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!


A Mentor’s Influence Is Everlasting

Jun 07

We’ve all benefited from the great advice, support, and, quite honestly, kick in the pants from the indelible mark on our lives left by a mentor’s influence. We appreciate their uncanny ability to know exactly when we need the most support or the unvarnished truth. These relationships are extremely impactful, and their influence is everlasting. I was reminded of this during a recent conversation with a mentor of mine, as he spoke with such deep gratitude and respect for the man he considered a mentor.

Hearing him speak so humbly about the imprint that this person made in his life reminded me that becoming a great mentor isn’t an accident. It necessitates that we become highly adept at being attuned to others in ways that develop both the influence and respect needed to bond with them on an exceptional level. This connection is reflective of the mentor’s own deeply understood values, beliefs, and revolutionary thinking.

They have become skilled at what Daniel Goleman calls “the components of empathy”: cognitive empathy (awareness of how people feel), emotional empathy (sense of what someone is going through), and lastly, empathic concern (being moved to help others when needed). It is this degree of empathy that provides the basis for assuaging frustrations, calming resistance, and guiding us to explore deeper levels within ourselves.

Here are 3 key ways that you can become more attuned to others and impact their lives in ways you never expected:

1. Do A Deep Dive Into Your Hopes, Thoughts, and Doubts

Connecting with our own deeply held values, beliefs, hopes and doubts in an honest and open way provides the clarity we need to understand what prompts us to act and what drives what we aspire to become. Igniting that spark of self-awareness about our areas of strength and limitation creates the attunement that helps us see ourselves in a non-judgmental and realistic way. The natural sense of hope and optimism that comes from self-acceptance sets us on the path to better understanding the needs, aspirations, and limitations of others. It also connects us deeply with a purpose bigger than ourselves.

2. Think About Who Helped You Along the Way

Spend some time reflecting on the people who have helped you the most in your life—those of whom you would say, “Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” Make a note of their names and some key moments that you remember. What was it they said, or did that so impact you? Think about how you felt and what you learned in those moments. Look at the list and see which of those you presently embody and what is currently missing or needs enhancing in your skill set. Create a short list of attributes that you’d like to focus more on developing.

3. Become Energized and Test Drive New Behaviors

Leverage the work you’ve already done to connect with your sense of optimism and hope and experiment with a few of the behaviors you want to be better at. Pick the most important one for you and give it a test drive. Remember that this is not the time to engage in a high-stakes strategy or no-pain-no-gain type situation. Choose situations and people that you are currently comfortable with. Clue them in beforehand to what you’re trying to do, and let them know that you want their candid perspective about what went well and what needs to happen in the future for you to really nail this. Their thoughts are a gift given with your well-being and growth in mind, so all that is required is a thank you. Avoid the urge to agree when you like what you hear or debate when you don’t. It isn’t about being perfect every time—it’s about discovering and learning what’s working and what isn’t.

As you embrace this journey and move toward becoming the mentors you admire, you’ll come to appreciate the gift they gave you even more. Make sure that you thank them before they are gone or, as my mentor did, honor them by sharing their impact and influence on you with others.


The Art of Leadership

May 17

Leading is an art, and when you get it right, your influence ripples out just like the waves created when you skip a stone on a lake just perfectly. Artful leaders, just like expert stone skippers, have the right combination of spin, speed, and angle.

Here are some ways you know that you’ve got the right spin, speed, and angle that give others the confidence to be amazing at the art of leadership.

You Know What to Say to Draw Out the Brilliance In Others

You’re able to inspire, motivate, and tease out the drive in others. You quickly identify their strengths and weave them together to create a cohesive team. You’re able to move swiftly and know how to shape varied opinions into a single strategy that inspires and motivates those around you to take action.

You Understand the Velocity at Which Things Need to Happen

You’re able to quickly assess the magnitude of the situation at hand. Your decision-making skills enable you to quickly make adjustments and demonstrate the agility needed to excel in any undertaking. You build and foster trust among your team members so that they can respond to emerging needs and high-stress situations with confidence and trust in each other’s ability to execute flawlessly.

You Leverage All Viewpoints to Accomplish the Objective

You’re able to adeptly explore things from all angles and are open to differing perspectives. You’re able to pinpoint the best position with which to approach an objective and create a plan of attack. You often bring together divergent perspectives and unify your colleagues around a common vision and mission. Accomplishing the objective means applying just the right set of skills at the right time, all the while adjusting for changes in circumstances.

Your ability to continue to develop and enhance these skills ensures that the ripples create an impact beyond just those in your inner circle.


Responding to Questions

May 03

While waiting in line at the grocery store, I couldn’t help but notice the adorable little boy and his mom ahead of me in line. The little boy peppered his mother with dozens of questions, to which his mom responded with such care. It was clear she didn’t view her son’s questions as an annoyance or mere distraction.

Instead, she seemed to view the questions as an opportunity to engage her son and address those things that concerned him. Watching her attention to detail, patience, and candor reminded me that becoming proficient at the art of responding to questions is an essential skill that has as much importance in the supermarket as it does in the workplace.

Here are a few things you need to be able to do to master the art of responding to questions:

Welcome The Question No Matter What It Is

Understand that the question comes from a need for understanding, clarification, explanation, or information. I’m not suggesting that all questions are equal—often, some are better than others. Instead, I’m suggesting that all questions deserve a direct and gracious response, which can help you understand where the other person is at a given point in time. Never characterize the question as being a good one or a bad one. This leaves the questioner either feeling patronized, insulted or skeptical about your ability to be candid in your response. The answer should stand on its own and shouldn’t impact your ability to answer directly and respectfully.

Listen Without Judgment and Seek Clarification When Needed

Often we tend to listen for what we think the other person is saying. Misunderstandings abound when we listen with our intent rather than to what the words are actually conveying. Listen closely and without judgment to the person’s words. If you’re unsure what they are asking, it’s time to ask a question in return. Summarize what you heard and ask the other person to affirm that this was their intention. Responding effectively to a question means listening in terms of what is being said, along with noticing the words chosen and the non-verbal signals. So much can be learned about how to shape your response from non-verbal communication and word choice.

Never Put Off the Answer

Perhaps the most annoying thing to anyone who has asked a question is to hear, “I’ll get to that in a minute, but….” To the questioner, putting off the answer to the person’s questions leads the questioner to conclude that either you don’t have the answer or you don’t consider their question important enough to address. Even worse, the questioner is instead preoccupied with when and how you will address their question. If you don’t have the answer to the question, say so, and then offer to find the answer when you think you’ll be able to give them one.

Learn How to Handle a Difficult Questioner

Eventually, you may encounter a person whose sole intent with their questions is to point out a weakness in your position. In these cases, look the person directly in the eye and continue answering in a professional but steady manner. Trying to evade the question or directly taking on the person in a confrontational way will only result in losing control. Sometimes, despite your best effort to answer a question, the person may persist or press their point. At these times, have a prepared response that will allow you to exit the conversation without alienating the other person. Something as simple as saying, “I can’t answer you with anything other than I’ve said already,” is sometimes the best possible course of action in that situation.

At the very least, answering questions—and even inviting them—is the best way to glimpse into the mind of another and understand where they are before we try to be understood by them.


Emotions and Conflict

Apr 26

Heightened emotions and conflict go hand in hand. When we sense a threat, we begin to assess the environment and draw conclusions. Then we quickly transition to making assumptions about the other person’s intentions, and our anger and frustration mount. Almost without thinking, we take a defensive posture and mount our offensive.

Sadly, when we go on the warpath, we lose our ability to grasp problems, formulate effective solutions, deal realistically with situations, and manage impulses that, if unchecked, disrupt our ability to resolve disagreements effectively.

Seeing things objectively—the way they really are—is extremely difficult in an emotionally charged environment, even when we know what we should be doing intellectually. Recognizing what drives you to feel the way you do and the impact of that on those around you can help you more quickly disrupt the process and diffuse the situation.

The information below can help you cope with heightened emotions, slow up, and resist the urge to go on the warpath.

Learn What Sets You Off

Being able to resist the temptation to act in highly emotional ways involves learning more about what upsets you in the first place. Understanding what types of situations and behaviors unnerve you enough so that you overreact can help you manage expectations and avoid certain situations whenever possible. Pay close attention to how you physically respond when disagreements escalate and notice if you feel flushed, tense, sick to your stomach, or your head pounds. This is your early warning system and can help you realize that you are becoming overwhelmed and your capacity for rational thought is fading.

Have A Plan and Practice It

Experiment with different methods of calming yourself, from taking a breath to asking for a break in the action to rethinking how you are handling the situation. The key is to have a specific plan of action in mind before the emotions start to rise. You can also do a bit of a dress rehearsal if you know that you are potentially walking into a situation that typically triggers you. Even if you practice, don’t blame yourself if you slip—just try and right the ship as quickly as you can.

Don’t Quash Your Emotions

Once the emotions are there and growing stronger, your first instinct might be to quash them as a way to seem like you’re in control and unphased. As you probably know already, this creates a ticking time bomb that ultimately explodes when you least want it to. Quashing what you’re feeling leads to outbursts, sarcasm, and passive-aggressive behavior. Not acknowledging how you’re feeling isn’t hiding the emotion from the other person and is the worst thing you can do. Not expressing how you feel in a constructive way gives the other person the ability to substitute his or her own thinking about how you are feeling and doesn’t resolve the tension.

Vent What You Are Feeling Appropriately

Often reaching out to talk with someone else can help re-evaluate the situation, your stance, and the other person’s viewpoint—but not always. Venting with the right person can often help take the pressure off as long as the person you are sharing this with listens, acknowledges how you’re feeling and helps you shift focus to the resolution of the matter at hand. Venting becomes unproductive when it becomes all about the gratuitous bashing of the other person involved in the disagreement.

Develop A Positive Mindset

Thinking negatively can serve as its own trigger for negative emotions and lead to damaging behavior. Developing positive emotions can broaden the options facing you and help you remain curious in the face of a challenge. Seeing things with a positive mindset can help you narrow the opportunity for an angry response and help you set new patterns of responding to what stresses you. Maintaining a positive attitude, and understanding how your emotions impact others can help decrease the overall tension.

Emotions rule where conflict is involved, and when they get the best of us, a strategic retreat is always called for.


Happiness Boosters

Apr 19

Lucille Ball is quoted as saying, “It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy.” Figuring out what makes us happy isn’t a priority for most of us. The modern world demands our time, attention, and focus on a constant basis, resulting in a happiness gap. Connecting to what is truly important and infusing our lives with more passion, hope, and commitment all starts with being able to recognize what makes us happy and then closing that gap.

Boosting your happiness level is not only fun but can also be life-changing. There is no perfect time to begin and no one-size-fits-all method. But there is one common starting point: recognizing what makes us happy starts where happiness always resides and always will—inside of us.

Here are some suggestions (happiness boosters) that can go a long way in helping you recognize what puts a smile on your face and how to put happiness back at the center of your life.

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade

The next time you’re waiting in a long line at Starbucks, sitting in another endless traffic jam, or in any of the myriad situations that cause all of our stress, try to divert your attention away from the negative to something positive. It could be cranking up a favorite song on the radio, guessing what the people ahead of you in line are ordering—rewarding yourself with a brownie bar even if you don’t guess any order right—or just starting a conversation with someone in line. You can also spend the time recalling some happy memories, as this will help you re-experience the feelings of joy in the present moment. The goal is to find a way to shift your focus and make lemonade out of the lemons.

See If You Can Make Other People Smile

Happiness is contagious, so see if you can bring a smile to someone else’s face. Make a concerted effort to do something nice for someone else—either in word or deed. Connecting in a real way with others helps you feel better about yourself, puts positive energy into the world, and encourages others to pay it forward. Decide to let go of old hurts or grudges and forgive someone. Showing compassion for others helps enhance social connections, builds a sense of inner peace, and frees up time to think about what is next.

Journal And / Or Meditate

There are many ways people keep journals, meditate, or even combine the two activities. Find what works best for you and practice it routinely. Journaling and meditation help you become more aware of repeated patterns and mindful of what takes place in your mind, body and thinking. Both techniques help calm our minds and focus our attention inward and to the present moment. Quieting our mind helps us see the connection between seemingly disconnected events, clarify and reframe our perspective, and shape better outcomes.

There are many other ways to begin recognizing what makes you the happiest, and you’ll know you’re on the right path as you begin to feel more optimistic, energized, and confident. I’m always on the lookout for new boosters, so feel free to share one that you use and isn’t on the list above.


Winning At All Costs

Mar 01

While waiting for a friend at a local restaurant, I couldn’t help but notice that the two people sitting at the table near the door were engaged in what I could tell was a heated conversation. One of the people seemed to be just pounding home their point, not allowing the other person a moment to interject or share their thinking. After a few minutes, I could tell that the other person finally decided to throw in the towel, end the haranguing, and agree to whatever the other person was trying to convince them of.

In that brief moment, I wondered does the person who seemingly “won” the disagreement realize that there is a difference between fighting against someone and fighting for something. Do they know that lasting victories are only achieved when people find a common cause and purpose to act together?

Understanding the difference between fighting for something versus fighting against something makes all the difference.

Taking a position against someone sets in motion a chain reaction of punch-counter punch or, in some cases, strategic retreat and avoidance on the part of the other person, which leads to one of two things: an all-out war or total defeat of the other person. Fighting for something you believe in enables trust and fairness and subtly tells the other person that you’ve got the strength to let your position be evaluated on the merits and that you’ll do the same with theirs.

The next time you disagree with someone’s position, make sure that you don’t allow yourself to become so lost in winning at all costs that you allow the argument to be about fighting against someone/something instead of for what you believe to be true.