Clean Theory, Messy Life

Years ago, a master salesman taught me, and many other budding salespeople, how to successfully perform our craft.

He was training me to sell, over the phone and face-to-face. He had a very specific process for doing that. He had a script and a flip chart of laminated pages in a three-ring binder. When he trained you to make phone calls, if you went off the script — said anything other than the words printed on the script — he would hang up the phone, then tell you to try again, and stick to the script.

But even this doctrinaire, by-the-book, trainer had a saying he repeated often that seemed to contradict all of his hard work: “The cleanliness of theory is no match for the mess of reality.”

Like an Army regiment that practices with precision, then improvises when it faces the chaos of battle, you will run into situations that surprise you. At that moment, your script will fail you.

This is why WinSome strategy doesn’t rely on scripts, or talking points, or a specific timeline for persuasion. People are messy. They don’t do what you want, when you want. They do as they please. They not only surprise you, they sometimes surprise themselves.

Perhaps you started reading this because you hoped to get what Mad magazine used to call “snappy answers to stupid questions.” In other words, you’d like to have a toolkit of ready responses designed to befuddle people who disagree with you, and to lure them into your way of thinking.

That’s not WinSome. The problem for most of us is not that we don’t have snappy answers, or clever things to say. It’s that when we do say something, nobody’s really listening. They’re just waiting for us to stop talking so that they can talk, or make an excuse to leave the room.

That’s why WinSome focuses on what some call “the softer side of persuasion.” It’s not about facts, or concepts, or arguments. It’s about earning the right to be heard by treating people so well that they come to like and respect you, and therefore, want to know what you believe.

That simplifies things quite a bit, but it doesn’t mean that the cleanliness of WinSome theory is a match of the mess of reality.

People will still surprise you with their strange reactions to what you thought were predictable situations. People are complicated.  So much is simmering under the surface of the average person that we’re always startled when it bubbles up.

Even when you’re merely engaged in the WinSome process of making a friend, expect that some will reject you, and even say hurtful things to you.

It becomes a test of your character to weather the rejection, and insults.

I’ve seen a bit of this first hand, not just in ordinary daily life, but as a politician and as a retail salesperson. For some reason, those two roles conjure more than their share of scorn from people. We Americans are a generally polite lot, but many of us have no qualms about telling a salesperson, or candidate at the door, to get lost.

You’ll likely face less of that when dealing with your neighbors and colleagues at work, but it can happen. How you react to such brusque treatment goes a long way to determining not only your effectiveness as persuader, but your own happiness.

Expect that your well-intentioned efforts won’t always be seen for what they are. People do not yet understand that your purposes toward them are only for their own good

You must cultivate the ability to take a verbal punch, and cheerfully to move forward. While a normal person naturally shrinks from this kind of negative encounter, I believe it’s actually useful for my character development to be subjected to ill treatment. It keeps me humble. We all need a little dose of that from time-to-time.

When this happens on the retail sales floor, it provides a powerful lesson. More often than not, people do not verbally punch me. They appear to listen, and smile, and agree, and say they’ll most certainly ask for me when they’re ready to buy. Five minutes later I’ll see another salesperson writing up a big order for them. Instinct triggers anger at the other salesperson who “stole my customer.”

But is that what really happened? When I see “my customer” talking with another salesperson, I chalk that up as my failure to establish trust and to build a relationship that draws them back to me. Either I made a bad impression, or no impression at all. They sought to avoid me, or completely forgot about me. In my head, I congratulate the other salesperson for accomplishing that which I failed to do. And then I consider what I might have done differently to win their favor and their business. I believe these incidents, and introspection they inspire, are crucial to my personal development.

Something similar happens with political persuasion. For you, “the other salesperson” is the person’s old beliefs. When someone blows you off, or ignores you, and clings to his old beliefs, it can make you angry, or it can make you better. You choose.

But know this: No matter how hard you work at WinSome, and no matter how good you get at this approach, you will fail. It won’t work all of the time. Some people won’t like you. Many people won’t listen. Some will seem to listen and then go on their merry way, as if they’d never met you. You can’t let this get you down. Part of maturity is developing the power to move on after an offense, and to let it go. I’m not saying you should forget about it. The human brain has almost unlimited storage capacity, and once it records a memory, it sticks.

The key is how you choose to classify that memory. Is it a seed of bitterness that grows against that person? Is it a  sense of frustration with failure that hobbles you going forward? Or will you choose to use the incident as a lesson that not only helps you to maintain appropriate humility — a recognition of your own human fallibility — but aids you in future encounters to avoid similar mistakes, or to adapt to the chaotic nature of human relationships?

If you’re committed to your ideas as the best way to live a joyful, purposeful, life, and to produce a happy society, then you’ll choose the latter approach. In fact, you may eventually come to appreciate such encounters for the value they provide to your character development and education. If it were possible, you might be willing to pay tuition for such learning. Seriously.

We must learn how to “not take it personally,” and yet to remain personal in our interactions with others. That’s because our instinct, once bitten, will be to withdraw, and avoid developing new relationships. We’ve been hurt, and the lesson we take from the pain is to avoid such situations. I’m suggesting the lesson is to change your approach, and to re-interpret the “failures” as valuable lessons which spark gratitude, rather than bitterness.

When you see life this way, you avoid burning bridges, and you keep doors open for later relationship development. The person who rejects you today, and ignores you tomorrow, may embrace you some day. Then  you’ll both share funny stories about how your relationship got off to such a rocky start.

See that moment now, in your mind’s eye, and it will help carry you through the mess of reality.

To paraphrase the popular meme, “Keep calm and WinSome on.”