The Interests of Buyer and Seller are Never Aligned? Never Is a Long Time.

I have a lot of regard for Jane Bryant Quinn, and I’m hardly alone. She strikes me as sober, educated, and generally wise. Of course, no one’s exactly perfect. 

And in those rare cases where sober, educated, wise people don’t get it right, it’s worth asking oneself: how can that be? There are usually instructive answers.

Case in point: her recent column titled, “Should You Trust Your Broker? No, and Here’s Why.” The title says it all. And since she’s talking about brokers—a business few people would argue is a hotbed of trust—she’s not going to get much argument from me or anyone else.

Except when she went uncharacteristically for an absolute statement. In response to a comment, she included this line:

The interests of buyer and seller are never aligned.   

Now, I’m not trying to pick on Ms. Quinn. Maybe she meant it to apply only to brokers (though even then, an absolute statement is an absolute statement).

What’s interesting is, she’s not alone. She speaks for a lot of people in that belief: that the interests of buyer and seller are inalterably, fundamentally, and essentially opposed to each other. So let’s just dissect the belief, and leave Ms. Quinn out of it.

Zero-Sum Sales Thinking

To believe that the interests of buyer and seller are never aligned is equivalent, I think, to believing that they’re always opposed. That is, all sales amount to zero-sum games; one party wins, the other loses (except at some theoretical point in the middle discernable only by medieval philosophers and classical economists.)

When you put it this way, it’s an appalling belief. It suggests that:

There’s no basis for negotiation. It suggests all sales are isolated transactional events, with no connection to past or future transactions. And forget about relationships.

Buying and selling must constantly be regulated; that the proper model for commerce is the example of Las Vegas casinos and the Nevada Gaming Commission. It suggests that commerce is the root of most immoral and antisocial behavior.       

The only sensible model for corporate buying is through arms-length RFPs, unless you’re lucky enough to be able to use online reverse Dutch auctions. 1+1 must always add up to only 2, and not in a balanced way.

Sales is a venal profession, one in which success is driven by Madoff-like sociopaths and their ability to coldly con decent, aka stupid, people. That to be employed as a salesperson requires the advance sale of your soul.

That’s what I think it means to seriously believe that “the interests of buyer and seller are never aligned.” And a lot of people out there do indeed believe those statements.   Some of you reading this may not even note the intended irony in the paragraphs above. 

Which I find scary.

Sales and Commerce Are Not the Root of All Evil

Obviously (I hope, anyway) I don’t believe that. Let me get equally hyperbolic about what I do believe. I believe that the relationship between buyer and seller lies at the heart of human development.

When you think the relationship between buyer and seller is positive, it suggests a number of corollaries. It suggests that:

The relationship between buyer and seller is the foundation of all human economic development. It allows division of labor, lower costs, and human interaction.

The economic relationship between peoples is the single biggest driver for human interaction, collaboration, and social development. The alternative is a world of solitary, frightened and impoverished loners, reduced to the kind of clannish societies that only an anthropologist could find fascinating.

Buyers and sellers are the architects of creative relationships, and creative economic solutions at the same time. 1+1 is always greater than two if the commercial parties are doing their job.

Only in an isolated, abstract moment in time are the interests of buyer and seller inalterably opposed. Add one more day, one more transaction, one more referral, one more cross-sale, one more conversation—and you have the possibility of a relationship. Time is the single biggest counter-argument to the ‘can never be aligned’ naysayers. 

Back to Ms. Quinn for a moment. How can a sober, educated, wise person make such a sweeping, and bogus, claim? A brief slip in focus?

Unfortunately, I think she’s saying that the brokerage business is so close to untrustworthy that she honestly doesn’t see much difference between reality and the absolute statement she made. And you know what? I wouldn’t argue the point with her.  I’ve heard tons of horror stories too.

But don’t let that drag you down. Don’t let the predominantly flawed belief system of one industry drag you down into believing that buyer-seller opposition is a law of nature. 

It’s not.  But belief in the impossibility of alignment can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Don’t believe your way into impoverishment.

Why Saying ‘I Understand’ Is an Act of Arrogance

Empathy symbolIn an episode of Two and a Half Men (a high-ratings US television sitcom), the rakish cad character played by Charlie Sheen discovers that he can easily manipulate others by solemnly saying to them, “I understand.”

When he first says it, other people believe him, and begin to gush their feelings to him. Of course, his empathy is faux, and so the comedy begins.

Empathy is Cognition Plus Connection

The best way to influence (not manipulate) others is for them to feel that you understand them.

Yet the key word in the preceding sentence is not ‘understand,’ but ‘feel.’

It is one thing to understand someone; it is quite another for them to feel understood.

A seller might perfectly understand a buyer’s needs; often, in fact, even better than the buyer. That doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that the buyer feels understood.

A consultant might perfectly understand what a client is going through, on all levels—including the deeply emotional issues facing the client. But even understanding the emotional issues of the client doesn’t guarantee the client will feel understood.

A common sales truism says, “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.”

Just because it’s a truism doesn’t mean it isn’t true.  And it is, profoundly so.  The point of listening is not what you hear–it is the act of helping another feel heard.

Why Saying “I Understand” is Arrogant

On the face of it, the statement “I understand” is the perfect expression of empathy. Unlike Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen’s character in the sitcom), we usually mean it. We are sincere when we say it, so for me to suggest that ‘I understand’ is arrogant may sound insulting.

But think of it this way. The feeling of being truly understood is, by definition, something that must come from the one who is understood—not from the one doing the understanding. To assert that you understand how someone feels about their situation is to usurp their very role as object of the understanding.

It is not our right as advisors or sellers to tell someone we understand them; it is only they who can inform us that they feel understood. For us to make the claim ourselves is arrogant.

A Better Way to Express Empathy

We can never truly know another. All we can do is to guess at how we might feel in similar circumstances—and assume that they might feel likewise. The source of much tragedy—and comedy—comes from mistaken assumptions that others are exactly like us.

So, what is a better way to express empathy? How do we communicate, across the divide of individuality, a sense of connection with another? Here are a few ideas.

  • That must feel…
  • I can only imagine how that must be…
  • I suppose if I were you I’d feel…
  • Is that (difficult, easy, complicated…) for you?
  • I think I might have a glimmer of what that means for you…

The particular words don’t matter as much as a combination of sincerity and a respect for the ineffable separateness of the other person.

Ironically, the way to convey connection is to acknowledge the impossibility of fully achieving it.