Selling to the Primal Instinct in All of Us

If you’re in sales, this blogpost is for you.

If you have a toddler at home, ditto.

And if you’re a toddler parent who sells for a living, you just hit the jackpot. Listen up.

I recently wrote an article on selling called The Point of Listening is Not What You Hear, But the Listening Itself.  (Or, read the shorter, blog version).

The title pretty much says it. A lot of sales programs focus on listening for content; but unless the customer feels heard, all you’ve done is a brain-suck, and that feels invasive to the customer.

That idea won’t be new to some salespeople, or to afficionados of communications theory.  But I had no idea how firmly based it is in develomental history.

From the NYTimes Feb. 7, we have “Coping with the Caveman in the Crib.” 

If there is such a person as a “baby whisperer,” it is the pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp, whose uncanny ability to quiet crying babies became the best-selling book “The Happiest Baby on the Block.”

Dr. Karp’s method [works with] fussy babies who are quickly, almost eerily soothed by a combination of tight swaddling, loud shushing and swinging, which he says mimics the sensations of the womb.

Now Dr. Karp, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California, Los Angeles, has turned his attention to the toddler years…A wailing baby is nothing compared with the defiant behavior and tantrums common among toddlers.

But Dr. Karp’s method of toddler communication is not for the self-conscious. It involves bringing yourself, both mentally and physically, down to a child’s level when he or she is upset. The goal is not to give in to a child’s demands, but to communicate in a child’s own language of “toddler-ese.”

This means using short phrases with lots of repetition, and reflecting the child’s emotions in your tone and facial expressions. And, most awkward, it means repeating the very words the child is using, over and over again.

For instance, a toddler throwing a tantrum over a cookie might wail, “I want it. I want it. I want cookie now.”

Often, a parent will adopt a soothing tone saying, “No, honey, you have to wait until after dinner for a cookie.”

Such a response will, almost certainly, make matters worse. “It’s loving, logical and reasonable,” notes Dr. Karp. “And it’s infuriating to a toddler. Now they have to say it over harder and louder to get you to understand.”

Dr. Karp adopts a soothing, childlike voice to demonstrate how to respond to the toddler’s cookie demands.

“You want. You want. You want cookie. You say, ‘Cookie, now. Cookie now.’ ”

It’s hard to imagine an adult talking like this in a public place. But Dr. Karp notes that this same form of “active listening” is a method adults use all the time. The goal is not simply to repeat words but to make it clear that you hear someone’s complaint.  “If you were upset and fuming mad, I might say, ‘I know. I know. I know. I get it. I’m really really sorry. I’m sorry.’ That sounds like gibberish out of context,” he says.

On his DVD, Dr. Karp demonstrates the method. Within seconds, teary-eyed toddlers calm and look at him quizzically as he repeats their concerns back at them.

“The goal is not simply to repeat words, but to make it clear that you hear someone’s complaint.”

The point of listening is not what you hear, but the act of listening itself. Or, to be more correct, the result of that act, namely the customer’s experience of being heard.

Sometimes what works on kids also works on adults.  Sometimes not.  My tummy tells me this is the former.

And it’s basic. Primal.  It’s about empathy, not about exchange of cognitive information.

Don’t listen to do a brain-suck. Listen so the customer (or your toddler) feels heard.

And to all you salesperson/parents out there—you’re welcome.  Wish I’d’a knew it!

7 replies
  1. Shaula Evans
    Shaula Evans says:

    Charlie, I agree with the key idea here: the importance of making people understand they are being heard.

    I find the toddler section really alarming somehow, though.

    Maybe because I don’t like how it looks from the perspective of transactional analysis? (I know the winds of psychology have shifted many times since then, but I still retain a fondness for Thomas Harris.)

    And maybe because this feels like NeuroLinguistic Programming for toddlers.  Which is all well and good, but what are the longer-term implications for language development and interpersonal skills for these children?

    I have always felt uncomfortable talking down to children.  In the specific case of unhappy toddlers, I think I’d prefer to listen and acknowledge their distress using adult language (which they can understand before they can generate it themselves). And in the process, model a style of addressing conflict (/meltdowns) that they can use beyond toddlerhood.

    Anyone more up on linguistics and language development care to comment?

    Of course, the next time I’m around a fussing businessperson, I’m going to picture myself yelling:  "Cookie! You want cookie!  Want cookie now!" 

    If nothing else, the ensuing suppressed giggles should help calm me down and hopefully serve to defuse the situation.

  2. Jebra Turner
    Jebra Turner says:

    harlie! Thanks so much for this just in time toddler advice. I used Karp’s 5 s’s for my baby niece Evangeline and it worked like a charm.  (His happy baby book is my defalut baby shower gift, along with a swaddle blankie.)

    Now I’m dealing with a strong willed 19-month-old (her first words were "no more!") and to make things worst, she’s so damn cute she usually gets her own way.

    I’m looking forward to trying out Karp’s toddler talk.  Even though the verbiage sounds immature, I have hope that it will actually elevate our discussions. Aint nothing worse than whining and nagging and shreaking and screaming.  And that’s just my end of the conversation.

  3. Sims Wyeth
    Sims Wyeth says:

    If I know how to perform the good doctor’s technique, and I am able to calm the baby, then I get what I want–quiet!  And the baby is, arguably, better off too.

    If I know how to perform the skill of listening to prospects, it seems to me I also get what I want–the sale!  And ultimately, if I’m good at what I do, the client is well-served by my acting like a good listener.

    In other words, if I’m good at using my voice to express concern, and I’m good at active listening, regardless of my motives I can get what I want.   It’s knowledge, skill, and expressiveness that get me what I want, not trustworthiness.

    After all, Dr. Karp could have selfish motives in calming babies and still be successful at it.  And I could have selfish motives in listening to prospects, and still make the sale.

    Dr. Karp’s work with babies reminds me of the placebo effect.    While medical science continues to debate its causes, I believe there is wide agreement that the attention of  doctors and nurses plays a significant part. 

    It is thought that the touching, the caring, the attention, and other interpersonal communication that is part of the controlled study process (or the therapeutic setting), along with the hopefulness and encouragement provided by the experimenter/healer, affect the mood, expectations, and beliefs of the subject, which in turn trigger physical changes such as release of endorphins. 

    If Dr. Karp is calming babies with tone of voice and repetition of simple words, and doctors and nurses are triggering cures by sensory input, such as touching, attention from authority figures, and soothing sounds, then we have to ask the question:  Can we as sales people use this information to achieve the same outcomes?

    Can we, by paying attention to our prospects–listening, repeating what they say in a supportive tone of voice–can we trigger the placebo effect?  Can we calm their anxiety and discomfort?  Can we induce in them the release of endorphins?  And finally, can we get what we want–the sale–by acting as if we care?

    I think the answer is, "Yes!"

    And one more question.  If you are in fact a highly trustworthy person, but you do not have the ability to use your voice as Dr. Karp does, and you are not familiar with the techniques of active listening, might you lose sales to a better actor?  A more expressive and better trained person?  A person whose degree of self-interest is higher than his interest in the welfare of the client.

    Again, I think the answer is, "Yes!"

    Deep trustworthiness is a virtue, and it may be occasionally necessary for success in sales, but it is not always sufficient.

    The trustworthy man must be able to communicate.  With words, tone of voice, and expressive gesture.

  4. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Wow!  What an interesting set of comments!

    I hear everyone saying it works; then there’s the "buts" (except for Jabra, who is optimistic the level of conversation will actually increase).

    Do we pay a price in language development?  (Can we accomplish the same listening-to with more adult language?  I’d like to think so).

    Sims raises a deep question: can this be accomplished by the placebo effect? Can a good actor do this?  Can you fake trust?

    An old philosophical thought experiment says if you talk to someone in a box, and you can’t tell if the someone is a person or a computer, even after asking any imaginable set of questions you might choose, then for all intents and purposes, it’s a person.  Even if it’s a computer.

    Great actors can make us cry; great con men can get us to give up our money; and great salesmen with cold hearts can sell.  Granted.

    But I would note two other points.  First, even great actors and con artists try to "fool" themselves.   They get into character.  They try to find something even in the most despicable characters that they can personally relate to.  So the best "placebos" are not that at all–they are authentic.

    More importantly, for the average person, trust is just too hard to fake.  All of us have very good bullshit sensors, good enough to pick up the average faker. 

    So the best way to appear trustworthy is to actually be trustworthy.

    I don’t think that negates Sims’ points about the value of communications skills, however.  Great writers get great by practice, not through pure gift.  Ditto artists, mechanics, and public speakers.

    Start with a clean heart–learn how to express it.

    At the far end of excellence, if you analyze people who are great at something, you can describe what they do either through the language of intent or the language of behavior.   At the far end, faking it and making it merge.  In the meantime, study both, not one.

  5. Ria Ludy
    Ria Ludy says:

    I’ve used this technique on screaming toddlers and on drunken patrons as a waitress for years.  I never really understood why it worked until now. 

    Now how do I do this in website copy?


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *