One of the most critical aspects of a sales rep’s role is being able to effectively guide conversation and uncover information through good questioning techniques. There are many ways to unpack this topic, but I thought it would be interesting to look at questioning, or interrogation, from another perspective.
To do so, I sat down with Michael Reddington, CEO of InQuasive and a specialist in interrogation, for a discussion on how even the most stressful situations can be controlled with the right mindset, demeanor, and technique. His non-confrontational approach brings insight on how to influence, as well as the cognitive aspects of human communication.
The Parallels of Sales & Interrogation
The thing that first fascinated Michael Reddington with interrogation was not getting someone to admit, “I did it” or even the techniques involved, but the act of tearing apart the process of interrogation to understand the cognitive process that people experience, which causes them to say and do things they might not normally.
This interest led him to earn his Certified Forensic Interviewer designation and dive into business communication research. In doing so, Michael came across two key realizations that he shared with me:
- The very best leaders and the very best interrogators capitalize on the same two core skills: vision and influence.
- The cognitive process that interrogation suspects experience, when they truthfully commit to saying “I did it,” is essentially identical to the cognitive process that employees experience when they commit to saying “I’ll do it,” and customers experience when they commit to saying, “I’ll buy it.”
The best leaders and interrogators both think “big picture” – they have an understanding of long term goals while balancing short term priorities. For salespeople, it means keeping up with your numbers and pipeline, while balancing the long term process of earning, establishing, and maintaining relationships. If sales reps get too focused on hitting their number, they often fail to focus intently enough on the behaviors and communication steps required to earn the relationship with the prospect or customer.
Once sales reps are in the conversation with a customer, it’s about maintaining a goal-oriented mindset. From a forensic interrogation standpoint, Michael says it’s critical to “observe for intelligence, not information.” Oftentimes, people approach conversations with a closed mindset. They want to get the suspect or the customer to say “XYZ” so that they can fit them into a box, tell them they have XYZ problem, and hand them the solution. But this mindset is severely limiting – there’s all kinds of intelligence, emotions, problems, and opportunities that could be missed.
“In order to really increase our influence, earn the trust and establish the rapport necessary to open up the conversation, we really have to have that goal-oriented mindset.” – Michael Reddington
This means approaching each conversation with the long term goal(s) in mind, not just the short term ones; while ensuring that everything we say and do brings us closer to achieving that long term goal, instead of running into obstacles while trying to force the short term results.
In ASLAN terms, we call this an Other-CenteredⓇ approach. As a sales rep, if my long term goal is to help my customer solve a problem, then the way I treat them throughout the process is about advancing towards that ultimate goal of solving their problem (not hitting my number immediately). And by the way – solving that problem may or may not involve my product. It’s just as Michael said, you can’t fit every customer into a box and hand them your solution. It doesn’t work. So don’t approach conversations that way. Keep an open and goal-oriented mindset.
There’s not a job in the world (that I can think of) where you don’t have to influence somebody to do something sometimes. The same is true for relationships. The ability to influence is key, no matter what your job title or relationship status. But influence is only possible when your audience is receptive.
Receptivity comes from your audience (i.e. your customer for you salespeople out there) feeling safe, respected, and valued. In ASLAN terms, we refer to the 2 P’s that determine a customer’s level of receptivity: priority and pressure. This means that in order to be emotionally open to you, your customer needs to feel that they are the priority, and the pressure needs to be removed from the situation. One way to do this is by communicating (and demonstrating) to your customer that you acknowledge and respect their freedom to choose – their freedom to choose to engage with you, meet with you, listen to you, and buy from you. We call this Drop the RopeⓇ. Think about a game of tug-of-war. When one person pulls on the rope, the person on the other side will automatically pull back. So to eliminate that pressure and tension, we need to “drop the rope.”
Michael told me that physical and emotional safety do play into his audience’s receptivity to him and his questions, but the bigger piece is ensuring that the suspect’s self-image is safe – that they can admit to information, they can share information, they can open up, they can be vulnerable, they can accept potential consequences, without feeling like they have to violate or compromise their self-image.
“The techniques that I use are purely non-confrontational, because you’ll be surprised what people will tell you when you treat them with respect.” – Michael Reddington
At the end of the day, it really does come down to helping someone protect their self-image. Our brains are hard-wired to prefer our ideas over others, they are hard-wired to resist outside information and outside efforts.
Especially when it comes to selling, influence is not about pitching, persuading, or debating someone. Michael says, “It’s about educating and allowing people to protect their self image as they begin to integrate new information and change their perspective.”
If we try to convince someone to change beliefs, Social Judgement Theory tells us that the closer someone’s idea is tied to their self-image, the more it works as a boomerang effect and reinforces their own ideas. They will resist even harder, no matter how logical or rational our argument may be.
This is essentially ASLAN’s Cornerstone Principle within all of our sales training workshops. When someone is emotionally closed, the more you try to persuade them with logical arguments, the more closed they become.
Therefore, leading someone through this conversation or process, without damaging their self-image, is critical for receptivity and success in both sales and interrogation.
“To make that bridge, when we think about how to prepare ourselves to do that, we don’t stop and ask ourselves why should someone commit to what we want them to commit to. Because when we do, we’re transposing our perspective onto them. We actually stop and ask ourselves, ‘Why shouldn’t they?’ And it’s not about expecting failure or being negative or fatalistic. It’s really about compartmentalizing our biases as much as possible, considering from their perspective all of the reasons why they may not, or might not have already, committed to what we want them to commit to, and then embracing those answers and using it to our advantage in how we prepare and execute the conversation.”
– Michael Reddington
Cognitive Process and The 7 Phases
Michael and I discussed the cognitive process and its intersection between interview/ interrogation and sales/ business development. Michael used a great analogy to explain:
Most people, from the U.S. or not, are familiar with the Miranda warning or Miranda Rights. At the very least, you’ve probably seen it acted out in various crime shows on TV. When an officer is arresting a suspect, they are required to tell that person, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…” etc, etc.
In sales, we need to realize that our customers have also been “Mirandized.” Years of making purchasing decisions and interacting with sales reps has taught them that they “have the right to remain silent,” because anything they say or do will be used against them by the sales rep at their earliest opportunity. Customers know this. They have internalized it. So they are, naturally and justifiably, hesitant to share information with sales professionals.
I loved Michael’s way of framing this up with an analogy. He then went to explain the seven phases that people experience in potentially contentious conversations. By potentially contentious, Michael simply means a conversation with at least two people with varying perspectives and the potential for a debate to spark.
Phase 1 – Pre-conversation
Both parties bring their life history, personal context, and expectations into the conversation. Those expectations can be positive, negative, or neutral. Michael says, “Research has shown that people react the strongest to what they see first, so within milliseconds, we are already looking for the very first verbal or non-verbal indication that our expectations have been validated or violated.”
Phase 2 – Introduction
From the first word spoken in an exchange with a prospect or suspect, everything we say and do should be properly managed to overcome those negative expectations and to set the tone for the conversation. We have to always keep the end goal in mind.
Phase 3 – Listening
When we begin speaking, the other person is listening to figure out what this interaction will mean for them, and where it’s going. They are listening with a filter, based on their preconceived notions about us or the subject on the table.
Phase 4 – Internal Monologue/ Self Conversation
Once they feel like they’ve figured out the conversation, people transition into a period of internal monologue. They’re working out in their mind what they’re going to say, when they’re going to say it, and under what conditions. We’ve all done this. We’ve all negotiated with ourselves internally during conversations about what to share with the other person based on what they say to us.
Phase 5 – Enter the conversation
Once they make that determination about what and when to share, they’ll hear a “trigger” and speak up to enter the conversation.
Phase 6 – Decide to continue or to exit the conversation
At any point, the other person can decide to continue or stop participating in the exchange.
Phase 7 – Post conversation follow-up
There’s really only one way to prove to someone that you listened to them, and that is to follow up after the conversation.
In my career, I’ve often told my own sales teams, “The number one rule in sales is do what you say you’re going to do.” You have to follow through and follow up to maintain your credibility. It’s absolutely critical. So I loved Michael’s emphasis on that final phase.
Stages 3 through 6 can be cycled through multiple times during any given conversation. “Rinse and repeat,” as Michael says. “How we prepare for, acknowledge, and address those as we go through, can have a real significant impact on the commitment that we wind up with.”
A Message from Michael Reddington
“My interrogation career fostered a fascination with how we are able to establish relationships and obtain the truth in seemingly impossible situations. My experience made it clear that, at best, confrontation creates compliance – and compliance creates resentment. I saw firsthand how people committed to sharing their secrets when their interviewers carefully listened for new opportunities to bond and treated them with respect and empathy.
When I applied these communication techniques to my business relationships the results were astounding – and The Disciplined Listening Method was born. I researched and developed the Disciplined Listening Method to teach executives, sales professionals, HR professionals and beyond how to increase commitments to action and reduce missed opportunities by significantly improving their situational awareness, observation skills and their ability to apply strategic, ethical persuasion techniques.
Beyond any confession I ever obtained, I’m most proud of the fact that I shook hands with every person I ever interrogated.”
I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Michael and I hope you found his insights as useful and intriguing as I did. To learn more about Michael Reddington and his practice, or about how you can consistently achieve the same level of respect and commitment in your interactions, please visit www.InQuasive.com.