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Why Perspective Taking is So Difficult in Sales

Leaders are discovering the importance of emotional intelligence, which is the ability to manage one’s emotions and those of others. Developing this skill requires perspective taking. Unfortunately, most of us are weak in this area because “people’s judgments are egocentric,” explain psychologists published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

The bottom line: we have trouble stepping into another person’s perspective. Real trouble.

To make matters worse, we often don’t realize we are lacking in this skill. These findings come from Cornell social psychologist David Dunning and his colleagues. Their research began the last place you would expect: the dance floor.

The researchers asked participants how willing they would be to dance in front of an audience in exchange for money. They also asked those same participants to take the perspective of a randomly selected person and predict that individual’s willingness to dance for money. The researchers learned that “people generally overestimated how willing other people would be to dance in front of an audience.”

This finding should interest sales professionals given that fear is a primary reason why customers choose not to move forward with a proposed solution. That is, they fear the financial and reputational loss of altering the status quo. In fact, a meta-analysis cites research showing that losses spark activity in the amygdala, which is the region of the brain associated with fear.

After performing a statistical analysis of the results, the researchers summarized that “emotional perspective taking falls short.” Why?

Where We Go Wrong

We have all heard people say, “Put yourself in their shoes.” This suggestion perfectly encapsulates why we are so bad at perspective taking: we put too much of ourselves in the situation and not enough of the other person. The researchers explain that “people’s predictions of others’ preferences and decisions in emotional situations — in this case, facing an embarrassing public performance — are based on their predictions of what their own preferences and decisions would be in those situations.” This problem stems from our tendency to believe that others are less influenced by fear than we are.

People are more likely to get an accurate read on another person’s perspective by taking the time to acknowledge the role fear plays in decisions. For most of us, the status quo is a comfortable place. The risks are clear, and the outcomes are measurable. Asking someone to move beyond this zone is asking them to move into uncharted territory.

3 Ways to Get Better at Perspective Taking

Fear is a grounding force that keeps us from moving forward. Once a sales professional understands this idea, they can begin to take steps toward addressing the customer’s inherent fear. Here are three ways to do so:

  1. Normalize Discussions of Risk

There’s no sense in avoiding the topic of risk. Instead, sales professionals should bring the customer’s concerns into the open and acknowledge them. It is more effective to help customers become accustomed to an environment in which some risk is commonplace. Assuring customers that risk can be eliminated entirely comes across as disingenuous.

Giving the customer the opportunity to vocalize concerns allows both sides to consider how the solution will address the anxieties or ways in which the solution can be customized to alleviate concerns. This approach is similar to the priming effect in which exposure to a stimulus in the present influences the way a person responds to a stimulus in the future. Sales professionals are priming when they expose the customer’s concerns now to influence the customer’s responses to those same concerns later.

  1. Balance Risk with Benefits

It’s easier to accept a level of risk when it’s paired with clear benefits. However, doing so takes time. Sales professionals must address each concern with a clear articulation of the benefits before making any attempt to illustrate the risk associated with a delayed decision. The customer must become comfortable with each of their concerns before moving to the next one.

The value of uncovering the customer’s fears is that it gives the sales professional the details needed to decide which benefit best counters the exact concern distracting the customer. This approach is challenging in sales today because “B2B purchasing decisions increasingly trace complex journeys,” according to McKinsey. This complexity is due to the increasing number of stakeholders present in the buying process. With each new decision maker comes a new set of concerns. The answer to this challenge is agility in which the sales professional can address one person’s concerns, then pivot and address another stakeholder’s concerns.

  1. Shape Perspective with Reflection Questions

Dunning and his colleagues have shown that perspective taking is more difficult than most of us realize. Therefore, it might be more effective to shape another’s perspective rather than take another’s perspective. Reflection questions are useful when using this approach. Reflection questions urge the customer to reveal their thoughts and feelings on the solution. For example, a sales professional might ask, “How does this solution affect your business?” Or they might ask, “What hesitations do you have with this solution?”

Reflection questions are an effective way to check with the customer that the solution capabilities connect with the customer’s needs. Reflection questions serve more than the sales professional; they also serve the customer by helping them elucidate hesitations that they might not recognize.

Naive Realism

When we attempt to take the perspective of another person, we too often assume that the individual thinks the way we do. We assume they have the same leanings and preferences. The researchers call this phenomenon “naive realism,” explaining that “people systematically underestimate the impact on others’ preferences and decisions of fear of embarrassment.”

Sales professionals who keep this study in mind will be better prepared to truly understand the customer’s perspective and accurately gauge the fears influencing the buying decision.

About the Author

Ben Taylor is the content marketing manager at Richardson. He has an MBA in finance from LaSalle University and over a decade of business & writing experience. He has covered content for brands including Nasdaq, Barclaycard & Business Insider.

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