Beyond transactions

In the absence of a better explanation at the time, I found myself drawn to transactional analysis, as popularized by Eric Berne’s 1964 book Games People Play. Dr Berne argued that just about every personal interaction could be boiled down to simple patterns based on which ego states are involved: Child, Parent, or Adult.

This model, says Mark Goulston in Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone (New York: AMACOM, 2010), is obsolete and counterproductive:

Transactional communications don’t create traction in a relationship because they’re impersonal and shallow. These exchanges won’t necessarily drive people away … but they won’t draw people closer either. Like [an] ATM transaction, they’re rarely life-changing events, and they’re “all about you” instead of “all about the other person or company.”

And traction, says Dr Goulston, is imperative:

To understand this, picture yourself driving up a steep hill. Your tires slip and slide and can’t grab hold. But downshift, and you get control. It’s like pulling the road to meet you.

Most people upshift when they want to get through to other people. They persuade. They encourage. They argue. They push. And in the process, they create resistance. When you use the techniques I offer, you’ll do exactly the opposite — you’ll listen, ask, mirror, and reflect back to people what you’ve heard. When you do, they will feel seen, understood, and felt — and that unexpected downshift will draw them to you.

This comparison makes more sense than you’d think, at least to me: I spend much of my time in overdrive, which means I’ve upshifted as far as my transmission will let me, trying to get the maximum speed out of minimum crankshaft rotation. In a very real sense, I don’t have time for those other people, and some of them visibly resent it.

I can see some serious value in this book, especially in our contemporary “Gotcha” culture. (Berne touched on this briefly, with a game he called “NIGYSOB” — “Now I’ve Got You, You Son Of a Bitch” — but I suspect he never anticipated how it would become the dominant form of politics forty-five years down the road.) Getting through to people seems more difficult than ever: we’ve heard it all before, or so we think. Flowery oratory won’t do the job, either; it takes some serious one-on-one interaction. I can’t yet vouch for Dr Goulston’s instructions, having only just finished the book, but he’s made reasonable explanations for all of them, and allowed for the possibility that some of them might not work every single time. (Not everyone will be as reasonable as you or I would be.) At no point, however, does he leave you stranded. If you get along fine with everyone all the time, you probably don’t need Just Listen. For the rest of us, I think it’s worth a look. (If you’d like a sampling of Dr Goulston’s philosophy, visit his Usable Insights blog.)

Disclosure: From review copy in ebook format. Publication is scheduled for September; is offering pre-order at one-third off.


  1. fillyjonk »

    24 August 2009 · 12:03 pm

    Interesting. I wonder, if I read that, if I would spend less time muttering desparingly about how much I “hate” people.

  2. Old Grouch »

    27 August 2009 · 5:50 pm

    “NIGYSOB” – U.S. press v. Richard Nixon, Sherman Adams and Bernard Goldfine’s vicuna coat, the Hollywood Ten, Albert Fall and the Teapot Dome gang… it’s been a major, if not the dominant, part of American politics forever; Modern media has just turned up the volume.

  3. Mark Goulston »

    5 September 2009 · 7:28 am

    Here’s a Power Thank You* for not just writing about my book, “Just Listen” but for getting where I’m coming from which certainly created traction with me.

    First, thank you for blogging about my new book.
    Second, thank you for taking the time to read it, think about it, relate to it and recommend it.
    Third, it means a lot to me when people understand and find value in the ideas I put out into the world. Ideas you think up on your own are like giving birth. You hope your children are smart and do good for the world, but you never know for sure. Your blog helps me to feel that I am on the right track and motivates me to do more.

    BTW “Power Thank You’s” are a chapter in “Just Listen”

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