You aren’t always who you think you are


Salespeople need to establish competency, but social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson says in their rush to do so, they may unwittingly be shooting themselves in the foot. The author of “No One Understands You and What to Do About It” lays out a better path to successful conversations.

SMM: Salespeople rely on their words to make a living. What do they need to understand about how they are perceived?

Halvorson:We tend to think we see things as they are and that we see other people’s behavior for what it is. The reality is that almost any behavior can be interpreted multiple ways. They say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Well, it turns out that everything is. There isn’t anything that isn’t in the eye of the beholder. How we are perceived is really about the perceiver and what they are bringing to the conversation.

SMM: In what sense?

Halvorson: There are stereotypes, and you don’t even have to believe them to have them affect you. If you get on the phone with a salesperson, the stereotype of a salesperson – that they are only there to push an agenda – becomes active in your head. Stereotypes have their biggest effect when your words are ambiguous. In sales, you have to recognize this, and you have to have as much clarity as possible. When there is room for interpretation, that’s when stereotypes can have an influence.

SMM: You emphasize the importance of being “judgeable.” What do you mean by that term?

Halvorson: Doing everything you can to try to be transparent – what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling and what your goals are. Leave nothing to assumption. People feel at ease when they don’t have to guess. The benefits of trust are extraordinary in terms of the quality of the relationship that develops.

SMM: Those who “carry a bag,” as they say in sales, may tell you that 100 percent clarity in a business setting is unrealistic.

Halvorson: It’s absolutely imperative, and you’re doing yourself a great disservice if you don’t do it. The issue of trust is foremost in any interaction, and it’s easy to establish trust, it’s just not intuitive. A person rarely consciously thinks, “Can I trust this person?” But it’s exactly what the brain is doing. The answer to that question comes from the answers to two more questions: Do you come across as warm? And do you come across as competent?

SMM: I think salespeople would agree that warmth and competence are essential to their success.

Halvorson: Unfortunately, competence is the one that we focus on. Salespeople, especially, think that the thing they need to get across in a conversation with another person is how competent they are. “We have the best products and here’s how great they are.” That’s great, because it helps take people to the next level. But confidence without warmth is actually a terrible combination. It means you’re focused on your interests and you’re potentially a powerful foe. You may be somebody who they can’t trust. Salespeople make this mistake because they don’t realize that to get people to trust you, you have to signal warmth first. It’s why it’s such a good strategy to begin conversations by asking people what their concerns are and what they are having difficulty with.

There are many ways to convey warmth – maintaining eye contact when someone is speaking; nodding to indicate understanding; expressing empathy when appropriate; Asking questions to indicate you are interested in what their goals are. These are all things that signal warmth. In sales you need to work just a little bit harder to convey that you really do care and you really are there to help someone.

SMM: You also talk in your book about power and how it impacts a conversation. What’s the importance of what you call the “Power Lens” in a business setting?

Halvorson: The Power Lens comes into play when there is a disparity in power between two people. One person can control the other person’s outcome. In sales, it’s the buyer who has control. Psychologically, both people know it. What happens to people when they find themselves in a position of relative power is really fascinating. People become less skillful perceivers. They spend less time and energy trying to get an accurate view of the other person. That’s very dangerous in sales. A person in power is even more likely to rely on stereotypes to try to understand you. It’s why salespeople have to work so much harder to establish a sense of trust. The buyer is more likely to rely on shortcuts to try to understand you rather than really listen to what you are saying.

SMM: What’s the solution?

Halvorson: What people in power become interested in more than anything else is how useful you become to them. Ingratiating actions are not effective with them. Flattery really will get you nowhere because they don’t care that you think they’re great. What they care about is how useful you can be in helping them reach their goal. So the one-two punch is to work really hard to establish trust by showing concern and interest and empathy, and then determine how you can be useful. That’s the best combination – in that order – to establish that you are someone that powerful person should be paying attention to.

SMM: You also state that one of the biggest risks is overconfidence.

Halvorson: The belief that you can be successful is one of the best predictors of performing. But there are really two kinds of optimism. One is unrealistic optimism – that everything is going to come easy. In studies, that kind of optimism is related to a high failure rate. The kind of optimism that is effective is more realistic – “I’m going to succeed, but I think it’s going to be challenging, and I’m going to encounter some obstacles, and I better spend some time thinking about how I’m going to deal with those obstacles.” People with that kind of optimism prepare more.