Dr Mark Goulston trained as a psychiatrist but really made his name with the FBI, where he worked as a trainer of hostage negotiators. He promotes himself as an expert in emotional intelligence and in persuasion and has written several books on these subjects, which is why Citrix GoToAssist hosted a global web seminar this month promoting his ideas to its customers and partners.
Presumably, his skills could be very useful to salespeople anywhere, including the IT channel. We have all approached salespeople in shops or on calls and been subjected to a seemingly continuous stream of patter – an intense effort to deliver a particular "message" – that only serves to make the audience switch off or wonder how soon they can go home.
Most of us have also been in situations where we have become aware – from our companions' glazed expressions or restless fidgeting – that we have done something wrong in a conversation, losing our audience, and that, as a result, there's no point continuing to talk. What went wrong? How you see yourself is not how others might see you.
Goulston says the most important, initial skill to learn if you want to persuade people of anything – and perhaps the skill that is most overlooked – is the ability to listen sympathetically in every situation, instead of trying to show how much you know, pointing out someone's mistakes, or simply waiting for your turn to speak.
"What would the world be like if people listened more than they spoke?" he says. "It can improve your ability to get through to people, and we can't get much done by ourselves."
You want to achieve buy-in, and to begin with, that means convincing people you're worth listening to – and that often means ensuring you're listening properly to them in the first instance. That is probably why one of Goulston's six books is called Just Listen.
"I was a high-level suicide interventionist and interviewer," he says. "So I know a little bit about how to get through to people."
One of the first steps in Goulston's persuasion cycle is to try to empathise with people and understand where they're coming from, and then make that clear. Be prepared to adapt your approach to help them feel more responsive to you.
When they figure out they're really being listened to, even angry or otherwise quite resistant people, with other things completely on their mind, are more likely to give you some time.
You must be heartfelt about it, though – people can often tell if what you're expressing is not sincere, Goulston warns.
Also, be sensitive to and aware of how the person or group you want to persuade might see you. It can help to perceive people as conduits for various communications and pieces of information, reacting to the data to which they have been exposed, he suggests.
"When I go out in the world, I don't see people necessarily; I see modems. People are like modems. A modem is something that disseminates information, and when it gets overloaded, it shuts off, disconnects, powers down. And then you have to reconnect and reboot," Goulston says. "One reason people don't listen is they are overloaded modems, and they can't listen any more."
Levels of communication
For Goulston, there are four levels of communication when you're having a conversation: talking over people, at people, to people, or with people. The same is true of listening, from appearing to be listening but the words are just flowing over the top and you've not heard a thing, to receptive and active listening where you not only hear what the person says and understand it, but try to act on what the speaker has said in one way or another.
It can be hard work, he adds, but it can be the only way to not only get them to hear you out, but perhaps listen to you and act on what you say. This is true whether the person is a colleague, a customer or an intimate, and things can easily disintegrate if you cannot get through to him or her.
When people listen properly, they are likely to exhale as they relax, and this is more likely to happen if you let them sound off or "vent" about an issue initially, says Goulston.
"When someone is listening, and taking in the information, that's business as usual. Then there's receptive listening, which is a special level. An example might be when a six-year-old child comes to the door in the rain. A normal response might be, ‘My god, you're all wet', but a receptive listen might be, ‘You're shivering, you're frozen – let's get you upstairs and warmed up'," he says.
In a sales meeting, you might be thinking about the product you're trying to sell. Meanwhile, the prospect is wondering if you've done your research, if you know the company, if you understand its needs, and if you understand him or her. Your job as a salesperson then becomes convincing the prospect of this, partly through your ability to listen and respond appropriately.
"He wants to know if you ‘get' him," Goulston says. "And when you do that, it can change everything."
Another tip is not to be confrontational or adversarial when you ask a question. People tend to go on the defensive when they're asked something – sometimes they're afraid of getting it wrong, for example. So when you're asking for information, don't ask directly. Instead, ask them to fill in the blanks – ask them what might help something be achieved.
And work on improving the depth of the conversation, so you're talking about things generally, rather than focusing on direct questions, he suggests.
Ask them to consider something impossible, but highly desirable, in the context of the conversation. Then ask them to think about what might make it possible. And instead of glossing over or hiding problems, bring them into the open for candid discussion. "Then they're working with you, not against you," says Goulston. "It's another step towards persuasion."
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