A key success trait of a collaborative sales professional in a business-to-business context is to be assertive when taking control of a client conversation. It is a natural human tendency to be want to be right, perhaps even argumentative. How then do you gain acknowledgement and put your argument across in a way that is accepted in a situation that is clearly controversial?
It is evident that a continuum of front-line professional behaviour ranges from passive to aggressive when confronted by a challenging client situation, whether of their own design or not. It is a fair assumption that when “taking control” is encouraged by being more assertive, a natural tendency for these professionals is towards aggressive behaviour – pursuit of an outcome by attacking, employing adversarial thinking and using antagonistic language. In reality and according to SEC (resource #1) research, more often than not, front-line professionals drift towards passive behaviour. They endeavour to resolve conflict at the expense of maintaining tension. The reason for this tendency lies with a perception of a power imbalance in favour of the client. With the belief that the client has significantly more power, front-line professionals give into demands before they understand the motivation behind the demand. The ability to take control of a client conversation lies in the middle of the passive-aggressive continuum – being assertive. Assertive behaviour is characterised by the movement towards a constructive, mutually agreed outcome that leaves both parties empowered.
Being assertive means understanding and accepting an opposing opinion while not imposing your own. The thinking pattern is that by not insisting on being right provides a foundation for open constructive argument. Also, by not making another wrong, accepting and acknowledging their perspective, an atmosphere of co-operation is created. This does not mean that you agree with that opposing opinion.
Daniel Dennett, author of Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking says, “A marker of argumentative aplomb: To be a masterful conversationalist, you can bring other’s shadowy thinking to light–without leaving your partner feeling flummoxed.”
To do that Dennett recommends a four step Approach:
- Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
- List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- Mention anything you have learned from your target.
- Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
One immediate effect of following these rules is that your targets will be receptive audience for your criticism, according to Dennett: you have already shown that you understand their positions as well as they do, and have demonstrated good judgment. You agree with them on some important matters and have even been persuaded by something they said.
Although, I would hardly recommend sales professionals refer to clients as targets, get into rebuttal or criticism, Dennett’s approach has merit:
Re-expressing a client’s opposing position creates the possibility of placing the argument on neutral ground and creates the possibility for reframing perspective. It shows a good degree of empathy as well as intention to co-investment in exploring the truth, given your reality and their reality. Step 2 and 3 of Dennett’s Approach further acknowledges the client, their perspective and a deeper understanding of their context. Then, the final step, having demonstrated that you are invested in finding the truth, there is the opportunity to bringing the deliberative argument under your influence and some form of consensus.
The absolute precondition for getting into the position of influence over the argument or taking control of the conversation lies with step 1 of Dennett’s Approach: replaying an argument so that one can reframe the argument.
According to ChangingMinds.org, a frame of reference is a complex schema of unquestioned beliefs, values and so on that we use when inferring meaning. If any part of that frame is changed (hence ‘reframing’), then the meaning that is inferred may change. To reframe, one has to step back from what is being said and done and consider the frame, or ‘lens’ through which this reality is being created. Understanding the unspoken assumptions, including beliefs and schema that are being used is imperative. This is step 1 of Dennett’s Approach and reinforced by steps 2 and 3. The “Gentle Art of Reframing” may be described as (resource #2):
To reframe means to change the conceptual and/or emotional setting or viewpoint in relation to which a situation is experienced and to place it in another frame which fits the ‘facts’ of the same concrete situation equally well or even better, and thereby changing its entire meaning.
Accordingly, we make meaning from the world around us by taking a limited number of facts and inferring or assuming other detail to be able to make sense of things. Reframing leaves the facts alone but may well challenge the assumptions. With care, you can change the other person’s reality without causing conflict.
The outcome is the possibility of viewing:
- An objection as opportunity for further exploration
- A problem or failure into an opportunity for growth
- A weakness as a hurdle to be overcome by a strength
- An impossibility as a distant possibility and a near possibility
Reframing considers alternative lenses, a different context, an effect way of saying, “Let’s look at it another way.” Reframing requires challenging the beliefs or other aspects of the frame, standing in another frame and describing what is seen, changing attributes of the frame bringing new meaning or selecting and ignoring aspects of words, actions and frame to emphasise and downplay various elements.
Consider an argument in the form of an objection. An effective approach to handling objections is to change something in what is being presented. Renaming the objection changes it. Worry over price turned into reasonable concern over the investment or total cost of ownership reframes the meaning.
The collaborative sales professional, to be assertive when taking control of a client conversation, may put reframing arguments to good effect. Reframing provides acknowledgement and brings a potentially controversial argument across in a way that is constructive and mutually beneficial.
resource #1: The Challenger Sale, Taking Control of the Customer Conversation, Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson of Corporate Executive Council
resource #2: Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J. and Fisch, R. (1974). Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution, NY: Norton