Always Be Networking: Advice from Passport2Success

Another run of the speed consulting program for job seekers was sponsored and coordinated by WFMY-TV on May 5, 2010.  Many career coaches in the Piedmont Triad area of North Carolina volunteered their time.  Here’s a little snippet of video that I contributed between one on one sessions with people looking for advice on their career transitions.

Listening – the Key to Reaching Just About Anyone

In my various roles – strategy consultant, executive coach, mother of teen-aged boys, Board volunteer – I’ve run into people I don’t understand and with whom I can’t find common ground.  It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you’re stumped.  In talking with colleagues about this phenomenon, we could all describe what happens:  there are attempts at persuasion, logic, pleading, and bargaining. And you hope you don’t slide into anger as you begin to speak louder, persuade harder, encourage, cajole, argue and push. The end result is just greater confusion and greater resistance.

In times such as these, it helps to be reminded that active listening – when you mirror and reflect back to people what you hear – offers the best chance of reaching someone.

Mark Goulston’s Persuasion Cycle

In Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, psychiatrist Mark Goulston explains that persuasion moves through a cycle:

  1. From resisting to listening
  2. From listening to considering
  3. From considering to willing to do
  4. From willing to do to doing
  5. From doing to glad they did and continuing to do

Buy-in begins when people move from resisting to listening to considering what you’re saying. How do you get a person to go from the critical stage of resisting to listening? First, you listen to them.

The Three-Part Brain

Our brains evolved from lower animals:

  • Our primitive reptilian brain remains responsible for split-second survival reactions (i.e., the “freeze, fight or flight” response).  Early in my career, I remember a mentor pointing out to me that there was a certain work situation that consistently sent me back to my reptilian brain.  Wow, that was tough to hear, but I knew exactly what he meant when he said it – stimulus and response and nothing else.
  • The middle mammalian brain is the seat of emotions, where the inner drama queen reigns.  This brain can be overwhelming sometimes.  Completely taking over.
  • The upper primate/human brain weighs a situation logically and generates a conscious plan of action. It collects data from the reptile and mammal brains, analyzes it, and makes practical, ethical decisions.

To a small extent, these three brains work together, but they also function independently, especially under stress. This is what happens when people shift, becoming difficult and hard to reach.

The Amygdala Hijack

The amygdala is a part of the brain that processes memory and emotional reactions (especially fear and anger).

When it takes over, the primitive reptile brain runs the show, and surges of adrenaline keep us from thinking clearly over the next few minutes — an effect that may take hours to fade.

The term “amygdala hijack,” first coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of the 1995 best seller, Emotional Intelligence, refers to what happens under acute stress.

When you try to reason with someone in a full amygdala hijack, you’re wasting your time. You must speak to him before the hijack occurs — or talk him down from it using empathy.

Mirror Neurons

Years ago, when scientists were studying Macaque monkeys’ brains, they found that specific nerve cells fired when the monkeys threw a ball or ate a banana. To their surprise, these same cells fired when one monkey watched another perform these acts.

When the brain’s “mirror neurons” fire, we have the ability to feel what the other person is experiencing. These cells are nature’s way of teaching us to care about other people.

Goulston suggests that many of us suffer a “mirror neuron receptor deficit.” CEOs and managers feel they give their best, only to be met day after day with apathy, hostility, or worse, no response at all. Their brains don’t get enough mirror neuron receptor activity. In other words, there’s not enough empathy going around the office.

Move from “Uh-oh” to “OK”

In a stressful encounter, you may have less than two minutes to gain control and salvage the situation.

Goulston recommends a five-step mental process, whether you’re dealing with a fender-bender, enraged teenager or work situation:

  1. “Uh-Oh!” (Reaction Phase): “This is a disaster. I’m in trouble. It’s all over.”
  2. “Oh, No!” (Release Phase): “This is a huge mess. I’m stuck with it. Why me?”
  3. “Oh, Jeez!” (Re-Center Phase): “I can fix this, but it’s not going to be fun.”
  4. “Oh, Well…” (Refocus Stage): “I’m not going to let this ruin my career/day/relationship. Here’s what I need to do right now to make it better.”
  5. “OK.” (Reengage Phase): “OK, I’m ready to fix this. Let’s go.”

Rewire Yourself to Listen

Many of us don’t listen well, especially when it comes to the people we deal with regularly. We’ve gotten used to their patterns and their perspectives and we think we already know what they’re going to say.

When we size people up instantly, we form some pretty good first impressions. The problem is, these impressions last forever, and many are a jumbled mix of fact, fiction, prejudice and unconscious intuitions.

We use filters to put people in mental boxes before we really know them based on things like: gender, age, ethnicity, education level, accent, appearance, mannerisms, etc.  Really listening means checking those filters to make room for what someone is saying.

Make the Other Person Feel “Felt”

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes so you can change the dynamics of a relationship. In that instant, you “get” each other, and this breakthrough leads to cooperation, collaboration and effective communication.

When you mirror what another person feels, she’s hardwired to mirror you in return. When you say, “I understand what you’re feeling” — and you mean it — she will feel grateful and, in return, express her appreciation with a desire to understand you. It’s an irresistible biological urge that pulls another person toward you.

Phrases for Difficult Conversations

Here are some suggested phrases to help someone feel “felt”:

“I’m trying to get a sense of what you’re feeling.  I think it’s (fill in an emotion). Is that what you’re feeling?” Listen without judgment or comment.

“What are you feeling?”

“How frustrated (angry, upset, etc.) are you?” Allow the person to vent.

“And the reason you’re so frustrated (angry, upset) is because (repeat back to them what they’ve told you).” Again, let the person vent.

“Tell me, what needs to happen for that feeling to be better?” Listen without judgment or argument.

“What part can I play in making this happen? What part are you willing to play?”

These are just some common ideas about listening.  The point is to use these phrases as a way to practice and as a guide.  To take our listening skills beyond the intuitive takes focus and practice – just like any other skill you want to improve.


Yes! You may use this article by Executive Director Barbara Demarest in your company newsletter, blog or website as long as you add the following bio box:

Barbara Demarest ( received her MBA from the Babcock School of Management at Wake Forest University and her BA from Duke University. After 20 years at the Center for Creative Leadership, Barbara launched a strategy consulting practice focusing on people leading change in associations, foundations, universities, nonprofits and knowledge businesses.  You can find Barbara’s executive coaching profile on