Why prospects dig in their heels—and how to work around it.
Have you ever had to tell a little kid they couldn’t do something? If it’s something they’re really into, then the response you got was likely a strong look of defiance, maybe hands on hips and a spirited “no, you can’t make me.” In fact, the harder you pushed, the harder they pushed back—until one of you collapsed into a tantrum.
That kid was demonstrating something called “psychological reactance.” In a nutshell, we are all wired (not just kids, but all of us) in such a way that if we perceive our freedoms are being curtailed unfairly in any way, we will push back and fight against the perceived limitation.
Obviously with kids, reactance plays out in a much more visible way, but it’s still happening with adults, and if you are trying to influence them, if you are trying to convince them of something, there’s a good chance that you are going to be perceived as limiting or threatening their free choice.
You Can’t Convince Anybody of Anything
According to reactance theory, it’s not possible for you to impose your will on someone else externally and have it stick. (Sure, you could hold a gun on them, but I’m talking about in a normal, business-influence kind of way.) In short, you can’t create the motivation for them to take action. That has to come from within.
For someone who’s uncomfortable with the idea of selling, this notion is really powerful —you don’t have to develop and deliver the perfect sales pitch every single time. Even if you could, it wouldn’t matter because “you can’t convince anybody of anything” anyway. In fact, the harder you push your idea, the harder they are likely to push back if they feel like you’re telling them what to do.
Then What Does Work?
The real key to sales is getting your prospective customer to convince themselves that it’s something they want to do. That sounds like semantics, but from a psychology perspective, there’s a huge difference between being intrinsically motivated (self-motivated) to do something and being extrinsically motivated (external push) to do something.
Therefore, getting your prospective customer to move requires you to get them to engage—to ask questions and have them supply the answers.
“It looks like you’ve got a real problem with XXX. What do you think would help you solve that problem?”
Let’s say they do have some ideas on what might help them. By asking the question, you’ve engaged them, and they start coming up with possible solutions (internally).
Maybe they legitimately have no idea what would help them. If that’s the case, then you could present an example and ask them if they believe that might help them.
“I had a friend who struggled with XXX as well. In that case, we used the Widget 9000 to break up the noodles, and that ended up solving his problem. Do you think that would work for you?”
Again, the key is to engage them. You’re not telling them what to do. You’re not threatening any freedoms. But you are letting them decide for themselves what might work.
Reactance Can Work for You as Well
Another implication of this idea is that people don’t like to be told they can’t do something. So if you have a prospective customer who is clearly interested, but hasn’t been motivated enough to take action, a little reactance might be just the thing to get them moving.
Let’s say you have a prospective customer who has expressed interest in your help or product, but they haven’t been willing to commit. They want to “think it over” some more, or they continue to focus on details that don’t really seem very important as a way to avoid a decision.
To use reactance, you have to draw the line—in short, tell them you don’t believe you can help them and that you are going to close their file. They are now feeling an emotional pull to prove you wrong. Who are you to tell them that you can’t help them? Often, this will provoke new interest and will get the ball rolling again. And realistically, if they weren’t moving before, you really don’t have much to lose.