Just Listen


Every year at our annual VHG (VisionHelp Group) meeting we select a book as a focal point for discussion. This year the book selected was written by Dr. Mark Goulston, a psychiatrist who is also a business advisor, consultant, coach and speaker, and is titled Just Listen.

One of the first things that Dr. Goulston talks about in his book is what the calls “The Persuasion Cycle”. It looks like this:

See the source image

And to hear Dr. Goulston talk about it, sounds like this:

What struck me early on is the illustrative story that Mark told on page 10 of his book about a CEO named David. David was technically competent, but perceived as dictatorial within the company, some describing him as “heavy handed and dictatorial”, even “brusque and condescending”. And here’s the sentence that blew me away: Employees underperformed to retaliate for David’s abuse.

Wow. I had never considered that. You can try to motivate employees all you want, but if they resent you for whatever reasons they might intentionally do their job more poorly than they were capable of as a way of getting back at you. Hence, I suppose, the reason for bi-directional performance evaluations, and the opportunity for employees to express their feelings. The problem, of course, is that most people are guarded about expressing their true feelings. Hence the exhortation by Dr. Goulston to ask some key questions, utter the right word or phrase, and use the appropriate body language to convey that you’re sincerely interested in what the other person has to say.

Our friend and colleague, Dr. Glen “Bubba” Steele, recently retired professor at the Southern College of Optometry, has the visual analog of “Just Listen” in what he calls “Just Look”. Specifically, he suggests a Just Look retinoscopy procedure.

You can gain a feel for “Just Look” by viewing Bubba’s PowerPoint on the topic. But what I want to emphasize here is that the crux of the process is to be non-judgmental. To be observant. Before you interpose anything, look for what the quality, brightness, and speed of the reflex is telling you about engagement. And the word “just” is a crucial modifier because it requires that quiet your mind about all the pre-suppositions about what you expect to find, and focus instead on what is actually happening.

As much as Dr. Goulston’s comment on page 10 about employees intentionally underperforming to retaliate blew me away, he continues the story about CEO David to whom he posed the question: “So how does your management style play at home?” This opened up a flood gate about his 15 year-old son, who David described as bright but lazy: “Nothing I try works with him … We had him evaluated, and he’s got some kind of learning or attention problem. The teachers try to help him, but he just doesn’t follow through with any of their suggestions.

Dr. Goulston gave David some quick communication tips, and after three days David came back and shared that the relationship he had with his son began to turn a corner. Here was the pivotal conversation they had:

David: I’ll bet you feel that none of us know what it’s like to be told you’re smart and not be able to use your intelligence to perform well. Isn’t that so?

Son: (Eyes welling up …)

David: And I’ll bet you sometimes you wish you weren’t so smart, so we wouldn’t have all these expectations of you and be on your case all the time about not trying harder, isn’t that true?

Son: (Voice choking) It’s getting worse, and I don’t know how much more of it I can take. I’m disappointing everyone, all the time.

David: Why didn’t you tell me it was so bad?

Son: (With the anger and resentment he must have been feeling for years) Because you didn’t want to know.

Ouch! How many times have we sat and listened to parents preface their remarks about a child by saying: “He’s very bright, but …” Most of the children we see have a disproportionate gap between their intelligence and expected level of performance. If they weren’t bright, we would lower our expectations. It’s that search for a missing link that usually brings them to our offices.

Yet there’s an irony here. As soon as a child begins to show success, more is expected of them. Have you had a parent tell you on a follow-up visit, or during a progress evaluation, that “We’ve seen some improvement, but not nearly as much as we expected?”

And then it hit me — Dr. Goulston’s comment about employees underperforming to retaliate against what they perceive to be an over-bearing boss. Might some children sabotage their own success because they perceive a parent to be uncaring, lacking in understanding or empathy, or abusive? Or as an alternative thought, might some children be reluctant to acknowledge that the intervention they receive from us is of benefit? After all, if they acknowledge that their issues with blur, eye strain, fatigue, instability or print, or processing issues have diminished, might the bar be raised on expectations of them that they’re not prepared to accept?

Just Listen‘s author makes a big fuss about so-called mirror neurons, dubbing the lack of normal activity of the brain’s mirroring system the “mirror neuron gap”. This was all the rage when the book came out in 2009, but research and publications in recent years have cautioned against over-extrapolating mirror neuron activity in humans in contrast to macaques on whom the research was originally published in 1992. (See for example this article by JohnMark Taylor, a PhD student in the Harvard University Psychology Department.) To his credit, Dr. Goulson anticipated this when he wrote at the end of the chapter on the mirror neuron gap that: “The brain science I’ve outlined in this chapter comes with an asterisk attached. It doesn’t apply to everyone.” Nevertheless, it’s hard to quibble with the suggestion that everyone would be better off with more empathy at home and in the workplace.

The last vignette I’ll share is from Chapter 3, titled Move Yourself From “Oh F#@& To Ok”. It is the story of Jin Mazzo who was, at the time (in 2007) CEO and Chairman of Advanced Medical Optics (AMO). Although Dr. Goulston doesn’t go into details, if you were in the eyecare field then you may remember the Acanthamoeba scare and how it resulted in a voluntary recall by AMO of its Complete MoisturePlus multipurpose solution for contact lenses. As referenced in this WebMD article, the CDC estimated that of the people it interviewed, the risk of developing Acanthamoeba keratitis was seven times greater for users of Complete MoisturePlus multipurpose solution than those who didn’t use that product. The recall cost the company many millions of dollars at the time, and thwarted its planned acquisition of Bausch & Lomb. But Goulston lauds Mazzo for his decisiveness and speed in dealing with the issue, furthering his reputation as an effective leader in the industry.

Just Listen doesn’t provide the outcome of the Jim Mazzo story, so I’ll share that his leadership was so effective that AMO was acquired by Abbott Labs just two years later for $2.8 billion, which became Abbott Medical Optics (and which was subsequently acquired by Johnson & Johnson for $4.3 billion in 2016). Jim was appointed as global president of ophthalmology for Carl Zeiss Meditec in 2016, a position he held for four years before retiring from that position in 2020. In Ocular Surgery News that year, Jim was quoted as saying: “I love what I do. … I’m not leaving ophthalmology; I’m just moving on from Zeiss,” Mazzo said. “I’m staying very active within our industry, so you’ll still see me around.”

Mark lauds Jim for his courage and ethical leadership through the years. Apparently he is an exemplar of Just Listen in action.

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