One-Sided vs. Two-Sided Arguments

July 21st, 2014

yes, no, maybeWhen presenting your point of view, should you adduce only the arguments in your favor, or those opposed as well?

There are several good reasons for presenting a one-sided argument. The first reason is focus; it’s so hard enough to maintain attention for very long in these distracted times, so you want to make your point quickly and then offer only the information you need to bring the point home. Why confuse matters by bringing in contradictory information? In this way, you have the best chance to maintain clarity and conciseness, which are both important factors in credibility. Second, if you’re selling something, it’s your professional obligation to represent your idea in the best possible light – let your competitors make their own argument. Third, why risk educating your listeners about alternatives they may not have considered?

While these are powerful arguments for leaving out contradictory information, they all have weaknesses when examined more closely. Showcasing alternatives can actually clarify matters and shorten your argument, because facts and evidence make most sense when seen in comparison to existing information. Besides, while clarity and conciseness are important to credibility, confidence tends to trump both, and what shows more confidence than not being afraid to discuss alternatives? Second, your competitors will make their best possible argument – when you’re not there to refute it. By bringing up their points before they do, and then refuting them, you can steal their thunder. It works just like an inoculation: by exposing them to a weaker version now you make them more resistant to the later hard-sell. Professionalism also implies objectivity in service of the end client, in this case your listeners. Finally, if your listeners are smart and truly care about the decision they are going to make, they will seek out every possible alternative they can anyway.

But the best reason to use a two-sided argument is that it has been shown in many studies to be the most effective for an educated and involved audience, if done right. A 1991 paper by Mike Allen analyzed the results of 26 studies that compared the effects on attitude change of three different approaches:

  • One-sided arguments
  • Two-sided arguments, in which counterarguments were listed
  • Two-sided arguments, in which counterarguments were listed and refuted

They found that the least persuasive messages were two-sided with no refutations. Second were one-sided arguments. The most persuasive were those in which the speaker listed counterarguments and then refuted them. As the authors say, “Empirically, the order of the most effective messages should be two-sided with refutation, one-sided, and two-sided with no refutation.”

Think about what that means for a minute. When you’re trying the hardest to get your message across by focusing only on the strengths of your own arguments, when you’re most passionate and enthusiastic about your own position, you are not as persuasive as when you give some air time to the other side. How could that be?

Put yourself into the audience’s perspective for a moment. You are an intelligent, well-informed individual who has sat through hundreds of persuasive presentations. There are two dynamics at work when you’re listening to someone trying to influence your decision. First, your BS detector is fully armed and active, so whenever someone tries to sell you, your mind automatically pushes back, searching for its own counterarguments if none are given. Second, one-sided, “no-brainer” arguments subtly imply that there is no decision to be made, which robs you of your power to choose.

So, it’s generally good practice to include contradictory information in your communications, but there is a step missing from what we’ve discussed so far. I don’t believe it’s enough to simply list and then refute counterarguments – that’s a negative argument at best. You have to bring your point home with positive arguments in favor of your position. That’s when you can pull out all stops, speak with enthusiasm, conviction, and even passion about what you see as the way forward.

By doing this, you come across as someone who not only cares deeply about what you believe in, but as someone who has achieved that caring through fair-minded and intelligent consideration of the facts. What can be better for credibility than that?


Helpful Help, Part 2: Humble Inquiry

July 17th, 2014

In Part 1, we posed the problem of providing help to clients in such a way that they actually find it helpful, so that they act on the advice given. To do so requires that we establish a climate of equal status between the salesperson and the client, generate a sufficient level of trust, and ensure that the client takes ownership of the solution. That, in turn, requires a questioning process called humble inquiry, which Schein elaborates on in his book, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling (BK Business).[1]

As Schein defines it, “Humble inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.”

How does this differ from the typical form of questioning used in sales? First, let’s assume that the salesperson actually asks questions and listens to the answers, which is definitely not a given.

Assuming that the salesperson goes so far as to ask questions, the typical approach is to ask a few qualifying questions up front, identify problems/opportunities that fit with their advantages, possibly diagnose why the problems exist, and then provide insights in the form of solutions. Or, they can work through a specific methodology such as SPIN. There are two common threads in all these questioning approaches: first, the salesperson asks them with a specific goal in mind, and, second, it’s important to keep control of the conversation.

That’s why salespeople are often told not to ask a questions to which they already know the answer, as if they are cross-examiners in a criminal trial. In this way, they can keep control of the direction of the conversation, which puts them in a “one-up” position.

But what if being in control interferes with a trusting climate, or prevents the client from saying something that may actually shed better light on the situation? In that case, the salesperson may solve the wrong problem, or solve the right problem before the client is ready to act on the solution.

Notice the stark difference between directed questioning approaches and humble inquiry, which requires that the questioner “access their ignorance” and sincerely ask the most open-ended of questions, those which may totally surprise them with the answers given.

Humble inquiry begins with open inquiry, which is simply gaining a sufficient understanding of the client’s situation, without an agenda. Your goal here is to ask and listen, without judging or formulating responses. This is important for two reasons. First, being too highly focused on what you want to find out can easily obscure important information which may be necessary to uncover and solve the real problem at hand. Second, it impairs the development of trust, because the client senses your agenda and is on guard for the other shoe to drop.

How to use humble inquiry in sales conversations

Schein does not address sales situations specifically, so the rest of this article represents my own thinking on how humble inquiry can be used during a sales conversation.

First, should you even use it? If so, when is it appropriate, and how should it be used?

Your ultimate goal is to make a sale, so why not proceed directly on the path that will take you there, instead of wasting time in aimless conversation? It seems like poor use of the precious time you actually have with them. The second concern is that no salesperson likes to lose control of the conversation, and it’s easy to think that listening without an agenda is a form of unilateral disarmament which will lessen your chances of making a sale.

The answer to the first concern is that except for automated computer trading algorithms, no purchasing decision is based entirely on 100% logical, quantifiable reasoning. The person sitting across from you is a real human being with real – and unique – human needs, feelings, quirks, and aspirations, and they like to feel important and valued. One of the best ways they do is to have others actually take an interest in them. That good feeling may make a difference in the immediate sale, and be a basis for a fruitful long-term relationship.

As to losing control, that could happen if humble inquiry were the only tool you had to bring to the conversation. But, just because you start with it does not mean that you can’t switch to your other questioning approaches at the appropriate moment – in fact you will have to switch at some point.  When you feel the discussion has arrived at the right point, you can phase into your diagnostic and expert roles.

Another approach is to listen carefully to the client and then use what Schein calls “constructive opportunism”, which is your ability to recognize conversational openings that you can jump into, to explore something further, or probe to uncover additional needs. Based on your expert knowledge of how your product or service addresses typical customer needs, you will probably hear plenty of keywords that indicate POCR: problems, opportunities, changes and risks. The benefits of this are that it’s less disruptive to the natural flow of the conversation, and the issues that emerge are the client’s own ideas.

Keep in mind that if you decide to try humble inquiry in your sales conversations, it will not be easy, as I’ve been discovering. You will have to overcome habit, culture and human nature. Our sales habits lead us to pounce on perceived needs; our culture values doing and telling; and our natural human instinct is to claim higher status that comes from showing how smart we are. But if you can persevere through the difficulties, you stand a better chance of providing help that is truly helpful, and isn’t that worth the effort?



[1] Part 1 was based on Schein’s first book, Helping. That book also explains the humble inquiry approach. Unless you really want to dig deeply in to the topic, you don’t have to read both books. I would recommend Helping if you only want to read one.

Helpful Help: Part 1

July 14th, 2014

helping book coverI’m sure you’ve had this experience: after talking to a client, you are able to tell them exactly what they need to do to improve their situation, they agree you’re right – and nothing happens after that.

It may have been because there’s a difference between being right and being helpful.

Selling is fundamentally about helping others: helping them to improve their situation in some way by solving their problems, or enabling them to take advantage of opportunities. Yet, it can frustrate salespeople sometimes when they know they have something that will clearly help their clients, and they might even have agreement on this from the client, yet nothing seems to happen.

When that happens, we generally ascribe the problem to status quo bias, selling to the wrong person, or not having done a good enough job in selling the value of our solution. Yet, there may be another dynamic at work: how the helping process is conducted.

I’ve just finished a fascinating book, Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help, by Edgar Schein, and I’d like to explore some of its lessons to see if they apply to sales conversations.

According to Schein, the way in which help is offered has an important effect on whether the client acts on the help. For help to actually be helpful, being right is not enough – the client must trust and own the advice that is given. Trust and ownership depend on adherence to two important dynamics: social economics and roles.

Social economics has to do with the attention we pay to our relative status. Accepting or asking for help puts us in a “one-down” position (which is why we men never like to ask for directions), and offering help puts us “one-up”. No one likes to lose face and go one-down, so there is a tendency to reduce the imbalance through mistrust or defensiveness.

The other dynamic at work is that we all play roles in our relations with others; we are usually more deferential to the boss than to subordinates, for example. Violations of the expected roles are easily recognized and swiftly punished, perhaps by ignoring the person or even lashing out.

In a helping situation, there are three possible roles:

Expert. In this role, the helper has superior knowledge or skill that applies to the client’s problem, and dispenses information the client needs to hear. That’s the essence of insight selling, so what could be wrong with that?

There are two possible drawbacks. Besides putting the helper in a dominant role, the usefulness of the information also depends on sufficient upfront knowledge about the situation, including whether the client has accurately diagnosed and described the problem, whether the client can actually make the recommended changes, or whether all relevant factors are known. Of course, the sooner the salesperson launches into the expert role, the greater the chances that important information will be missed.

Doctor. This is an extension of the expert role, in that the salesperson also takes the responsibility of diagnosing the client’s needs before prescribing and dispensing the expert advice.

But anyone who has ever been to a doctor or an auto mechanic knows how disempowering it can feel to be in the client role in this situation. And, although taking the time to make a diagnosis should provide more useful information to ensure the prescription is the right one, you still run the risk that the client has not fully or accurately described the situation (possibly through a shortage of initial trust), or that the helper may jump to conclusions based on surface similarities to situations they’ve seen before.

Process consultant. This role has been defined by Schein as one in which the helper focuses initially on the communication process itself. The goal is to create a climate of equal status and trust so that the client will reveal more information. In this role, the process consultant also pays close attention to the conversation so that the client remains very proactive in the process of identifying the problems, diagnosing the causes, and planning the prescriptions. As Schein says, “…only they own the problems identified, only they know the true complexity of their situation, and only they know what will work for them in the culture in which they live.”

The key point in all of this is not that the expert or doctor roles are wrong; there is definitely a time and place for them. But the time and place for them is only after the helper has established a climate of equal status, trust, and ownership of the problem.

In part 2 of this article, we will see how to establish that climate through a process called humble inquiry.

What’s the Bigger Win?

July 7th, 2014

Bluto: Over? Did you say “over”? Nothing is over until we decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!

Otter: [whispering] Germans?

Boon: Forget it, he’s rolling.

In that scene from the classic management film, Animal House, Boon could have let Otter correct Bluto’s mistake, but he wisely kept his eyes on the bigger picture and let it slide. He was exhibiting the kind of behavior that many more experienced executives would do well to emulate.

One of the major obstacles to personal influence and persuasive communication is the need to win, and its close counterpart, the need to be right. I see it often in my coaching engagements, and Marshall Goldsmith says it is the number one obstacle that he encounters among successful people.

It’s certainly not surprising. People who rise to higher levels are generally those with strong wills and ambition; their drive to win is a major factor that propels them up the ladder. Plus, the higher they rise, they tend to be “right” more often, so they become uncomfortable with letting others win.

The need to win is not always as overt as the person who can’t stand to lose an argument. It can be far more subtle. For example, I just had a reminder myself a few minutes ago. I asked a friend to recommend a few books on a particular topic I’m working on; one book that he recommended, I told him I already read it. What I should have just said, was “thank you”.

While it may be tremendously ego-affirming, there is always a price to be paid to always be right or to always be the smartest person in the room. Others may concede your point, but are far less likely to walk away from the conversation with an enthusiastic commitment to your idea. Or, they may simply pretend to agree just to get out of there, after which they will do whatever they wanted anyway. Or, even supposing you give them a brilliant solution to their problem, it’s like giving them the answer key when they try to solve a math problem; they won’t truly learn the lesson unless they work it out themselves.

The cure is not to try to stamp out the need to win; it’s too much a part of who you are. The best way to handle it is to continue winning, but to change your definition of what winning is. Do you want to win the conversation, or win something bigger? The bigger wins are usually better relationships, more effective learning, and real commitment. What’s the bigger win?

  • If you don’t win the conversation, but gain committed and enthusiastic agreement to the right plan, that’s a bigger win.
  • If you don’t win the conversation, but you help someone grow and learn, that’s a bigger win.
  • If you don’t win the conversation, but gain a happy customer, that’s a bigger win.
  • If the other person walks out of the conversation feeling good about themselves, that’s a bigger win.

By keeping your eye on the bigger win, you can still “win” the conversation, because everything you concede in the short run is an investment in the long run.

So, before you let that automatic comment slip out, ask yourself, what’s the bigger win, and will this comment help?