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778: How to Make and Break Habits Using Science with Russ Poldrack

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Russ Poldrack reveals the science behind why our brains are habit-building machines and how to make the best out of it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to make good habits stick 
  2. How to strengthen your brain against bad habits
  3. Why habits never really go away–and what you should do instead 

About Russ

Russell A. Poldrack is a psychologist and neuroscientist. He is the Albert Ray Lang Professor of Psychology at Stanford University. He is also the Associate Director of Stanford Data Science, a member of the Stanford Neuroscience Institute and director of the Stanford Center for Reproducible Neuroscience and the SDS Center for Open and Reproducible Science. Prior to his appointment at Stanford in 2014, he held faculty positions at Harvard Medical School, UCLA, and the University of Texas at Austin. 

He is the author of The New Mind Readers: What Neuroimaging Can and Cannot Reveal about Our Thoughts and Hard to Break: Why Our Brains Make Habits Stick. He lives in San Francisco. 

Resources Mentioned

Russ Poldrack Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Russ, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Russ Poldrack
Thanks. It’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m so excited to talk about habits and brain stuff, some of my favorite bits. But, first, I’m a little curious to hear about your new practice, the hour of whatever, in your lab. What’s the story here? And what has resulted from it?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah, so the hour of whatever grew out of people’s, I think, and especially in the last couple of years, just feeling like we needed time to sort of connect without an agenda, no particular topics or anything. We just kind of come together and talk about whatever we want to talk about. A couple weeks ago, it was about the relative merits of raccoons.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay, pros and cons.

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. And sometimes it’s been slightly kind of more academic topics, like, “What happens in an academic conference?” So, it’s a chance for people to just ask any questions they want to ask. And it’s been super fun. I think as we’re all struggling to kind of come back into kind of what used to be our normal kind of social life and social being, and this is meant to kind of be an opportunity to try to help re-engage those parts of our brain that might have withered a bit.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. And so, does someone come in with a topic, or is it just sort of like, “Hey, here we are”?

Russ Poldrack
People do come in with topics but it’s also kind of a random walk at times as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, I’m excited to talk about your book Hard to Break: Why Our Brains Make Habits Stick. And maybe before we go into the depths of the book, could you kick us off with some of your most surprising and fascinating discoveries you’ve come about in your research here?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. So, we’ve been interested for a long time in sort of how it is that so many different cognitive functions can be sort of crammed into the little two or three pounds of brain that sit in our head. And one of the ideas that has been around for a long time that has kind of driven a lot of the work that I’d done across my career is trying to understand how, like the brain has different systems to solve kind of related versions of different problems.

And so, one of those is actually directly related to habits. So, if you think about like what are the things that we learn as we go through the world, and I like to use driving a car as an example. So, when you drive to work, you don’t have to kind of think back and remember, “Oh, which pedal do I press to stop the car or to go?” And when we think about habits, those are often what we think about are sort of the different behaviors or the different knowledge that we build up through our experience in the world.

That’s very different than the knowledge of which particular parking spot you parked your car in this morning. That changes every day and you really have to use a different type of memory system in your brain to be able to go back and remember where you parked. And a lot of the work that we’ve done is try to figure out, “How do these different brain systems either kind of work together or even compete with one another?”

So, one of the big early findings that we had was sort of showing that these two systems, the system that kind of develops habits, and the system that helps us create these kinds of conscious memories of the past, like where we parked our car this morning, don’t just seem to be kind of working off on their own, but they actually seem to be competing with one another, such that when activity in one of those sets of brain areas goes up, activity in the other set goes down. They seem to be kind of pushing and pulling against one another.

And so, it really tells us that the brain is this big dynamical system that’s kind of got a lot of different parts that are working at the same time, and sometimes they work together, and sometimes they work across purposes.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, in practice, does that mean if I am exerting some mental energy in one direction, I would expect deficits elsewhere?

Russ Poldrack
In general, that’s going to be true, yeah. And we’ve showed it to work that, to the degree that you’re engaged in, for example, multitasking, trying to do multiple things at once, that that has a bigger impact on the brain systems that are involved in generating those conscious memories of the past, and less impact on the brain systems that are involved in developing habits.

the brain has limited bandwidth, and so it’s almost necessary the case that if you’re focusing on one thing, it’s going to be at the expense of other types of information processing, and that’s going to have an impact on kind of how you do and what you remember.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, now could you share sort of the big idea or core thesis behind the book Hard to Break?

Russ Poldrack
Yes. So, I’d say that the big idea is really, like why are habits so hard to change? We all have habits we’d like to change. We all know how hard our behavior is to change. And I think the big idea behind the book is that behavior change is hard for a reason, and that is that habits, in general, are a really good thing. In fact, they’re essential for us to behave effectively in the world. So, if you think about what will happen if we didn’t have habits, we would be deliberating about every small act that we make, which, “Where exactly should I put my foot when I take the next step?” “Which of these ten different loaves of bread at the grocery store should I buy?”

And, obviously, some people still do deliberate about those things excessively. But habits basically allow us to offload a lot of the uninteresting stuff to what you might think of as our brain’s autopilot. When the world stays the same all the time, when we’re driving the same car every day, we don’t need to worry about where the pedals are changing, and all those old details. The habit systems in our brain basically allow us to not have to think about that stuff.

There’s a great quote from the psychologist William James, he actually wrote this in 1890, and it’s one of the most highlighted bits on Kindle in my book, which is, here’s the quote, “The great thing then in all education is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. For this, we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can.”

So, it really highlights the fact that, in general, habits are really important to us, and you wouldn’t want them to just go away easily until they become habits that are annoying, and then the stickiest of habits becomes like a real challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so given this, what do you recommend are some of the best practices for establishing new habits, and then, conversely, for breaking ones we don’t want?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. So, I think when it comes to establishing new habits, the real key is consistency and in some sense, setting up a schedule. So, let’s assume that we’re talking about a habit that isn’t something one necessarily loves to do, like going to the gym. One of the things to think about is to make it as easy as possible for yourself to engage in the thing. One way to think about is don’t let yourself decide whether you’re going to do that thing or not today, but really have it be just part of a schedule.

So, for example, if you wake up every day and say, “Oh, should I go to the gym today?” It’s going to be a lot easier to say no than if you just decide, “I’m going to go to the gym on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at the same time of day, and I’m going to sort of fix that into my larger routine.” And so, the idea is sort of taking away a little bit of your ability to decide not to do the thing.

Pete Mockaitis
Like, burn the boats.

Russ Poldrack
Sorry, say that again?

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, kind of like the burn the boats notion, like, “Oh, we can’t retreat because the boats are gone.”

Russ Poldrack
Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
Or, other sort of commitment devices or restraints. Okay.

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. Another interesting idea has come from Katy Milkman and Angela Duckworth and others, this idea called temptation bundling, where basically the idea is you give yourself a small reward in exchange for doing something that you don’t want to necessarily do at least until that thing can sort of become more habitual.

So, you might, for example, say, “Every time I go to the gym, I’m going to allow myself to have a little bit of chocolate.” Angela Duckworth and her colleagues did some research where they gave people free audiobooks to listen to while they were on the treadmill, and that actually showed that it increased people’s willingness to exercise. Even something, audiobooks are fun, they’re not like eating chocolate, but even the audiobooks were enough to sort of get people to be more likely to keep going to the gym.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if we’re trying to disentangle or get away from things we want to stop doing, what do you recommend there?

Russ Poldrack
So, I think one of the really important things is understanding what are the things that trigger the habit. We know that one of the things that makes a habit a habit is that it’s triggered by cues in the world. One of these, for example, you walk into a bar, you’re an ex-smoker, the smell of smoke or the other smells of the bar make you really want to have a cigarette. And almost every habit has some sort of thing that can trigger it.

And so, the first important thing is to like try to understand what the triggers are for you. They’re going to probably be different for every person. What are the triggers for you for the particular habit you’re trying to change? And then, one, can you get rid of those triggers? Can you kind of design your life to not encounter those things? Sometimes we can, sometimes we can’t.

If you can, then the more you can do to avoid the triggers, the better off you are because one of the other things that’s so hard about habits is once they get triggered, they’re really hard to stop. It’s much easier to prevent them from ever happening, to prevent you from ever being triggered to do the thing than it is to stop yourself once it’s been triggered.

Now, there are some things that we know that can strengthen one’s ability to stop, and we know that the prefrontal cortex is kind of the brain’s central executive to the degree that humans can exert any control over what they do, it’s the prefrontal cortex that allows us to do that. And there are things that we know that can make the prefrontal cortex work better or worse. We know that stress has a really strong negative impact on the prefrontal cortex and one’s ability to exert control.

Lack of sleep is also a big way to sort of cause the prefrontal cortex to not function well. So, working on stress reduction, improving sleep, exercise, those are all things that we know can help improve prefrontal cortex function. People think that this stuff is all about willpower, but willpower is, in general, pretty weak. And once the habit takes off, it’s very hard for us to actually stop it.

So, one of the things that seems to work, there’s evidence showing in a number of different domains that this can help people change their behavior, is this idea of planning for what’s going to happen when the situation arises. So, psychologists call this an implementation intention. When it comes time to have to stop yourself from doing the thing, what are you going to do?

And so, instead of saying, “Oh, I’m not going to smoke,” say, “Well, when I go to the bar and my friend offers me a cigarette, this is exactly what I’m going to do in order to prevent myself from smoking at that point.” It doesn’t always work but there’s evidence that these types of planning interventions do seem to help people change their behavior.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s so funny, my creative brain just runs wild with that because there can be an infinite number of responses. I’m thinking of like dramatic things, like you can break it into and say, “No, I have conquered nicotine forever.” Okay, that’s dramatic. Or, you can say, “Oh, no, thanks.” Or, it’s sort of like you have your script, or you’re going to, I don’t know, what the alternative to smoking are in terms of I guess there’s other nicotine delivery mechanisms.

There’s like a fuse, I don’t know what it’s called. It’s like a vape. It’s not nicotine or something. So, there can be any number of replacements. And, in fact, I was intrigued you have a chapter entitled “I forgot that I was a smoker” in your table of contents. I wanted to dig into that because we talk about those triggers. It’s kind of like some triggers are internal, like, “Hmm, when I’m bored,” which is sort of happens inside all of us daily, “I pick up my smartphone and see what’s going on in social media,” or whatever, or maybe it is a cigarette or food or drink type situations.

So, when that happens, and the triggers are internal and unavoidable, tell us what are some of the best practices? There’s strengthening of the prefrontal cortex, there’s having that implementation intention.

Russ Poldrack
Implementation intention, yeah. Another thing, so I talk a bit in the book about a bit of what we’ve learned from research on Tourette Syndrome. So, Tourette Syndrome is this disorder mostly in children where the kids have tics, and these could be vocal tics, they could be facial movement. Most kids grow out of them, some people have them into their adulthood.

And there’s a bunch of work looking at what’s called habit replacement, where the idea is like if you have something that, for example, a tic, and these tics, like a person often gets a really strong urge to like to do the thing, especially if they’re trying to prevent themselves from doing it, and finally it comes out.

So, the idea is to have some other thing that you do as a replacement, and that could be, in the context of tics, it’s often like a different movement. But you can imagine finding, for example, if you usually drink alcohol and you want to sort of not drink, finding things that are as close as possible to the thing that you would want to drink but that don’t have alcohol, or as you were talking about nicotine replacement, because those sorts of things can help break that…kind of break the link between all of the cues, like the taste of the thing and the response that you get from, for example, the alcohol.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so, that person who forgot that they were a smoker, how did that go down?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. So, it’s a really interesting case. There’s actually a number of cases where this was an individual who had a stroke and it damaged the particular part of the brain that seems to be really important for sort of storing these types of kind of, I don’t know if you want to think of them as just cravings, but sort of like associations that we have with stuff that we want.

And, yeah, he apparently woke up after the stroke, and suddenly didn’t…after years of waking up every morning and having to have a cigarette first thing, woke up after the stroke, didn’t feel the need for a cigarette anymore. And when he was asked to describe what happened, he basically said, “Yeah, I just forgot I was a smoker.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so, yeah, that has fascinating implications, I’m sure, in your research associated with brain pathways and what’s going on there. Okay. And then you’ve got a particular recipe for stickiness in terms of getting habits to stick. What are the components of this recipe?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah, so the brain has sort of brought together several different things that ultimately result in the fact that habits are really sticky.

So, the first one is that when a habit is developed, it never really goes away. As much as we might try to make it go away, what we’ve learned from a lot of research, especially research looking at rats learning habits, but we think it’s true in all organisms, is that when we have a habit and we want to try to get rid of that habit, what we have to do is, basically, push down the habit and learn a new behavior in its place. And as much as we might think that that old habit is gone, it’s always lurking there in the background. And if we get stressed out, or if the context changes, it’s likely to come back. That’s why we think habits are so likely to come back even many years later.

There’s also this thing that happens as something becomes a habit, our brain kind of moves it from initially relying on sort of parts of the brain that kind of make plans and plan out what we’re going to do, to the parts of the brain that are more involved in just doing actions. So, it’s almost like it becomes more of a hardwired action than something that we’re thinking about.

And another part of that is that we start to do lots of things together. We call this chunking in neuroscience, where initially we would have to plan out what are all the different actions we were going to do, say, to go to the store and go get some ice cream. And all of that becomes, in some sense, one bigger action.

And so, it’s easy for us to not sort of be thinking in the middle of what we’re doing. It’s almost like if the thing starts and it just kind of runs until it’s done. And then the other thing that starts to happen is that our attention starts to get driven by the things that are the sort of things in the world that are related to the habit.

So, for example, if you have a habit of eating ice cream, you might be particularly drawn to any kind of image of ice cream, anything in the store that has those features that you kind of associate with ice cream. And so, all those things come together to make it both really hard to get rid of a habit, and also really hard to prevent it from being turned on or to stop it once it’s going.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so given all of the knowledge and concepts and principles, can you share with us a few of the coolest stories you’ve encountered of folks who have put this into practice and done a fine job of creating habits or breaking habits that previously were eluding them?

Russ Poldrack
So, I think one really inspiring example for me is a friend of mine who, for a number of years, had a significant drug habit, narcotics, and was able to, ultimately, kind of hit bottom, and was able to come back. And I think one of the really impressive things that they used was really working on this kind of protecting the prefrontal cortex by doing meditation and really trying to obtain some kind of respite from all of the urges of the world and the voices that we hear. And I think that the ability to get some sort of mental clarity and really understand yourself like that really helps to think about, “How will I respond when the cues come up?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Russ Poldrack
No, I think we’ve hit all the high points.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah, this is from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Nice. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Russ Poldrack
One of the things that I always like to talk about and it kind of blows people’s minds, and they don’t believe me when I tell them about it, there’s a large body of work in psychology now on what are called flashbulb memories, which are these memories that we all have where something happens. I have one, I was in college when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, and I have this crystal-clear memory of like walking into my dorm room after class, and somebody telling me, “Oh, hey, the Space Shuttle exploded.” And we all think that those are…they’re called flashbulb memories because, for many years, many people thought that they were this perfect recording of exactly what happened.

It turns out that many people get the details of these memories completely wrong. There’s been a number of studies now that have looked at people’s memories. The first one was actually for the Challenger explosion, where they went back, they had people, like the day after the explosion, say, “Where were you yesterday when you heard about the Challenger explosion?” And then they go back months later, and say, “Where were you?”

And the people often give details that are just totally wrong but they’re still so confident in those memories. And it really highlights the fact that memory is not like a tape recorder. Memory is our brain reconstructing a story about the past.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And could you share a favorite book?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah, one that I think is really fun is called How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell, who’s an artist and writer. And it lays out this idea of what she calls the attention economy. It’s like the whole world is just sort of clamoring to grab our attention, and we start to think of like every moment as an opportunity to spend attention on something.

And she makes this, I think, a compelling argument, that we need to take back control of our attention, and that she refers to it as like a revolutionary act, and sort of choose to experience the world in a way that allows us to connect with other people, connect with the world around us. I think about when I was a kid, my mom would make me go to the fabric store with her, and this is before devices or anything.

And so, my brother and I would go to the fabric store with her, and we’d just sit there for 20, 30 minutes with absolutely nothing to do. And that kind of ability to tolerate boredom, like I could never go do that now, but I think that our ability to turn off our responses to the world and to…I think, mindful is a good word for it, to be more mindful about how it is that we’re engaging with the world, I think, is a really important thing.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Russ Poldrack
Yeah. So, I think the one piece of software that I use that I think is really useful is, and there’s a lot of things to do this, but I use this thing called Todoist, which is a really lightweight but effective to-do list manager. I like to try to keep my inbox, my email inbox down to one page so I can at least see everything that I immediately have to worry about.

And I’m sure you get as many emails as I do, you know how hard it is to keep everything down to about…I think my page is like 40 emails. And so, having a really good to-do list manager that integrates well with your email system is really important. And so, I find that probably my most important, like small tool that helps me stay on track.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how about yourself when it comes to habits? Any favorite ones that really served you well over the years?

Russ Poldrack
I think I try to walk a lot, and I think that that’s a good thing to do both because you can’t be doing other things. Well, you can but I try not to. And I think habits, I’m trying to think habits of mind because, obviously, we all often think about our habits as being actions that we take in the world. But I think habits of mind are just as important, and I think being able to find the sweet spot where you’re almost perfectionist but not quite.
Because I think perfectionism is, at least in terms of productivity, is just a killer. I know so many people who are much more brilliant than I will ever be, sort of people who wanted to go into science but basically their perfectionism prevented them from ever getting anywhere because they were never happy enough with what they had done. And so, I think finding that sweet spot between good enough and perfect, it’s a really hard thing to learn how to do but I think, at least for me, I feel like that’s been a key to success.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, it’s been underlined a bunch in the book, or you hear people quote it back to you often?

Russ Poldrack
I think the important nugget is that habits are sticky for a reason. They’re sticky because, in general, we want them to be. We don’t want to do a handstand and have our ability to see completely rewired. And I think related to that, one of the points that I often try to make about the book is that it should be a message for people to not beat themselves up when they can’t change their behavior.

Their brains were built to do exactly this, and especially our brains didn’t evolve in a world with 64-ounce sugary drinks and potato chips and drugs of the sort that one can buy either at the store or on the street. And so, our brains are really badly overpowered by the world that we live in now, and so I think that finding some compassion for one’s self around these things, I think, is really important.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Russ Poldrack
I’m on Twitter @russpoldrack, that’s probably the best place.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Russ Poldrack
I think it kind of goes back, actually, to the quote, which is to just find as many chances as you can to do something that you’re afraid of.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Russ, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck and fun good habits.

Russ Poldrack
Many thanks. It’s been great fun.

777: How to Observe and Listen like a Master Interrogator with Certified Forensic Interviewer Michael Reddington

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Michael Reddington shares valuable skills–learned from having engaged in many interrogations–that make you a more observant listener and influential communicator.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The trick to staying focused and attentive 
  2. The subtle conversation cues to look out for
  3. How to ask better questions to get better answers 

About Michael

Michael Reddington, CFI is a certified forensic interviewer and the President of InQuasive, Inc., a company that integrates the key components of effective non-confrontational interview techniques with current business research for executives. Using his background in forensics, and his understanding of human behavior through interrogation, Reddington teaches businesses to use the truth to their advantage.

Reddington received his bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from Southern New Hampshire University, and received additional education on  negotiation and leadership degree from Harvard University. He currently lives in Waxhaw, NC. 

Resources Mentioned

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Michael Reddington Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Michael, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Michael Reddington
Thank you for having me here, Pete. I appreciate it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m excited to hear your wisdom associated with listening and interviewing. And, maybe, could you kick us off with a riveting story about an interrogation you did and what went down?

Well, could we start off with a riveting story about an interrogation that you did and what happened?

Michael Reddington
Riveting story. So, now I have to come up with extra drama to make sure we put into the retelling of it. I think the one that jumps first to mind for me was, years ago, I was in the Midwest and I received a call from the owner of an organization that, it’s no overstatement, was in a bit of desperate straits. As part of their operation, they sold firearms. And as part of an organization that sells firearms, you’re subject to periodic audits from the federal government to make sure that you’re doing everything you’re supposed to and securing firearms the way you’re supposed to. And as part of this unannounced federal audit, the auditors who were from the ATF found that two firearms were missing.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, wow.

Michael Reddington
So, the agents who, I mean, I wasn’t there. I can’t speak for the techniques that they used, but they were unable, with their initial efforts, to learn who may have been responsible for taking those guns, so they passed it on to the local police who were also unable to determine who was responsible for taking those guns. And the case languished, I believe, if I recall correctly, for eight weeks.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, dear. That’s kind of spooky.

Michael Reddington
Yeah, for not knowing where these could be. And when you think about why those would be stolen, to oversimplify it, it’s either for money or to be used. So, not that either is good, but we certainly don’t want them to be used. So, about eight weeks had gone by, they reached out to my former company, I ended up having the conversation with them about potentially going out to handle it.

So, I flew out. Met with the owner of the facility and reviewed the employees’ HR files for a couple of hours to, then, get up early the next morning and start the interviews.

And I believe that I had a pretty good idea who was responsible, interviewed some other employees who were able to give me some supportive information. And then when it came down to interview who was the gentleman who was the main suspect at that point, really from our standpoint, it’s important to remember that he has no good reason to tell us the truth, he’s already withheld it several times, could likely believe that he’s going to get away with it, or has already. He’s got to know there’s repercussions for this.

So, as we went through the conversation, the whole plan was to use a technique that he likely wasn’t familiar with, which, this might surprise people, was be nice and show respect and show empathy, and not necessarily give the impression that it’s totally cool to go out and steal guns, if that’s what you want to do, but at least show respect for him and his potential position in the situation. And, thankfully, it worked.

It’s about 23 minutes into the conversation, I asked him, “What’s the most expensive item you ever took from the store?” because my thought was he might admit to stealing something else before admitting to stealing guns, so if that’s what he wants to tell me, we’ll start there. And he exhaled deeply, looked down on his shoes, looked back at me, and said, “It was a gun.” And at that point, we were off to the races.

So, getting the admission to the two guns, it turned out to be the least difficult part of the process. As we were talking about the two guns, he told me that he had one and told me exactly where it was in his house, and told me that he had sold another one. To your reaction earlier, I got to find that. I can’t just say, “Okay, cool. Thanks,” and leave. So, he was far more resistant to sharing the name of the person who he sold the firearm to than he was telling that he had taken the two firearms.

And the empathetic approach that eventually worked in order to get that information from him after a period of, could’ve been 10 minutes or so, of resistance where he didn’t want to share the name, was illustrating to him, without using any names or pointing to anybody specifically, that if law enforcement were sent to recover a firearm and they are uncertain as to how that process might go, they might enter that building with one set of expectations where it could lead to a situation we’d all like to avoid. Considering how much we would care about anybody involved in that situation, the more we can level-set the expectations going in, the more we can ensure that any type of recovery efforts doesn’t go sideways.

At that point, he decided not only to give me the name but provide me with turn-by-turn directions, a work phone number, and a cellphone number to this gentleman. So, once we had all of that documented, we were able to turn him over to the police. I stayed in that town for the next two days because I was teaching a seminar. The schedule worked out perfect. And by the end of that week, I was able to confirm that both guns had been recovered, and both gentlemen had been incarcerated.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, happy ending. Well done. And so, the magic was just being nice and some lay out the situation. I don’t want to diminish your job, Michael, but it doesn’t sound too hard. What’s going on?

Michael Reddington
When we do a good job, it shouldn’t look too hard, it shouldn’t sound too hard. But, to your point, that belies the preparation and the technique that’s used. I don’t want to use an analogy that goes too far but, oftentimes, if you watch athletes on TV, it looks easy, without realizing the hours of preparation that they’ve put in behind that.

To answer the first half of your question, yes, being nice to people is a core component. If we are asking somebody to share sensitive information under vulnerable circumstances, especially if that sensitive information leads to potential consequences, the single most important thing we need to do is communicate with them in a way where they avoid feeling embarrassed and they avoid feeling judged. Period. That is the most important thing we can do.

If we can do that in a way that helps us build our credibility in the situation while allowing them to save face, and to steal a phrase, violates their expectation. In that situation, he was probably expecting another investigator to likely take a hard judgmental approach and try to corner him into feeling forced to admit. Well, he’s going to have a prepared defense for that. So, if I can go in being nice, not showing judgment and allowing him to save face, yes, that’s a core component where we like to often say, “You will be surprised what people will tell you when you’re nice.”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so be nice, that’s a great takeaway for work and all kinds of places. I’m curious, when there are in terms of the conversations that occur at work, what are some of the key situations and scenarios you see are most applicable to using your toolkit here?

Michael Reddington
Thank you for asking. Many. Leadership and coaching conversations. Conflict between employees. Any type of investigative conversation, of course. Sales and business development. Negotiations. Candidate interviewing. For most leaders at any level of an organization, from frontline managers, all the way up the org chart, they spend a considerable amount of their day in conversations with people where their job is to, in some combination, acquire information and inspire a change in behavior. So, any time where we are communicating with people to obtain information, in order to help us make a better decision and/or change someone’s behavior, obtain a commitment to action, these concepts apply.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so we got a couple of takeaways associated with being unpredictable, allowing them to save face, being kind. Any other particularly surprising discoveries you’ve made about listening and conversations over the course of many, many conversations and lots of research in your career?

Michael Reddington
Yeah, I’ll go with two off the top of my head. The first one is our internal monologue is likely the single most dangerous factor in our conversations. Simply put, if you and I are talking, I can’t have anything more important to say to myself than you have to say to yourself.

So, if you’re talking to yourself at the same time I’m talking to you, you’re not listening to me, and I don’t blame you for that, it’s naturally how our brains are wired, but, unfortunately, in those situations, we trick ourselves into believing we listen because I’m picking up just enough on what’s somebody’s saying that my brain automatically fills in the blanks and makes the assumption that I got the full message.

As that’s happening, I’m likely focusing on what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, defending my positions, thinking about my emotions, how do I feel, or maybe I’m just completely checked out. So, it’s not a double-edged sword because both edges are negative. Not only am I missing out on your message but I’m compounding that based on where my monologue is taking myself. So, the importance of developing the ability to limit our internal monologue is one.

The second that comes to mind right away is the concept that time is the enemy of empathy. Our brains can’t multitask. So, just like I can’t multitask, I can’t listen to myself while I’m listening to you, I also can’t focus on the intelligence buried within your communication, the layers and the nuances that are so very important to helping me create unexpected value, if I’m focusing on the time, “I need to be out of here in five minutes. I have another meeting in 10 minutes. When this conversation is over, I need to be somewhere else. I wish Pete would hurry up and get to the point so I can just say.”

As soon as I start prioritizing time, how quickly I need to end this conversation, or how quickly I need to learn information, I’m now prioritizing time over value, and my ability to empathize, understand, and connect with somebody is going to drop precipitously.

Pete Mockaitis
It sounds like it’s your awareness of time. I suppose you could conceivably just set an alarm. If you only have half an hour, you set an alarm and you just forget about the clock entirely, and it’s like, “Oh, crap. Well, that went beep so I guess we’re going to have to resume this a little later.”

Michael Reddington
That’s one way. One of the focuses that I took from a career in interrogation, quick backstory without deviating too far, the majority of the conversations I facilitated in my investigative interviewing career were noncustodial, meaning people were not under arrest, they were not Mirandized, they were free to get up and go at any time, and if I, in any way, attempted to impede their ability to leave, I was putting myself and my company in serious legal jeopardy.

So, based on a rather nebulous Supreme Court ruling, we operated under the understanding that we have 60 minutes to get the first indication of wrongdoing, and once we had that, we had a reasonable amount of time to wrap up. But if we have no evidence and not even a tacit admission within 60 minutes, we ought to really start thinking about wrapping this up, transitioning, “Where do we go next?”

So, if I sat down in any interrogation and thought to myself, “I’ve got 60 minutes,” in my head I’m thinking, “59, 58, 57,” all the way down. Now, because I’m focusing on the time, I’m more likely to rush and make mistakes. Now, if I understand that I’ve got 60 minutes, that means I have this window, this timeframe to use to my advantage. So, one of the things that we preach is allow the conversation to come to you, because if we’re not listening, we’re not learning. And if we’re not learning, we’re probably not uncovering any paths to uncover this hidden value.

So, when we let the conversation come to us, really, what we’re doing is, in order to do that well, I should go back and say we really need to understand, clearly, going into the conversation, “What are our goals?” If I know where I want this conversation to end, it really doesn’t matter where you started. It doesn’t matter at all because I can use, wherever it starts, and over time, nudge it and guide it to where I need it to go.

So, as opposed to setting an alarm, if I can understand, “Well, this is where I need to be, so I’m going to allow the conversation to come to me, I’m going to let Pete start it, guide it, get whatever is off his chest or important to him first, and from there I’m going to work it to where I need it to be.” Now, I’m embracing that learning mentality towards goal achievement as opposed to focusing on, “I’ve only got 30 minutes. I need to make sure I get to the point.”

Pete Mockaitis
Now, your book The Disciplined Listening Method: How A Certified Forensic Interviewer Unlocks Hidden Value in Every Conversation, let’s hear the big idea behind the book, sort of like the core message or thesis. And what do you mean by hidden value specifically?

Michael Reddington
That’s how I write into the thesis. So, really, the big idea behind the book is that there are so many opportunities that we have, not only the ability to capture, but have the ability to create in our important conversations, and all the listeners can decide what’s an important conversation to them – business, personal, who they’re talking to, what the potential opportunities or repercussions of those conversations are, but, really, the big idea is, “What do we need to do in order to capture and create those opportunities and stop letting them fall through our fingers?”

And so, with that, The Disciplined Listening Method, ‘if we’re to use the coin analogy, has two sides to the coin. One is that strategic observation side, “How do I really evolve my ability as an observer to pick up on all the nuances of what’s happening in front of me, understand what I’m experiencing internally, and work through that in a goal-achieve mindset framework?”

And then the flipside of the coin is to improve our influential communication, “How do I communicate, how do I ask questions in a way that are more likely,” as we mentioned earlier, “to help people save face and increase their comfort level in sharing sensitive information with us so we gather more intelligence, we make better decisions, we achieve better outcomes, we solidify better relationships?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so you’ve got seven core behaviors in The Disciplined Listening Method. I want to dig into a few things you’ve said already, and then we’ll round out as many of the seven as we have time for.

Michael Reddington
Let’s do it.

Pete Mockaitis
So, the internal dialogue, that sounds like a huge foundational starting point right there in terms of if you’re more distracted by what’s coming up for lunch or whatever other interesting thoughts are in your head, then you’re going to have a heck of a time observing nuances, remembering your great questions, and influential communication approaches. So, can you kick us off by sharing, okay, we’ve all got internal monologue, how do we get a bit of control or handle on limiting that?

Michael Reddington
Great question. A couple alternatives for that. Number one, whenever possible, our preparation and the thoroughness of our preparation will help. Now, this is better prepared for a conversation more than a spontaneous conversation. But if I know where I want this conversation to go, if I’m comfortable with my material, if I’m comfortable with the questions I want to ask in advance of the conversation, then I don’t need to think about those things.

I’m not a musician so I’m going to steal this analogy. But as my musician friends tell me they can’t play guitar and think of the words at the same time. They can think of the words and have the chords on auto, or they can have the words on auto and think of the chords, but they can’t think of both at the same time. So, if I can be prepared with what I want to say, what do I want to ask, where do I need to go, I can work to shut down my internal monologue and really focus on you because there’s got many less variables I’m accounting for. That type of preparation isn’t always available.

During the conversation, the next one, is the intentional effort. So, when I pick up that my internal monologue is leading me astray, when I catch myself focusing on an emotion, or where I need to be in 10 minutes, or what else I’d rather be doing, or what I need to say next, or the point I need to defend next, that’s a checkpoint for me to say, “Wait a minute. I need to refocus.”

The third one is the one that I have found to be most helpful. More often than not, our internal monologue has an emotional component, and when our emotions change, we generally get a physiological indication that our emotions are changing before we realize it in our mind, “Oh, no, my emotions are shifting.”

So, in order to catch it at the earliest piece, what we’d like to do is coach people to try to identify “What are your physical triggers? What are your first indications, physically, that your emotions are changing?” I will admit mine for everybody, which is a bit embarrassing, but it’s curling my toes in my shoes. Often, if I’m having a conversation with somebody and my emotions start to shift, I start curling my toes in my shoes.

So, as soon as I feel my toes curling, I might not rationally understand that my emotions are changing, what they’re changing to, or why they’re changing, but as soon as I catch my toes moving in my shoes, that’s my indication that I need to focus. Now, if my emotions are changing quicker, maybe I’m making a fist in my pocket, or maybe my face is getting red, or my heartrate is beating faster, or my lungs are breathing heavier, any one of these things as well. But, for me, largely, I’m going to listen to my body. And my tell, more often than not, is my toes.

So, for anybody that knows me and listens to this, I can’t wait to watch them stare at my feet from now on when we have conversations. But as soon as I feel those toes moving, I know I need to be focused and limit wherever my internal monologue is taking me at that point because it’s generating emotions that are likely counterproductive to the goals I’m trying to achieve.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, when you say emotions change, I mean, I think if the stakes aren’t that high, I don’t know, can these emotions change, just be a little bit from, “Oh, I’m interested,” to, “I’m kind of bored and tired”? Is that like the subtlety or minuteness we’re talking about an emotional change?

Michael Reddington
Yeah, it could be shifting to annoyed, to bored, to done, like, “I’ve heard enough.” And you’re right, even in these low-stakes conversations, the emotional shifts can be just that. And in that case, maybe it’s not my toes

It could be that I’m looking at my watch, or I’m looking at the door, or I’m starting to play with my coffee cup on the table, or some of these signals we might be sending consciously or subconsciously to our counterpart that this conversation is over. If I’m sending that signal that I’m clearly not listening, which means I’m clearly not learning.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And so then, you said a few times that you observed something in yourself, and that’s your cue to refocus.

Michael Reddington
Yes, sir.

Pete Mockaitis
So, now, can we get very precise and granular and specific about what does refocusing consist of? Because I think people, they struggle with distractions of all sorts, of all shapes, and conversations and elsewhere, smartphones and more, so to refocus, for many, it’s easier said than done. How does one refocus?

Michael Reddington
Literally, for me, it’s by saying to myself, “I need to listen to Pete.” Literally. I’ll go back to the toes, I catch my toes, my first thought is, “I need to listen to Pete because clearly I’m not right now.” So, now as I go back and start listening to you, the next question in my mind, which I know dives back into internal monologue as I’m helping to get refocused here, the next question is, “How does what he’s saying help me achieve my goals?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, then you‘ve got…I like that because the first one, in a way, as far as internal monologues go, it’s a little bit of a splash of cold water. It’s not too intense in terms of you’re not just terrorizing yourself, beating yourself up, but there’s a firmness to it. I’m thinking about my kids, like if I were to say that, “Hey, you need to go brush your teeth.” Okay, that’s escalating on the serious scale.

And then you return to your question. I guess that goes back to the preparation, is that you’ve got a sense for what the goals are, what you’re trying to achieve, which is “I probably best practice for most people and most conversations in work and elsewhere.” And so, there you have it. Now, if this happens again and again and again, well, you tell me, Michael, might you have to give yourself this stern admonition, like a dozen times a minute? Or, what are we thinking?

Michael Reddington
Hopefully not in a minute but maybe a dozen times in a conversation. One of the things, especially for leaders and getting in in-level in the organization, and it’s true for parents as well, coaches, youth sports, whatever it is, that any time we feel like we have a level of expertise in a situation, that level of expertise can hurt us as much as it can help us.

Because if I believe I know how this movie ends, if I believe I already have the right idea or the right solution, then I’m not listening to learn. I’m listening for the first opportunity I have to convey how smart I am, what my idea has, or to wrap this conversation up as soon as possible. So, if I keep falling into that trap, then, yes, I might have to kick myself back into this conversation multiple times. Hopefully, it’s not 12 times a minute, but, yeah, I might have to, multiple times in a conversation.

One of the things that we like to coach is that if we reflect on our communication experiences, so, let’s say that, over the course of a day, I have a dozen important conversations, could be with customers, internally other leaders in the organization, my wife here at home. And as I reflect on my day before I go to bed, I think to myself, “Ten of those conversations really felt like my counterparts were engaged and had a pretty good idea of where I was coming from, what I was saying, two of them didn’t, that was probably a them issue.”

But if I reflect on my day, and I think, “Well, I had 12 important conversations today, and in 10 of them, the people I was talking to just couldn’t grasp what I was saying, where I was coming from, the importance of my message. They weren’t getting it.” Well, I’m the lowest common denominator in those 10 conversations. So, the likelihood that this is a me problem is now really high.

So, if we find ourselves in any type of repetitive situation, or we feel like we’re not achieving our outcomes, or we’re running into more resistance in our conversations, one of the questions we like to coach to ask ourselves is, “Am I the lowest common denominator? And if it appears that I am,” to your point, “what behaviors do I need to change? How do I need to update my approach?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, that’s some internal monologue pieces. You also talked about observing nuances. Like, what are the kinds of things that you recommend we keep our eyes open for?

Michael Reddington
Thank you for asking. I’m going to start with a don’t and then get to more do’s. Don’t try to catch people lying. There’s no point. Essentially, everything we’ve ever been told that people do when they lie, scientifically has been proven is not an indication that they’re lying, and realistically is an indication that they’ve become uncomfortable.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes. Joe Navarro, we had on the show, talked about this. Like, there’s no telltale sign, “Oh, you touched your nose or your ears or your eyes went in this direction, or you covered your suprasternal notch,” that all these things likely mean there is some discomfort for who knows why. It’s cold. They’re kind of bored. They are tired of going through this again. They don’t want you to find out about something else they’re hiding, which is completely unrelated to the matter at hand. Okay, so right on. It sounds like you got a checkmark there, like forget the deception there.

Michael Reddington
Yes, and he’s a perfect resource for that. So, as we move away from trying to catch people lying, what we really want to focus on is just that, I’m looking for changes in somebody’s comfort level throughout the conversation. And then with a heightened level of situational awareness, looking to tie their change in comfort to the most likely trigger, “Was it something that I just said? Was it something they were saying?” To your point, “Is the room cold?” “Did somebody just walk in that they’re trying to avoid?” That contextual or situational awareness really is the missing ingredient to accurately identifying somebody’s emotional shift.

But, by and large, without even getting into that level of nuance, if we’re just looking for, to oversimplify it, to somebody who looks happy, sad, frustrated, what does their emotional shift look like? For me, just some basics, and Joe might have mentioned some of these, if I’m having a conversation with somebody and we’re standing up, talking to each other, are their feet pointed towards me and are their shoulders parallel with mine? If the answer to both questions is yes, they’re probably relatively engaged. If their feet are pointing away, or if their shoulders are turning away, or they keep looking away, this isn’t rocket science, they’re probably not so much engaged with me.

For me, another myth, if somebody crosses their arms, it doesn’t mean that they’re closed off or defensive. It means they’re likely either the physical discomfort, could be cold, or their back hurts, or emotionally vulnerable at the moment, and their face might be a better place to look to figure out what the specific emotional vulnerability is at that point in time.

But, for me, especially with the nonverbals, what behavior changes isn’t nearly as important as when the behavior changes. So, if I know that I’m saying something to somebody that might cause a stress or a reaction, that’s where I’m looking for that shift in their behavior that potentially indicates they’re more stressful.

On the verbal communication side, I’ll cut straight to my favorite. My absolute favorite thing to observe for when somebody is communicating to me is if they start saying a word, cut themselves off in the middle of the word, and replace it with a different word in the same sentence. So, as an example, if I’m having a conversation, let’s say, I’m talking to…or I have one of my employees talking to me, another manager is talking to me, and she comes up to me and says, “At this point, I’m really just af– well, I believe that my team is concerned at this point that their ability to be successful is limited with the resources they don’t currently have, or limited by the resources they don’t currently have.”

So, the word she stopped herself from saying is afraid. So, now when I hear her cut that word off, talking about intelligence, I can now be reasonably confident that she is afraid, that she doesn’t want me to know that she’s afraid, that she is now using how her team feels in this situation as a way to likely save face and communicate how she feels in this situation, and she’s going through an impression management exercise, which tells me that my presence in this conversation is generating some stress for her based on some potential consequences that could be real and perceived.

So, I can gather all of that intelligence just by catching somebody replace a word or stop a word midstream, change the word, and keep talking. There are other examples, I’d be happy to give you different things I listen for as well, but, for me, that is, from a verbal communication standpoint, often the single biggest thing that gives me the most intelligence right away.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yes, that’s lovely. I’ve never thought to pay a lot of attention to that, and now I do. So, transformation accomplished. Thank you, Michael.

Michael Reddington
You’re welcome.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, lay some more on us. What else are you looking for?

Michael Reddington
From a general standpoint, I’m looking for changes in their speed of delivery, how loud or soft they talk, any pauses. Does the pause fit the question? That’s another big one. I’m not so worried about if somebody has a long pause or a short pause. I care, “Does the pause fit the question?” If I ask somebody a question they really should have to think about and they give me a quick answer, they either prepared in advance, they’re blowing me off, or they don’t have the answer.

If, on the other hand, I ask somebody a question that they should have a really quick answer to, and, instead, they take a long time to think about it, “Well, why are they taking so long to think about this answer when it’s something that they should have off the top of their head?” So, it’s not so much “Is it a short pause or a long pause?” It’s, “Does the pause fit the question?”

And the same thing is true with tone of voice. Does the tone match the message? If somebody is portraying a confident message but it has a questioning tone, they’re probably not as confident as they’re portraying. So, I’m sure there are international listeners to this program, so what I’m about to say is going to be geared a little bit towards American English.

If I hear a question mark where a period should be at the end of a sentence, instead of saying, “Yes, I can do it,” it’s, “Yeah, I can do it?” they have that spike at the end of that question mark, I would never go as far as to say they’re lying. I would go as far as to say one of two other alternatives or more likely. One, they’re not as confident as they’re trying to portray that they can do it, or, two, they’re testing us to see if we believe that they can do it. So, that would be another one I listen for there.

Pronoun usage is another big one. Often, if people are trying to distance themselves from responsibility, the pronouns will change in their statements. So, if I get a lot of us-es and we’s in the beginning, and then a lot of them and they’s when the unfortunate part of the situation happened, that could be an indication that they’re distancing themselves. The reverse could be true as well. They could start with a lot of they’s and them’s and then later on, start slipping in some we’s and us-es, which could be an indication that they’re more involved than they were letting on.

Same thing is true with tense changes. If the tense changes in somebody’s story, past tense, present tense, if they go back and forth, that can be an indication. Really, as I pick up on these things and more, what I’m consistently listening for is something that you mentioned earlier, which is the opportunity to help somebody save face. And when Joe talked about not trying to catch people lying, there’s little to no benefit in that, really, what we should be listening to is “How or why is somebody trying to help themselves save face?” and then how do we go about that.

So, literally, earlier today, I was part of a conversation where one of my clients is working on a negotiation where we know for a fact that they’ve been lied to. And the message that I received today was, first, we need them to tell us the truth. And the conversation after that was, actually, we don’t. What we need to do is find an opportunity to allow them to save face and continue the conversation so we get the outcome we’re looking for. If we prioritize, essentially, getting them to confess to previously lying to us, and we don’t have a good way to help them save face with the process, we run the risk of torpedoing what we’re trying to achieve with this partnership.

So, instead of being focused on righting this moral wrong – we’ve been lied to – let’s just accept that we know that it’s happened. It’s unfortunate, we wished we didn’t. It doesn’t say a lot about the other side. But what’s the intelligence within that lie and how do we now help them save face moving forward to get what we want? So, those face-saving opportunities are really what we’re often observing for.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now, when we are doing the influential communication, any key tips you’d recommend there?

Michael Reddington
For sure, and it all lies in with the concept of helping people save face. We should be going out of our way, literally, regardless of a specific technique, if we start by just thinking, “At the end of this conversation, I don’t want…” well, I’ll just say Pete for our purposes of this, “I don’t want Pete to feel embarrassed or judged. If I just start there, I’ll be in great shape. I don’t want you to feel embarrassed or judged.”

So, we like to say illustrate before you investigate. So, what I want to do is I want to show some illustration of my understanding of your situation, which often, and quite surprisingly, will give people an excuse to answer the question and save face. So, a common example, especially in the workplace, is somebody committed to getting something done and they’re not going to have it done on time.

Well, if I was to approach you, and say, “Pete, where are you on this? Are you going to have it done on time?” you have two choices. One, you can lie to me and say, “Yes,” to save face and hope for the best. Or, two, you can come up with some excuse as to why it’s not done yet, as you try to save face and maybe get some extra help. So, I’m literally going to start there. Instead of just coming up and saying, “Hey, Pete, where are you on this project? Are you going to be done by Friday?”

Now, I want to approach you and say, “Hey, Pete, how’s it going? I know we’ve had a lot of things added to our plate that we didn’t plan on, trying to help the marketing team, the customer change their expectations, even our family has been crazy. We’ve tried to balance remote work and coming into the office. So, with all of these things that we’ve been dealing with, considering how important this project is, Pete, let me ask you. If I had to reallocate resources in order to help make sure this gets done on time, what would be the most valuable thing I could do for you to make sure this project gets done on time by Friday?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, you’re right. I’ve got so many openings there, and if it’s really, really under control, it’s like, “Yeah, I don’t really need anything but I really appreciate you asking.” It’s like, “Okay, we can feel very confident that that’s pretty darn truthful because you gave me every opening.”

Michael Reddington
A hundred percent. And you’re not offended by it, so you’re like, “No, man, appreciate it. I’m good.” But if you really do need help, now there are any number of ways to save face, “Thank you for asking. If this help was available, or that help was available.” And, now, if any listeners are thinking, “Well, what if I don’t want to give him help?” You’re not obligated to at this point. But we’ve given him an excuse to talk about where he is.

Now, if in this situation, you and I can have a conversation, figure out how far behind you are, if there’s a way that you can get it back on track yourself – great. If not, well, depending on how important this project is, I might be reallocating some assets and changing some schedules to make sure it gets done on time. So, that would be another example of really focusing on the goal, successful completion of the project, when I think about asking the question.

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Anything else in terms of questions you love asking or any phrases, scripts, verbiage, that’s just so helpful again and again?

Michael Reddington
Yeah, I’ll give you a couple. My favorite way to phrase a question is, “Please walk me through.” When we say to somebody “Please walk me through,” I’m suggesting that my expectation is both chronological order and detail. So, generally, that makes it easier for me to determine when a story is either out of chronological order and/or missing detail. Because of the way that I suggested the question is answered, it makes it easier for me to figure out where potential opportunities for follow-up are within the story.

Along the same lines, please don’t ever ask somebody, “Can you remember?” or “Do you recall?” We can’t prove it that they know that, so they’re going to give us the yes or no, whichever is face-saving for them, and we could get stuck cold in the bag if it’s not true later on, so it’s not a perfect replacement. But I like to replace that with “Please take me back to…” At least, now I’m forcing their brain to kick off a little bit. It’s given me more of a behavioral read as they think of their answer. They might still say, “I can’t remember,” but at least I’ve given myself a fighting chance.

And then, for me, if I am giving an illustration and I’m trying to learn information from somebody, and I’m trying to help them feel more comfortable sharing additional information with me, the closest thing I have to a silver bullet is the phrase “Please correct me where I’m wrong,” which is significantly different from “Please correct me if I’m wrong.”

If I was to say, “Please correct me if I’m wrong,” that comes across arrogant, assumptive, and you probably just checked out. But especially if I’m talking to somebody who, emotionally, morally, based on position or rank or expertise, feels like they’re superior to me in a conversation, there’s a reasonable chance that they would love an opportunity to correct me.

So, if I preface an illustration by saying, “Pete, I’d like to take a second just to make sure that I’m tracking in the right direction, so please correct me where I go wrong. I’d appreciate that.” Now, I almost certainly have a higher level of your attention because I’ve asked you to do the one thing you want to do, so you’re probably more focused.

Now, as I go through my illustration, when I’m done, I’m literally going to stop, and now I‘m going to give you the opportunity to respond. If my observation is on track, you’re more likely going to…more than likely to say either, “You’re right,” or, “You’re not wrong.” In either situation, I have just increased the perception of my credibility, level-set this conversation, and now earn the opportunity to continue asking questions, which I might not need to because you may be so inspired by hearing that illustration and affirming that I’m correct, that you start filling in the blanks.

That also works when we miss. Now, I would never coach somebody to miss intentionally. Any time we risk coming across inauthentic or lying or insincere, there’s ripple effects there we don’t even want to deal with. But if I give this a legitimate shot and I just missed, and instead of saying “You’re right,” you come back with, “Close.” My job is to be patient because I’m willing to bet, after you say, “Close,” you are going to explain to me what I missed because I asked you to correct me.

So, in your explanation of what I missed, or how I didn’t quite get it, or what I don’t know or wasn’t thinking, I am now gathering a significant amount of intelligence without ever having to ask for it. So, I don’t risk creating question fatigue because I’m asking too many questions, and you’re happier to share the information with me because you feel like it was your idea, and it wasn’t forced upon you.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Beautiful. Thank you. Well, now let’s hear about a few of your favorite things. Could you start us off with a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Michael Reddington
My favorite quote, actually, I believe ties into a lot of what we talked about today. It’s an old Sun Tzu quote, other people probably use it as well. I believe it goes, “Submitting the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” That’s the quote, “Submitting the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” And not that in any way I’m suggesting everybody we talk to is our enemy, but I am certainly suggesting that getting through conversations without creating unnecessary conflict is, metaphorically, the acme of skill.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Michael Reddington
I’ll quote three, and it comes down to first impressions, and it really level-sets how I interact with people So, there were three studies from three independent universities, I’m assuming I’m going to get them correct. The first one came out of Princeton, was that we are capable of judging somebody’s intellect, character, and trustworthiness, if I have that correct, within 100 milliseconds after looking at their face.

A similar study out of the University of Glasgow showed that we’re capable of determining the same factors within 500 milliseconds of hearing somebody say the word hello. The third study came out of the University of Colorado, where they found that we’re capable of categorizing somebody, essentially fitting them within one of our previously conceived mental models, as fast as 100-150 milliseconds. So, really keeping in mind that we’re judging people that fast, and we need to be careful, but also that people are judging us that fast. And the literal instant of introduction is so important to set the tone for our conversations.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Now, when you say we’re capable of, I imagine, is it fair to say, it doesn’t mean we’re capable of doing it well or correctly, it’s just that we can make snap judgments and they may or may not be correct?

Michael Reddington
Roger that, yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And a favorite book?

Michael Reddington
I would start by saying I highly recommend people read every word Robert Cialdini ever wrote.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. We’ve had him on the show. He’s amazing.

Michael Reddington
Yes. So, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Pre-Suasion, anything that he wrote. I’m a fan of Malcolm Gladwell, and I’m not breaking any new ground there. For me, the best leadership book I’ve ever read, and it’s hands down, no competition, is a book called Care to Dare by George Kohlrieser, so I’ll throw that one on the list as well. I think that’s probably a pretty good list to start. I also like the Freakonomics crab. I’m forgetting their…both the authors are named Steve, but Think Like a Freak and those books. I’m a huge fan of those books as well.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job.?

Michael Reddington
Patience. Give other people the space they need to talk. The more they talk, the more they learn. The more they talk, the more they feel respected, the more they feel that we care about them, the more they feel that we’re invested in them. I know, especially with leaders in a time-compressed world, patience is a four-letter word, but I honestly believe if I had to rank conversational tools that lead to success, if I understand your question correctly, patience is right at the top of the list.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And is there a key nugget you share that really connects and resonates with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Michael Reddington
That time is the enemy of empathy comes back to me a lot. I’ll give you two more. People react the strongest to what they observe first. Go back to those statistics about how quickly we’re judging people. We tend to carry expectations into every interaction. We tend to commit the level of energy and a focus that we believe is appropriate based on the expectations we carry in. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, people react the strongest to what they observe first. Whatever we say or do first, how that either lines up or violates their expectation, often kicks off their initial reaction process. And with that people will perceive how we communicate with them as proof of how much we respect them.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Michael Reddington
Appreciate you asking. They can learn more about the book at DisciplinedListening.com. they can learn more about what we do at InQuasive at InQuasive.com. And if they want to learn more about me, the two best places to look would be MichaelReddington.com or on LinkedIn at Michael Reddington, CFI.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Michael Reddington
Go into as many conversations as you can and allow yourself to be surprised. Go into every conversation, thinking to yourself, “How can this person surprise me?” Our brains are wired to look for information that confirms what we already think and believe, we’re wired to disregard information that conflicts with what we already think and believe.

So, if we can go into our important conversations, and think, “Okay, let’s see how Pete surprises me today,” and not from a point of arrogance, “Let’s see if Pete can surprise me today,” but from like a literal point of curiosity, “Let’s see how Pete surprises me today.” We’ll be surprised, we’ll be able to learn, and then how we’ll be able to use what we learn to impact our relationships.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Michael, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you the best and many great conversations.

Michael Reddington
I appreciate the time, sir. Thank you. I’ve enjoyed it as well.

776: How to Pushback Effectively and Stand Up For What You Want with Selena Rezvani

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Selena Rezvani reveals why self-advocacy is critical for success–and how to do it effectively.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How to turn a “vague no” into something you can use 
  2. The LARA framework for when you’re faced with a no
  3. How to know when it’s time to stop pushing 

About Selena

Selena Rezvani’s mission is to help professionals stand up for themselves at work and advocate for their needs. She’s the author of 2 leadership books, the bestseller Pushback and The Next Generation of Women Leaders. 

Selena addresses thousands of professionals each year and has been featured in TEDx, Oprah.com, Inc., Todayshow.com, and NPR. Today she’s a columnist for NBC News Know Your Value. Selena is based in Philadelphia where she lives with her husband Geoff and 9 year old boy-girl twins.  

Resources Mentioned

Selena Rezvani Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Selena, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Selena Rezvani
Thank you so much, Pete. I love this podcast.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, thank you. Well, I’m excited to get into your wisdom and I also want to hear about your experience. Recently, you’ve become an enthusiast for weightlifting, as am I. What’s your story here?

Selena Rezvani
Yes, I’m a runner and I dealt with some runner’s knee that made it difficult to do that at the same rate I had been doing it, and so I was really bummed. And then the world of weightlifting opened up, and I kind of created my own home pandemic gym.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, great.

Selena Rezvani
And it’s been so cool and, like, really empowering, may I add.

Pete Mockaitis
You may, indeed. I feel the same way. What is it you love most about it?

Selena Rezvani
Well, I think it’s being able to watch yourself getting stronger and see some proof of that, you know, with bigger weights and bigger barbells and dumbbells and stuff, and doing things you didn’t think you could. It’s kind of nice to prove yourself wrong. How about you?

Pete Mockaitis
I feel the same way. And what I really like is I’m a believer in the notion of doing your best, but what’s funny, in my brain, I get all wrapped up in opportunity costs, “Well, my best, conceivably, I could spend 20 hours doing this thing to be my best.” But in the gym, it’s just very clear, it’s like, “It would be impossible for me to do a single additional repetition at this weight, and that is my best. That is just indisputable.” And then to watch that indisputable best go up and up and up, it’s like, “Huh, I have incontrovertible evidence that I am stronger now than I was one week ago, and that feels good.”

Selena Rezvani
Yes, that’s right. In a world where there’s not always a lot of concrete progress, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Totally. Absolutely. And it just feels good in terms of energy boost for the day and it just comes in handy, and I’m 38 years old now and, in not too many years, muscle begins going away from me, which will be a sad day but better to be ahead of the curve such that you’re able to rock and roll when you’re 90, hopefully.

Selena Rezvani
I think so. I think it keeps you young. I really do in a different way than other exercise.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now I want to talk about some of the wisdom in your book Pushback: How Smart Women Ask–and Stand Up–for What They Want. Now, our listeners are mostly women but I am presuming, Selena, that these insights are, many of them, applicable to men as well. Is that fair to say?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, it is actually, and to introverted folks, no matter how they identify their gender. Some of the same characteristics actually come up with folks who might struggle to speak up and speak their mind. So, I think very universal tactics here.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, could you kick us off with a particularly surprising discovery you’ve made as you were researching and putting this together?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, one of them came from my professor, actually kind of nudging me and giving me the kick and the push I needed to be a better advocate. And when I was in business school, I had this exciting opportunity to lead some research and choose what the topic of the research was and direct it, and you’d have to write a proposal, and I knew just what I wanted to do. I wanted to interview women about how they had negotiated their success, C-level women.

There’s only one problem, Pete, which is I didn’t know a single one, had zero connections to connections to them either, and my one female professor in my MBA program said, Lindsey Thomson is her name, she said, “Selena, I will approve your request to go interview women execs on one condition.” She said, “You have to go after the whales.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Selena Rezvani
“You have to go after the women you think won’t even entertain an email from you, let alone an hour of their time.” And, thank goodness, she did that because so many of those women said yes, and those interviews changed my life, how I see leadership, and I knew this could help other people. So, it became a book, a business, a mission.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, now, even before we get into the particulars of the book, I want to know what are your pro tips for getting powerful, busy, influential people to say yes to you and take the time?

Selena Rezvani
That’s such a good question and one I haven’t thought about in a little while. I would say operate on a no-surprise basis, like, this is a group that doesn’t want to be surprised. They want to know, “Why me? Why this topic? And, like, why you?” Selena, the interviewer, in this case. And so, I think I needed to make that clear in my email pitch. It was an email pitch.

It wasn’t calling them on the phone or harassing but just a really open out-on-the-table, “Here’s why I think you’d be excellent. Here’s why I think this topic really overlaps and aligns with what you’re about. And here’s where I’m coming from and what I hope to do with it.” And so many of them either right away said yes, or those that had 57 questions tended not to, and I think that’s an interesting datapoint. It either hit and resonated or just it didn’t.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that makes sense in terms of if a person has 57 follow-up questions, they’re not completely uninterested or else they would just sort of say no or ignore you, but they’re not fired up in terms of, “Oh, yeah, I’m so in. This is inspiring.” Like, “Well, this may be worth my time. What’s your projected reach and dah, dah, dah?”

Selena Rezvani
Exactly. And you have to remember, at that level, individuals have a lot of handlers and people weighing in, and communication departments, PR departments vetting things like this. Sometimes other departments are involved as well. So, sometimes my interviews had those individuals in the room with us as a kind of support to the executive or making sure they didn’t say the wrong thing. So, I think some of the questions may have been coming from the teams that’s surrounding these execs.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. All right. Well, so onto the meat of things. What’s the big idea behind Pushback?

Selena Rezvani
Well, the big idea is that there are some gender differences that are really important when it comes to negotiating for what we want and for what we need. Women tend to report more apprehension asking for what they need, and yet they are excellent advocates, very effective advocates for others, saying, “This person deserves recognition,” or, “This person really ought to be promoted and advanced in the organization.”

And one more datapoint that really screamed out at me, women are less likely to negotiate when conditions are ambiguous. And if that doesn’t describe the workplace, I don’t know what does. It can be a very ambiguous place, a lot of gray area, and I wanted to do something about that. And so, that really led me to seek out 20 C-level women executives to understand, “How did you negotiate success at work?” And the culmination of those interviews, those best tips, those hardest-won lessons, is really what Pushback is all about.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, please lay it on us, what are some of the highest impact tips in terms of, there’s a lot of ways we could frame this, but I’ll say if I could be choosy, those that take relatively little effort and provide a huge return on that effort, and are relatively rarely practiced?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah. Well, there’s one that stands out to me. Something lots of professionals have brought up is, “I got a vague no. I mustered up the courage to pitch or propose or ask for something, and I got this vague dismissal of a no.” And one of the pieces of feedback I have for people is to really insist on objective criteria.

That may require you to peel the onion back. But a quick example of this comes from one of the women I interviewed, DeeDee Wilson, a CFO at Nike, and she said, “I was told, at one point in my career, ‘DeeDee, you’re just not CFO material.’” And she said, “You know, not only was that crushing psychologically but it’s like the least actionable input ever.”

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, yeah. And I’m also thinking fixed mindset much? Come on now.

Selena Rezvani
Right. This has been decided by the heavens, it seems like. And her advice was, first of all, she got to CFO, she got there. And her advice was, “Insist on that objective criteria, aka, a real reason.” She said, “In my case, I asked, ‘Is it my financial acumen? Is it my visibility in the organization? Is it my people management skills? What exactly do I need to improve to be eligible?’”

And guess what? She got some of those answers, and she project-managed her way to that promotion, really taking her manager by the hand, not waiting for somebody else to, like, anoint her. And I thought it was really helpful advice when you’re dealing with that ambiguous no.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, boy, that really resonates and there are so many different flavors of a vague no, like, “Oh, maybe next quarter or so when we have a little bit more budget.” Okay, like that’s unclear timeline, unclear how much budget.

Selena Rezvani
Yes. Or, one of my favorites is also, like, “Well, I’m supportive of you, Pete, getting the raise. It’s just the backdrop right now or my higher-ups may not be.” This kind of like little bit breadcrumb support that’s thrown to you, and yet it’s not the same as someone giving you the greenlight or advocating for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, absolutely. And so, then in those situations, and that scenario, for example, is it to ask very specifically, “Which higher-ups and what are their concerns?” Or how would you play that?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, I would and I’d even go so far as to ask something like, “Would you be comfortable with me talking directly with Ted or Susan?” Maybe that’s a skip-level person, but sometimes the person is burdened who you’re asking, and they are supportive of your ask but it would be a relief for you to handle it directly with HR or with that skip-level manager, so I would absolutely do that.

I’d be persistent, “I hear you telling me it’s not a good time right now. I’m going to put time on our calendar four weeks from today, so please expect that invite in your inbox.” Unfortunately, you can’t always operate from a place of trust, like, “I’ll trust you to take care of me. I’ll trust you to remember.”

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And not distrust as in that they’re all snakes and liars out to get you, but rather that you can fall by the wayside in the cacophony of competing priorities that are out there.

Selena Rezvani
That’s right. Right. And maybe an even better frame is ownership, to think about it as an ownership, that in a perfect world, you’re co-owning your development and advancement with your boss or your organization. You and your organization co-own that. In this case, you need to operate much like you fully own it and that you’re going to move the ball up the field. You’re going to advance it, because what’s the old saying, “Managers have short memories.” They have so much going on that we can’t always assume they’re thinking about our development and where we need to go next.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Thank you. Well, we zoomed out a little bit. Could you share just a few of the key principles that we should bear in mind when it comes to self-advocacy? Any kind of top do’s and don’ts that make all the difference?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, one of them that I really like that could be counterintuitive to folks is to bring options to the table. So, if, for example, you’re not feeling the love with your project assignments. You’re doing a lot of the same and you’re not really growing. When you go to that one-to-one to talk to your manager, don’t just bring one preferred outcome, like, “Hey, I’d really like to come off project Déjà vu.” Maybe that’s your first choice and you can bring that up. But in your back pocket, you want to have some other options that allow you to extend the conversation and elongate the dialogue that’s going to serve you.

So, in your back pocket, you might have a second option, like, “Hey, next time, Dan, a director I admire, has an opening on his team, I’d really like to be considered.” And maybe you have yet a third option, “Hey, I’m very interested in getting exposure to XYZ client of ours. Is that something that we could look at together, me getting involved with that client?”

Why do I say this? Well, we all know some yeses are easier to grant than others but we’ll never know unless we ask and we present some different options. Sometimes there’s money in the professional development budget, not the salary budget right now. And so, you get to learn about some of that when you bring options to the table.

And a lot of people shy away from it because they think it’ll make them look entitled or like, “I’m asking for the world.” But it’s really not that way. If anything, it gives you maneuverability to say, “I hear you telling me no, Pete, on coming off project Déjà vu. Would you consider? What do you think about?” And that can be very powerful. It signals your self-confidence.

Pete Mockaitis
And that you’re flexible, you’re reasonable, you’re willing to work with them, as opposed to just adamant, “My way or the highway. This is my thing and I’m not backing down no matter what.” Cool. And then when we think about sort of the emotional dimension of this, I think that’s huge in terms of, “Oh, I’m scared. I don’t want to look demanding,” or any number of undesirable things. Are there any sort of mindsets or mantras or ways you recommend folks deal with that internal mental game?

Selena Rezvani
Yes, and I struggled with this myself for so long. I grew up in a household where I was taught to defer to authorities, to authority figures, to take just enough, don’t be greedy, be humble, don’t be too bold and brash in what you ask for. So, there’s a lot of undoing, and maybe some of the people listening can relate to that. That can be stuff you bring with you as an adult into the workplace.

And so, one of the things I would encourage you to do is stoke a sense of belonging in that conversation. I tell myself, as a mantra, “I four-hundred percent belong in this job interview,” in this podcast conversation, in this negotiation, in this high-stakes board meeting. Fill in the blank. But, oftentimes, when we tell ourselves, “Ugh, I don’t belong. I’m this foreign visitor coming to this place. I don’t think I should be here.” It creates all kinds of uncertainty.

And, oftentimes, when we get resistance in a situation like that, we can kind of slink away at the first sign of no. And so, it is so important to stoke that sense that, “I belong. In fact, I four-hundred percent belong.”

Pete Mockaitis
I dig it. And that’s a good mantra. And I find in my own experience, I really do well when…I’m thinking about sort of, in my entrepreneurial journey, like pricing, it’s like, “Ooh, I don’t know if I should really ask for that big number. That seems outrageous.” But then once I really do the research, like, “Oh, okay. If I take a look at the cost per learning hour benchmarks associated with dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, well, shucks, like this is a bargain.”

And so, I have some evidence that’s like, “It’s not just my opinion that this is a good deal or a worthwhile price but, in fact, relative to the alternative options, this is absolutely a smart investment that folks should be making.”

Selena Rezvani
Right. Absolutely. And you are smartly kind of stopping to do research and not looking for all the validation in your pitch or your proposal externally from other people, but you yourself are validating your own pitch, and that matters. That makes us sit up a little straighter. It makes us speak with more conviction when we’re asking for something. It empowers us to go a few more rounds in the conversation. So, I tell people, like, “The power phase is not when you’re in the room. It’s the getting ready. It’s the research. It’s the preparation,” like you did.

Pete Mockaitis
And I also want to get your take on particular words, phrases, magical sentences, scripts, that just really come in handy in a lot of circumstances, whether it’s the key questions. Or, what are some of your faves?

Selena Rezvani
Yes. So, one of them comes from Stanford, and it’s called LARA. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, L-A-R-A, but it’s a simple doable thing. So, let’s say you’re getting some resistance in one of these conversations. You just made an amazing proposal, let’s say, for a new role that doesn’t exist but could add lots of value, and someone’s kind of, “Ahh, I don’t know. I don’t think we could do that.” The L stands for listen, so listening.

Pete Mockaitis
“I’m hearing you say you’re not sure if we can.”

Selena Rezvani
Yeah. And even maybe quieter than that, in the sense that I have nine-year-old twins, and one of the things they teach them is whole-body listening, like really making somebody feel heard with your whole body generously listening. Your torso, your eyes, everything is focused on that person. The next one, affirm. A is for affirm. And that might be what you just said. It might be mirroring back what you heard or it might be validating a concern, “I hear you telling me this is really shockingly new and different. And I hear you on that.”

R is for respond, “But I want to tell you that this role is actually not so new and different. In fact, it’s a lot like a role that exists in the next division over that’s been really successful.” And then the A is for ask questions. So, you might end something like that by saying, “You know, what would need to be true for you to get behind this role? Or, what else would you like to know about that role I referenced over there, the best practice kind of role? What could I share with you? Or, what would be helpful for you to know about that position?” So, I love that framework. I think it comes from a place of empathy and wanting to take other’s perspectives, and that’s what important conversations are all about.

Pete Mockaitis
I love it. Any other key phrases?

Selena Rezvani
It’s a framework, if you will, rather than a phrase but I really love it as well and, again, it starts with empathy. But before you go in that room and you ask for something, as you’re doing preparation, think about your audience, it could be an audience of one or a team, think about their GPS, which stands for their goals, passions, and struggles.

And if you can integrate even if only in a small way something about how this new role you’re proposing will further the goals of your manager or this team or division, or how it’s going to push us and advance us further towards a passion, that’s the P, a really deeply held interest, a meaningful interest or passion that people care about. Or, how is it going to alleviate a struggle? And that’s the S. How is what you’re asking for going to somehow make a pain point less burdensome?

This is actually how one woman I interviewed got more responsibility. Her boss would complain to her in kind of a good-natured way about some of the projections he had to come up with for executives, and she said, “Hey, look, I know this is a burden on your time and yet it’s also a goal you’re on the hook for. What if I assume these projections?” Think about how yes-able she made her request when she framed it that way. So, I think GPS – goals, passions, struggles – can be just be an awesome lens to look through before you present information, ask for something, make a bold new proposal.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And as you’re being persistent and advocating, how do you know when it’s time to stop?

Selena Rezvani
That’s a funny one because it can be so individual. But, honestly, from some of the executives I interviewed, there was a magic number that kind of emerged of three.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. We like magic numbers.

Selena Rezvani
Yeah? If I try it three different ways and I have asked for feedback, I have really tried to make the value of this idea shine through, and I’m still getting a stonewall, it’s time for me to either get on board or shift focus. And so, I think there’s something to be said, especially in corporate environments. Might be different if you’re an entrepreneur. But, particularly for professionals, I think that’s a good compass.

Pete Mockaitis
I appreciate that because I’m sure there’s some variability and yet it’s comforting to have a clear figure. And that sounds about right to me on both sides in terms of if I’m going at it four, five, six times, or I’m hearing it a fourth, fifth, sixth time, it’s like, “Okay, this is just annoying now.”

Selena Rezvani
Right. That’s right. Like, you have to learn to move on.

Pete Mockaitis
“I feel like you’re not even listening to me, so I don’t know what else to say to you about this matter.” Thank you. Well, tell us then, anything else you really want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Selena Rezvani
Yeah, I think there’s a really important one to mention, which is when you do tap your network, and I think it’s really important that you do as part of your preparation to get smart and to do your research, particularly around compensation, this is some un-advice. We all love some don’t do’s. And that un-advice is don’t just talk to your friends.

There is some really interesting research done on physicians, and it showed women are more likely to talk to their friends when asking for compensation data or trying to get a ballpark or a benchmark of where they belong. Men are more likely to seek people out as reference points who are very much related to the role. So, while women are more swayed by rapport, men are going after people who closely aligned with the role.

And I think it’s so important, even though it can be awkward and uncomfortable to have money conversations, to really consult that broader network of individuals, not just people who look like you, or are like you in some ways. We already know you get some of the best opportunities from those weaker ties in your network, not your inner tight little circle. And so, I can’t urge people enough.

I made this mistake myself as a young management consultant at a big firm. I psyched myself up to go ask for a raise and a promotion and I consulted two people a little further along at my firm than me, and I was really proud of myself for doing that because it was scary but they were my two best girlfriends, and it’s like, “Who else should I talk to?” Men. Maybe even some people outside the firm.

And so, I hope people will learn from that mistake to think broadly. You want accurate good data. Take those calls from recruiters. That can also round out the picture of where you should be money-wise. Just by taking those calls and hearing, “Well, here’s I place you,” can be really helpful.

Pete Mockaitis
That certainly is handy as they’re talking to a lot of employers and a lot of employees, so they’ve got their finger on the pulse there. I’m just sort of putting myself in the situation where I’m reaching out to somebody I don’t know that well, and I want benchmark information about their compensation. How on earth does one articulate that request? “Basically, how much money are you making?”

Selena Rezvani
Right. Right. Slipped in between two other questions. No. I think being upfront and honest works for people and giving an out is really powerful, “Hey, Pete, I’m excited to be looking at new roles, and I wondered if you’d be open to talking to me about compensation and your experience with X. If you can’t for any reason, that’s totally okay.” And just allowing people that so it’s just extra not awkward to say, “You know, I can’t,” or, “I’m too busy,” or, “I’m happy to.”

And one other tip with that to make it a little less awkward is if you can bring like a gift. Maybe it feels like you’re asking in this case, but is there something helpful that’s related to the conversation? Maybe there’s a salary study in your industry, and you’ve just equipped yourself with that. Offer to give it to them or share a helpful resource.

Pete Mockaitis
That is handy. I’m thinking about getting first, it’s like, “Hey, I’ve collected a few datapoints and I don’t know if they’re perfectly applicable. I see X, Y, Z, A, B, C,” and then they might feel more comfortable commenting on those, like, “Huh, those seem a little low to me.” Or, if you’re talking about compensation, they might not tell you directly their package but, “Hey, when I was interviewing for different director roles, I tend to be offered between X and Y, but, ultimately, I prioritized this other benefit or piece of the package, and so I was willing to settle for a little bit less provided that they dealt with that.” So, that way they haven’t told you precisely “$268,000, Selena, is my total all-in compensation,” but rather, “Okay, somewhere in this ballpark,” and it’s not as personal, and that’s handy. Thank you.

Selena Rezvani
I love that. I love your suggestion. And some people don’t even ask the outright question. I’ve heard some people say things like, “How did you go about negotiating the budget for your lab?”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, that’s a very different question.

Selena Rezvani
Like, “How did you approach it?” And so, that’s also another kind of slightly different angle.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, now can we hear a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Selena Rezvani
There’s a great quote I love and it makes me, like, tingle every time I read it or see it. And it’s, “Happiness is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Selena Rezvani
So, one of my favorite studies is The White Lab Coat Study out of Northwestern. And it says so much about mindset. And what, essentially, happened was people were asked to wear white lab coats, something that we generally associate with care and attentiveness and doctors and scientists. And what was fascinating is people who were not scientists or doctors, when they wore these white lab coats, tended to exhibit more of those traits, those qualities.

And, to me, that is fascinating and applies to all kinds of ways that we carry ourselves into important conversations. And this idea that we can ascribe meaning to the way we present, whether it’s our clothing or something else, and we can use it to our advantage.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. We’ve had guests talk about psychological Halloweenism and enclothed cognition were some of the phrases associated with this, and I love it. Sometimes I deliberately put on my blazer before a podcast interview just so that I’d be a little bit more professional and attentive to the matter at hand, as opposed to just chit chatting about whatever.

Selena Rezvani
Yes. Yes. For you it’s a blazer, for me it’s color. Like, there’s something about just really bright colors that makes me feel bolder, more optimistic than something else. So, I love that it’s different for you and me, and probably for people listening, too.

Pete Mockaitis
I will occasionally take out my high school homecoming king crown when I need a boost or I feel sad.

Selena Rezvani
I love that.

Pete Mockaitis
“People still like me.”

Selena Rezvani
That’s right.

Pete Mockaitis
“I have a crown to prove it.”

Selena Rezvani
I love it. You should do your whole podcast in that.

Pete Mockaitis
It’s getting so beat up because it’s so old now. And, tell us, is there a key nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks; they highlight it in the book, or they quote it back to you often, or re-tweet it?

Selena Rezvani
It’s this idea that don’t give the other person all the power. I tell people, “If you put someone up on a pedestal, don’t be surprised if they start to look down on you.” And sometimes, when we’re negotiating with an authority figure, we put ourselves way down here and we put them up here, and I caution against that. If anything, approach it peer to peer, like, “It’s you and I versus the problem in front of us. You and I simply having a conversation that’s going to end in agreement.” But not the hierarchy. You don’t need to bring that in.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Selena Rezvani
Come see me at SelenaRezvani.com. You’ll see a contact form there and on all your socials. I love sharing career advice, so you’ll find me on TikTok and Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Selena Rezvani
I would say don’t wait for the conditions to be perfect. They rarely are. So, whether you’re trying to negotiate a better return to office setup, or taking your vacation and totally unplugging and not getting calls from the office, or asking for a job title that actually reflects your job duties, now is a great time to ask for that. Don’t think to yourself, “Oh, because it’s a time of change or flux, I better not.”

No. Actually, “Times have changed” are some of the most lush productive moments to ask for what you need because things aren’t written in stone. So, be emboldened to make those changes right now even if things are a little bit up in the air in your company. It really relies on you being your own vocal champion.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Selena, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much luck in all the ways you push back.

Selena Rezvani
Thank you, Pete. You are awesome. And thanks for all that you’re doing to help people really thrive at work.

718: How to Fearlessly Negotiate to Get More of What You Want with Dr. Victoria Medvec

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Victoria Medvec says: "Say it, don't sent it. And see them when you say it."

Dr. Victoria Medvec offers her top strategies for greater confidence in asking for–and getting– what you want.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Four strategies to minimize your negotiation fears 
  2. The one thing even expert negotiators get wrong
  3. The five Fs of fearless negotiation 

About Victoria

Victoria Medvec, PHD, is the Adeline Barry Davee Professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. In addition, Medvec is a co-founder and the Executive Director of the Center for Executive Women at the Kellogg School and the CEO of Medvec and Associates, a consulting firm focused on high stakes negotiations and strategic decisions.

Resources Mentioned

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Dr. Victoria Medvec Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Vicky, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Victoria Medvec
Thank you, Pete. I’m so excited to be with you today.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, me too. Well, I’d love it if we could jump right in, and you maybe kick us off with a story of maybe the most intense, or interesting, or surprising, or creative, or high stakes, or, in some way, noteworthy negotiation that you participated in, either personally or as an advisor, consultant, teacher?

Victoria Medvec
Well, that’s a great question. I include many stories of negotiations in my new book Negotiate Without Fear, because I am someone who enjoys negotiating myself, and I negotiate all the time in the everyday world, but I also advise clients on deals. So, I do a lot of advice on mergers and acquisitions, and partnership agreements, and customer contracts, so I literally am negotiating every single day.

But out of all of those negotiations, there’s one I really remember, and it’s a negotiation that was a very high-stakes field, it was very large. It was involving an international company, and the company was doing a big transaction, and we were doing a great job in the negotiation, and everything was going fantastic. And I kept saying to the CEO, “We need to land the plane,” and he would say, “I think we could just get a little bit more.” And I am super aggressive and I always push my clients to be really aggressive, but at some point, you have to close the deal. Land the plane. Finish the deal.

And I would say, “We have to land the plane,” and he would say, “I just think we can ink out a little bit more.” And I’d say, “We got to land this. We should land this today.” And then, in the midst of that, a regulatory change happened, and the deal fell apart. And that taught me a very critical lesson, Pete, which is I think you should go into negotiations and I think you should always be focused on the other side, and you should always be focused on how your differentiators address the other side’s pressing business needs. And I think you should always be aggressive in setting your goal by thinking about the weaknesses of the other side’s alternatives.

And I want you to have a really clear compelling message about how your differentiators address their needs, convey that message with your offer, but, at some point, no matter how aggressive you are, no matter how well it’s going, you’ve got to know when to close the deal. And I think that’s a key lesson I learned in that negotiation that tempers the fact that I’m always trying to get my clients to be aggressive, be willing to ask, be willing to push in the negotiation. I think it’s also important to know at what point you need to close it.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, in this example, so your client was trying to sell and then it’s just no sale because of the regulatory change.

Victoria Medvec
Because of the regulatory change. And it was a situation where he was a great negotiator, and we had worked together many, many times on a bunch of transactions, and he was ambitious, and he was very, very willing to ask, and those are all things I prize and treasure. But I always say everybody pays a price for certainty, and some people pay a really high price for certainty. They don’t like conflict, they don’t want to get involved in the exchange, they pay a super high price for certainty. Those are the people who see a house listed and pay list price so they can get the house and be sure that they have it. Or, they go to buy a car, and they see the car with the sticker, and they buy that sticker because they want to get the deal closed.

Some people pay a very high price for certainty. I’m a person who pays a low price for certainty. I am willing to engage in the discussion. I don’t mind the uncertainty of the interaction. I understand that if I’m using the right channel of communication, I can get a great deal while building the relationship with the other side and minimizing my risks. But some people pay almost nothing for certainty. They want to ink out every single piece of the deal, and that’s the situation we were in with that CEO, and we ended up losing that deal.

And it’s one of the only times I’ve ever had a deal fall apart, and so it’s very memorable because, in the sea of success, it’s the one challenge that I vividly recall, and I learned a really valuable lesson in it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, thank you. That is an excellent kickstarter story. And I’m so excited to dig into the how, hence, How to be Awesome at Your Job. But, first, maybe let’s talk about the why. I think some of our listeners might say, “Well, you know, that’s cool but I don’t really negotiate that much at work.” What would you tell them, Vicky?

Victoria Medvec
So, I would tell them that everyone needs to negotiate because we need to negotiate to get things done at work. We need to negotiate to get resources, to get staffing. We need to negotiate to get our ideas accepted, so we’re all negotiating.

I also talk a lot about how to negotiate in the everyday world, and I encourage people to actually negotiate in the everyday world because I think that if you never practice, if you only are doing high-stakes deals at work where the stakes are really high, or negotiating for yourself in your employment situation where the impact is incredibly important, I think, then, you become somewhat risk-averse and you’re afraid to try a new strategy.

So, I always encourage people to negotiate in their daily lives, to negotiate at the store, negotiate in a hotel, negotiate with the credit card company, negotiate every day. And it allows you to practice your skills, practice your strategies, and become more confident as a negotiator. So, for those say, “I never negotiate,” I would say you often negotiate. You might just not see yourself as a negotiator.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. Case made. Well, so the book is called Negotiate Without Fear, tell us, what are some of the top fears people have when it comes to negotiating, and what do we do with them?

Victoria Medvec
Right. And you know what’s interesting, Pete, is that these fears are experienced by amateur negotiators as well as expert negotiators, so it’s not as though experience reduces the fear. The fears are just different. I think a lot of people fear conflict. I think a lot of novices fear conflict, so they have a lot of fear over the exchange, over getting involved, over having the conversation. But I think experts often fear damaging the relationship, leaving money on the table, losing the deal. Those are all fears that are pervasive that prevent us from maximizing our success when we’re in these negotiations.

And so, what I try to do in the book is to give you strategies that can help you to mitigate those fears. By using these strategies, you can maximize your success, take the fear out of the negotiation, and be more confident in the interaction.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, with these strategies, are they matched as specific strategy to a specific fear? Or, are they sort of overarching or universal strategies that hit whatever fear you happen to have?

Victoria Medvec
Right. So, it depends on the fear and the strategy itself. So, if you think about a fear like losing the deal, that’s a huge fear that people have, that if I ask, I might lose the deal, they might walk away. Well, if I were to think about the strategies that would relate to that, there’s one set of strategies that’s about having the right conversation by putting the right issues on the table. And that is absolutely going to reduce your fear of losing the deal because you’re going to engage the other side in the interaction.

In the same way, there’s a second strategy that’s talked about, which is seek the right communication channel. So, I talk a lot about seeking synchronicity in negotiation, that you want to say it, not send it, and see them when you say it. I’d love to be face-to-face in person in their office, across the desk from them, but given the current times, and given some of the challenge of that, if I can’t be face-to-face in person, I want to be face-to-face on my favorite platform, whether that’s Zoom, or WebEx, or Microsoft Teams, or Google Meet. I want to be able to see the other side, so I want to say it, don’t send it, and see them when I say it. That also reduces the likelihood that I will lose the deal.

And then there’s another strategy which is to go in and deliver multiple offers rather than a single offer, and that also reduces the fear of losing the deal. It ensures that you engage the other side. And, finally, the strategy of leaving myself room to concede also reduces the fear of losing the deal. So, all of those strategies help to mitigate that one fear. And throughout the book, it talks about a lot of strategies to eliminate all of the different fears.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so, boy, I think we need to dig into all of those. So, let’s hear just a couple. When it comes to giving yourself room to concede, what does that look and sound and feel like in practice?

Victoria Medvec
So, it’s so interesting because some people are afraid to really think about the weaknesses of the other side’s best outside alternative, or their back, the weaknesses of the other side’s best outside option, and set their goal based on the weaknesses of the other side’s options. So, they’re afraid to set an ambitious goal. They’re afraid that if they go in, and they push too hard, that they’ll lose the deal or offend the other side or damage the relationship.

And I would actually argue that, in fact, you’re more likely to damage the relationship and lose the deal if you go in too close to your own bottom line to start the negotiation. So, if I come in and I don’t leave myself room to concede, I’m negotiating right around my own bottom line, I don’t have room to adjust, I can’t look concessionary, I can’t modify, I think I start to look stubborn, I look inflexible.

If I go in, on the other hand, with a super ambitious goal, and I actually make my first offer beyond that goal, I have lots of room to adjust, lots of ability to modify, I have lots of room to concede, and I’m going to do two things. I’m going to build the relationship because I look flexible and cooperative, but I’m also more likely to maximize my outcome. So, I think that using the right strategies, like leaving myself room to concede, can help me to overcome a number of fears in the negotiation.

Pete Mockaitis
And when you do that conceding, is there a way to do that with more grace, and you say, “Yeah, we’re going to need 15,000,” and they say, “Hmm, our budget is only 10,000,” and you say, “Okay.” Is there a more finesse to it than that?

Victoria Medvec
There would certainly be more finesse because if I did that, people would be like, “Well, geez, I could’ve gotten it for 10,000 all the time,” and I’d lose credibility. So, I would say that the key to making concessions is to have multiple issues on the table, and to really avoid single-issue discussions. So, I will always tell people that you don’t want to talk about one single thing.

For example, Pete, when people are negotiating something around their employment package, they should not be having a salary negotiation. Salary is one issue in a package that’s about your responsibilities. It’s about the timeline for getting things done. It’s about addressing the employer’s pressing business needs. It’s about showing confidence in what you can do and having some performance metric that might be tied to it. It’s a bunch of issues. It’s not just one issue of salary.

If I avoid single-issue discussions, it’s much easier to create a rationale for concessions. If I’m in and I’m talking about only one thing, it’s very hard to concede in a credible way because if I do say 15,000, and then you push back, and I say, “Okay, how about 10?” the other side is thinking, “Why didn’t you just offer me 10 in the beginning?” and I’d lost all of my credibility. So, you do want to have lots of issues on the table so that you can create a rationale for concessions that you make.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, I like that a lot, and I’m thinking about negotiations in which people are hiring me to speak. And so, in a way, it seems like, “Okay. Well, hey, there’s just the number.” But, no, there are so many things, like, “Hey, is it one keynote or one keynote with several breakouts? Will there be videotaping? And what are the rights associated with the videotaping? And, hey, could you do a high-end videotaping and it’s available to me forever and to the group for a limited time?” That’s interesting.

Or, “Oh, I don’t have to get on a plane? We could do this remote? Okay. Well, that genuinely saves a ton of hours.” So, that warrants…

Victoria Medvec
Right. No, it’s multiple issues. It’s lot of issues. And one of the things that I also would encourage you to think about when you’re thinking through that are I know you have many differentiators. You have a lot of unique skills and competencies that could probably solve problems or address the challenges of the people that you’re speaking for. Like, you have a huge audience. You have a lot of followers. There’s a lot of interesting you. What you do with social media might actually help them. So, that would also add issues to the table.

And this discussion about putting the right issues on the table is actually something that I cover in depth in Chapter 2. And the reason is that a lot of negotiators, even expert negotiators, will often negotiate the wrong deal. They have a tendency to negotiate what is standard, what is typical, what always gets discussed, and they don’t necessarily put the right issues on the table. And so, I always say that you should begin by making a list of your objectives, and that your objectives are going to drive your negotiable issues.

And in your set of objectives, I would argue there are a big four objectives. These are always objectives when I care about the relationship with the other side. So, the first objective should always be to address the other side’s pressing business needs. And the second objective should always be to build the relationship. And I would say, more specifically, build the relationship with whom in what time period, what are you trying to do.

The third objective is essential, which is to differentiate yourself. And the fourth objective is to maximize your outcome whatever that looks like in the particular situation you’re in. But if you want to maximize your outcome, you have to think about the first three objectives and, in particular, you want to think about differentiating yourself and addressing the other side’s pressing business needs because you want to create a rationale for your offer that’s about how you’re a differentiator, so address their needs.

And that’s going to give you a focus on them rather than yourself. It’s going to allow you to focus on a package of issues rather than a single issue. It’s going to give you the ability to craft a really good story that will be compelling to them and engage them in the discussion. And that’s what we cover in Chapter 2.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. And I also wanted to follow up on you mentioned multiple offers, and you’ve even got an acronym, multiple equivalent simultaneous offers.

Victoria Medvec
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
And, Vicky, I don’t know, did you invent that acronym? Is that yours?

Victoria Medvec
I did not, no. So, I am not the person who came up with the idea of MESOs. I’m the person who’s the biggest fan of them in the world. So, I love using multiple equivalent simultaneous offers. And while I didn’t create the concept of going in and giving the other side three options rather than one, I did create a lot of the ideas around how to do that effectively.

So, it starts out by thinking about the issues that I’ve got on the table. And I actually encourage people to lay out their issues on an issue matrix where you think about sort of a two-by-two table where the X-axis, that horizontal axis, is about what’s important to you, and that really goes from “Easy for me to give up,” to “Very important to me.” And that Y-axis, the vertical axis, is what’s important to the other side, and that goes from “Easy for the other side to give up,” to “Very important to the other side.”

So, you would end up with four quadrants. And that quadrant that is really, really highly important to you and highly important to them is the quadrant we call contentious issues. And there are always contentious issues on the table. You’re never in a negotiation where there’s not a contentious thing to be discussed, but the key is to not only have contentious issues on the table. In fact, the quadrant that matters the most is that quadrant that is high on Y and low on X. It’s really, really important to the other side, and it’s easy for you to offer up. Those we call storytelling issues.

And you want to have more storytelling issues on the table than anything else. You want lots and lots and lots of storytelling issues, because when I have more storytelling issues, two things happen. I can make the story focused on them rather than myself, which is a huge advantage, and, in addition, I have more fodder to use to get what I want on contentious and tradeoff issues.

Tradeoff issues are those things that are super important to me and easy for the other side to offer up. So, I want to lay out that issue matrix. Because when I lay out an issue matrix, and I think about my differentiators, and I’ve got a differentiation chart, I have the two ingredients I need to use to make a multiple offer in a very effective way.

And while I didn’t create the concept of going to the table with three options, I did create the format of how to structure the multiple offers to really be the most compelling at communicating your message to the other side. And that’s laid out in Chapter 7 in the book. In fact, I always tell my students to read Chapter 7 twice because using multiple offers is a strategy that’s going to give you huge advantage in your everyday negotiations, and your negotiations at work, and your negotiations on behalf of yourself. And in that chapter, there are examples of all types of multiple offers being used and being communicated to the other side.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you share with us perhaps one of the quickest and simplest examples that come to mind for doing the multiple equivalent simultaneous offers and a storytelling issue within that?

Victoria Medvec
Yes, sure. So, let’s take an example we can all relate to, which is a situation where we might be negotiating for ourselves. In the current environment of what’s sometimes called The Great Resignation or, otherwise called The Great Reshuffle, you see a lot of people that are negotiating with their employers, and you also see a lot of people that are negotiating with new employers.

The first thing I would say to all of your listeners is never ever leave your job without negotiating. So, so many people, Pete, leave because they’re frustrated by something and they don’t negotiate before they depart. And that is a huge mistake because they might be able to modify something that they dislike. They might be able to get something that they really wanted in terms of a role or responsibility or flexibility. So, it’s always important to ask before you leave and to recognize that, “I can absolutely ask.”

In fact, if you think about it, Pete, in a situation where I am working with my current employer, and I want to think about my goal in the negotiation with my current employer versus a new employer, remember the way I come up with my goal is to think about the weaknesses of the other side’s options, it’s far more likely that my current employer has weaker options than a new employer does, because my current employer is relying upon me right now. I’m certain, I’m known, they understand what I’m capable of doing. They would have to do that work themselves.

So, when you think about it, I can have a more ambitious goal with my current employer, and I should take the opportunity to go in and make an ask, but I should never start that conversation without a plan. And in that plan, I want to think about addressing the employer’s pressing business needs, I want to think about differentiating myself, I want to think about continuing to build the relationship, and I definitely want to think about maximizing my outcome. Whatever that looks like in terms of salary, or bonus, or flexibility in my work, or anything that maximizing looks like.

So, from that list of objectives, I’m going to come up with a lot of issues. Salary will be a contentious issue. It’s really, really important to you, and it’s really, really important to me. It’s in that contentious quadrant. But a storytelling issue might be something that I’m uniquely positioned to do. So, maybe some responsibility that I could take on that I’m really qualified to do.

In the book, I have an example of a woman who works in Boston in a company where she is in a marketing role, and she’s very interested in becoming a VP for sales. And she has a long history of doing sales when she lived in South America. She has lots of experience in sales but is currently working in marketing. But the company needs revenue and they’re interested in getting some South American business and moving into some South American markets. Well, she’s perfectly positioned to help the company to do that.

She speaks Spanish and she’s one of the only people in the Boston office that speaks Spanish to help do the interviews and bring the team on board to help expand business into South America. She has the knowledge about those markets and could do briefings for the senior leaders on those different markets and what markets might be most attractive. She could even do updates for the team on some of the cross-cultural differences to be aware of as you move into South America. And she’s really confident that if she was the VP leading the business there, they would be able to generate revenue very rapidly, and she’s willing to put a bet on her ability to generate that revenue.

If you think about that situation, her salary will be a contentious issue. The updates, the briefings, and the bet on her performance would all be in the storytelling quadrant. Doing the hiring in Spanish would also be a storytelling issue. So, you’ve got all those responsibilities are in that storytelling quadrant.

And then the tradeoff issue in that situation would be probably her title. She wants to be a VP, and that title might be a tradeoff issue. And sometimes, title is more contentious, and maybe the internal title would be contentious, but maybe her external title, so she would have the credibility and the ability to get things done in South America would be a tradeoff issue.

So, she would go into that negotiation, and using that matrix, she would develop three offers. And in those three offers, she would vary the responsibilities across what she’s going to do in North America versus South America. And in one of those offers, she would put a bet on her ability to generate revenue within a year in South America.

Pete Mockaitis
Like a contingent bonus.

Victoria Medvec
She would have a contingent bonus, exactly. I recommend people, when they’re negotiating for themselves, that they always use a contingent bonus based on performance in one of their three options. I don’t think you’re always going to end up with employers who want to do that, but I think it’s always important that you put it in there because, Pete, as you probably picked up, that shows that I’m confident in what I can do. I’m confident in what I can contribute. I’m awesome at my job. I’m willing to show that I’m confident in what I can deliver. And that’s a very important message in that employment situation.

So, that’s how you would curate the multiple offer and that’s how you would think about the issue matrix leading to that multiple offer.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Okay, that’s clear.

Victoria Medvec
Sure.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, you’ve got a nice little framework, the five Fs of fearless negotiation. Could you walk us through them?

Victoria Medvec
Sure. So, I always talk about getting ready, getting prepared up front, and I have lots of steps on how to get ready. And then I talk about the five Fs when you go to the table. So, the five Fs are that you want to go first. You get a huge advantage from leading the negotiation. So, I want to go first. I want to focus on them. I should always focus on the other side, not myself. I actually tell people to be a pronoun checker. If I’m talking about I, me, we, us, I’m talking about the wrong side. I would say if your first line in your negotiation includes your name, you’re talking about the wrong side. You want to focus on them. So, I want to go first. I want to focus on them.

I want to frame my offer correctly. So, when I want to get people to do something new, change and do something new, I’m generally going to highlight loss words to get them to move off that status quo. And when I want them to maintain the status quo, I’m probably going to highlight gain words. So, I use a framing piece. So, go first, focus on them, frame the offer correctly. Be flexible. Leave yourself room to concede and use multiple offers.

And then the fifth and final F is no feeble offers. And this is a key one because people make feeble offers all the time. People will walk into a store and they’ll see a shirt sitting there with a snag and they might take it up to the department clerk, and say, “Could you take something off?” That’s a feeble offer. People will go to a customer and they’ll say, “Could you give me more business?” That’s a feeble offer. People will go into a company where their products are displayed on shelves, and they’ll say, “Could you give us better shelf space?” That’s a feeble offer.

You want to make a clear specific ask. So, in that story, you don’t want to say, “Could you take something off?” You want to say, “Gosh, look at this snag. I feel bad you’re not going to be able to sell this. And I bet you, even work on commission, and you won’t be able to sell it. I would take it off your hands if you give me a 35% discount.” That’s a clear specific ask. Leaving myself room to concede but with a clear specific ask.

And in all those cases, I want to go first, I want to focus on them, I want to frame my offer correctly, I want to make sure I’m being flexible, leaving myself room to concede and using multiple offers, and I want to remember always no feeble offers.

Pete Mockaitis
I like that snag T-shirt example because we went through those five Fs right there. And focus on the other side, it could be just that quick, “Oh, you probably aren’t going to be able to sell this.”

Victoria Medvec
Right. That’s exactly right.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, boom, less than a sentence.

Victoria Medvec
That’s exactly right. “And you won’t be able to sell it. You’re going to lose the sale,” is exactly a frame of a loss frame.” That’s exactly right. So, it uses all five of the Fs.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so now, it’s funny. I was just having a conversation with a business partner of mine who’s doing some business development with a cold email outreach sequence, and I was intrigued that in it he had, it’s like, “Would you be available for 15 minutes at 2:00 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday?” And I thought, “That’s really interesting.” Like, I don’t how I’d feel about that but it is not a feeble request; it’s a clear ask.

Victoria Medvec
It’s not feeble. And, in fact, I might even say that he might have wanted to say, “I know that this challenge is confronting you, and I want to provide some information to help. Would you be available at 2:00 o’clock on Wednesday, 3:00 o’clock on Thursday, or 4:00 o’clock on Friday? Let me know which of the three times would be most convenient for you.” Think about that, that’s a multiple offer.

And what you just did is changed the frame of the discussion. You just framed it from, “When are we going to meet?” to “Are we going to meet?” You’re not talking about, “Are we going to meet?” anymore. You’re talking about “When are we going to meet?” So, you literally changed the frame to “When are we going to meet?” instead of “Are we going to?” And that assumptiveness that comes with multiple offers really helps people to get better outcomes.

We know from research that people who use multiple offers get better outcomes than people who use the single offer. But not only do they get better outcomes, they also create stronger relationships. Using multiple offers helps you to build the relationship at the same time that you’re maximizing your outcome. And so, it’s a great strategy to use.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And let’s talk about that assumptiveness. So, sometimes, I guess, when I’ve been on the receiving end of it, I don’t know, I guess sometimes I don’t like it. Maybe that’s fine. Maybe it’s like, “Okay, you’re disqualified and we’re moving on to the next project.”

Victoria Medvec
No, I think that’s right. I think sometimes we don’t like it, but I would say when we don’t like it, it’s usually because it’s done poorly. And what I mean by that is sometimes people are assumptive but they talk about themselves, not you. So, I think that people like it better if I am assumptive but focused on them rather than focused on myself. And it’s also better if when I’m being assumptive, I don’t make the statement as though I know all about your life or I know what’s going on with you.

But, instead, that I may be assumptive using some third-party data, like, “I know from the last analyst call that you were really worried about this. I understand that you’re challenged with this. Your CEO has mentioned concerns about this. I would love to help with those things.” And, in reality, I don’t think that the cold email is going to be the most effective strategy because, remember, I say, “Say it, don’t send it. And see them when you say it.” So, I’m not a big proponent of the cold email no matter.

But I think that when I’m in a conversation with you and I’m focused on you and being assumptive, and my entire offer is focused on how my differentiators can address your needs, you’re going to find a presumptiveness to be less problematic than if I’m focused on what I want to do or why I want to do it or why it’s important to me, and talking about myself.

And that’s a huge factor in negotiation. I would say that that’s a big switching factor that a lot of people who go into negotiations are very ego-centric. They’re very, very focused on themselves and what they want to get. And when you can switch that to focus in on the other side, their problems, their challenges, their needs, you’re going to be far more effective in every one of those interactions.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. And so, now, for your go first point, I know this is hotly debated and studied in negotiation circles. Can we hear your hot take? You are in the go first camp?

Victoria Medvec
I am squarely in the go first camp, very broadly in the go first camp. But I would argue that people who are not in the go first camp are banking that on a lot of information that came out many, many years ago where some people would say, “He who speaks first loses.” But that advice wasn’t based on any research. The research on this is abundantly clear that people who make first offers get better outcomes than people who follow.

When I lead, I get four advantages. When I lead, I get to create the starting point and I get to create an anchoring effect from that. People get anchored by numbers and they insufficiently adjust off of those initial estimates. When I lead, I get that anchoring advantage. But when I lead, I also get to set the table with the issues we’re going to discuss, so I get to ensure that we’re not just talking about salary, we’re not just talking about price. I get to set the table with, “What are we talking about?”

So, if I’m going to talk to a customer, I’m not just talking about the price. I’m talking about the security of their supply chain and how it was threatened during COVID, and I need to ensure that they never run out of product in the future. So, I want to create redundancy in the supply chain and ship them product from multiple locations because I want them to always be able to have the product they need. That’s the topic of the conversation. I just framed that. I framed it by setting the right issues on the table and framing the conversation around loss rather than gain. So, when I go first, I get to get that anchoring advantage, I get to set the table, I get to frame the conversation, and I’m in the relationship-enhancing position.

Think about it for a minute, Pete. If I go first, I come in, I make an offer. You have to react. You have to respond. You have to critique. You have to criticize. If you go first, I have to critique. I have to criticize. I have to tell you what’s wrong. I don’t want to start by telling you what’s wrong with your offer. I want to start by coming in, making that first offer, building the rationale, and having you react to that offer instead.

So, when I go first, I get a lot of advantages, and research has really revealed that. That research is not that old. It’s probably been done in the past 15 years but it shows very clearly that you get a big advantage from going first, but that you have to get prepared so that you can effectively go first. Because if I don’t know enough about the weaknesses of the other side’s alternatives, if I haven’t thought hard enough about, “What would they do if they didn’t do this deal with me?” if I haven’t thought through that, I might make a first offer that actually isn’t ambitious enough and leaves money on the table. So, I want to be careful about that.

And there is exception to this rule. So, I want to make sure that I talk about the exception. And that is in job negotiations. So, in employment situations, you often do not get to lead. And the reason you don’t get to lead is because you can never start to negotiate until they’ve said they want to hire you. So, you have to have the offer of employment on the table before you start the negotiation. And often, as you know, Pete, the offer of employment contains the terms of that offer. And because of that, the employer often leads.

Now, as you become more senior, it’s more likely that they’ll say something like, “We want to hire you. Let’s sit down and talk about what it would take,” and then you can lead. But when you’re young, and I know many of your listeners are young and starting out in their careers, or midway through their careers, they may not be able to lead in the negotiation because unless the other side has said, “I want to hire you,” you can’t start to negotiate, so you have to wait for that offer of employment before you start to negotiate.

Pete Mockaitis
Understood. Thank you. Okay. Well, so now I’d love it if we could get into some specific words and phrases that you really love and you really don’t in the course of having a negotiation conversation. So, what are some things that are pet peeves of yours or you recommend we avoid like the plague versus words and phrases that seem…I know there’s no such magical word that’s going to just make everyone immediately comply, but, nonetheless, there are things that help and things that hurt and I want to hear them.

Victoria Medvec
I want to tell you some. So, today, actually, I was helping one of my clients with a negotiation, and I was listening to them, and they said, “Well, like Vicky says, this is my best and final offer.” And I literally was like jumping to take myself off mute and get in there and I said, “I would never ever, ever, ever, never ever say ‘That’s my final offer,’ or ‘That’s my best and final offer,’ or ‘Take it or leave it.’” So, those are all words that I hate.

I think those are words in negotiation that puts you in a corner, and you want to remain flexible. You want to be able to get the agreement so you don’t want to get backed into a corner. So, I always say don’t use the words best and final. Don’t say, “This is my final offer.” Don’t say “Take it or leave it.” And I would also say don’t push the other side into a corner. Don’t ask them for their best and final. Don’t say to them, “Is that your final offer?” Don’t say to them things like, “I thought you said you couldn’t do that.” You want them to remain flexible. You want to remain flexible, so you want to stay out of that corner. And so, those are some of my least favorite words.

Another least favorite word is “I’ll send it to you.” Because, remember, I say, “Say it, don’t send it. And see them when you say it.” I want to be in a synchronous channel, face-to-face is best in person, face-to-face on a platform is second best. I want to make sure that I’m saying it and seeing them when I’m saying it. So, that would be another least favorite word is “I’ll send it to you.”

And then I would say, in terms of the favorite camp, what do I really like? I love a story about how my differentiators address your needs. So, I love a story that highlights some differentiator you have addressing a problem the other side has, a challenge that they’re confronting, a situation that they’re struggling with. I love those phrases. I like to use words like, “I think there are multiple ways that we could come at this.” And that gets me into my multiple offers.

So, I love focusing on them, I love giving options, and I love signaling flexibility by talking about the different ways that we could do this, and how I want to be flexible in figuring out what would work best for them. Those are some of my favorite words.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Well, Vicky, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we shift gears and hear about some of your favorite things?

Victoria Medvec
Well, I hope that, as people look at the book, they think about the examples as being there for a purpose, which is to give you vivid examples of how you can use the strategies. It’s not a book that just dumps a bunch of strategies on people, and there are hundreds of stories of everyday people using the strategies, of business executives using the strategies, of newcomers in business using the strategies, and of people using the strategies to negotiate for themselves. So, I hope they take a look at the book so that they can find those stories, see the examples, and really get a sense of how they can use those ideas to improve their negotiation success.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, beautiful. Thank you. Well, now, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Victoria Medvec
So, I have this quote that I love. It’s from Eleanor Roosevelt, and it says, “Never allow a person to tell you no, who doesn’t have the power to say yes.” And I think that is a perfect negotiation quote by Eleanor Roosevelt. I will always think about that one.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. And how about a favorite study or experiment or piece of research?

Victoria Medvec
So, my favorite research is probably the research by Kahneman and Tversky on prospect theory. So, this research was done in the 1970s, and prospect theory is the theory that highlights that people are risk-averse in gains, and risk-seeking in losses. And it’s what leads to my advice that if you want to maintain the status quo, you highlight gain in your rationale. And if you want to move off the status quo, you highlight loss.

And Danny Kahneman is one of my co-authors. He’s one of my two Noble Prize-winning co-authors. He’s an amazing individual and I think that this research is fantastic. And I really would say to people, it is one of the most important things you can understand is how to use framing as an influence tactic. I think it’s incredibly important for everyday interaction, time at work, time with family. I think it’s a really important thing to understand. So, I would take a look at prospect theory.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And a favorite book?

Victoria Medvec
I would say my own book Negotiate Without Fear. It’s certainly one of my favorites right now because I just finished writing it. Prior to that, there’s a book by Robert Cialdini called Influence that I absolutely love. And I also really like a book by my academic advisor for my PhD, Thomas Gilovich, and it’s called How We Know What Isn’t So.

And when you think about it, is the How We Know What Isn’t So book focuses on decision-making. And I have to understand decision-making and decision biases to understand what Cialdini was talking about in Influence. And then I use both those decision-making pieces of information and influence to negotiate well. And that’s what I cover in Negotiate Without Fear. So, those are my top three books.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Victoria Medvec
So, I use the issue matrix all the time. And I mentioned it to your listeners today, and I really find it to be a very helpful tool. I lay out all my issues before I start a conversation to make sure that I’m actually going to have the right conversation. And I find this tool is really, really helpful to me getting ready for a discussion, but I also find that the tool is incredibly helpful to people who are coaching others. Because, I think so often, when we’re coaching someone to go into a negotiation, or go into a discussion with a customer, we often have a conversation with them, and we spend a long time trying to figure out what are they going to say.

I have a chief revenue officer who likes to say that her team spends a lot of time auditing what people are going to do rather than coaching on what they should do. And I think a part of why they’re auditing what they’re going to do is they’re literally spending 45 minutes of the one-hour meeting figuring out what are they going to say. And I find that the issue matrix is a coach’s dream tool because if I have people lay out those issues, and I can look at what they’re planning to talk about, I immediately know if they’re going to have the right discussion.

And so, I can revert from auditing for 45 minutes to coaching for 45 minutes instead. So, I think it’s a powerful tool for me as an individual and a powerful tool for me as a coach.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite habit?

Victoria Medvec
Exercise. So, I have found that getting some exercise every day is a really helpful thing for my performance. And I have to be honest with you, I was not an exercise person before. And I realized that the reason I was never exercising is because I never found time in my schedule to do it. So, I started to book exercise appointments, and during the pandemic, I booked them virtually. So, as soon as we get off this call, I’m going to have my virtual barre class with a trainer who’s going to hold me accountable to being there at that exact moment in time, and doing my workout. And I find that is a habit that has really paid off both in terms of better health and a lot more energy.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. And is there a key nugget you share that seems to connect and resonate with folks; they quote it back to you often?

Victoria Medvec
So, there is a line I use all the time, which relates actually to the title of my book, and that line is “Always be fearless.” So, I want people to go in and be fearless as they approach negotiation, but also to be fearless as they approach everyday situations, to be fearless and confident, and I say it all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Victoria Medvec
I would point them to my email which is victoriamedvec@medvecandassociates.com, or to my website. So, I think my website and my email are both great ways to get in touch with me. And I would be delighted to hear from your listeners.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Victoria Medvec
So, my final challenge for people being awesome in their jobs is to encourage them to go out and negotiate. Don’t be afraid to ask. Ask on behalf of your company, and ask on behalf of yourself. Many people do not negotiate for themselves, and I know from looking at your demographics of your listeners that a lot of your listeners are female. I think 73% or something are female. And one of the things I would say is a lot of women don’t ask. Women are far less likely to negotiate for themselves than their male colleagues are.

And that’s wildly known but what’s often not known is that while lots of women don’t ask, many men don’t ask either. This is a problem that crosses gender. People don’t negotiate for themselves. And so, I would encourage them to go in, always be fearless, and be willing to ask. And ask for themselves with the right issues on the table and the right strategy.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Vicky, this has been a treat. I wish you many fearless negotiations and fun times in the future.

Victoria Medvec
Thank you so much, Pete. It was an absolute delight to spend time with you and your listeners today. And I hope that they find some tools and strategies that will help them to be awesome at their job.

708: The 7 Steps to Winning Others’ Support with Suneel Gupta

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Suneel Gupta says: "If you don't believe what you're saying, then others can't believe."

Suneel Gupta walks through his 7 steps for becoming “backable”–worthy of others backing your ideas.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why you don’t need charisma to be backable 
  2. How to make your idea stand out with an “earned secret”
  3. Why you don’t want to have everything figured out 

About Suneel

Suneel Gupta teaches Innovation at Harvard University. His  bestselling book Backable is rooted in Suneel’s journey from a twice-failed entrepreneur to a leader behind two IPOs, and to being named “The New Face of Innovation” by the New York Stock Exchange. Suneel has personally backed startups including Impossible Foods, AirBnB, 23&Me, Calm, and SpaceX. 

Resources Mentioned

Thank you Sponsors!

  • Justworks. Make your hiring and managing easier with the Justworks HR platform at justworks.com. 
  • StoryBlocks. Enhance your video storytelling quickly, beautifully, and affordably at Storyblocks.com/awesome. 

Suneel Gupta Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Suneel, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.

Suneel Gupta
Pete, it’s great to be here.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m so excited to hear your wisdom. And, first, you got to tell us the story about you being the face of failure from New York Times.

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, I got a call a few years ago from an organizer of an event, and it was cool for me because at that time I had just started public speaking. Just trying to get up in front of audiences. I really enjoy that type of work. And I get a call and this event organizer says, “Hey, you’ve been nominated twice to speak at this conference.” And I said, “Hey, that’s fantastic. What’s the name of the conference?” And she says, “It’s FailCon,” which stands for Failure Conference.

And let me tell you, Pete, it’s a humbling experience when somebody calls you and says, “Look, we’re doing a conference on failure and we would love for you to be the keynote speaker.” And to make matters worse, I’m up on stage and I didn’t realize this at that time but there was a reporter from the New York Times in the audience, and this reporter decides to do a full-length story on failure, and uses my face as the cover of this article, and the article goes viral. It goes so viral that you could literally have Googled failure at the time and my face would’ve been one of your top search results.

And so, funny enough, I always tell people this, when it comes to writing a book, people tend to come from either the point of view of having a solution or having a problem. And, for me, at that time, I definitely had a problem. And my problem was that when I was inside companies, when I was trying to get jobs, at that time when I was trying to raise funding for my own company, I just wasn’t having any luck. I wasn’t getting people to listen to my ideas. And even when I got inside a room, I was having a very difficult time winning people over.

And that article turned out to be a real gift for me because it opened the door to all these conversations with people who I consider to be the top of their game, extraordinary people from Oscar-winning filmmakers, to celebrity chefs, to CEOs of big companies. And what I learned through the conversations was that coming up with an idea is really only half of sort of the dynamic of being innovative. The other half is really getting people bought into it, and that is much more learned than anything else.

Usually, backable people who I studied were not naturals at this. There was a series of steps that they learned how to take in order to get people excited about their ideas. And once I started to put these practices into play, it really changed everything for me, and I said, “Gosh, I got to put this on paper and share this with other people.” And that formed the basis for the book.

Pete Mockaitis
And, indeed, you put it on paper in the book Backable: The Surprising Truth Behind What Makes People Take a Chance on You. And so, I’d love to go through each of the seven steps and get a little bit of a demo in terms of what does okay look like versus great look like inside these worlds. But could you kick us off by sharing perhaps the most surprising or counterintuitive piece of your approach?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, one of the things I really expected to find is that backable people were going to be just generally charismatic. And as I started to sort of broaden the spectrum and I looked at backable people everywhere from all different fields, I thought they were going to have a certain style of communication. They were going to be people who had great eye contact, and great hand gestures, and just did all the sort of things we think about when it comes to great speakers, but more and more, I found that to not be the case.

And I would venture to say, Pete, that probably the majority of backable people that I was able to study did not have the classic communication styles that we might expect. But what I did find is a common denominator, is that it wasn’t charisma. It was conviction. Backable people took the time to convince themselves of their own ideas, and then they let that conviction shine through in whatever communication style it is that feels most natural to them.

And so, just a couple of examples. One is you just go back and watch the original launch of the iPhone. So, this is the 2007 Steve Jobs product launch. And what you might be surprised to find is that it doesn’t come off as charismatic or at least classically charismatic as we might remember. He uses the word “uh” over 80 times in that speech, he’s staring down at his feet quite a bit, and he kind of sort of almost wanders a little bit here and there. And, again, it’s not a crisp sort of TED-style presentation.

Or, let’s take another example from TED itself. If you look at the number one most popular TED Talk of all time right now, what you’ll find is…

Pete Mockaitis
How to get some creativity?

Suneel Gupta
Sir Ken Robinson, exactly. Sir Ken Robinson, it’s a brilliant, brilliant talk but what we might be surprised by is that it’s just not sort of a classic TED-style presentation. Sir Ken Robinson, he has one hand in his pocket, he sort of meanders on and off script, he naturally walked with a bit of a hunch and so he’s got a bit of a slouch as he stands up there on stage, but it’s an amazing presentation.

And, again, the reason that I bring that up is because, oftentimes, when we think about winning people over, when we think about sort of being inside a room, we focus on these classic communication styles – make direct eye contact, use specific hand gestures – but I didn’t find that to be the case at all. I found more to be the case of figure out what your natural style is, but then build conviction around that. Take the time to convince yourself first because if you don’t believe in what you’re saying, then they can’t believe.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s beautiful. Well, so that is step one, convince yourself. And so, let’s kind of walk through all seven of those. But while we’re talking about convince yourself, I think I look back on my own entrepreneurial journey. I think I’ve been too good at convincing myself. I talked myself into some things. I had some natural enthusiasm and passion for the thing, but I think I talked myself into pursuing initiatives that, on second thought, probably should’ve done a better job validating the value proposition upfront and maybe gone in another direction. So, how do we think about convincing ourselves versus not deluding ourselves, shall we say?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, it’s a great question. I think it is a balance. One of the ways I try to think about this is you don’t want to share your idea too early. And so, when we talk about convincing ourselves first, we want to build enough conviction where we feel comfortable getting into a room and people can poke holes at our ideas and we don’t immediately get deflated.

Because here’s the thing, what we found is that, especially if you look inside big companies and the way that ideas are shared, most ideas actually don’t get killed inside the conference room, they don’t get killed inside formal meetings. They get killed inside casual conversations around the water cooler, or through side conversations, or in the parking lot. That’s where the vast majority of great ideas end up sort of finding their stop.

Why is that? Well, typically, it’s because when we come up with something, we tend to sort of blurt out the idea right as it comes up, and we get really excited about it but then we look around the room, or we look on the screen the way you and I are right now, and we see that the other person isn’t quite as excited about the idea as we are. And when that happens, it can be a very deflating experience.

And so, when we think about convincing ourselves, it’s not saying, “Hey, I’m no matter what wedded to this idea,” but it’s building up enough conviction where we feel like we can walk into a room and not be afraid of the possibilities and sort of the challenges that will come up. So, one fun way to think about it is when you are in that moment when you get excited about an idea, just asking yourself, “Is this a chocolate M&M or is this a peanut M&M?”

A chocolate M&M, if you squeeze a chocolate M&M, it cracks immediately. A peanut M&M is not a piece of steel but you can squeeze it, other people can squeeze it, and it’s not going to break immediately. Again, you’re not looking for it to be bullet-proof but you’re looking to put a peanut inside. And so, one of the things we talk about in the book is backable people have sort of learned to kind of ask themselves that question in the heat of moment, right before they are about to share an idea. They sort of ask themselves that question, “Chocolate M&M versus peanut M&M.”

If it’s chocolate M&M, they’ll resist the temptation to share in that moment and go take, what we call in the book, incubation time to put peanut inside. And that can be done through all forms of things. It could be through drawing out your idea, it could be through taking long walks and thinking about the idea, it could be journaling. I know, Pete, that’s something you like to do as well. And so, there are many ways to do that, but, again, it really comes back to that moment of resisting the temptation to share an idea too early because, oftentimes, that can be the death knell of some really creative things.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, you convince yourself first, you take some time before putting it out there because if you put it out there too early, they might deflate you before you’re able to take a hard look at the stuff in advance and kind of get inoculated, you’re like, “Oh.” It’s so funny. I had an idea for…it was basically Airbnb. I had this with a couple of my friends, actually.

And then I think we talked to a consulting friend of ours who worked at Hyatt, he moved on, he said, “Oh, my gosh, you could have some crazy liabilities. Say, a crime happens or someone’s stuff gets stolen,” and we’re like, “Oh, yeah. Yeah, you’re right. That sounds really risky.” We just let it go. And he’s like, “And, oh, Couchsurfing is already a thing, and that’s not a really big deal, and people do it for free. It’s kind of a fun vibe.” It was like, “Okay, there’s Couchsurfing and there’s liability, oh, never mind. Oops.”

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, exactly. And I think that it’s so much better when…By the way, all those things your friends brought up, they’re all valid. They weren’t invalid objections, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Liabilities, for sure.

Suneel Gupta
All that stuff is real, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s a reason not to do it. And what ends up happening is that when someone points out an objection that we haven’t thought of ourselves, what that tends to have is a lot more charge to it. It just tends to have much more of a deflating effect versus if you’ve gone through, then you’ve actually thought through some of these objections yourself, and you walk into the room knowing that, “Hey, this, this, and this may come up.”

They probably will come up but they’re not going to have as much of a charge to them. You’re going to have thought through, “Hey, yeah, that is a thing. Maybe here are a couple of things that we need to consider as a result of that.” And, again, you’re able to walk in and have a discussion rather than the sort of, again, crossing your fingers, hoping they’re not going to point out something that you haven’t thought of yourself.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is great, and the answer to liability is insurance, that insurance writers love to take that on for a price. And so, it’s not a deal killer; it’s just, “Oh, that’s a new thing.” And you’re right, well-said in terms of having less charge when you think about it yourself as opposed to, “Oh, the super smart guy who was a director at Hyatt thinks that this is a big thing, then it must be a really big thing.” Yeah, well-said.

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, and I think, also, gosh, the curse of knowledge is just so important to factor in here because, oftentimes, and what we mean by that is, look, the deeper we go into a subject matter, we are going to be more resistant to innovative ideas in that matter because we know how hard it is. I was talking to somebody the other day, who was an investor, and he comes from a financial tech background, really knocked it out of the park in that space, actually started a company, in one of the sorts of original fintech companies, had a massive exit.

And then I was talking to him about what it’s like to be an investor, and he said, “Look, you know what, I’ve passed on every single great fintech deal. I passed on PayPal, I passed on Square, I passed on Stripe because I had this knowledge of how hard it really is to do a fintech company that that sort of got in my way from taking a risk on these other ideas.”

And the point here is that, look, oftentimes, when we come up with something, you come up with an idea in the housing space, you came up with an idea for Airbnb, you went immediately, as most people would, to somebody who kind of knows that space, you went to a friend at Hyatt. And that person is going to tell you what they have discovered, which, in most cases, is going to be reasons not to do something because they’ve spent a lot of time.

And, Pete, it all comes back to something I know that is probably obvious but worth restating, which is that the fresher an idea, the newer an idea, the less obvious it’s going to be. And that’s the trap that I think we sort of fall into whether we’re an entrepreneur or whether we work inside a big company and we’re trying to do things that are unique and cool and different, is that those tend to be the ideas that make the biggest difference, but they also tend to be the hardest ideas to sell.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. That’s great. Well, we’re just on step one here. So, we talked about convincing yourself. Could you maybe give us a quick overview of steps two through seven? And then we’ll spend a couple minutes hearing a bit of detail for each.

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, sure. So, step one was to convince yourself first. Step two is to cast a central character. So, what we mean by that is who is the person you’re trying to serve, and sort of bringing them into the story and making them the hero of your story. The third is to find an earned secret. So, this is something that you have gone out and you’ve learned that most people probably don’t know. And there’s lots of examples of how to do that, and we can get into that.

The next is to make it feel inevitable. So, instead of just making a new idea feel fresh and exciting, you also want to make it feel inevitable, that we’re inevitably heading in a certain direction. The fifth is that we want to flip outsiders into insiders. So, how do we actually make people feel like they are a part of the idea. Another way to think about this is, “How do we make people feel like they’re builders instead of buyers?”

The sixth is to play exhibition matches, and these are practice sessions before you walk into the final event, playing lots and lots of these exhibition matches, and there are specific ways on how to do this effectively. Then the final is to let go of your ego. So, the ego can very much get in the way when it comes to creating new ideas, and we really unpack that and talk about how to get around it. So, those are the seven.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, could you maybe give us a demonstration then in terms of how an abbreviated pitch might go, and then kind of annotate it for us, like, “Hey, see, that was step two, we cast a central character. Oh, and that was step three. See that earned secret?” so we kind of see it in action?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah. I’ll give you sort of the Michael Dubin Dollar Shave Club pitch. And for those of you who aren’t familiar, Dollar Shave Club was an online razor blade company that sort of expanded from there, sold for a billion dollars to Gillette, but it’s sort of a folklore story in a startup world. I think the thing that isn’t well known is that Michael Dubin struggled quite a bit to get a lot of funding for his company, to get investors to care at all.

And one of the ways that Michael Dubin sort of thought about this, and one of the ways that he was able to flip investors who didn’t care to saying yes – and, by the way, I think this is important whoever you are, you don’t have to be an entrepreneur – is he took people through the storyboard of what happens to his target customer.

So, one of the first things that he did was he went out and he built conviction behind this idea by actually thinking about, “What is it that my customer actually goes through?” And he literally storyboarded this at home. And then he would go to the stores and he would watch people in action, and then when he was in front of investors, he sort of walked them through the storyboard of, “Hey, my average customer is a 20-something male, who cares a lot more about his health than his father ever did, and that includes what he puts in his body, that includes what he puts on his body. And he’s used to a certain level of convenience when it comes to buying products.”

“But all of that sort of goes out the door the moment that he sort of thinks about buying razor blades because, now, he goes to this sort of pharmacy or grocery store, he has to locate the aisle that these are in. When he finally locates the product, he realizes that, in many cases, it’s behind a locked security case. He has to push a button in order to get somebody’s attention. He waits there until an annoyed worker sort of shows up, unlocks the security case, and, by the way, everybody is sort of watching, and behind that case isn’t just razor blades but there’s condoms and there’s laxatives, and nobody knows exactly what you’re there to buy, but now all attention is sort of on you.”

“He unlocks the case and then sort of watches over your shoulder as you make this purchasing decision.” And that is so fundamentally different than the way that this generation, the way that his target customer was used to buying products. And so, when we he went in with the pitch of, “Hey, we want to disrupt a multi-billion-dollar industry through an online platform,” it didn’t do very well.

But when he shifted that to, “This is the moment-by-moment experience, and here’s how we’re going to change that,” it really shifted the way that investors sort of looked at him. Because, as it turns out, stories sort of bring us in, and then substance sort of keeps us there. So, if he were to stop there in that pitch and just ended it, it wouldn’t have gone anywhere. But when he went from there, it’s like, “Look, there are millions of young men who are going through this experience every single week, and that’s translating to this number of dollars and this amount of market share, and this is what we can pick up.”

And so, he’s bringing them in with story, he’s keeping them there with substance. Convincing himself first, casting a central character, and let’s go through some of the other…we’ll go through some of the other principles too, and we can show how this story relates.

Pete Mockaitis
Let’s do it, yeah. And so then, that earned secret. So, you highlight some information that goes beyond Google or what just about everybody would know. And, in a way, that story, in and of itself, has you thinking, like, “Yeah, you know what, you’re right. It does kind of take a lot to get these razors. Haven’t thought about it.” So, I don’t know if that counts quite…well, you tell me. Is that earned enough or do we have some more juicy insider info to go for there?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, I think the key thing with an earned secret is I would underline the word earned. And the reason for that is you want to show, when you walk into a room, whether that be for an interview, whether that be for a product presentation, team presentation, whatever it is, that you had sort of put yourself into the story in a way that most people have not because that counts for a lot.

I was talking to somebody, this was shortly before I published my book, so her story is not in the book, but she was talking about how she was returning to the workforce. She was a single mom and returning to the workforce and ready to sort of get a job, and she’d found a role at a company that sounded perfect for her except for one thing. And that is that she wasn’t really a user of the product but the role itself was perfect, and she was very excited about this.

Most people in that situation would do the following. They would research the company, they would maybe download the product onto their phone, start playing with it a little bit, and then they would go into the interview and start asking some questions, and be prepared as much as they possibly can be. She did something unique, which is that she talked to every single one of her daughters’ friends because this is very much like a Gen-Z social product, and she talked to every single one of their friends. She interviewed them about what they liked, about what they didn’t like, she took careful notes.

And then when she walked into this interview, she walked in with all these observations, all these sorts of insights. And this hiring manager that was talking to her was so impressed that not only did she get the job, but right in the middle of the interview, he ended up patching in one of their UX designers because a couple of the things that she had found and discovered through these interviews were things that actually were not on top of their mind, and it was coming from a very fresh voice, and she was able to sort of come in with this earned sense of information.

And, by the way, these don’t need to be sort of big monumental things. They can, oftentimes, be small. But I think the key is that asking yourself when you go into a situation, “What’s the sort of typical level of research that people would do to prepare for this moment?” Again, whether it’s an interview, or a pitch, or a presentation, it’s figure out how to go one step further. It could be test driving a competitor’s product, it could be talking to customers, but just doing something that ordinarily most people wouldn’t do.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, that’s good. I’m reminded we interviewed Ramit Sethi, and he calls this the briefcase technique because you, like, dramatically remove slides, or research, or something. You sort of have like a deliverable inside your bag, and most people don’t, and they’re just like, “Wow, this person…we’re impressed.” And it can often lead to great opportunities opening up there. That’s good.

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, one of the people that I talked to for the book is a guy named Jonathan Karp, who was a publisher, and he really wanted Howard Stern to write a book, but Howard Stern had no interest in writing another book. He had already written a couple of bestsellers, and he was like, “It’s a lot of work. I really don’t want to do this.” And Karp kept asking him, he was year after year, he continued to be on Howard Stern’s tail about the idea of, like, “You got to write a book.”

And, finally, Karp decides to do something really clever and unique, which is that he thought to himself, “Most of what Howard Stern would end up writing is already kind of out there. It’s going to be sort of a summation of a lot of the interviews that he’s done. So, why don’t we take the transcripts of those interviews, then why don’t we actually sort of extract what we think could be really good content for a book, then we’ll actually create the book?”

And so, the next time that he actually goes and pitches to Howard Stern on the idea of writing a book, which Howard Stern is prepared again to say, “Gosh, I’ve told you many times I don’t want to write a book,” right in that moment, Jonathan Karp literally pulls out a finished book, a leather-bound book, and says, “Look, Howard, I know one of your objections to all these is that you don’t want to write a book, but we’ve kind of just taken the liberty of writing 90% of it for you.”

“All you got to do is write an opener, write some the language around some of these interviews, and you got yourself a book,” which, of course, it ended up being a lot more work than that, but what Howard Stern said was, “Look, I was so in that moment, I was so intoxicated by the effort, so intoxicated by effort that Jonathan Karp had put into this process that I could not say no.”

And that’s kind of, in some ways, how you want people to feel inside the room, which is like, again, you have intoxicated them with effort. You’ve gone out and done things that most people wouldn’t do, then you’ve taken insights from that experience and you’ve brought that into the room.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. Well, let’s hear about step four, make it feel inevitable.

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, this is a big one because I think that, oftentimes, when we think about new ideas, we get excited about how shiny it is, and we want to talk about why it’s exciting. But the thing that is important I think to realize is that, as human beings, we tend not to be risk takers. We don’t like to take risks. And that’s true even, I have found, Pete, for people who take risk for a living. You look at venture capitalists, you look at Hollywood producers, people who are betting on uncertainty, they don’t like to take risks either. It’s really, in the vast majority of the cases, it’s just something that they sort of accept as part of their job but they’ll do whatever they can to sort of de-risk a project.

And so, this sort of, I think, gets to a Noble Prize-winning theory around loss aversion, that the pain that we get from making a bad decision is twice as powerful as the pleasure that we get from making the right decision. And if you keep that in mind when you walk into a room to pitch someone anything new, we’re not just trying to sell them on why an idea is good. We’re also trying to make sure that we cover sort of why an idea might be bad, and making sure that we can sort of minimize that risk. And one of the ways that we can do that is by talking about why an idea is inevitable. Not why it’s new but why it’s inevitably going to happen.

There was an executive that I talked to at Comcast who talked about this idea of having Comcast not be just a service that’s inside the home but outside the home as well, connected over mobile, which, today, is like one of those, yeah, that’s sort of a passe sort of idea. But ten years ago, when he was sort of inside Comcast trying to get people behind the idea, it was actually very hard because there were a lot of people who were sort of wedded to the idea, they’re like, “Look, we’re an in-home business and we don’t want to dilute ourselves, we don’t want to focus on anything else.”

And he continued to sort of pound the table on the idea of, like, “Look, this is new, this is exciting,” and he wasn’t getting anywhere. But when he re-jiggered the presentation to show a couple of things, everything changed. And those couple of things were, “Here’s what’s happening in Europe. And Europe tends to be a few years ahead of us when it comes to mobile, and they’ve started to have these integrated services, which tell us that, look, if history continues to repeat itself, we’re going to be heading in that direction.”

The second thing was there were certain sort of plays that some competitors were making that were starting to hint at the idea that they were going to have an integrated service as well. And when he combined that in his presentation, he showed, “Hey, look, this isn’t where I think the world is going. This is where the world is going, and I think we need to get ahead of it or we’re going to get left behind.” That’s when executives started to change their minds, that’s when people started to get bought into this idea of, “Look, we don’t want to miss out,” because we all sort of have that fear.

I think if you believe that fear is one of the biggest things that we need to sort of face when we’re trying to sell people on anything new, well, then we can’t neutralize fear with excitement. We sort of, in some ways, have to neutralize fear with fear, and, in this case, it’s the fear of missing out.

Pete Mockaitis
So, in making it feel inevitable, it’s not just a matter of saying, “Hey, here’s the trend,” but rather, “Hey, here is overwhelmingly the trend, and woe to us if we don’t get on board with that.”

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, and I don’t think it necessarily need to be overwhelming either. I think that it gets easier if it’s overwhelming, and you can point to, “Hey, this is obviously going to happen,” but a lot of times it’s not obvious but there are indicators that things are going to happen, that you start to see little signals of that.

You look at sort of Zappos, for example, as a company. There wasn’t a lot that they could show at that time in terms of trends but there were little datapoints, like there was the notion that Amazon was expanding beyond just books, and they were expanding to get at products. That wasn’t necessarily at the time.

Today, again, that sounds obvious. At the time, it didn’t but there were little datapoints that were showing, to say, “Look, not only is this growing in a certain category, not only are we selling books online, we’re going to be selling other things online. There are all these sorts of niches out there.” Or, back to your example about Airbnb. When Airbnb went into the room, they didn’t really have another Airbnb to point to but they had Couchsurfing.

Couchsurfing was starting to pick up and there were 600,00 or so listings on Couchsurfing, and there was a lot of activity around sort of Airbnb-like offerings happening on Craigslist. Again, these aren’t necessarily overwhelming datapoints but they collected enough of these datapoints to show that, like, in combination, there’s something happening here.

In the book, we talk about putting on your anthropologist hat because that’s effectively what you’re doing at this stage. You are sort of looking at the direction the world is heading, and that can be hard sometimes for people because whenever we get excited about an idea, we want to just stay focused on that idea, and we want to say, “Our idea is going to change the world.” Whereas, I think what backable people are doing is they’re saying, “Well, here’s the way the world is changing through these datapoints, and then here’s how my idea would fit into that change.”

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. Thank you. Well, let’s hear about step five, flip outsiders into insiders.

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, this is one of my favorites because we, oftentimes, think that when we go into a room, we need to have sort of a bullet-proof presentation, and the more bullet-proof our presentation, the more backable it’s going to be. But the more and more I look at sort of the way that backable people were operating, what I realized is that they didn’t have that at all. They would walk in with a pretty clear vision of what they wanted to do but they wouldn’t have every single detail necessarily sorted out, and that was on purpose.

And the reason for that is because you want to bring people in when you’re inside a room. You want people to feel like they are part of it as well. And one my favorite stories from the book is the story of Betty Crocker, and how in the 1940s, they came up with the idea of cake mix. And they had done all the focused group testing, and the believed that cake mixes were just going to be like this hot sensational product. And so, they were shocked, like all the executives at Betty Crocker were shocked when they found out that cake mix was just not selling, and they couldn’t figure out why.

And so, they hired this psychologist named Ernest Dichter to go out into the field and start interviewing homemakers. And what Dichter founds out, what he comes back with was, “I think you have made the process of making a cake too simple, too easy, because you have basically removed the customer from the creative process. All they have to do is pour water into a mix and then they pop it into the oven, and the cake comes out of the oven, and they don’t really feel like it’s theirs. They don’t really feel ownership over it.”

So, Dichter has a recommendation, and the recommendation is, “Why don’t you remove one key ingredient and see what happens?” And so, they do, they removed the egg. And so, now, if you are a customer, you have to go out and you have to buy fresh eggs, you have to crack them into the mix, and you stir it in, and then you pop it into the oven, and sales completely take off. Because, now, when the cake comes out of the oven, people actually felt like ownership of the cake. They felt like it was theirs too.

And researchers have unpacked this over and over again. There’s a group out of Harvard that calls this the IKEA effect. And the IKEA effect basically tells us that we place up to five times the amount of value on something that we help build than something that we simply buy off the shelf, because we made it ourselves. So, what does this have anything to do with innovation or ideas?

I think, Pete, we kind of have been told that innovation is a two-step formula. You come up with a great idea and then you execute on it well, but there’s this hidden step in between. And this hidden step is where we get other people, we get fellow employees, we get bosses, we get investors, we get shareholders, we get other people involved before it reaches execution stage where the idea is still imperfect, where they get to crack their own egg into the mix and be part of it so that way, when we show up to execution phase, we actually show up together.

And I believe you can trace, literally, every product, every successful product, every successful business, every successful political movement, back to this hidden step, where we know it wasn’t just one person, we know it wasn’t just the person that came up with the idea. It was a group of people who felt founder-level ownership over that idea even though they didn’t come up with the idea itself because they were able to be a part of it from the earliest stages.

Pete Mockaitis
And so then, in the Betty Crocker example, you let them crack an egg into it, and so, likewise, if you’re putting forward a proposal to folks, you don’t want to have everything nailed down. So, let’s just say, someone brought up, like, “Hey, what about liability?” It’s like, “Hey, you’re right. That’s going to be a key issue we need to solve, and we’d love your expertise to help.” Is that kind of the vibe that you’re going for?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, and I think you can go one step beyond that, which is like, Pete, if I’m coming to pitch you on an idea, and you are an expert at taking content, great content, at creating great content and distributing it. And maybe I have an idea for something that requires that, ultimately is going to require that. I would come into the room and to say, “Look, we’ve got a few details figured out here. But, Pete, one thing actually we don’t have figured out is how are we actually going to craft this in a way that people are going to listen, that people are actually going to watch. And I know that that’s something you’ve been focused on. We’d love to get your thoughts on that.”

Now, a couple things to keep in mind. That does not mean that I haven’t spent my own time thinking about what the answer might be. It takes a lot more preparation to have a discussion than to give a presentation because I have to ask you the right questions, I have to pull you in the right way, I have to be able to go back and forth with you, you’re going to say something, you’re going to have an answer to that question, and I’m going to want to ask follow-up questions.

And so, there’s a lot more preparation that goes into the details that you don’t know than the details you know, which I know it sounds counterintuitive but it’s really important to know, which is you’re not sort of shrugging your shoulders or hand-waving at sort of these unknowns. You’re actually spending real time thinking about that, uncovering the possibilities, thinking through pros and cons, but the difference is you’re not coming to the room, saying, “I absolutely believe that this is the right way to go for every single detail.” You’re saying, “I think I have these details figured out, but I don’t have these details figured out. Let’s talk through them.”

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And how do you recommend we do the step six, play exhibition matches?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, exhibition matches, I think, were surprising for me because, again, I look at backable people and I felt like, originally, these are people who are just, off the cuff, who were just naturally great communicators. And what I found is that people who tend to be off the cuff, people who come off with more of sort of an improvisational style, they actually tend to be the product of lots and lots and lots of practice. And it’s that lots of practice that actually lets them be off the cuff, which I know sounds a little bit weird but let me share what I learned.

When we practice something enough, what it allows us to do is it allows us to sort of loosen the grip on our script. Because, oftentimes, when we walk into a room, we walk in with a script. We have a sense of what we want to say and we kind of sort of almost follow that script. But the problem with that is that there’s always something that’s going to come up, a question that we didn’t expect, or an interruption, or something’s going to happen, and it’s really our ability to adapt to those moments. It’s really our ability to adapt to those moments that create these sorts of backable situations where a tough question is answered, and where we sort of go off script and we start having a discussion about something else. Then that’s really when we start to win audiences over.

The other thing is this. Like, I thought if you practice something, by the way, the average person that I talk to for this book, practice something 21 times before they got into a room, that could be for an interview, that could be for a pitch, but 21 practice sessions. Then there were a couple of things to keep in mind when they were doing these practice sessions. The first thing is that, really, no venue is too small.

Like, you can ask anyone for a practice session. That could be a friend, that could be a family member, but the key is that when you’re doing this practice session, you want to deliver it as if it’s the real thing. You don’t want to give sort of editorial or commentary, and say like, “So, hey, what I’m planning on doing is I’m planning on walking them through this and then I was going to go through that.” You actually want to give it as if it’s the real thing because you’re building the muscle memory that you want inside the room.

The second thing is it’s really important to be able to get good feedback. So, when you’re finished with the practice sessions, say, you’re pitching like a colleague, a friendly colleague, before you walk into the room to talk to somebody who’s leading the team. When you’re getting that feedback, what we typically tend to ask is the question, “Hey, so what did you think?” That’s the typical question we ask. And when we ask that question, we very rarely get the kind of feedback we need to make ourselves better. It’s kind of an imprecise question, people may want to be nice so they may not give you the feedback that you need.

A better question to ask is, “What stood out to you the most? Of what you just heard, what stood out to you the most?” Now, they have to sort of think through the highlights of the moments that really resonated or landed. But the question I like even more is, “How would you describe what you just heard to someone else? Like, what would be the headline of what you just heard?” And what I find is when I ask people to do that, the description that they have, in a lot of cases, is actually better than what I had.

Like, I’ll learn a new way of how to describe my own idea. Like, when I was coming up with the idea for Backable I went to Daniel Pink, another author who’s written a few great books that I really like, and I shared my idea, and it was pretty half-baked at the time. But then I asked him, like, “How would you describe this to someone else?” And one of the things he said was, “I would say that the most exceptional people aren’t just brilliant, they’re backable.” And that ended up becoming sort of one of the taglines of the book, and literally is on the back cover of my book. So, I really appreciate the idea of asking people, “How would you describe this to someone else?”

The final thing I’ll say about this, Pete, about exhibition matches and practicing over and over again, is one of my big hiccups, one of the reasons I was skeptical about this, is because I felt like, “Well, if you practice something 21 times, isn’t that going to make you robotic? Isn’t that going to make you sound too sort of planned or scripted?” But what I found is that the opposite tends to happen. Because when you’ve mastered your material at that level, you really understand what you want to communicate, what you want to say, and sort of the ways you want to get there.

What that allows you to do is it allows you to sort of drop the script when you’re inside the room. You’d be fully tuned in, be fully present with the other people who are there. And when you’re fully present at that level, it allows you to pick up on cues that you may not otherwise pick up on. Oftentimes, you see people who walk into a room and they have a set of slides to get through, and they just sort of get through those slides.

But when you’re fully tuned into what’s happening inside the room, you can pick up on little gestures, like little, “Oh, I’m pretty sure they did not get that part, so I’m going to spend a little longer on that,” or, “I’m pretty sure that’s an area where they’re really excited about, so I’m going to double-down on that or maybe come back to it later on.” And being tuned into that level is really what tends to create these backable moments.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And then with 21 practice sessions, that’s plenty, and I think that’s encouraging. It’s funny, it’s both daunting and encouraging in terms of, “Oh, you don’t think you’re polished quite yet? Well, how many practice runs have you done? Oh, three. Well, to be expected. There’s a long way to go.” I find that oddly comforting.

Suneel Gupta
Yeah. Well, look, 21 does seem daunting, for sure. And the way that I sort of like to think about it is, the other way that somebody pointed out to me, I still remember the first time I started to hear about exhibition matches is the former chief technology officer of Pixar, and spent 20 years at the company, and so he spent a good amount of his time sort of bringing together all these disparate groups – technology, and business, and storytelling, and creative, and design.

So, he’s telling me about the idea of practicing 21 times, and I told him about the time that I went in to interview for a role at Square, the company Square, and my interview was with Jack Dorsey. And I told him about how I just bombed that interview, completely bombed it, completely tanked it.

And even though I kind of knew the answers to all of Dorsey’s questions, the role was for a product role, I’d spent a bunch of time working in product development, I kind of just knew the content but I bombed the interview. And I asked him why, “Like, why did that happen? Tell me, Oren, why did that happen?” And he said, “Well, how much time did you spend preparing for that?” And I said, “Well, I wrote out some questions for him. I spent a bunch of time researching the company.”

And he’s like, “Yeah, but preparing, like that was preparing. But how much time did you spend practicing, actually practicing what you’re going to say?” And I said, “None. I didn’t practice what I was going to say. I didn’t do any mock interviews or anything like that.” And he’s like, “Let me ask you a question. When you were in law school,” because he knew I went to law school, “how much time would you spend preparing for a test?” And I was like, “I don’t know. I would do practice tests. I would do probably spend at least 10, 20 hours preparing for a law school examination.”

And he’s like, “So, let me get this straight. You spent all that time preparing for a law school test, for a single law school test, that may or may not have had a true influence on your career. But for an interview with Jack Dorsey, you didn’t spend any time actually practicing before that interview.” And it was like sort of this punch in the gut moment where I was like, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” So, yeah, we spend a lot of time, I think, preparing for these moments, but we don’t spend enough time practicing for these moments, 21 times.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And the final step, let go of your ego.

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, let go of your ego is about making it about somebody else. Like, who are you there to serve? How is this about somebody else? One of the best pieces of advice that I think about all the time before I walk into a room, and I think as I talk to different audiences now, I always get really positive sort of feedback on like, “Wow, that one thing really changed things for me.” It was like when you walk into a room to give a pitch or a presentation or an interview, whatever it might be, you’re going to feel like the spotlight is on you, normally. You are the person delivering the content.

Find a way to take that spotlight and to put it on something else. Put it on someone else, ideally. That could be the person you’re there to serve, that could be the primary customer of the company. But how do you take sort of everything you’re talking about and make it about someone else? So, if it’s an interview, it could be knowing who the customer is, like knowing deeply who that customer is, and then walking in as somebody who’s looking to serve that customer. Every question you’re answering, everything you’re doing is about the service to that customer.

If you’re there to pitch an idea for a company, again, who is the person you’re trying to serve, who is the central character, and making it about that person. It’s taking the spotlight that’s on you and putting it on someone else.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Suneel, tell me, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear a couple of your favorite things?

Suneel Gupta
I will say that one of the things I continue to hear is that, especially as we’re coming out of the pandemic now, is so many people are looking to start new ventures. They’re looking to do something new. And that doesn’t necessarily, by the way, means starting a company, leaving a company, and starting a new one. It could be starting a new venture inside the company as well.

But one of the things I hear often are three words, which is, “I’m not ready for that just yet. I’m not ready.” Three common words. And the thing that I would leave you with is as I went and studied all of these people, backable people from all different fields, none of them were really ready. None of them were really ready to do what they did.

Three friends from design school were not ready to start Airbnb. A mid-level talent manager wasn’t ready to start SoulCycle. A 15-year-old from Stockholm, Sweden wasn’t ready to build an environmental movement but today, Greta Thunberg, is Time magazine’s youngest ever person of the year. And, sure, there were setbacks and there were failures and there were mistakes along the way, but I think the mantra that they all tended to adopt in their own way, which I try to remember as well, is that the opposite of success is not failure; it’s boredom.

So, let’s run with the things that make us come alive and let’s bring good people along the way to join us along the path, because, if there’s anything that I’ve learned, wherever you are listening to this, you are ready.

Pete Mockaitis
Thank you. Well, how about a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Suneel Gupta
Long-term success often comes from short-term setbacks.

Pete Mockaitis
And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Suneel Gupta
Yeah, there was a great experiment that was done in the 1980s at Dartmouth University, and it was called The Scar Experiment. Well, basically, what they did is they asked people to come into a room, a group of people, and, one by one, they would put a scar, an artificial scar, on their face. And then they would send them into another room where they would interact with other folks.

But there was a trick, which was right before they walked into the other room, they would say to the person, “Hey, can we get the makeup artist in here just to touch up your scar, just to do a little touchup?” But instead of doing a touchup, they would actually wipe the scar off completely. So, you walked into the room believing that you still had this scar on your face, but you didn’t. And then they had you come back into sort of the study room where you sat down with the researcher, and the researcher say, “How did that go? What happened?”

And nearly everybody was like, “They couldn’t stop staring at my scar. Everybody was completely obsessed with my scar.” And I just love that. I just love, love, love that because it just shows what we believe in ourselves internally is what we believe the world is looking at us for externally, and the power of that connection. So, look it up, The Scar Experiment.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s something to think about, for sure. And a favorite book?

Suneel Gupta
The Alchemist Paulo Coelho, one of my all-time favorites.

Pete Mockaitis
And a favorite tool, something you use to be awesome at your job?

Suneel Gupta
I would just say my whiteboard. I know people can’t see this right now but I’m staring at it right now. Just a simple whiteboard has just changed everything for me. One of my favorite things to do in the morning is when I have my cup of coffee, sometimes I just stare at my whiteboard and I’ll just see what comes up. Sometimes it’s nothing. Most of the times it’s gibberish. But, every once in a while, the things that that whiteboard pulls out of me is amazing.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Suneel Gupta
Come to SuneelGupta.com. There’s a bunch of free stuff out there, some new thoughts, and a way for us to keep in touch.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks looking to be awesome at their jobs?

Suneel Gupta
I would say, as we think about sort of how to be backable, which I think nearly all of us are, let’s also think about how to make other people backable. Like, I’ll leave you with one story, which is about a woman named Damyanti Hingorani, she was a refugee on the border of India and Pakistan, under dire conditions, impoverished conditions, had this unlikely dream, which was that she wanted to become an engineer with Ford Motor Company, and this was the 1950s, and Ford Motor Company was in its heyday. And Detroit was the Silicon Valley of the world at the time.

And so, her parents get behind the dream. They saved every penny they have. She’s able to get on a boat to the United States. She gets a scholarship to Oklahoma State University. The day after she graduated, she grabs a train to Detroit, Michigan and finds her way to get into a room with a hiring manager to apply for her dream job.

But when this hiring manager looks at her application, he looks at her resume, he says, “Wait a second. Are you applying for the job of an engineer?” And she says, “Yeah.” And he says, “Well, look, I’m sorry. We actually don’t have any female engineers working here right now,” which is crazy, right? Ford Motor Company, at that time, had thousands and thousands of engineers on staff but not a single one of them was a woman.

And so, Damyanti Hingorani is really deflated in this moment, and she gets up, and she picks up her purse, and she picks up her resume, and she starts to walk out of the room. And then, almost in this last minute of courage, she turns around, she summons all of the grit that she possibly can, she looks this guy in the eye, and she tells him her story about all the struggle and sacrifice that it took for her to get to this country, to get to Detroit, to get to this very room. And then she says to him, “Look, if you don’t have any female engineers on staff, do yourself a favor and hire me now because things are changing.”

And this hiring manager, so inspired by that conversation, that he goes out and he fights with everybody around him, fights with his colleagues, fights with his superiors, and eventually he gets her the job. And in 1967, Damyanti Hingorani becomes Ford Motor Company’s first ever female engineer. It was a great story, honored in Time magazine pretty recently because it inspires people. It inspired other immigrants. It inspired women in the workforce. And it’s the story that has inspired me the most because Damyanti Hingorani is my mom. And had a middle manager from suburban Michigan had not taken a chance on a refugee from the other side of the world, then, Pete, I wouldn’t be here right now chatting with you. I wouldn’t be able to share any of this with you.

So, my final message to anybody who’s listening is, hey, as we get out into the world now, let’s think about how to make ourselves backable but let’s also think about how to find good people and help them become backable.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Suneel, what a beautiful closing note. Powerful stuff. Thank you so much for spending the time and sharing the goods. I wish you lots of luck in your backable adventures.

Suneel Gupta
Well, thanks so much, Pete.