by Marshall Goldsmith, Hyperion Books, 2007. 223 pages.

Reviewed by Diane Byington, Ph.D.

Dr. Goldsmith is one of corporate America’s preeminent executive coaches. He charges a lot for his services, and his clients enthusiastically assert that he’s worth it. But if you don’t have the money to hire him personally, you will get a flavor for his work by reading this fine book. And you might see yourself in its pages.
This book is designed to help successful people become even more successful by identifying an interpersonal problem that they need to stop. Goldsmith discusses the twenty habits that often cause successful people problems. These include: winning too much (the behavior that encompasses many of the other problems), adding too much value, making destructive comments, speaking when angry, withholding information, and not listening.

Goldsmith’s solution to these interpersonal career stoppers is to understand what you need to change and then move through his formula for making lasting change. The most daunting step is deciding what needs to change. Goldsmith warns us not to undertake changing more than one item on the list at a time. To help you choose, Goldsmith strongly recommends getting feedback from those who see you regularly.

This is where 360 feedback comes in. If you hire Goldsmith, he will interview your boss, direct reports, peers, friends and family, and then return with an analysis that will identify the area in which you should focus your change efforts. Without reliable feedback, many people will pick the easiest habit to change instead of the one that is the worst career-stopper. (See postscript for other ways to gather feedback.)

After you’ve decided what you want to change, the process is to apologize to the people who have been harmed by this behavior, tell them you want to change and ask their help, listen to what they have to say, thank them for offering suggestions, then follow up by making changes and asking for ongoing feedback about how you’re doing. Sound easy? Of course it isn’t easy, but people who have been successful in their careers have the ability to change, once they understand the process and are willing to put forth the effort over an extended period of time. It’s helpful to have a coach to assist you, and it doesn’t have to be a paid coach – a friend, spouse, or coworker can work with you, as long as you trust each other and are willing to hang in together over the long haul.

Let’s dive deeper into the problem of not listening. This is a time-worn topic, and most of us have either attended or given “active listening” workshops. But Goldsmith’s discussion goes beyond the tired old information I’ve heard for years. He makes the topic come alive.

According to Goldsmith, there are three things that all good listeners do: they think before they speak, listen with respect, and they’re always gauging their response by asking themselves, “Is it worth it?” People who don’t listen well often talk too much, so they have to learn to keep their mouths shut. Yes, I know, that’s really hard, and it’s only the first step.

The next step is listening with respect. You do this by demonstrating to the speaker that you are totally engaged. For example, one of my pet peeves is when people check their email while I’m talking to them on the phone. Even when they’re nominally listening to me and can repeat back what I’ve said, I know they aren’t really listening with their whole selves, and I generally stop talking. Not listening with respect is a conversation stopper.

Finally, if you think you have a useful response, you need to ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” Most of us aren’t really listening to other people because we’re composing what we’re going to say next. This is a negative two-fer: You’re not only failing to hear the other person, you’re orchestrating a comment that may annoy them, either because it misses the point, adds meaningless value to the discussion, or worst of all, injects a destructive tone into the mix. Asking “Is it worth it?” forces you to consider (a) how the other person regards you, (b) what that person will do afterwards, and (c) how that person will behave the next time you talk.

This last piece is the most important. People’s opinions of our listening ability are largely shaped by the decisions we make immediately after asking, “Is it worth it?” So many of our comments are designed to make us look smarter than the other person, and those definitely aren’t worth it. But others – you’ll have to make the decision yourself. If it is worth it, speak up!

Goldsmith describes one exercise he uses with his executives to test their listening skills. He asks them to close their eyes and count slowly to fifty with one simple goal: they cannot let another thought intrude into their minds. They must concentrate on maintaining the count.

Try it – it’s not at all easy. More than half of his clients can’t do it. This sounds like a concentration test, but it’s really a listening exercise. After all, if you can’t listen to yourself as you count to fifty, how will you ever be able to listen to another person?

The entire book is like this: filled with wise tidbits to help you make a change in your behavior that will facilitate your continued success in business and in life. It’s well worth reading, and you might even want to undertake the change process, with or without hiring him.

My only wish is that he had included some of the research to back up his suggestions. They are based on solid research, but I fear he sacrificed the research to make the book more readable. A set of footnotes in the back where I could look up some of his claims would probably have satisfied both of us. Or perhaps he could have included a list of books for further reading.

— Diane Byington is a writer and coach who consults with The Booth Company.