Just Listen

If you wish to know the mind of a man, listen to his words.

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If you are in a business where effective interactions with people is an important part of your success, you should read this book. Mark Goulston, is one of those rare analytical people, who can organize, present and make sense of topic as amorphous as human interactions. “Just Listen” is filled with fun stories and is really easy to read. It is organized in 30, 6-10 page chapters that are dripping with actionable insights.
The book starts with an explanation of the persuasion cycle:


The first and the key component is to get people to listen to what you have to say. Mark explains mirror neurons and getting them aligned is key to listening and communicating.

Goulston then talks about 9 core rules that are right on the mark:

1. Move yourself from “oh F#@& to OK”
2. Rewire yourself to listen
3. Make the other person feel “felt”
4. Be more interested than interesting
5. Make people feel valuable
6. Help people to exhale emotionally and mentally
7. Check your dissonance at the door
8. When all seems lost bare your back
9. Steer clear of toxic people

This is followed by a set of useful tools that are powerful individually but if organized and used in situations, can help you deal with tough situations. One of my favorite tools “Power thank you”/”Power apologies”  by itself is worth the price of the book.

Goulston wraps up the book with some great case studies that are fantastic examples of applying the tools in the book. On a personal note, I had a chance to apply these tools in a particularly sticky situation related to when my parents came over from India, for the summer, which setup the classic mother-in-law and wife issues.

“Your mother has an opinion on everything and she likes to share it”, my wife said one night.

A typical red-blooded Indian male would typically get defensive or passive aggressive or feel trapped in this situation but I calmly un-clipped the empathy tool from my tool belt.

“Yeah, she has a lot of opinions”, I started.

“Yeah and she get in the middle of everything. Today she was telling me about how to raise kids, when she does not even understand the personality they have and the environment they are growing up in.”, she continued.

“The other day she was telling me about how to make chicken and she is a vegetarian”, I empathized.

I could see that she was pleasantly startled.  After a few more minutes of this, she exhaled and thanked me for listening.

“I can see that she has a lot of great ideas, but I wish she would just mention them at the right time but again she is visiting after a long time and hasn’t had the context so I should be more patient”,  she concluded.

She said that she feels so much better because she can share her issues with me as I thanked Mr. Goulston for his brilliant work and promptly ordered the rest of his books.


Is this real?

The other day I was telling my kids the story of Gluscabi and the magic game bag – Its a North American Eastern Woodland – Abenaki folktale. Check it out if you haven’t heard it before.

In the story, the mighty Gluscabi captures all the animals of the world in a magic game back to avoid having to hunt every day but upon hearing the environment conservation wisdom from Grandma Woodchuck, of passing on the animal kingdom to his children, he releases all the animals.


After hearing  the story my 7 year old asked, “Daddy, is this story real?”

I was stumped … for a few seconds.

My purpose in telling this story was to introduce the kids to the value of environmental protection which is a very real issue.

Also given the level of mendacity and hyperbole at play in current political season with whoppers such as the one by Donald Trump – “I will create jobs and the Latinos will have jobs that they don’t have right now. And I will win that vote.” – that seem as made up as the magic game bag, its not clear if truth telling is particularly important for people especially if it undercuts the message.

For the longest time when my 7 year old believed Santa was real, I felt under no obligation to correct her so why start now.

“Its a made up folktale from ancient american indians but the message is real”, I finally replied as the 7 year old drifted to sleep.






Eatsa – Restaurant in San Francisco with no visible staff


Interesting concept – a little bit too extreme but talks about how people are mis-deployed in a lot of restaurants. Imagine the people behind the register, taking orders, working on providing better care and service to the customers…What do you think the staff behind the register could do if they could instead be available to take care of the customers?


Images via: http://www.contemporist.com/2015/09/01/this-new-restaurant-concept-in-san-francisco-has-no-visible-staff/

The story factor

I really like books that make me want to read more/related books to fully grasp the concept. The story factor by Annette Simmons is one such book. Besides being really entertaining and full of cleaver stories, this books gives the readers a framework to develop their own stories.

The book talks about an interesting categorization for the kind of stories you need, to be effective in the business of influencing other people. These are:

  • “Who am I” stories
  • “Why I am here” stories
  • “The vision” stories
  • “Teaching” stories
  • “Values-in-action” stories
  • “I know what you are thinking” stories

The author has a great sense of power of stories and provides a useful check list of how to tell good stories. It talks about the power of stories in terms of influencing the uncaring or apathetic.

And of course the stories!! Below is one of my favorites from the book:

Once, the people of The City invited Mulla Nasruddin to deliver a khutba. When he got on the minbar (pulpit), he found the audience was not very enthusiastic, so he asked “Do you know what I am going to say?” The audience replied “NO”, so he announced “I have no desire to speak to people who don’t even know what I will be talking about” and he left. The people felt embarrassed and called him back again the next day. This time when he asked the same question, the people replied “YES” So Mullah Nasruddin said, “Well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time” and he left. Now the people were really perplexed. They decided to try one more time and once again invited the Mullah to speak the following week. Once again he asked the same question – “Do you know what I am going to say?” Now the people were prepared and so half of them answered “YES” while the other half replied “NO”. So Mullah Nasruddin said “The half who know what I am going to say, tell it to the other half” and he left!

I told this story to a management consultant friend of mine about how management consultants are great at getting different groups in a company to talk to each other and he could not agree more.

Once upon a time there was a tiny village cursed by a ferocious monster who blocked the only road leading in and out of the village. Many courageous knights set out to fight the monster but no matter which weapon they chose, the monster with his magical powers would match this weapon with more than double the power.
The first knight, who brandished a club of wood, was flattened by a club twice its size. A second knight tried to burn the monster with fire and was sizzled to a crisp when the monster blew a fire twice as hot back at him. A third knight wielded a sword of steel. He was sliced in half by the monster’s magical sword twice as sharp and twice as long.
The fate of these three knights discouraged any further attempts and the people in the village learned to live with their limitations.
One day, Jack, the village fool, announced that he had a new idea to vanquish the monster. Most people laughed at Jack. Only the curious and the courageous marched out with him, helping him carry food and water to the place where the monster blocked the road.
The monster roared, stretched to his full height, and glared at Jack. The onlookers gasped when Jack grabbed an apple and walked right up to the monster. “Are you hungry?” Jack asked. The monster’s eyes narrowed to slits and he sniffed the apple. When his massive jaw opened wide; one of the ladies fainted dead away before the monster delicately took the apple from Jack’s quivering hand. The monster raised his fist high and brought it down in front of the amazed crowd. Bam! Opening his fist they saw two apples, juicier and redder than the one he had eaten.
In the same way a clay urn of water was replaced with two golden urns filled with water, sweeter and clearer than the first. The people ran to tell the others in the village of this miracle. When they returned Jack smiled and the monster smiled back with enough warmth to convince even the most cynical of the villagers that this monster was now a blessing to the village rather than a curse.

I told this story to my daughter as a way to calm her down and to stop her from complaining about her sister. By the end of the story she had forgotten about what she was complaining about 🙂 but my hope is that she learned a lesson about being nice to her sister.

Overall, if you are an engineer who is used to thinking rationally and linearly about issues, the story factor, provides you with a powerful way to think differently. Instead of logic that invokes reason in the thinking part of the brain, the story factor seeks to engage and excite in order to make the audience feel your story in the emotional part of their brains.

The three other books I bought (all are great) after reading this book:

Story on!!

Solving hard problems

One of my friends from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) days is starting a company in pharmaceuticals/life sciences space. At a recent IIT conference, he buttonholed me to ask me about the right strategy for his startup.

“On the one hand, I need integration for a seamless deployment, usage and maintenance experience but on the other hand doing integration forces us to work with archaic vendors that don’t want to work with us. It opens up technology issues, business issues and it will show down our go-live deployments.”

Since I was not sure about the specifics of the his product and customer systems, I shared my story about how we handled a similar challenge at Punchh. For those who don’t know about Punchh, Punchh is the last company I founded that is a platform for building “Starbucks like” apps for chain restaurant/retail market.


In 2012, we had launched our first few pilots without a point of sale (POS) integration but while reviewing the results with one of the smarter, numbers oriented exec at one of the pilot chains, we saw that our engagement rates were not great and re-engagement rates, a key metric for “Starbucks like” apps that Punchh built were downright anemic. To investigate the issue, I decided to spend some time at the location to do some detective work. After a couple of days of painstaking and diligent observing, it became clear that our issue was lack of an integration with the POS system – typically the heart of a restaurant or retail operation. Our lack of integration was not only making it hard to engage the customers, it was also slowing down operations by introducing additional redemption processes.

When I brought this to the team there were a lot of question marks.

“We will never be able to integrate as the POS companies are based on old technology stack and hard to work with”.”We don’t have the resources”.”We don’t even know how many version are out there for each system”.”How will we ever scale this thing?”.”POS companies might view us as a threat and might not want to integrate with us”.”How do we build relationships with opaque and hard to reach POS companies?” etc.

Despite the skepticism we persisted. I brought on a consultant who I had worked with before and who I though would be great at handling the complexity of the problem.

To get things going, we used one of the pilot customers to pressure one of the POS companies to provide us with a system. After some more skepticism and some upfront payment we finally had a license code and a DVD (but no support) to install a system and get an integration going.

It took us 4 weeks to get a working POS system installation – a system where we could do the basics like opening a check and placing an order.

It took another 8 weeks to get the first integration code working. It took so long because we had no support – the only help we could get was from an obscure bulletin board.

And since POS integration needed a whole new backend system, another 8 weeks went to design and build the server components to handle the data coming from the POS systems.

But by the end of 5 months we had something ready to go to a customer site.

Our first customer installation took 6 customer visits – each a 100 mile round trip drive to San Francisco where the customer was – spanning over 4 weeks. During this time we were apologizing constantly to the customer for crashing their systems. The customer still persisted with us – I am not quite sure why – despite all the problems.

Although the first 6 months were painful, we learned a great deal during that period. We were soon onto version 2 and 3 and thinking about replicating the integration with other POS systems. When we tried the POS integration at the original pilot location, the numbers were a lot better. We were finally delivering measurable results to our customers. Now we have over 15 POS integration, numerous POS partnerships and a dominant position in the market.

The thing about solving hard problems is that, while they are painful, if you persist and solve them you might build something really valuable – a strategic advantage or even an entry barrier.

Founders panel at IIT Bay area conference

I was fortunate to attend a recent panel discussion at IIT bay area conference about the blind spots of a technical founder. The panel was moderated by Ramneek Bhasin (NextForce) and the panelist were Kumar Ganapati (VxTel, Virident), Mohit Aron (Nutanix, Chohesity), Rishi Bhargava (Demisto).

Ramneek set the stage for the discussion with something really clever. Instead of building up the panelists, and it was a distinguished panel, he opened with “throwing shoes and sandals at us is not allowed no matter what we say but tomatoes are fine”.

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 4.48.45 PMThis had the amazing impact of engaging the audience as an equal and humanizing the panel. I see too many panel moderators not doing enough the make the panel approachable and to engage the audience. Kudos to Ramneek for an inspired opening and a great job.

The result of a good opening was a very engaging discussion.

Kumar talked about the importance of hiring well as a startup founder and how its better to leave a chair empty than to fill it with a wrong /”B” player.

I asked the panelist for their secrets of hiring well:

  • Mohit through that hiring engineers is easier than hiring for sales and marketing
  • Mohit’s key to successful hiring is that he takes time to check references
  • Rishi stressed the importance of chemistry and hairstyle test
  • Kumar recommended setting up a process and taking time to ensure that you have the right candidate
  • Panel recommended using a scorecard and being open to red flags

The panel also spoke about finding a co-founder and how its one of the most important decisions in the company. Mohit recommended that the founders not rush to incorporate but instead take time to work with their co-founders to get to know them better.

All in all one of the best panels in a while.


I started reading “No” about a year back and I have been re-reading and re-re-reading and … it ever since. Now I don’t want to be Jim Camp’s (the author) booster but to say that this is one of the best business book ever written – is not hyperbole but an understatement. Now I have read a lot of books on negotiations – starting with the business school classic “Getting to yes”, “Negotiating rationally”, “When push comes to shove” and on and on but “No” gets to the real problem with negotiations – which is out of control emotions. The difference between books like “Getting to yes” and “No” is the difference between rational-agent economics (theory based on unrealistic assumptions) and behavioral economics (reality).

Jim Camp, the author, was once a pilot, so its no surprise that a of things he talks about are organized around check-lists and training. The book is really accessible, almost an easy read but it is also one of those rare books that has layers of insights that come into focus upon second or third or more readings.

The first chapter introduces the concept of “neediness” – the real killer in negotiations. It could be need for approval, need to save the relationship or fear of losing a customer. Most of the times, neediness is really because of our social conditioning or a flawed vision of self. To be a good negotiator one must give up neediness. Its ok to “want” a deal but remember you don’t need this deal – or much for that matter.

The book talks about resistance to “No” and how saying “No” is really key to managing your emotions and getting to a good deal. I have worked with many sales people who would never say “No” because “No” is the end, its defeat, its crashing of dreams but Jim explains that “No” is just the beginning, the foundation of any good negotiation. Jim explains that “No” is just a decision in the process and like just flying, you need to focus on the next decision.

One of my favorite chapters is how best to prepare for negotiations. The chapter focusses on how to create a mission and purpose that is rooted in the world of the other party. Having a mission and purpose that is focussed on the other party, helps keep your neediness in control and provides a roadmap for negotiations.

Another great chapter is about asking questions to build vision. As you know, its hard to tell anybody anything. A good way to build vision and drive the process forward is to ask questions that let people see their own problems and potential solutions for themselves. Asking question is another way to reduce the number of words you say – another great step to control your neediness.

There are several interesting ideas and checklists in the book:

  • Find a way to be human – being human lower barriers and increases people’s receptiveness to the vision you are trying to build
  • Repeat important things 3 things – If you heard Trump speak – he always repeats the key points 3 times or more (this is not an endorsement of Trump but an acknowledgement of his skill in the influence business)
  • Be wary of conversations getting too positive or too negative
  • How to create an agenda that can drive a negotiation – everything important should be on the agenda and so should be any baggage that might be the unspoken roadblock in your negotiation
  • How to get to decision makers and bypassing the gate-keepers

Overall this is one of the best business books. If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor and read it. Let me know if you agree with my flowery review…