an actor and you have to go on Broadway, you have to go on. The audience doesn’t care much if you’ve had a tough day. It’s showtime.

I had a person call me all upset one time—a Silicon Valley executive—, and he’s angry, his boss is angry with him, and everything else. And he starts in, and then he’s all done, and he asks, “Any advice?” And I said, “Yeah, I have some advice for you, but let me put it in context. You work for a great company. You’re worth a bazillion dollars. You have a great family, a great life, and a couple of great kids. You make a terrific living. I suggest you hang up the phone, walk in the men’s room, look in the mirror, say ‘God Bless America,’ and stop whining. Your boss has upset you. What part of this problem do you own?” And he said, “Well, that’s insensitive, isn’t it?” And I said, “You know, if you called for a shoulder to cry on, you called the wrong guy. So what is it that you’re going to do?”

Now, again, I think you have to let people express their feelings and feel them. And that’s fine for 30 seconds or a minute. Thirty minutes of listening to someone whine over something is a little too much. My question is, “What are you going to do about it?” And another question is, “What were you hoping I could do to help?” And that’s so much a part of what the book is and the essence of what my coaching is. Now it’s like any book—you can read it, and you can understand it—but at the end of each chapter, there are little “to-dos,” there’s the concept of the daily sheet, there are questions in the back: general questions, ideal final result questions, scale questions, Top 25 questions. Just look at them and highlight the ones that appeal to you. If you did nothing else but go to the back of the book and read over all those questions, and really come up with ten questions—where you say, “I’m going learn these, I’m going take them from the pre-frontal cortex part of my brain, and I’m going get them into my hard wiring and just learn them”—you’ll be amazed at how good you can get.

Other suggestions—people say, “How else do you do this?”—I say, “You know what? Watch somebody interview somebody on television. And think about the questions; if you were in the interviewer’s seat, what are the questions you would ask? Watch any of these presidential debates. What questions didn’t get asked that if you were there, you would’ve asked.”

Larry King could get anybody on his show because he asked softball questions and made everybody look good. It’s not a criticism. It’s just an observation. Another way to do it is to read anybody’s speech—read the President’s speech. In a speech, it’s one way. You can make any claim you want in a speech. “We have Isis contained.” Well, that’s a claim. What evidence do you have to back that up? How are you connecting the dots to make that claim? And so you can practice getting good at this if you want.

So I would hope somebody coming out of the book highlights questions. That’s why you can get it electronically. Maybe you can underline and highlight and condense and do all of that. But when I read a book like this—I mean I have a pencil, I stop, I read, I make notes, I put post-its in it. Then I summarize it. And then I go back and I’ll condense it down to 4 or 5 pages, and I’ll read that over, I’ll put it on a little disc, I’ll listen to it in the car, and it goes into my brain.

You know, I work on my short game in golf. I took the first 70 pages of David Pelz’s Short Game Bible, and condensed it down to about 3 of 4 pages, and it’s there. So I think there’s a big difference between understanding and being able to do. And that’s where self-discipline and self-control really come into play. If I were to analyze myself: I have much more self-discipline than self-control.

SGS: Putting things into practice, asking yourself key questions, and creating your own daily sheet and the other tips you shared are great practical ways people can begin to bring about the change they seek and begin influencing others more effectively. Thank you.

CC: It’s amazing how it can change your life. It truly can.

SGS: What’s next for Chris Coffey, and how best can people find out about what you’re working on and planning for the future?

CC: I’ll just go back to my simple philosophy: “Learn as if you’re going to live forever. Live as if you’re going to die tomorrow, and be happy now.” Again, you can tie in The Ten Commandments, The Constitution, and a lot of stuff into that. All of that would need to be defined from my point of view. So for me, you know, people ask me when I’m going to retire. And I say, “Retire and do what?” As much as I love golf and skiing, I can’t do it all the time. The two most important days of your life are the day you’re born, and the day you find out why. And I’ll go back to senior year of prep school, and John McLaughlin said, “You’re going to be a teacher,” and I just dismissed it outright.

And that’s really what I am. So when people ask me what I do, very often—if I’m playing golf with strangers—I just say that I’m a teacher, and there’s an end to it versus “I’m a coach.” Then you have to describe everything, and I’m out here to play golf. Now if somebody asks me that on a plane and I think it might be business, I might say, “Well, I help successful people have a positive change in behavior that’s sustainable and recognizable by others, and if they get better at the end of the year, then I get paid.” That leads to, “What do you mean you get paid?” Then you talk more.

But for me, moving forward, I want to continue to add value. One thing I’m looking forward to is being a grandfather. I mean, I’m not even close. My son and my daughter don’t have any children in the hopper that I’m aware of. I’m envious of Frank Wagner, who’s got seven grandchildren, and Marshall’s daughter Kelly just had twins, so now he’s got two grandkids. And I’m still waiting, so I’m looking forward to that. I think that would certainly change my life, and my golf game would probably suffer a bit, and so be it. I’m a pretty happy, optimistic person. Life is good. So for me, it’s more of the same, and the key thing is adding value.

SGS: Chris, we’ve come to the end of our time together, and I want to take this opportunity to thank you for sharing your experiences, knowledge and tips with all of us today. I enjoyed our conversation.

CC: Any time. People call, and I’m more than happy to share what I know. I had one person, just as anecdotal, from a company. We were on the phone similar to the way we are now, and I was sharing all of this, and about twenty minutes into it, she stopped, and she said, “You know, I have to ask you a question. I’m an external coach. Why are you willing to share with me everything you do?” I said, to quote Buckminster Fuller, “I think sharing is having more.” Everything on my webpage is available to you. In fact, Buckminster Fuller, on his gravestone, has one thing and it says: “Call me trimtab.” Do you know what a trimtab is?

SGS: I‘m not familiar with that term.

CC: A trimtab is a sailing term. So every big boat—every aircraft carrier or big yacht—has a rudder that you turn, but at the bottom of the rudder there’s another little tiny rudder that just starts it to go. And it’s called the trimtab. And so he just said, “Call me trimtab.” And I thought, “Wow. How profound.” So if I think of myself, what are little tipping point behaviors or tips that I give people that they call and thank me for? It’s just changed how I do things. So in lots of ways, I think of myself as a trimtab, and people take it as they go.

So for the people reading this, I have a brand new website up. After, I think 12 or 13 years, I finally had it redone. It’s ChristopherCoffey.com. There’s a page on there if anyone wants to contact me or ask for more input on different things I talked about. Also, there are the first 25 or 30 pages of the book you can download and read and see if it’s something you’d like to read more of. And that’s how to reach me.

If you’d like to purchase Chris Coffey’s book, please click here.

In case you missed it, read Part One of my interview with Chris here, and be sure to keep your eye out for the next Leadership Compound Conversation!

P.S. Like what you see here? Sign up in the red box below, and I’ll send my blog posts directly to your inbox.

An Interview With Chris Coffey (Part 1)

Feb 16

Chris Coffey has been successfully working with clients in the Fortune 100 for more than 30 years, and he doesn’t get paid unless there is a positive change in behavior that’s sustainable, recognized, and acknowledged by others.

His journey to becoming a noted executive coach, keynote speaker, and trainer was certainly far from the norm, as he started with law school and an acting career.

In 1980, Chris was hired to work for Dr. Paul Hersey at the Center for Leadership Studies, where he delivered Situational Leadership seminars to Fortune 50 companies. His stage and movie experience proved extremely useful in teaching and presenting, and he had finally found his calling. While at the Center for Leadership, Chris met Frank Wagner and Marshall Goldsmith, and by 1984, he was fully engaged in consulting as a member of the prestigious Keilty, Goldsmith & Boone firm, where he delivered the Excellent Manager Program and worked with Marshall and Frank in pioneering the use of 360-degree feedback.

Through the ensuing years, his life’s work became about focusing on “Helping Successful People Get Even Better.”

With the release of his insightful new book, “The New IQ,” Chris and his co-author David Lam share Chris’ methodology and some immediately useable techniques that can literally change your life and turn confrontational situations into truly productive outcomes. As David himself says in the student introduction to the book, “Chris’ methodology works. I thought it was amazing when I first started learning with Chris, and it just keeps getting better.”

I recently asked Chris to sit down with me to talk more about his new book and to share the foundational elements of Innovative Questions so that you too can learn how to become even more successful and have more productive conversations. I feel very fortunate to have met Chris and to be able to share with you Part One of our two-part conversation. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Susan Gilell-Stuy: I’d like to begin our conversation with what led to your writing The New IQ and what made this the right topic and the right time.

Christopher Coffey: I would say probably in the early 2000s, Marshall Goldsmith was really pushing me to write. And it was interesting, as my response was always, and forget your political persuasion, that Socrates, Jesus, and Buddha if you think of it from a world point of view, have certainly influenced and impacted our world. And I said to him as far as I know, none of them have written anything. And fortunately, Socrates had Plato and Aristotle, Jesus had Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and Paul went out and sold it, and Confucius has his students who captured everything. So I said so why don’t you write and just let me go teach? I said there are 2 ways you can do this: You can be the candle, or you can be the mirror that reflects it. So let me just be the mirror that reflects, and you write.

But then, over the years, people kept pushing me to do it. And the seminal moment came over lunch with a former student of mine named David Lam, who’s my co-author of the book. David would call me periodically, and we’d have lunch, and he’d have an issue he wanted to talk about, and he said to me, “You know, you ought to write a book,” and he was about the third person in a month who said that. And I said, “David, I’m not going to write a book. First of all, I’m too lazy, it’s hard work, and I’m not a writer. You know, I don’t want to put that much effort in.” And that was the end of the conversation. Then about two weeks later, I got an email with about twelve written pages, and he said, “You know, whenever I’m with you, I just capture things that you say,” and he said, “Why don’t we collaborate on this? And let me interview you, and you talk, and I’ll write, and you edit, and let’s see if we can come up with something.”

So I said we needed to come up with a theme. And the theme really was: student/teacher. It’s my process and my philosophy of how to do this, and he was the guy that execute. He doesn’t do what I do—he’s an IT guy—so it was an interesting collaboration. I think the stars just lined up.

SGS: The structure of the book is based on the idea of student/teacher with you in the role of teacher and David as a student. How does the theme of student/teacher fit with coach/client or leader/team member?

CC: I think David would always think of himself as a student of mine: he was the CIO at Stephen S Wise Temple at the time. And he’d run into problems with people and what have you. And I’d say it’s not much dissimilar than anyone who I worked with as a coach who’d say, “You know what, I want to write an article about having worked with you,” which is what they do at the end of a coaching engagement when they write their after-action review.

There are four questions: What’d you set out to do? What happened and why? What insights have you gotten? And what are you going to do to maximize this investment of time and money you put into working with me? And they write it.

And I find that to be the most rewarding part of my job when people call and say, “Let me tell you how my life’s been different because of something we discussed or my working with you.”

SGS: You have had unique and varied life experiences and careers that have contributed to the person/coach you are today. What I would like people reading this post to understand is: How they shaped your thinking, defined your core philosophy, and led to your passion for helping already successful leaders become even more successful?

CC: Well, I guess everything starts with the family. I was raised Irish Catholic. My mother ran the place. What my mother said went, and that was it. She would say, “You do this, and I’m going to tell your father.” Well, I wasn’t afraid of my father—it was my mother who I was afraid of. It was interesting when I got out of the little Catholic grammar school; the principal went to see my parents and said, “If you let him go to the local public high school, you’re quite likely to have a juvenile delinquent on your hands. He’s the class clown, and he could go in a positive direction or a negative direction. We’ve all certainly seen both of those.” So they suggested they get me down to a Jesuit prep school, which I didn’t particularly want to go to, but I did. I was an athlete, and it was a great school to be an athlete in.

Then I had a teacher senior year in prep school. His name was John McLaughlin, and some people knew him from the McLaughlin Group on television. He’s been around for years. He was my homeroom teacher senior year. And he said to me, “You’re going to be a teacher.” Everyone thought I was going to be an attorney. I was on the debating team. I did all of those things. I loved to argue. I loved to win debates. And when he said, “You’re going to be a teacher,” I thought he was crazy.

So I went on to college and majored in Philosophy and Marketing. Did the Navy. I was a typically lost soul of the 60s. Became a ski bum in Aspen. Started law school. And then became an actor and lived in New York. And I think the acting skill of learning to be a character, think like a character, what’s the behavior you want, who’s the protagonist, who’s the antagonist, all of those things. And then, in 1980, I met Paul Hersey at The Center for Leadership Studies. And I started to teach Situational Leadership and did stand-up leadership training for 20 years. That’s where I met Marshall Goldsmith and Frank Wagner. I taught at companies like IBM, McKinsey and Company, and Citibank. And that’s pretty much what led me to my philosophy of life. You’ve probably seen in some of my emails my sign-off, “Learn as if you’re going to live forever. Live as if you’re going to die tomorrow, and be happy now,” and they’re not hollow words for me. I try to live my life that way. I think I have a moral responsibility to my family to be happy and optimistic.

SGS: I know you’re an avid golfer and that you frequently use golf to illustrate concepts when you speak, teach and coach. Jack Nicklaus is often quoted as saying, “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” How does practice as a leader develop the leader’s skills? What have you learned about life from golf?

CC: Well, I took up golf seriously at the age of 60. And I’ve become much better. I’d grown up as a caddie as a kid, but I never played at all. I was a basketball player then, so golf was really never something I got into until really late in life. So I went down to take a golf lesson because I like to get better at things, and everyone kept saying to me, “You’ve got potential, you’ve got potential.” And either you turn potential into skill and ability, or it becomes unrecognized potential.

I went down to the golf pro somebody recommended and hit a few balls, and he looked at me and said, “You’ve never had a lesson?” And I said, ”No, with pride,” and he said, “It shows.” And then he said to me: “How good of a golfer do you want to be?” And I thought, “Wow,” what a great question, and it’s one that I use all the time in my coaching, and then I said, “I want to be a single-digit handicap and be able to play to it, but I don’t have the time. I work full time; I have a family, lots of excuses like most people.”

Well, when you think about practice: repeated, focused, purposeful attention, perfect practice makes you as close to perfect as you’re going to get. All of us have little bits of time during the day that we just let slip away, and I made a commitment to see how good I could become. And I went from shooting bogey and double bogey golf to a seven handicap, and I’m a pretty good golfer, and I work at it. And now, this year, even after shoulder surgery, I want to get it down to a five handicap. I like to get better at things. That’s just my DNA. If I’m going to do something, I want to do it as well as I can.

So with anything, find good instruction—learn from that. Then practice. This is the mantra I tell leaders that I’m coaching.

I had one person who was a Chief Financial Officer, and he said to me, you know, “How good of a leader do I need to be?” And I said,“Only good enough for me to get paid from my point of view.” I coach and work with people for at least a year, and I don’t get paid until the end of the engagement, and that’s only if they improve, as seen by others. I’m sure we’ll get to that later on.

So I said to him, “Just good enough for you to get better, but that’s not the right question though,” I said, “The right question is how good of a leader do you want to be?” just like “How good of a golfer do you want to be?” or “How good of a skier do you want to be?” “How good of a parent do you want to be?” “How good of a collaborator do you want to be?” “Do you want to be seen as a good collaborator?” And these are questions that one person can’t answer for the other. You can ask questions, but you can’t answer them for people.

And I think too many coaches try to answer them for people, and I don’t do that. So with golf, I keep the clubs in the car, I’ll stop for 15 or 20 minutes, and I’ll practice different parts of the game. It’s just like communication: it’s the short game, inside 40 yards, chipping, putting. There are many, many aspects of golf, just as there are in communicating. And which ones are you good at? Which ones do you want to get better at? And if you do, how will that improve the overall skill? So the bottom line is repeated, purposeful, focused attention. And I tell people that it takes courage and discipline—discipline primarily and follow through.

SGS: Please share with the readers a little bit about how you began working with leaders, how your methodology and approach evolved, and when you found it most rewarding.

CC: Well, I’ve been doing this since 1980. In 1980 I got recruited—it was a seminal moment in my life—I was an actor in Los Angeles and doing OK. Quite frankly, I was a little bored. I’d moved out of New York. We had our first child in 1980. And then, I met Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard of Situational Leadership. And what’s changed when you project back that far is that companies just didn’t do leadership training very much back then. At the time, they were putting Paul Hersey on ¾” videotape. This was before VHS or Beta or any of that. And I taught Situational Leadership at IBM. Probably who better than an actor to bring this stuff to life? Hersey was the content guru with the videotapes. So I was hired to do that, as was Frank Wagner and Marshall Goldsmith and all the rest of us.

And over the next 20 years, it evolved. I started my own company in 1986 with a couple of other guys. And we basically taught Situational Leadership, The Excellent Manager, DNA teams, Influence Without Authority—all these different workshops—we were pioneers with 360-degree feedback. In fact, our company was the first one to put it online in 1991 with Silicon Graphics. So for the first 20 years, it was stand up, teaching, and giving people 360-degree feedback, helping them develop a plan, collecting them, and saying goodbye. I think the mistaken belief was, “If they understand, they will do.”

And then, around 2000, Marshall Goldsmith and I and Frank Wagner reconnected. Agilent was splitting off from Hewlett Packard, Jack Welch was leaving GE, and everyone knew that there were seven internal candidates for Jack Welch’s job at GE, and then a new word came into our lexicon called “bench strength.” GE was reputed to be three-deep at the top 300 spots, and so everybody started to think about bench strength and succession planning, and coaching really started to take off. Marshall Goldsmith got a contract with Agilent to coach 24 high-potential individuals. And he and I talked, and he said, “I would like you to take 4 of these people.” And I said, “Well, what am I going to do with them?” And he said, “We’ll make it up as we go.”

So it evolved into the Stakeholder Centered Coaching process like the one we do today. In a nutshell, it’s active involvement of stakeholders, and a measurement tool, which we call a mini-survey, after a leader picks a couple of key skills to work on: delegate, collaborate, hold people accountable, and focus on what’s most important. Whatever it is—based on feedback, interviews, or however you get to it. Engage stakeholders, and measure it. Frank, Marshall, and I are the three people that still do it. There may be some others. And, you know, we don’t get paid until the end, and we only get paid if there’s improvement seen by the stakeholders.

So I think the change is that companies have gone from “Let’s train everybody” to “Where are we going to get the biggest return for the money we invest?” The whole high potential movement came in, and one of the ways I describe what we do is, “How do we help shorten peoples’ learning curve?” And I love when somebody says, “Well, this will come with maturity, and maturity will come with time.” And my response to that is, “The only thing that comes from time is age—not wisdom.”

SGS: How do you view the role of the coach in the Stakeholder Centered Coaching process and coaching in general?

CC: So part of the job as a good coach and part of the reason for writing the book is “How do you shorten peoples’ learning curve?” I think too often with self-help books, which is probably the category mine would be put in; people dismiss them as just being common sense. I love when someone says, “I’ve heard that before.” Using golf again as an analogy, you can understand a golf swing. It’s not hard to understand—you can read Golf Magazine ad nauseam. But the ability to go out and execute a shot is a different story, so understanding doesn’t mean you have the ability—it just means you understand.

SGS: You’ve mentioned that the belief with respect to leadership development was: “If they know and believe, then they’ll do” and that you learned through experience more than understanding was required. Would you say that The Stakeholder Centered Coaching process and your new book The New IQ really give people the structure needed and practice needed to move beyond just understanding to really implement the behavioral changes needed to become more successful?

CC: I think so. I mean, that’s the feedback we get from people who do the two-day certification. They come out and say, “You’ve given me a new perspective.” I think too often, coaches make it about themselves. I have this degree—I have that. I have this credential—I have that. As an example, for one of my engagements, I did not get paid—I refused the money back in 2001. The reason was I thought I could get an adult to do something when that adult didn’t want to do it. You can get them to do it if you have the position power to make them do it for a period of time. But it won’t last. They won’t sustain it unless they see the value in it themselves.

SGS: I know that you and Marshall say that client selection is key relative to how much success you have as a coach. What is the most important element for you in choosing a client to work with or that a leader should look for when using your methods with a team member?

CC: If you’re not going to get paid until the end, and only if there’s an improvement, client selection is absolutely imperative. And that’s why on the front end, we make the effort to say, “You say you want to collaborate more effectively—what’s in it for you, and what’s the benefit?” The way I describe myself as a coach I say, “I help successful people have a positive change in behavior that’s sustainable, and that’s recognized and acknowledged by others.” And if you dissect that sentence, there is a lot in it. But they have to be able to articulate to me why they want to do this. Why do you want to lose weight? Why do you want to stop drinking? Why do you want to be a better collaborator? Why do you want to be a better decision-maker? Why do you want to be seen as someone that takes more appropriate risks?

They have to be able to viscerally feel it and articulate it to me before we move on. That’s how I judge their commitment to do it. Three words that I use to describe it: it takes courage, discipline, and humility. The courage to be able to say to a group of people, “As good as I am, I’d like to be more effective at fill-in-the-blank.” Collaborate. Delegate. Listen. Do you have self-control? Do you have self-discipline? I think the discipline to follow through is key to everything.

SGS: How important is long-term commitment on the part of the leader being coached and the leader implementing your strategies to the success of the process?

CC: It’s critical all the way through. I would make the case that the first 20 years of doing this, coming out of a workshop—let’s say you have 20 people in front of you. I would say probably 80% of those people have the commitment at that moment. They walk out of there saying, “I’m going to do this. I’m going to give it a try.” But then it wanes. I think everyone who joins a health club on January 1st with a New Year’s resolution is committed at the moment, or they wouldn’t have gone in and spent the money. How do you sustain it, though?

SGS: How do you help your clients maintain the momentum needed to move forward and sustain the changes they make? What can leaders learn about change from this that will help them more broadly?

CC: Well, part of our approach to working with an executive is that we work with them for a year; we don’t get paid for a year—we only get paid if they improve. So at the beginning, it’s easy: you interview, you come up with a whole bunch of stuff, you do the interview 360, they pick a couple of things, you get suggestions from the stakeholders, you build an action plan, you share the action plan with the stakeholders, and you say, “Hold them accountable to doing these things.”

There are three ways to be a coach. You can be a scorekeeper, a referee, or a real advisor. The scorekeeper just says monthly, you have to check in with the stakeholders, and ask if they’ve noticed a difference or if they have any suggestions moving forward. The referee may chastise somebody and say, “Look, you said you were going to do this, don’t blow smoke up my nose, are you committed to doing it?” And they call people on things that they said they were going to do that they don’t. And then ultimately, if you get to be an advisor or confidant to them, they really trust when you’re making suggestions on how to do things. And I know there’s a lot of coaching out there that says, “A coach never makes suggestions—you just help them discover it themselves.” But I have a different philosophy.

You ask a few questions. That’s what my book is all about. But ultimately, speed is the new currency of business, and if you can help people shorten their learning curve, you make suggestions. So I think part of the answer is, as a coach, it’s your job to keep people’s feet to the fire. And that’s part of what the Stakeholder Centered Coaching process teaches people what to do and how to do it. And it’s not time-consuming—that’s what executives love. I mean, we have 1500 coaches around the world doing this now.

SGS: I’d like you to tie the Stakeholder Centered Coaching methodology to the ideas and concepts in your book. I see these two as highly complementary. The book contains a lot of tips and nuggets that I thought complemented the program well and even deepened the process. How do you see the two going hand-in-hand and working together? How can a leader reading the book execute the strategies and tips?

CC: You know, Marshall had written What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, and he lists all those unrecognizable habits: adding too much value, passing judgment, making excuses. And then Triggers—I had the good fortune as Marshall was writing Triggers to get different chapters and what have you, and he really gets into talking about, “What are the things inside of us that lead to certain behaviors, and what are external triggers, stimulus, that get us to react certain ways?” And what I really thought about this book is, “How do we really take it down to the micro level to help people execute on all these?” So someone in an action plan may say, “Build consensus.” But that’s really a goal. An ideal final result is that people see you as somebody who can help build consensus and get people committed to move in a certain direction.

So what are questions you could ask to build consensus? Somebody may be talking about something, and you’re listening, and you don’t really agree. And so a question you might ask is, “Well, is that your opinion? Or do you have some empirical data to back that up?” Now if people think your intention of asking that is to belittle them, then that’s a problem. If people see you asking that question, you say, “Well, I don’t see it the way you do.” So all the way through the book, it’s about, “What’s a question you would ask, or a statement you would make, to create a safe space for both you and your conversational partner to come up with better decisions?” I think the book really gets down to the micro level. And I think in the back of it there are about 10 pages of questions. People often will say to me, “Well, these just a roll of your tongue,” and I say, “My ad-libbed lines are well rehearsed,” to quote a line from a Rod Stewart song. Everything I say, I’ve said a million times. Most of us don’t say anything really original. We’ve said it before. That’s not criticism—it’s just an observation.

So how do you get people to ask good questions? Someone says, “We’re going to need to be successful on this,” and I agree with you. Instead of starting with what you disagree with—what do you agree with? For instance, I may say some things, and I’d say to somebody, “Now, before you tell me what you disagree with, what is it that I just said that you agree with?” It totally changes the likely response you would’ve gotten from them, and you’re building off the positive versus the negative. And let me be clear: These are all learned skills for Chris Coffey. I wasn’t raised this way—I was raised as a debater to tell me, “Let me tell you where you’re wrong.” Or when somebody says, “I agree with you,” I say, “Well, of course, you know, you’re smart, and I’m smart, and I can tell you’re smart because you agree with me.” I mean, you can get into that mindset also. Or you can say, “You know, in listening to you, I agree with A, B, and C. You and I are in sync on that. But with D, I don’t see how D gets us from here to the desired result we said we wanted. What am I missing?” There’s the question. Then you toss it back to them to clarify.

Now the magic sauce in this, as I articulate in the book and in classes that I do, is you have to be open to changing your mind. And I will say that the level of individuals I work with, successful people, smart people, very often the most powerful person in the room—getting that individual to be open to changing their mind can be huge. And this is the way the whole book is laid out, to really get down to that micro level of behaviors. All we humans deal with three things: We think, we feel, and we behave. That’s it. Thinking can’t be seen. And you can’t see feelings—you can only see a behavior that’s been a result of a feeling. For example, you see somebody who’s really sad. What is it about their demeanor or what they’re saying, or their tone of voice that leads you to believe they’re sad?

SGS: Being open to changing the way you think about things is key to success in changing behavior. How do you determine if a leader is open to changing their mind? What should people look for in others that show them the other person is receptive to changing their mind? What might be the challenge they face in having this type of conversation?

CC: Depending on the person sitting in front of you, I might say to somebody, “When was the last time that you changed your mind?” Here’s an example everyone can understand, and this will certainly date what’s going on: We have Presidential Debates going on, and Donald Trump is leading on the Republican side. Staying out of politics and which way I lead is irrelevant here; the question I would ask Donald Trump: “You’ve been a very successful businessman, and you’ve made that point. You build golf courses. You build buildings. When is the last time somebody around you has gotten you to change your mind?” And see if he can come up with an answer. They asked Ben Carson yesterday on a talk show, “What would you do with this problem that’s just happened in Paris?” I don’t know what he said. I didn’t see it. I just knew that he was on, and he was going to be asked that question.

But I think the answer is he’s a neurosurgeon. I think anybody on that stage would say, “I would call on our military experts. They’re the subject matter experts on this. And if we want to win this war, if we’re going to declare ourselves a war with ISIS, you’re the subject matter experts, so talk to me. “What should we do?” Which is exactly what John Kennedy did for The Cuban Missile Crisis after the disaster of The Bay of Pigs the year before. So you have to know what you have subject matter expertise about. Surround yourself with smart people and listen to them. But also relate your decision.

Now so often, and back to corporate America, if you move up in corporate America, it’s because you’re good in the discipline you’re in. I’m working with two Senior Vice Presidents right now—one in IT and one in Systems Engineering—and the two different Presidents that they report to. In my interview with them, one of the Presidents said, “If they continue to do what they did as Vice Presidents, and they were extremely successful Vice Presidents, they will fail at the Senior VP level.” So I said tell me more. And he said, “They were the go-to in Technical, both in Engineering and IT. They’re brilliant. But now they have a seat at the big table. Both of them need to see the big picture more. They need to be able to discuss, debate, and present points of view about their field. They also have to have a broader understanding of the economics of it, the finances of it, and the marketing of it. There’s the big table.”

So back to What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, it tends to be the people skills. Do you have what it takes as you move up to be able to disagree without being disagreeable to ask those good questions? I was a single father for 10 years. I had my children half the time, and their mother had them half the time. My son, who was 8 at the time, would come in, and he’d start barking about something he wanted to do. And I’d let him get all the air out, and then I’d say, “Now Christopher, what do you think the likelihood of you getting what you want is, from me, with that approach? Is it high or low?” And he’d look at me and say, “Low.” So I’d say, “I suggest you walk back out that door, you think about what you want, you think about what’s important to me. What is it that I’m going to need to see in order for me to be willing to let you do what you want to do?” And he’d walk out and come back in, and it’d be amazing to see the difference in his approach. And then I’d ask questions, and I’d always look for one to say, “You know, I’m not quite clear on this. You’re going to need to give me a little bit more on this one.” And it’s fascinating watching an 8 or 9-year-old figure those things out.

Now the key is not just for me as a father of an 8 and 11-year-old at the time, for a Senior Vice President, when somebody’s coming in who’s saying, “I’m not sure this is the right way to go and let me tell you why,” how open are you to changing your mind? Do you really look for opportunities to defer to somebody else’s point of view? Because once you get a reputation of, “It’s his way, he’s thought it through, he’s smart,” well, why do I need to prepare to come to this meeting? The guy knows what he’s going to do. I have other things I can focus on. Yet if you know that that person’s going to say, “I agree with A and B. But I don’t see C the same way. Convince me. I’m open,” you’d come more prepared. There are the things to put focus on, what I put focus on in my coaching, and so much of the book is getting down to what are those questions. On a scale of 1 to 10, if you could wave a magic wand, what could you do differently? Shut up and listen. That’s what’s fun.

SGS: I know that argumentation is one of your areas of expertise, and you subtly talked about it and demonstrated how you practiced it in how you dealt with your children and senior leaders with whom you work. What strategies and concepts, and innovative questions will help the reader resolve disagreements more effectively? If you had to give them only one nugget, what would that be?

CC: Let’s save the one nugget until the end, and let me extrapolate out of that. Like I said, the first 20 years, I taught a lot of Situational Leadership and different workshops. As I got into coaching and really working with individuals, all of a sudden, you can take what you taught in a class, and now you have to help people execute it.

And what I really started to think about: What are new skills that I, Chris Coffey, want to get good at? Certainly, conflict management and conflict resolution. Conflict is inherent in human nature. You want to go to a steak restaurant, and your spouse wants to go to a fish restaurant, and there’s conflict. How do you resolve it? Now if you’re smart, you say, “Honey, wherever you want to go, it’s fine with me.”

SGS: A wise man.

CC: A wise man! So then it becomes: Do you want to debate it, or do you want to accommodate the other person? What is it that you want to do? There are different models out there. There’s the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Resolution: You accommodate, you collaborate, you compete, you avoid, and you compromise. They’re all different results, negotiating skills, decision-making skills, and argumentation skills.

What led me to argumentation is my whole background in debating. And I think, unfortunately it’s called argumentation because people see arguing as negative. Just think about parenting: “Don’t argue with your brother.” It’s a skill very often that’s not appreciated or seen positively. Now certainly my background, 8 years with Jesuits, you debated everything. And I started to say, “I really want to get good at this,” so I started reading different books and thinking about it.

And I really started to put together my thoughts on argumentation. If you think about it: It’s rhetoric, it’s logic, and it’s dialectic. Rhetoric shows concern for an audience. Logic shows a concern for the structure of reasoning and how you put together your thoughts together. Dialectic shows a concern for your questioning of knowledge through Q and A. How do you do it for yourself? How do you do it with others? It’s a whole big field of study. First of all, somebody makes a claim. The components of an argument: There’s a claim, there’s evidence, there’s inference, and there’s a warrant. A claim is a statement you want the listener to believe. Evidence is the grounds you have for making that claim. Inference is just a fancy word for how you’re connecting the dots. What’s the main proof-line from the evidence to the claim? And then the warrant is what gives you the license to make the inference and the claim in the first place. In other words: What makes you a subject matter expert on this?

In our legal system, that’s an expert witness. I’m going to bring in my expert witness, you’re going to bring in your expert witness, and we’re going to let an impartial jury decide which one of these two is really the expert. I teach people those concepts and the skills to execute them, and so when I’m working with somebody, they make a claim, and a question I might ask is, “Well, what evidence do you have to back that up?” Another question might be, “Well, is that your opinion?” Or is that based on some empirical data—some evidence that we could use to support it?” So my point in this is when you know different models—Situational Leadership, DNA of Teams, Conflict Resolution, Argumentation—it leads naturally to questions. You start to frame things that way. And you start to think, “What are the best compliments I get as a coach?” And, “You not only got me to change certain behaviors, but you got me thinking differently.” If you’re listening to somebody, they make a claim, and you think it’s just a fallacious, outrageous claim. What most of us tend to do in that situation is just argue and tell them where they’re wrong instead of asking questions.

The most powerful way to influence is by asking questions and not telling. That’s the whole Socratic approach. Back again to the political thing when we have to debate global warming: To what extent does man impact it? Is it really warming? The South Pole’s getting colder: all of that stuff. One side says, “It’s settled science.” And that’s just an oxymoron, to begin with—science is never settled. So if someone was going to make that statement to me, I’d say, “Settled science? The earth was flat 500 years ago. That was settled science. The earth was the center of the universe. That was settled science for a long time.” And then it wasn’t. By the very nature of making a claim like that—it’s settled science—I can take that apart in an instant because it’s a fallacious claim. But if you can see things through the eyes of a model, and you see things unfolding that way, it leads naturally to asking good questions.

So when people say, “Do you always just ask questions?”—Look, let’s say I were to reframe what somebody said, I can reframe back what they said, and then the question would be, “Is that accurate?” If they say, “Well, not quite,” then my question would be, “What would be, then? What did I miss?” But again, this all has to be done with integrity and the desire to help. I just can’t emphasize too strongly: This cannot be seen as, “I’m going to show you that I’m smarter than you are” or “I’m going to belittle you.” Instead, it truly has to come from, as I say in the book, a basis of integrity. You want to be a fair player. And you want to create the best possible outcome for all concerned. The conventional way to describe it is creating a win-win. And can you work toward that?

Going back to global warming, somebody says, “It’s absolutely man’s fault.” Then you have the other side that says, “Man doesn’t have anything to do with it.” If you’re arguing with either side of that… I’m going to quote Mark Twain here. He says, “Don’t argue with a fool because onlookers won’t be able to distinguish between the two of you.” And so I may say to somebody, the question might be, “It sounds to me like no matter what I say or with new evidence that gets presented, your mind is made up, and you’re not willing to change your mind. Is that an accurate assessment on my part?” How do you answer that question? And if they say, “Yes,” then the conversation’s over. But what I’ve learned to do is walk away from silly situations where you can’t possibly have an impact.

If you’d like to purchase Chris Coffey’s book, please click here.

Click here for Part Two of my interview with Chris Coffey!

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A Transformative Conversation (Part 2)

with Dr. Ada Gonzalez

Aug 05

This week we continue with Part Two of our interview with Dr. Ada Gonzalez. In her new book, Transformative Conversations, Dr. Gonzalez weaves wisdom from many sources. She makes a case for the value of engaging in effective dialogue and gives the reader clear guidance about how they can harness the power of dialogue to ignite the level of engagement and commitment needed to accomplish their own business priorities and goals.

Dr. Ada Gonzalez is an executive coach, facilitator, and consultant in organizational development. She translates theory and research findings into practice in day-to-day activities, supporting business strategy and results. In addition to undergraduate and graduate work at Andrews University in Michigan, she earned her Ph.D. at the Union Institute and University on Organizational Behavior, with an emphasis on leadership, dialogue, and change. She is currently working as an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware.


How does being comfortable with not knowing as a leader contribute to fostering dialogue?

Some leaders are tempted to think they must know everything about everything, so to speak. As leaders gain professional maturity, they realize that’s impossible and impractical. It’s a leader’s role to be the catalyst for others to become experts in their disciplines. This is why the best leaders are not necessarily specialists in their fields—they focus less on giving advice and more on asking probing questions. This technique allows employees to discover the best path on their own. That is the power of not knowing. To facilitate transformative conversations, a leader must “not know.”

Similarly, in dialogue, you leave the comfort of the known to explore the unknown. Not knowing requires a humble, patient, open perspective: you are the student, not the expert. Not knowing can:

  • Fill dialogue with fresh wonder
  • Encourage deeper dialogue
  • Create meaningful connections
  • Take you in unforeseen directions
  • Surprise you with an unexpected destination
  • Awaken new perspectives
  • Open the space for wisdom to emerge.


A Transformative Conversation (Part 1)

With Dr. Ada Gonzalez

Jul 29

How Can Organizations and Leaders Harness the Power of Dialogue?

This question is one that is asked time and time again by those in leadership and has been answered by many authors in various ways. In her book Transformative Conversations, Dr. Ada Gonzalez answers this question with a detailed answer. Weaving wisdom from many sources, Dr. Gonzalez makes a case for the value of engaging in effective dialogue and gives the reader clear guidance about how they can harness the power of dialogue to ignite the level of engagement and commitment needed to accomplish their own business priorities and goals.

After reading the book, I realized that every leader—from those just starting out to those in the c-suite—would benefit from her practical wisdom and useful guidance about how to have more meaningful and deeper conversations. Over the course of the next two posts, I will introduce you to Dr. Ada Gonzalez and share with you our conversation about the power of true dialogue.

Dr. Ada Gonzalez is an executive coach, facilitator, and consultant in organizational development. She translates theory and research findings into practice in day-to-day activities, supporting business strategy and results. In addition to undergraduate and graduate work at Andrews University in Michigan, she earned her Ph.D. at the Union Institute and University on Organizational Behavior, with an emphasis on leadership, dialogue, and change. She is currently working as an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware.



How did your background and experience impact your thinking about how important conversation and language are?

As everybody can tell the moment I open my mouth, I was not born in the United States. I was born and raised in Cuba. Most Cubans are talkers! Picture this: Evenings on the porch. It seems so simple, but it’s one of my fondest memories of childhood in Cuba. After dinner, it was common to melt into those squeaky rocking chairs, on our porch or on the neighbor’s porch. It didn’t matter where. What mattered was the conversation that swirled around those rockers. I loved listening in as my parents and friends shared stories, traded recipes, told tales, and gave advice. It was a free—and often entertaining—education in business, politics, religion, health, love, and life. I was hooked. My lifelong fascination with conversation was off and running. (more…)