1 Big Idea to Think About

  • Understanding each other is the essential skill in life. When we understand one another, we can work for progress toward meaningful and mutual goals. 

2 Ways You Can Apply This

  • Use this phrase to understand yourself better. I feel X because my need for Y is not being met
  • Use that phrase to help communicate and understand others better. Start by saying, “Let me make sure I understand what you are saying. You feel X because your need for Y is not being met.” You don’t even have to get it right. If you are wrong, they will correct you, and you will be talking about what is essential. 

3 Questions to Ask

  • Who can help me accomplish this goal?
  • What obstacles are preventing them from helping me accomplish this goal?
  • How can I win these people to my way of thinking by understanding them better?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • A seemingly impossible situation at Heathrow Airport (1:20)
  • Accomplishing difficult tasks by winning people to your way of thinking (10:09)
  • The power of empathy (11:52)
  • The bottleneck of misunderstanding (16:36)
  • A simple phrase that helps you understand yourself and others (19:48)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown: 

Welcome, everyone. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and I’m here with you on this journey to learn how to make things a little better. I’ve been thinking of you and wondering whether you’ve ever faced resistance from someone at work or at home to something that really mattered to you. 

Today, I will share a recent story in my life, something counterintuitive I’ve been learning, and some actionable advice, and by the end of this episode, you will learn the number one way to remove resistance in your day. Let’s begin.

If you want to learn faster, understand more deeply and increase your influence, teach the ideas in this podcast to someone else within the next 24 to 48 hours. 

I’ve been thinking about you, about all the burdens that you hold, all the responsibilities, all the good intentions you have to be able to make a difference, to make a contribution. How utterly overwhelming it can all seem, how exhausting at times, and how in one sense, essentialism would be effortless if it weren’t for people. 

Perhaps it’s happened to you that you have a clear idea, an intent, something that really matters to you, and almost immediately, you find that other people don’t share that view. They see it differently. They’re not aligned, and in fact, sometimes, the harder you push, the harder they’ll push back. And so, inevitably, life is full of conflict that we either avoid or that we have but perhaps don’t have as well as we might wish we had. 

And I was thinking about all of this, particularly this week when I went to the airport, and I should say in parenthesis that I have traveled something like 500 times in the last decade to 40 countries, and I have never so much as left my passport at home, until this week.

I arrived at the airport in Heathrow with plenty of time, two hours left, but the moment I arrived, my stomach just fell – one word, passport. I immediately called my wife Anna, and the first word, the only word I said, was that, passport. And she had the same moment, the same gasp. 

She knew exactly what to do. She was extraordinarily helpful. Part of the A team. Along with her sister, Whitney, and brother-in-law, John, they put together a sort of formula one racing effort to go from Cambridge to Heathrow. It’s an hour and a half. They tried to do it in a little less than that. 

Meanwhile, I was at the airport facing a few complications. By the time the passport would arrive, in the best possible case scenario, I would have just 20 minutes to have the airline employees approve my passport, then get through security, then get through the lounges, the shopping areas, find the train, get on it, dash to the gate, make it in time for the bus. That would then take me to the plane. 20 minutes from the time the passport would arrive to the time the flight would take off in an international flight.

So this struck me as a little tricky, but the biggest challenge by a country mile was not the actual path from point A to point B. It was to get the airline employees to believe it could be done. The obstacle in front of me was much more about that.

It was about how to get the employees to use their energy, their competence, their knowledge to help me achieve the goal, not use it to tell me why I could not achieve the goal. The first person I spoke to, I mean the first thing that she said was, well, we’ll just need to book you on another flight. There isn’t another one today. 

My approach was really, I suppose, a charm offensive because if they don’t like me, if they feel pushed around, if they don’t want me to succeed, it’s over. So I said, with as much hope and faith and optimism as I could muster, I don’t need you to think about what to do if I don’t make this flight. I need you to think about how if your life depended on it, I would make this flight. And that person, within a few minutes, said to me, I want to come work for you.

When she went as if to go on her break, she took a few steps and then came back to me and looked me straight in the eyes with more conviction than I have ever heard from an airline employee anywhere. She said, “You are going to make this flight. You’re going to make this flight. You are going to make this flight.”

So the faith had spread. She was on my side now, but she was gone. The next person I spoke to, a gentleman with a walkie-talkie, he came over. He’s a slim man. He’s got this black jacket on. He looks like he’s had this job for 10 years right out of high school, and he’s proud of his knowledge, the inner workings of terminal five at Heathrow Airport. I’m trying to get him on my side, of course, to use that knowledge and pride to help me do what he is trying to explain cannot be done.

He said, with the confidence of a person sharing actual factual knowledge, “If you knew the airport well,” which, of course, I didn’t. “If you had 30 minutes, then maybe you could make it.” But he said, “It’s impossible.” He turned to me and firmly, but not unkindly, explained as if this was the question I had asked, “If Tom Cruise were here, he couldn’t make it in 20 minutes.”

And I leaned forward to him like this was a deadly serious conversation, still like this was something we could actually prove, and said, “If Tom Cruise were here, he’d make it in 20 minutes.” 

By this point, I had made friends with Lily to the left, with Janine to the right, with Eva, with Chen, at the security check-in. I’d sent the exact spot where I needed Anna and her entourage team, her racecar, to pull up to precisely.

I had timed how long it took to run with my bags from that spot to the expedited check-in spot, 41 seconds for those who care about these things. I had spoken to Chen to make sure that if there was a big line, I might be able to skip the line and come right to her. 

There was a growing feeling of possibility in the room in general. I could see some airline employees who hadn’t even spoken to smiling at me from a distance then, and I’d been handed to a new employee by this point, said, “Oh no, they’re coaching the flight. Which means they will close the gate earlier than expected. There is,” she immediately concludes, “no way whatsoever to make this now.” 

So her mood shifts, and I ask, ”Well, what are our options?” 


“Yes, but if your life depended on it?” 


This is the process, me trying to keep things light, friendly, positive still, but I can tell I am losing her.

“But how could we call up to the gate and talk to them?” 

“Well, they’ll say the same thing.” 


“But how could we call it? You know, what is the number?” 

“It doesn’t matter because they will say the same thing.” 

Four times more like that circular. So I step aside after she says, well, she’ll get a manager and talk to them, and I texted my wife. They’re saying it’s impossible now. But then I added, I have eyes on the prize. 

When Anna and the A team arrived, I grabbed those passports that were being held out of the window like a baton in a four-by-four 100-meter dash at the Olympics. I ran that 41 seconds to the expedited line just like Tom Cruise. Walkie-talkie man met me and gave it a go. I asked people positively, pleasantly, if it was okay for me to go past them in the security line.

I hurdled through lounges, shopping centers, up escalators into the train, up to the gate, onto the bus, and onto the plane. I made the flight. And there was even in this perhaps small, even slightly odd story, something magical, a team effort, something that was considered seriously not possible in these circumstances and by those who knew better. 

Now, what is there to learn in a story like this? Well, first, I think that for some people being told it’s impossible is like throwing down the gauntlet, a red rag to a bull, and that is a little true for me. What’s considered impossible sparks something deep and determined, but there’s more to it than that. 

If you want to win people to your way of thinking, you need to understand their way of thinking and fast. If people have opposition resistance to what it is that you are suggesting, immediately pause. Get out of your own head into their head to understand what they’re up against. To simply push harder or worse to make the other person the enemy is to seriously reduce your effectiveness in achieving what is important to you, what might even be essential to you. 

In the research that I’m doing at the University of Cambridge, one of the threads that I’m pursuing is to create an empathic communication genealogy. That is to study not only what recent thinkers have said about interpersonal communication, but to take a particular strand of it, what I think is the very heart of the matter, and to study it over time, to go backwards to see whose ideas have influenced who, so that I can learn the very best of what others know about what I think is the most important skill in life right now. 

And in that research, I came across a terrific article by Carl R. Rogers. I’ve mentioned Rogers before, and if you have training in psychology, then you’ll know Rogers already. But this Rogerian way of thinking, this psychotherapy that he introduced, was an absolute game changer in the field of psychotherapy. 

At the time, it was typical, usual for a psychotherapist to almost have a relationship of opposition with their patient, with their client, but he really changed this. The article I would point you to is called “Empathic: An Unappreciated Way of Being.” (1)

One of the marvelous things about Rogers is that the way he writes is so clear it is almost impossible to misunderstand him. He stands, I might say, in contrast to so much of the academic literature that is full of specific lingo and jargon specialized to that particular aspect of that particular field. 

He observes in this article, “Very early in my work as a therapist, I discovered that simply listening to my client very attentively was an important way of being helpful. So when I was in doubt as to what I should do in some active way, I listened. It seemed surprising to me that such a passive kind of interaction could be so useful.”

“A little later, a social worker who had a background of ranking and training helped me to learn that the most effective approach was to listen for the feelings, the emotions, whose patterns could be discerned through the client’s words. I believe she was the one who suggested that the best response was to reflect these feelings back to the client. Reflect becoming, in time, a word,” note this, “which made me cringe, but at the time, it improved my work as a therapist, and I was grateful.” 

He goes on to explain how powerful, how useful he found this approach to be. But then this interesting tweak, he said, “But this tendency to focus on the therapist’s responses had consequences, which appalled me. I had met hostility, but these reactions were worse. The whole approach came in a few years to be known as a technique. Non-directive therapy. It was said, is the technique of reflecting the client’s feelings or an even worse caricature was simply that in non-directive therapy, you repeat the last words the client has said.” 

“I was so shocked,” he writes, “by these complete distortions of our approach that for a number of years, I said almost nothing about empathic listening. And when I did, it was to stress an empathic attitude with little comment on how this might be implemented in the relationship.” 

Do, do you see what he’s saying? This paradoxically, ironically, this mechanism for increasing the understanding between people was itself so misunderstood, so caricatured that he himself stopped teaching it, stopped talking about it, stopped sharing it for years. 

But he comes back to and explains why he says, “Over the years, however, the research evidence keeps piling up, and it points strongly to the discussion that a high degree of empathy in a relationship is possibly the most potent and certainly one of the most potent factors in bringing about change and learning. And so I believe it is time for me to forget the caricatures and misrepresentations of the past and take a fresh look at empathy.” (1) 

So if Carl Rogers comes back to this subject, if he thinks after years of psychotherapy of the practice of really trying to help people become more whole, become better, achieve more, that this really is at the heart of it, he says certainly one of the most important factors, if not the most important factor, then I think we have the same obligation and opportunity to come back to this subject. Whatever our exposure to interpersonal empathic communication has been in the past, let’s come to it again because right there in the airport is, albeit a relatively trivial example, an example nonetheless of the power and necessity for being able to communicate in a way that you get mutual understanding.

When we understand one another, the whole conversation changes. Misunderstanding is the bottleneck of human progress. And I have seen it myself in airports, given that that’s the example. I’ve seen people lose their minds. I’ve seen extremely stressed passengers just become so frustrated, emotional, aggressive. Sometimes in the worst circumstances, I have seen airline employees completely lose their minds. 

And what happens to progress in anything like this? 

The less we understand one another, the less progress we make. The more escalated it becomes, the less progress we make. When we don’t understand each other, it often creates, perhaps always, resentment and resistance. We become adversaries instead of partners, and this is why understanding each other, in a sense, simplest of ideas, is the essential skill in life. 

As Michael Roderick said in response to the woman at Wednesday newsletter this week, he said, “Communication is the first thing we learn, but the one thing we never truly master.”

I thought that was so accurately put. And within this aspiration of shared empathic communication where you achieve mutual understanding, there is a particular objective, a goal, which is to get both parties on the same side looking at the problem. That was really my priority focus while I was there in the airport under these extreme situations, was not to make it me versus them. 

First of all, whenever that happens, it’s suboptimal. In a situation, in an airport where somebody else has the authority, has the policy, has a whole team of people to come and support. If suddenly I become aggressive or unhelpful or make it so that we are adversaries, my attempt was to try to open myself clearly, vulnerably, not pretend at all about what I was dealing with and what my objective was, to put that openly, even vulnerably in a sense, but then immediately to step to their side to try genuinely to understand what their concerns were and what their actual obstacles are. What it is that means that they feel that they need to express to me, well, this cannot be done. What’s behind that phrase? What’s the detail? And to be able to do that as quickly as possible. 

So here, here’s a simple phrase I learned from nonviolent communication that will help you better understand yourself and others. It’s this, I feel X because my need for Y is not being met. (2)

What a simple phrase. For example, I feel angry because my need for safety is not being met. I feel impatient because my need for progress is not being met. 

When we understand how we feel and why we feel that way, we better understand ourselves and this allows us to communicate our needs better, reducing the chance of being misunderstood.

But you can also use this phrase to understand other people. You can start by saying, let me make sure I understand what you are saying. That I have found will stop almost any resistance in its tracks for a moment to see whether you really do the challenges they’re facing. 

Then you can follow it up with the phrase you feel X because your need for Y is not being met. The best part about this is you don’t have to get it right. If you are wrong, they will correct you. And now you are talking about what’s really essential instead of continuing to misunderstand each other. 

Mutual understanding is essential if you want to make meaningful progress because when we understand one another, the whole conversation changes.

Thank you, really, thank you for listening. What is something you heard today that stood out for you? And so what? What does it mean to you? And now what? Who can you share it with? Who on your team could benefit from the insight? Who in your personal life could you share it with and discuss how this might apply to being able to break through to the next level to make a higher contribution together? 

If you found value in this episode, please write a review on Apple Podcasts. The first five people to write a review of this episode will receive free access to The Essentialism Academy, a series of courses, videos, and tools, designed to help you explore and identify what’s truly essential in your life, eliminate the non-essentials and make it as effortless as possible to execute those items. Just go to essentialism.com/podcastpromo for more details. 

Remember to subscribe to this podcast so that you can receive the next episode, as, of course, you are bound to know by now. They come out on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I’ll see you next time.

(1) Rogers, C. R. (1975). Empathic: An Unappreciated Way of Being. The Counseling Psychologist, 5(2), 2–10. https://doi.org/10.1177/001100007500500202

(2) Rosenberg, M.B. (2003). Nonviolent Communication. PuddleDancer Press.