How To Be A Story Leader With Ben Zoldan

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Strategic Leadership: Nurturing New Leaders And The Leadership Tree With John O’Grady

TSP Ben | Listening To Others

Episode Summary:

Listening to others and what they have to say fosters a sense of community, kinship, and empathy, and these are things we all could afford to get better at. In a time of divisiveness, listening to others might just get us to a place of, at the very least, mutual understanding, in order to foster peace. Ben Zoldan is the co-founder of Storyleaders. He sits down with John Livesay to talk about why listening to others is such an important skill that we need to hone. Listening is the gift that makes others feel seen, so let’s get to a place where we’re all giving each other that precious gift.

Listen To The Episode Here:

How To Be A Story Leader With Ben Zoldan

This episode’s guest is Ben Zoldan who is the co-author of What Great Salespeople Do. He is the Cofounder of Storyleaders. He said if he had to retitle the book, it would be What Great People Do, not just storytellers or salespeople. He also said, “When you listen into people’s eyes, you transcend basic empathy, and that listening is the gift you give others and you make them feel seen, and that totally transforms the relationship.”

This episode’s guest is my friend Ben Zoldan who is the Cofounder of Storyleaders and author of What Great Salespeople Do. I read it myself and loved it. It turns out that he started Storyleaders back in 2008 as an accidental research project. Before that, he was always into efficiencies and things related to results. That turned into him now talking about stories as a way to measure things in a whole new way. Welcome to the show, Ben.

John, thanks for inviting me into your world. That bio, I wasn’t expecting it. That was my narrative coming from efficiencies, compliance, and process. That gave way for some other things in my life and things that you’re into.

This concept of someone’s story of origin is something near and dear to both of our hearts. I would love it if you can take us back to Ben as a little boy growing up, wherever that would be, or college days. Wherever you want to start your story as to how you got to where you are now.

Let me start with something controversial that happened to me. I started my day off at around 6:30 going through my feed and trying to pick a video or something to watch and I found this company. I went to the bios of their leadership team. There were twenty leaders, and it was middle-aged white dudes. It looked like the United States Senate. Something appalled me. I was like, “Why is it so homogenized?” I’ve always had a disdain for the system, the way things work.

My journey started off with teenage parents who are at UC Santa Cruz and had two kids by the time they were twenty. They were hippies before it was cool to be hippies. Vegan before it’s cool to be vegans. What I did get was a lot of these alternative influences and all this cool stuff that was on the sidelines and I was always in trouble. My parents were so young that they didn’t monitor us so we would just run wild. I was always getting in trouble by the combination of having parents that gave me these cool influences, things that were on the sideline like counterculture before there was such a thing, and then having a lot of autonomy when I was younger, so I was always getting in trouble.

Now when I look at things in the world that are injustices, and I’ve had my own. Being on my own, abuse was part of my upbringing. Stuff that I always had a hard time talking about. I speak of it as a 49-year-old guy, but even as a 35-year-old, I probably couldn’t talk about and share my true authentic experiences. I was guarded. What I always do was when I saw injustice or something wrong, I fought it. I didn’t know how to fight it before. It was yelling by yelling, and I would rather yell without yelling now.

What I hear going on is, there was a secret, and we’re only as sick as our secrets is the phrase that takes on a whole new meaning because as long as we’re holding on to a secret, whether it’s, “I got abused,” or “I’m gay.” Whatever the issue is that someone can then possibly blackmail you with, make you feel bad, or expose it because you haven’t owned it, and you have all this charge on it, then we get triggered if anything reminds us of our secret. Even if it’s not happening to us, because it’s like a walking wound almost. That would make sense to me that if there’s not a lot of structure in the youth, and some bad things happen along the way, then we would be following, in your case, the hero’s journey into this thing of, “How can I get control of my life?” “I know. I will get good at measuring results, numbers, structure, looking at logic, and putting some process into things so things do seem like they’re a little bit more in control.” Is any of that resonating?

It was my drug. It was my dopamine hits at every turn and it was a safer place to be. I can run away from this stuff and look for external things to govern the world and put controls in the world and safety of process and measurement. For me, it showed up more in this incredible search for belonging and feeling so isolated. When you talked about wounds, running away from the wounds, and thinking that there was a way to belong in the world, that was to sign up for all the things that we’re supposed to sign up for, a career, scoreboard, stack rankings, and so-called success. Making a certain amount of money and then you make this much money and then a little bit more, then a nicer house and a nicer car. It’s all this endless, hollow, shallow race. For me, it was signing up for all these playbooks. The playbooks are always the same thing. These playbooks were built around, “How do we get more, do more, and sign up for this endless vicious cycle?” For me, it collapsed.

Eventually, it does. Even for people who reach the pinnacle of whatever they’re doing. Like when Michael Phelps had to stop swimming, it collapsed for him. It’s like, “Who am I if I’m not this Olympic swimmer? I’ve done it so many times. I’ve hit that bell, got those medals, but I still have to figure out who I am.” As a swimmer competitively myself in junior high and high school, my parents used to put a big chart on the wall of all my times for all the different events. I was constantly trying to beat my own time. Fast forward to my career in sales, I’ve basically recreated that whole experience with a quota of, can you beat last month or last year’s number? Over and over again. It was so familiar to me from competitive swimming that you do tend to burn out from all of that.

Listen into people's eyes. Click To Tweet

You and your co-author did so much research for your book with salespeople who sometimes feel like they’re so pushy, and that’s what causes them to be universally disliked. Can you speak to some of that? If you don’t like yourself and then you take on a career that is not liked and salespeople aren’t alone. Lawyers or dentists sometimes fit into that category. If you have a job that most people dread going to or dealing with you on top of you not liking yourself, how do we deal with that? How do we change that story?

First of all, I hate the title of my book. I can’t believe you picked it up and read it. It was never about that. I’ll tell you the story behind that. It was past the deadline a few months with McGraw Hill, our publisher, and Danya, who happened to be my personal publisher, was like, “Get the manuscript in.” We finally did and we didn’t have a title. We were going back and forth one day, and nothing was coming up for us. I barked at her. I said, “Danya, stop it. This is a book about what great salespeople do.” She goes, “Hold on. Let me get back to you.” I guess she went and checked if it was available.

She comes back ten minutes later. She calls me up and says, “Ben, I think we have a title.” I’m like, “What is it?” She was like, “What Great Salespeople Do.” It checks off all the boxes. It has the word sales in it, so we put it on the sales shelf. I didn’t think much of it. I’m not this marketer. It stuck, but here’s the thing. It wasn’t real. When I was doing the project, which was a personal research project, it was fundamentally about people that I had admired. People that I had emulated. If you close your eyes right now and I know some of the people in your circle, and you think of somebody who makes a difference in your life. Can you think of a person that comes to mind who has that knack or that gift? Did someone come up for you?

Sure, our mutual friend that introduced us, Mark Goulston.

Dr. Mark Goulston, a beautiful man. Would you describe him as any of the attributes of a salesperson?

No. Just the opposite. In fact, his whole thing is about helping people get out of this mindset of transactional relationships and then to transformational ones.

Now here’s a guy who is incredibly wholehearted, combined with incredibly sciencey. This lethal combination of knowledge and a whole heart that comes at you with such empathy and compassion and yet, he’s probably the antithesis of any of the behaviors of a salesperson. He’s not this hard-charging agenda, interrogator, or ROI negotiator, but he gets there in such a beautiful way. He’s helped me open up doors in my life. When I thought about people that I emulated a dozen years ago, I was like, “I want to deconstruct those people.” People like Mark. It was people that had this grace and benevolence. The way they could just sprinkle fairy dust.

I had that interaction with you when we first met. We went from not knowing each other to an hour later, I was like, “I know this guy. I would take the shirt off my back for you.” Sometimes we can’t label why we feel that way around people. For me, this was a research project. The book was about people that were affecting the world in such a way that was not figured out. We never figured it out. What a lot of things came up for me was how people can open up and share their stories. How they could be so in tune, self-reflective, and fiercely passionate about something but not in this dogmatic way.

I bring that back now to why I brought that up. To me, it was a book and I’m not a moral authority. I don’t know if I’m qualified to say it, but it’s what I fantasize about. I have to go back to my publisher and change the title of the book to What Great People Do. If we all think about our careers that way, it will change our behaviors. For example, lawyers. If lawyers stop lawyering, salespeople stop selling, or teachers stop teaching and start being more human. I have two teenage daughters and now with the storm that’s going on in the world, they’re doing remote learning. These teachers are just giving information, trying to teach and hammer information. What if we could create a culture of humans out of any of the things we do?

Let’s do a little bit of an insight into the magic that you’re doing for big corporations like Salesforce. A lot of big companies that people would think, “They’re going to be resistant to this.” Yet, the testimonials say the opposite. You’ve got these workshops that are not just another training where people are learning how to be not storytellers but authentic storytellers. You’ve got some listening involved there and I love that part. I tell people all the time, especially if they’re salespeople, “Until people feel like you’ve listened to them, they’re not willing to listen to you even if you’re telling a story instead of a bunch of facts.” Also, this other piece of the pie or third leg on the stool, if you will, is neuroscience. I want to make sure that we touch on at least one little nugget from each of those three circles because that’s why you’re sought out as a speaker. That’s why companies bring you in to help make all of this come together. Let’s start with authentic storytelling. First of all, what makes something authentic versus just a story?

TSP Ben | Listening To Others

Listening To Others: Leadership teams in many organizations tend to look very homogenized.


Early on for me, it was scary because as I was looking at people that I admired, the theme was these people are just storytellers. I had this mentor of mine, his name was John Scanlon, and it didn’t matter if we were with a customer, if it was a team meeting. I rode with him once from downtown Chicago to O’Hare and in that one-hour ride to the airport, I got out of the car and I’m like, “Here’s the CEO of this thriving company, and I know everything about his life.” I didn’t know it at the time, but he was just letting me in. No veneer, no pretense, no points he was trying to make but if something came up, he would share like he had no guard. I was like, “What if I want to be like that?” That means I’d have to share.

You wouldn’t have those secrets walking around.

I’m pretty good at the walls, the secrets, the mask, and the veneer of superficiality. We could talk about the Lakers and we could talk about the weather. If you want to know about me and show you who I am, I always thought, and this took me a while so I love your take. I don’t think I came from storytelling. I don’t think it’s a framework as much as it is, this self-discovery work and I resist. In sales, we always talk about a story about a customer but that’s the price of admission. No good stuff is the good stuff. It was a battle I resisted. I could talk about everything but myself.

Part of it has to do with the mistake that people make in thinking, “I’m one person at home and I’m another person at work.” Now that many of us are having to work from home during the quarantine, people see where you live. All those masks are coming down in a whole new way. When your dog, kid, or whatever else is interacting with your life, it’s not so siloed. “I’m one person in my life in Connecticut,” if you’re that person, “and then I go into the city and I’m the business person. That business person doesn’t let people in.” The irony is that the more you show your imperfections and vulnerability or that you don’t have all the answers all the time, the more people respect you and trust you.

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago so I know that ride so well from downtown to O’Hare. The Midwest, in particular, at least my experience in the suburbs was, that’s what everybody talks about all the time. It’s the weather or sports. I go, “Is there anything else to talk about?” That was the opening line for small talk all the time. I thought to myself, that’s how people relate to each other. “We have this in common,” or “How about those Cubs? Are they ever going to win?” and all these kinds of conversations left me empty as a kid and I didn’t know why. I didn’t have any other skills to bring up but I was like, “This is not interesting to me, constantly talking about those two topics.” Maybe we get into cars a little bit, “How’s your car running?” I don’t care but it was another topic that didn’t deal with any authenticity or vulnerability about how you are feeling.

I remember being with my dad. One of his dreams was to go up in a helicopter but he’d never done it. I was able to do that with him and his sister and my sister. I had a picture of it. I said, “Dad, look how happy you are in this picture.” My dad was not somebody who was comfortable with expressing feelings. He never learned. His response was, “Who wouldn’t be?” I thought, “I asked you to express a feeling that’s not in your toolbox. I get it. Of course, it’s logical that you would be happy at that moment.”

Once I let go of being so frustrated that he couldn’t express his feelings, someone said, “Do you know how to fly a helicopter?” I said no. They said, “What if it’s an emergency, you still can’t do it. It’s the same thing with feelings. It’s another skillset.” Storytelling, it’s not something you’re brought up with. You might think, “Everyone else is a natural storyteller. I go on and on. My stories don’t have any point.” The good news is that people who go through Storyleaders learn how to become storytellers, correct?

Yes. It’s like with your story. It almost sounded like if I’m getting you that there was a level of fatigue with this and the way the interactions were. Was it, for you, like, “I’ve had enough of this. Let’s get real?” In my old days, I would have thought, “Here’s a guy, John, who can get on stage in front of hundreds of people and inspire them.” The myth is that this guy is a natural-born storyteller, leader, or whatever. That’s not the case for you.

Not at all. I had lots of training, lots of focus on it, getting inspired by other people and thinking, “I want to feel something.” I want to make other people feel something, as well as teach them something when I speak. It was a journey to make a difference. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. There’s no such thing as professional swimming so I knew I couldn’t stay in that sport to make a difference. That’s what led me on that path. I thought of little moments where people will say something and you’re like, “Huh.” I remember at the end of Oprah’s talk show after all those years. She said, “Everyone should think of their life as a talk show.” I love that framework. Whether I’m talking to one person or hundreds of people when I’m on stage, it doesn’t matter. I’m still having some impact. That’s where that goes. Let’s go into the real listening part, not just listening. What is a nugget that you can share with us about how we can be better listeners?

We have mentioned that Mark Goulston has been a mentor in both of our lives. He’s the Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA and a former hostage negotiation trainer. He takes everything we do and distills it down to what it would be like to listen. He and I were having a conversation once. He was talking about what it would be like to listen into people’s eyes. At that moment, I was shaken because I was thinking about all the times I don’t listen into people’s eyes. That would require such a level of commitment, being all in, and vulnerability. I was thinking about this experience I had talking to a friend the day before I was talking to Mark. We were talking about something going on with how we’re taking in information around this pandemic. Should the government do this or the government not do that? The minute I heard her position, which was 180 degrees from mine, I went, “Stop. Timeout.” I made some stupid remark like, “Don’t ever say that around my family.” She goes, “See? You always do this.” I’m like, “I always do this,” and I start defending myself. She lets me spin out because she knows. Here I am, a guy who preaches about listening and I cut her off myself. After my tornado winds down, she goes, “You never listen.” That hits me.

Listening is the gift to make others feel seen. Click To Tweet

For someone who thinks of themselves as a listener, that’s the ultimate insult.

I’m a fraud. I don’t practice what I preach. I remember those words that Mark has shared with us about what it’s like to listen into someone’s eyes. I feel like what that requires for me is such vulnerability because I have to commit to somebody else’s place, feelings, and position. It’s so hard to do. What I found easier for me to do is to look away. If I look away, I could be like, “No, I’m right. You’re wrong. You’re Republican, I’m a Democrat. We’re Israel, Palestine and we’re divisive like the news channels.” There isn’t any antidote to that division. It’s like the vaccine we’re looking for. If we actually listened into people’s eyes, we would feel what they feel. It would be the purest form of empathy.

This may be controversial. Everybody talks about empathy. It’s become so over, you don’t even know what the word means anymore. Empathy sucks. It sucks because empathy is hard. We have to say, “I’m going to feel what you feel.” I have one tattoo of my daughters’ names on one arm. On the other arm, I want to put “listening to their eyes.” If we look into others’ eyes, we cannot help but feel. I’m looking at your sincerity. My heart rate slows down. My defensiveness and my own walls go down. I go, “That person’s another human being.”

They always say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. If you look at someone and don’t look away, it requires incredible tolerance of anxiety to stay completely present. That’s why the phones are such a challenge. It defeats listening because I’m going to look down at my phone if it dings or I’m bored with what you’re saying or whatever. To hold someone’s interest and to be riveting to someone goes back to the emotion. Take me on a story. You told me a story that’s got some emotional ups and downs. Now, I’m listening with my eyes because all my emotions are engaged. I know how much you pride yourself on being a good dad. Make that eye contact with your daughter and teach her how to do that to other people. You’re modeling for her, “If people aren’t doing this to you, that is not okay, no matter what their gender is.”

The same thing is true in a sales situation. If you’re not paying attention and listening to somebody tell their story, what their challenges are, why they’re tired, or whatever the issue is, it doesn’t resonate when you tell your story. We were talking about table stakes, the basics are telling a story of another client you helped. What I love doing that makes me so excited is to get to know you and bring you into the people that love storytelling as much as I do for our clients.

Once we get someone to be comfortable with their own story and then we get them to the place where they’re telling a story of a client they helped, when you put it together and say, “We’re going to tell a story within a story,” that’s a whole other skillset. I was working with this guy, Adam. Before we started talking, he said, “I’ve got three daughters,” and this and that. He told me their ages and I filed it away. I said, “Okay.” He’s telling the story of a client. I said, “What’s her name?” “Sandy.” “What was Sandy’s situation?” “She had to be in charge of going to the hospital from two operating rooms to four.” “What was Sandy feeling?” You’ve got to pull that out of people.

If you’re not in touch with your own feelings, you’re certainly not listening to what other people are feeling. “Sandy was overwhelmed by having to go from 2 to 4.” I said, “Let’s go back to you having three daughters. I imagine that when your third daughter was born, your wife turned to you and said, ‘Honey, we’re outnumbered. I feel overwhelmed.’” He was like, “We did say that.” Put that into this story so that you’re showing empathy for Sandy but through your lens of what it feels like to be overwhelmed, not in the same situation. That’s what I think you’re saying here. It’s not just empathy, it’s my experience of that emotion. You were talking about secrets and I share that I know what it’s like to have a secret. We all have something. That’s where I think real connection comes from.

As you’re sharing about that, speaking about daughters, and talking about listening reminds me of a profound experience I had with my youngest daughter. One evening, we took a walk in the neighborhood. We walked to the little center where there are restaurants and stores. It’s late in the afternoon and the sun is going down. It was a nice time she and I were having together. We walked by this man who’s asking for money. He’s having a difficult time. By appearance, he looked homeless. Since we were just going on a walk, I didn’t bring my wallet. My daughter was probably in her early teens at the time. I said, “Abby, have you got any cash on you?” She said, “No, dad.” I was stuck. I couldn’t walk by this man who needed help. I go, “Abby, stay here. I’m going to bolt home. I’ll be right back.” We both wanted to help this guy out. I ran and got back in two minutes. I have a $20 bill and I hand it to this man. Abby was hanging out over here for a few minutes until I got back.

My youngest daughter goes, “Are you from here?” The man takes a $20 bill and puts it on the side next to him. I’ll never forget this, John. I want you to visualize it for a second. He’s sitting on this bench, takes a $20 bill, and almost sets it on the bench next to him. It could have flown away. The minute Abby asked him, he first introduced himself. He says, “My name is Albert. I’m not from here. I’m from Mississippi.” I’m like, “How long have you been here?” He said, “Twenty years.” He tells us the most incredible story of coming here from Mississippi. His parents moved out here and they had passed away. He had brothers, they’re not here. They’re back in the South. We were engaged with Albert for 15 or 20 minutes. I don’t know if it was five minutes. He let us into everything about who he is. His story was beautiful. It had traumas in it. It was unfiltered and it was raw. My daughter was there with her jaw open, listening to this man.

It’s different from her life or her friend’s life.

TSP Ben | Listening To Others

Listening To Others: Everybody talks about “empathy” so much that they don’t even know what that word means anymore.


Fifteen minutes went by and that $20 bill was still on the side of him. He never went to the $20 bill. We wrapped up, “It’s great to meet you. I’ll see you around.” We walked away and it was beautiful. It was magical, if I can say that. He leaned over and nonchalantly grabbed the $20 bill. The $20 bill was incidental. Abby said the most profound thing to me as we’re walking away. She said, “Dad, the $20 wasn’t nearly as important to Albert as him sharing his story with us.”

That was his priority.

It was as if him being able to share his story was the magical gift. I feel like it was more important than the $20. There’s so much wisdom in what Abby taught me. When you talk about listening, maybe as we listen, we’re giving people this platform to show up, be heard, be seen, and to not be invisible. Listening can be a more powerful thing than sharing our stories. When we talk about connection, it’s a swapping of stories. When we share stories, that’s part of it. When we give other people the ability to share theirs, that’s a gift.

That’s a great tweet. Listening is the gift to make others feel seen. People want two things in life. They want to be seen and they want to be acknowledged, and ultimately loved. When you’re accepted for who you are, then everything else comes. The money starts flowing in from that. The final thing is the neuroscience that you have combined to storytelling and listening. What is it about neuroscience is a trigger or a different part of our brain where stories seep in a way that information doesn’t?

When I started the research, I don’t think I could tell a story for the life of me. Someone said, “Tell me a story,” I couldn’t. Somebody said something to me once. He said something like, “Go around and ask people, ‘Can I tell you a quick story?’ They’ll never say no.” Why don’t people say no to that? It has to be because of how we’re hardwired? Our evolution is wired into our DNA of who we are as a species, what separates us from every other species.

It might be entertaining too.

Why do our heart rates slow down when we hear the words once upon a time? A relevant thing that I learned and I’m no scientist but I admire people who do real research. In our generation, the neuroscience, how we’re wired, how we make decisions, how we respond to stimuli is understood in a way in the last 15 to 20 years that has undermined everything before. It’s like our good friend that shared with us who is a neuroscientist, we’re at the age of anxiety. Everybody’s scared, we’re fearful. We’re constricted, we’re sheltering.

Stress is at an all-time high and the stress hormone is cortisol. That makes it hard for us to think straight. When we have high cortisol levels, the stress hormone, the blood that goes from the top of our brain goes to our fight or flight. People aren’t thinking straight. The question becomes what’s the antidote to cortisol, to stress? I’m a stress case. I’m neurotic, I have to get the plugin. I’m a Jew from LA so I’m neurotic and paranoid. I have a lot of anxiety. The hormone that will reduce the cortisol levels is the oxytocin, which is the bonding agent, the love drug. That’s the neurochemical that is disproportionate in levels where we have bonding, love, lovemaking. Our loved ones holding, hugging, and touching.

Even pets, anything counts. The impact that you have with clients who hire you. Some of these results of if you get someone to go to where they learn how to tell authentic stories, become good listeners, and figure out how to reduce their own anxiety by making real connections with people. You then bridge this huge gap between low and high performers that aren’t making their goals. It has nothing to do with their knowledge or their commitment to their job, and yet they’re not making their numbers. After working with you through Storyleaders, they suddenly no longer have the stress of being fired because they’re not making their numbers. What a gift to the world you have here, Ben.

You’ve given me this and I think about this in a nerdy way sometimes because I have to oversimplify. If we’re all at anxiety levels, cortisol levels, as we go through the world, drive down the street, meet with salespeople, meet with prospects, meet with bosses, we’re at high cortisol levels and the antidote is oxytocin. You then got to say, “What triggers oxytocin?” We know this. What triggers that is empathy. The ability to feel what other people feel. What I’m trying to understand is we don’t tell stories, we don’t listen, we don’t do these things to sell stuff. Maybe we have it backward. Maybe we sell, we do the things we do in order. It’s like listening to each other’s stories. If we start there, if someone doesn’t get how that has everything to do with leadership, selling, parenting, friending, spousing, or sonning. It’s my mom’s birthday, I want to be a good son tonight. If empathy is the thing that’s going to get us out of this mess, yes. We need to get better at that.

If empathy’s the thing that’s going to get us out of this mess, we have to get better at it. Click To Tweet

What a great note to end on. How can people find you? I know there’s to read more about all the different ways you impact the world through storytelling. Any other way that you want people to track what you’re doing?

I appreciate you. By the way, let me say this first. You are one of the most gracious people I know. You support others, give other people a platform, but you do it through your community building and put other people first. You shine a light on others which is such a great form of leadership into itself. You allow others to lead and you shine a light on others. If you’re a musician, you allow others to have their solos. It’s My email is and I respond to everybody. I appreciate everything you do, John.

Likewise, Ben. I’m excited to see how we can continue to collaborate and get as many other people to learn how to listen into other people’s eyes. That alone could make a huge shift in how we all deal with the stresses that we’re under. Thanks again for being on the show.

You got it. Thank you.

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Strategic Leadership: Nurturing New Leaders And The Leadership Tree With John O’Grady
Tags: attributes of a salesperson, listening skills, sharing your experiences, Storyleaders, storytelling, what great people do

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