Whether you’re in a sales call, sales presentation or internal presentation, it’s critical to have a carefully reasoned and well supported message, but even that can fail to change someone’s mind if they’re not prepared to hear it.
In fact, your listeners will hear your message differently depending on what their initial attitude is to your position on the issue. They may have their own opinion about whether your solution is the best fit for their need, or even about whether the need is worth addressing.
According to social judgment theory, there is a range of possible attitudes a person can take on an issue. Roughly, they can reject, accept, or be neutral about the issue.
But these three terms don’t really describe positions; they are more like zones, because there are differences within the zones, as you can see in the figure below.
The baseline is neutrality. Members of your audience may be indifferent or neutral for one of three reasons, apathy, ignorance or indecision.
Ignorance: they are not aware of the issue. This is often likely in consultative selling, which by my definition entails bringing fresh ideas—in effect, solutions to problems they don’t know they have.
Apathy: they know about the issue but don’t care about the outcome or decision. Maybe it does not affect their profit center, or they are not yet aware of the impact it might have on them.
Indecision: they know and care about the issue but don’t know which course of action is the best.
So, if you want to move them from neutrality, you must know why they are neutral. You must either inform them, show them why they should care, or make the case for your solution to the issue.
The “negative” attitudes as they relate to your proposal are:
Skepticism: they don’t support your idea but are not necessarily resisting. Maybe they don’t trust you or haven’t heard enough to make them feel comfortable with the idea.
Opposition: in this case they are actively pulling back from your idea, perhaps seeing disadvantages for themselves favoring a different approach.
Blocker: besides resisting your idea, they take an active role in fighting against the idea. Maybe they favor the competitor’s approach, or possibly they view your proposal as too risky or causing them too much work.
The “positive” attitudes are:
Ally: the other person goes along with your idea. They may say yes, or agree not to block your efforts.
Coach: the other person personally commits to seeing that the idea gets implemented. They take an emotional and personal interest in the idea and become enthusiastically committed to it. This is the difference between following the letter of your request and promoting the spirit as well.
Champion: others make the idea their own and take an active leadership role in promoting and extending it. They may have a vested interest in seeing your solution implemented, probably because it will help them solve a problem or take advantage of an opportunity.
When you closely examine the range of positions that someone in the decision-making process can take, several critical considerations emerge.
First, there is a “latitude of acceptance” that each person is comfortable with. In most cases, people can be moved slightly from their current positions. It’s reasonable and possible to move someone from opposition to skepticism or even possibly neutrality.
But if you try to move people outside their latitude of acceptance, it is very difficult to do in one shot. No matter how charismatic or persuasive you are, it’s unlikely that you will get someone to do something they are strongly opposed to just because of one presentation. With people like that, the phrase “You can’t get there from here” applies.
In fact, if what you’re selling is too far outside their latitude of acceptance, you run the very real risk of a “boomerang effect”, meaning that your message will have the unintended effect of strengthening their opposition. In some cases, that means that it’s better not to even try—or at least dial down your target and expectations.
Think of it like trying to pull a heavy weight with a string. If you pull too hard or too suddenly, the string will snap. But if you apply a bit of pressure and then patiently add to it, you have a chance.
Second, the listener’s initial position will determine how they perceive your message. If what you say falls within their latitude of acceptance, they will see your message as more similar to their position than it actually is. If it does not, they will perceive it as more different from their position than it actually is.
Third, it takes time to move people to the right. That’s why persuasion is a process and not an event. A sales presentation, for example, should be seen in the context of a complete sales campaign and not an end in itself. Don’t just show up and think you’re going to win everyone over with your force of personality and logic; socialize your ideas, find out where people stand and why, and do what you can to nudge them in the right direction.
Always be strategic!
 These labels are not the labels that psychologists use. They are labels used in sales strategy thinking.