Just Listen: Book Overview (Mark Goulston)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Just Listen" by Mark Goulston. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is Mark Goulston’s book Just Listen about? What’s the key message to take away from the book?

In his book Just Listen, Mark Goulston explains that if you want to change someone’s mind or behavior, listening is the most important step. When you listen effectively, the person you’re trying to connect with feels heard, understood, and valuable, and it motivates them to open up to you in return.

Below is a brief overview of Mark Goulston’s book Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone.

Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone

If you want someone to buy what you’re selling, or if you’d like to convince conflicting people to cooperate, you first need to influence them to listen to you. The problem is, people are often closed off to conventional methods of persuasion because they’re busy grappling with their own emotions, needs, and goals. 

So, rather than pushing the idea you want them to agree with, you should first focus your attention on the other person: Listen to understand their perspective and empathize with their struggles. Once their needs are met, they’ll be more willing to listen to you in return. And from there, you’ll be in a better position to connect with people and change their minds or behavior.

Mark Goulston is a psychiatrist and professor, whose communication experience ranges from breaking through to suicidal individuals to coaching companies on how to listen effectively for success. He co-authored Get Out Of Your Own Way (1996), Talking to Crazy (2015), and Trauma to Triumph (2021). Mark’s 2009 book Just Listen shares the lessons and methods he’s learned throughout his career about listening effectively as a way to influence others.  

In this guide, we’ll discuss:

  • Why listening opens people up
  • How to  break through emotional barriers
  • How to help others feel understood, interesting, and valuable
  • How to overcome listening obstacles

In this guide, we’ll compare Goulston’s ideas to those in books such as Leadership Strategy and Tactics. Our guide also discusses what other experts have to say about Goulston’s advice, adding nuances and actionable tips to implement in your daily life.  

Listening Opens People Up

To help you understand why listening is the most effective way to open people up to your ideas, we’ll start by explaining how this method fulfills the universal desire to be heard. 

Listening Fills the Empathy Void in Others

When your thoughts or feelings are heard and appreciated by another person, you feel understood, more relaxed, and grateful to whoever’s connecting with you. These positive feelings encourage you to open up in return. 

Goulston argues that empathizing with someone’s thoughts or feelings is impactful because it fills an empathy void that we all experience. He explains that this void exists because we naturally empathize with the world around us and develop expectations that our empathy will be reciprocated, but this often doesn’t happen. As a result, we’re left craving empathy. This is why we typically experience intense feelings of relief and gratitude when someone does extend empathy to us. For example, when someone acknowledges our overlooked efforts at work or listens to us explain our silent struggles at home, we feel grateful and inspired to reciprocate. 

Listen to Others to Overcome Their Resistant Emotions

In this section, we’ll discuss how to get through someone’s emotional barrier, which is the first step to connecting with them and opening their mind to your ideas. Goulston says that most people aren’t receptive to outside ideas unless their emotional barriers are broken down. By addressing the emotional burden of the person you’re trying to connect with, you’ll help them clear their mind of immediate stress, which will make them receptive to your ideas. 

First, we’ll explain how stress makes people emotional and prevents them from listening to you. Then we’ll discuss why listening causes people to release their resistant emotions. Finally, we’ll describe some techniques to help you listen successfully.

Guide the Brain From Primal To Pragmatic

Understanding how the brain works under stress will help you get your message across to people—even if they’re dreading a looming deadline or bawling over a breakup. To start, we’ll lay out the relevant areas of the brain’s organization. Goulston highlights three parts of the brain:

  1. Reptile layer: This is the area of your brain that controls your impulsive, primal stress responses to danger.
  2. Mammal layer: This part controls your emotions.
  3. Human layer: This part collects information from the other two brains and uses it to make rational decisions.

When we’re under stress, our brains shift to our reptile or mammal layer, which makes it difficult to think rationally. So, to help a panicked person listen effectively to your ideas, address the emotions of their lower brains to guide them back to their higher brain

When we perceive an immediate threat, our reptile brain instinctively knows we can’t waste time thinking, so we react impulsively to avert potential danger. For example, if you hear a tree cracking above your head, you probably won’t consider why it’s cracking—you’ll just start running. Our mammal brain isn’t as rationality-resistant as the action-focused reptile brain, but it’s dominated by emotions, which can still make reasoning difficult. 

Help Your Listener Release Their Emotions

To break through someone’s emotional barriers and help them access their human brain (or rationality), Goulston provides de-stressing strategies you can use. To start, don’t bother telling the other person to relax. By doing this, you’ll send an implicit message that you’re calm and they’re not. Goulston says this can cause people in an emotional state to become even more emotional. Additionally, don’t get defensive and rebut someone’s points when they present a problem to you. Doing this will send an implicit message that the person you’re talking to is wrong and what they’re saying is unimportant. This will make the person you’re talking to feel isolated, which will also fuel more negative emotion.

Instead, encourage the emotional person to vent to you and just listen. By thoroughly listening to people, you’ll make them feel heard and respected. Additionally, you’ll show them that you’re on their side. As a result, they won’t feel threatened and their reptile response will relax. Instead, they’ll trust and appreciate you, which will open them up to listen in return.

To help someone overcome their emotions, Goulston recommends the following seven steps:

Step 1: Look for physical signs of distress: stiff shoulders, angry face, crossed arms, and so on. If the person’s arms are crossed, get them to uncross their arms by eliciting an emotional response that requires them to express themselves with their arms. Goulston claims that by getting an emotional person to uncross their arms, you’ll open them up mentally and physically, which will allow them to vent to you. You can do this by saying something provoking that makes the person so emotional they have to use their body to express their feelings.

Step 2: Ask the stressed person to explain their problem to you. During this process, let them vent and resist the temptation to question anything the other person is saying. Also, don’t offer solutions or stop the venting process because you’re uncomfortable. When they pause, encourage them with gentle words to tell you more. It may be tempting to start talking when they stop venting. However, because this person will be exhausted from their catharsis, they won’t be receptive to what you say. By continuing to listen and process what the other person is saying, you’ll let them know they’ve been heard and you’ll also disarm them because they’ll realize you’re not going to attack their points and start a debate.

Step 3: Once the other person has finished venting, repeat the problem they’ve described and ask them to verify whether it’s correct. If they adjust what you’ve said, repeat the problem again with the adjustment they’ve made. Use a respectful, sympathetic tone as you do this. Once they approve what you’ve repeated, they’ll feel understood and accepted, which will motivate them to begin listening to you. Additionally, Goulston says the act of approving what you say will move the person you’re talking with from a disagreeable disposition to a mode of cooperation.

Step 4: Ask how the problem they’ve described makes them feel. By labeling the emotion, you’ll lower its intensity. At this point, the person you’re guiding should be moving from their reptile brain (instinct) to their mammal brain (reason).

Step 5: Acknowledge that it’s important to fix the problem now  to convey your understanding that their problem is urgent. Ask them how they think the problem can be solved. This will transition them into their higher, human brain.

Step 6: Show empathy for the person you’re trying to influence by acknowledging how difficult their problem must be for them.

Step 7: Finally, offer encouragement by ensuring they can get through the problem that’s causing their stress. For example, you could reinforce their capabilities and build their confidence by referencing a time when they overcame a challenge. Then, let them know that you’re willing to help them solve their problem and prevent it from happening again.

Troubleshooting: If after using the steps above, you’re still struggling to get through someone’s emotional barrier, Goulston says to try these additional tips:

  • Ask the person if you’ve ever made them feel disrespected or unvalued. If they’re resistant to venting to you because they have a problem with you, this question may help them open up.
  • Engage in an activity together. By performing an activity that requires some level of cooperation, you may lower their defenses and help them feel comfortable enough to open up to you. For example, if you need to have a conversation with your child about something important, ask them to fold laundry with you as you begin your conversation.

Listen to Make Others Feel Understood, Interesting, and Valuable

Now that you know how to use listening to penetrate the resistant emotions of others, we’ll talk about how you can make people feel understood, interesting, and valuable. Doing this will push people past the point of listening to considering and acting on your ideas. 

First, we’ll talk about why it’s important to understand other perspectives. Next, we’ll discuss how showing interest in others can make people more interested in you. Finally, we’ll explain why making people feel valuable wins them over.

Understand the Other Person’s Perspective

When someone has ideas or emotions that are different from yours, don’t try to criticize their ideas or force your way of thinking on them. This will only motivate them to dig their heels in and solidify their stance. Instead, try to look at the world from the point of view of the person you’re trying to influence and understand why they believe what they do. This will make them feel understood, less alone, and less defensive—and as a result, they’ll be more likely to consider your ideas.

If you’re trying to influence or cooperate with someone with whom you’re having a conflict of ideas, here are the steps Goulston says you should take to understand their perspective: 

  1. Choose an emotion you think the other person is feeling.
  2. Tell the other person that you’re trying to understand what they’re feeling, and that you think it’s blank (anger, fear, frustration, and so on). Ask them if this is correct. If it’s not, ask them what they’re feeling. Clarify how strongly they feel this emotion.
  3. After they’ve vented about what they’re feeling, ask why they think they have this feeling. Here is where they will move past their emotion and start discussing the issue at hand.
  4. Finally, ask what needs to happen for this feeling and situation to improve. Ask what they can do to execute their plan. Ask what you can do to help. 
Now Ask Them to Understand You

After hearing the other person out, encourage them to imagine what you are thinking or feeling by using an analogy. Then, compare that analogy to the real issue and explain how whatever they’re doing makes you feel a similar way. For example, if you’re upset that someone struggles to offer you their attention while you’re talking with them, you could ask that person if they’d be upset with someone that’s constantly looking at their phone while they’re trying to talk to them. Then, you could explain that when they don’t offer you their attention, it makes you feel a similar way.  

Get Interested to Be Interesting

To gain someone’s attention and curiosity, focus on learning about them instead of talking about yourself. Goulston explains that if you try to sound interesting, you risk coming off as annoying or self-obsessed. Instead, by displaying sincere interest in the person you’re talking to, you’ll likely inspire them to reciprocate interest in you. Displaying interest in others indicates that you’re self-confident rather than insecure.

Here’s how you can develop more interest in the people you’d like to connect with and influence:

  • Investigate. Instead of viewing a conversation as an opportunity to impress the person you’re trying to connect with, view it as an investigation of that person. Everyone has something unique and interesting about them. Seek that information.
  • Ask for advice. This makes people feel interesting, intelligent, and valued.
  • Ask “big-picture” questions about their goals.

Make Others Feel Valuable

When people feel valuable, they’re more willing to enthusiastically support you. Goulston says that this fills people with a sense of purpose, which is one of the most generous things you can do for someone. As a result, they’ll be willing to support you however they can.

One way you can show someone that you value them is by delivering meaningful thank-yous. By displaying thoughtful gratitude, you acknowledge the level of emotion and effort that someone invested in you. This will strengthen your relationship with the person you’re thanking and motivate them to support you in the future. Goulston says that to deliver a meaningful thank you, highlight a specific thing they did for you, acknowledge the effort or difficulty they faced, and explain the positive difference their action made.

It’s one thing to show gratitude to those who help you, but Goulston says it’s even more crucial to make the troublesome people in your life feel valuable. If someone in your life often starts conflicts or bothers you for attention, Goulston says making them feel valuable will help persuade them to change their behavior in a positive way. He explains that people who use troublesome behaviors to seek attention tend to do so because they don’t feel valued. Therefore, if you satisfy this need, you’ll remove the need for their attention-seeking behavior, you’ll make them feel appreciative toward you, and they’ll be willing to support you.

Obstacles to Listening Well

Now that you know the basic rules for listening well, we’ll discuss how to approach internal and external challenges that can make listening difficult. By becoming aware of these challenges and preparing for them, you’ll be able to handle them appropriately. First, we’ll explore internal obstacles to listening, such as biases, dissonance, and personal limitations. Then, we’ll talk about how to effectively connect and cooperate with difficult people.

Address Internal Obstacles

First, we’ll discuss how to overcome personal biases by becoming aware of how you judge others and by assuming there’s more to others than you might think. Next, we’ll talk about how cognitive dissonance occurs, why it can disrupt interactions with others, and how to overcome it. Finally, we’ll explain why it’s beneficial to be honest about your weaknesses.

Overcome Personal Biases 

Goulston says that whether we like it or not, the things we hear and the judgments we make about other people are influenced by unavoidable personal biases. The problem is, when we judge someone based on our biases, we use preconceived knowledge that may or may not accurately represent them.

Here are two ways to manage your biases and listen more effectively:

  1. Memorize your biases: Goulston says we judge people based on five categories (gender, age, ethnicity, education, and emotionality). The simple habit of memorizing and staying aware of these categories as you assess someone helps you spot biases that might not apply to them. 
  2. Use hypothetical justifications: When you have a conflict with someone, make a list of the negative words you’d use to describe them. Then, write five possible reasons that the person is acting the way they are. Next, imagine how your feelings about this person would change if any of these five things were true. Finally, have a conversation with them to discover the real reason they’re acting the way they do.
Become Aware of Your Dissonance 

When you’re on the same page with someone, they’re more likely to listen to you, but your interactions with others are often clouded by dissonance. Dissonance occurs when you’re perceived differently than the way you think you’re presenting yourself or when you perceive someone differently than they see themselves. This prevents you from connecting with other people, which means you’ll have a hard time influencing them. 

For example, someone might think they’re being confident and interesting when they ask you out, but to you, they seem arrogant and overbearing. Because you’re perceiving the other person differently than they think they’re coming off, you reflect different emotions back to them and you never land on the same page.

Dissonance also makes us feel unheard and powerless. This can make us defensive and emotional, which prevents us from listening to others. For example, imagine a lady at a retail store who’s passionately concerned about returning a faulty product and finding a replacement. She’s frantic because her grandchild’s birthday is tomorrow and she needs a new gift. Customer service perceives her emotion as aggressive and reflects this aggression back to her, which makes her feel like she isn’t being understood, so she becomes increasingly frustrated. The difference in perception here prevents the two people from reaching a speedy and satisfying solution.

Here are two ways Goulston says we can overcome dissonance:

1) Ask people you trust to list your worst traits. When you become aware of the negative ways people are perceiving you, you can change them by consciously identifying and avoiding your negative traits on a daily basis. Because people are usually hesitant and uncomfortable giving negative feedback, you could instead ask people to list two ways you can improve. This way, you’re hearing ways you can improve in the future rather than reflecting on ways you’ve failed in the past. This is easier for them to say and for you to hear.

2) Prevent dissonance by preemptively cautioning whoever you’re interacting with that you may offend them, but that you don’t mean to. This is particularly useful when you’re engaging with people who belong to cultures different from yours.

Acknowledge Your Weaknesses 

Goulston says that if you hide an obvious weakness, people will think you’re dishonest. This is because if you don’t acknowledge a weakness everyone can see, people may think you’re trying to hide other issues. And if people don’t trust you, they won’t listen to you. Goulston says it’s better to be upfront about your weaknesses so you can establish trust and influence.

When you admit your weaknesses, the following happens: 

  • People respect your courage and honesty. 
  • You demonstrate strength and adaptability.
  • You feel more comfortable because you aren’t putting extra effort into covering something up. This comfort will be obvious to whoever you’re trying to influence and make them feel more comfortable and open as well. 

To acknowledge your weaknesses effectively, Goulston says to describe your personal weaknesses clearly and concisely, then explain how you’re going to handle them. For example, imagine you have irritable bowel syndrome and you’re interviewing for a job. You tell the interviewers that this problem can cause you to make spontaneous and urgent trips to the bathroom. You explain that this is a symptom you can’t control, but that it won’t get in the way of your duties at work because you plan for spontaneous disruptions by scheduling extra time to commute to work. Further, the nature of your health condition has helped you hone skills that strengthen you as a job candidate, such as adaptability to unexpected disruptions.

Adapt to People Who Are Difficult to Influence

Goulston warns that toxic or difficult people can destroy your life because they consistently display negative emotions despite your efforts to listen and empathize with them. This can result in a lot of futile time and effort spent trying to listen and connect with people who only respond with negative emotions. This exhausting and toxic behavior can rub off on you over time.

Here are Goulston’s strategies for getting through to needy people, bullies, narcissists, and psychopaths:

Confront needy people by being honest about how they’re affecting you and what changes need to happen, and explain that you’ll need to end your relationship with them if they don’t change.

Stand up to bullies and act indifferent to their provocative behavior. Bullies will come after you if they sense that you’re weak. So, look them in the eye and display body language that shows confidence and comfort (stand up straight and let your arms hang freely).

When you can afford to take some risk (your job isn’t on the line, for example), you can try a more aggressive approach with bullies. Call them out on what they’re doing and be honest about its effects on people and the bully themself. Because bullies usually don’t get called out for their behavior, this should surprise them and may even cause them to consider opening up to you and changing their behavior.

When you’re trying to cooperate with a narcissist, make sure you split up responsibilities in a way that gives them work that is in their best interest. This is because narcissists only care about themselves and will only do things well if those things serve them well.

Stay away from psychopaths. If you encounter a psychopath, Goulston suggests you distance yourself as much as possible because psychopaths will ruin your life. Goulston says his techniques for connecting with people won’t apply to psychopaths, because they don’t feel emotion like we do and are, by definition, self-centered and manipulative.

Just Listen: Book Overview (Mark Goulston)

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Mark Goulston's "Just Listen" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Just Listen summary:

  • Why listening is the most important step in influencing others
  • How to overcome the most common obstacles to listening well
  • How to break down someone’s emotional barrier

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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