Q. I find it difficult to stay upbeat and positive all the time. I have a tendency to get down on myself when something goes poorly and then find it hard to look forward to the next sales call. I can’t be the only salesperson who struggles with this. Can you help?
A. Thanks for asking a question that the vast majority of salespeople don’t have the courage to ask. Yep, the situation you described is an occupational hazard. Most salespeople have times when they are hesitant to make the next call or take the next step because they’ve just be rejected in the last.
I think that salespeople, in particular, are sensitive to this. Two reasons – first, we face rejection more times in the course of a week than almost any other job title. Second, since we spend so much time alone, we often mentally dwell on our shortcomings and failures much more than the person who works in an office or in proximity to other people.
So much for the problem. Are there any solutions? Of course.
For now, let me focus on just one. About ten years ago, Martin Seligman, PhD., authored a book called Learned Optimism. I expect that it is out of print, but if you can find a copy, I’d recommend that you do so. Learned Optimism provides a solid answer to your challenge.
In it, Seligman describes his lifework. As a research psychologist, Dr. Seligman began by studying helplessness in dogs. In an early experiment, he put dogs into a cage from which they could not escape and subjected them to mild shocks. After some effort at escape, the dogs would give up trying and lay down. Later, he put them into a cage from which they could easily escape and subjected them to the same mild shocks. The dogs would just lie down and give up. Surprisingly, they did not attempt to remove themselves from the irritant. They had learned helplessness and hopelessness.
In subsequent experiments, Dr. Seligman found similar behavior in human beings. Put into a room and subjected to irritating noises from which they could not escape, they soon learned to give up. When put into a room with a mechanism that would turn off the noise, they still didn’t try. They had learned helplessness and hopelessness.
From this beginning, Dr. Seligman continued to formulate a thesis he calls “learned optimism.” It says, basically, that human beings learn to have either a pessimistic or an optimistic outlook. Dr. Seligman’s book contains a self-assessment to measure the degree of pessimism or optimism of the reader.
Dr. Seligman’s thesis arises from the way people explain negative events to themselves. When something negative happens, as it eventually will, the way you explain it to yourself determines your pessimistic/optimistic attitude. There are three components of this “explanatory style.”
The first component is the degree to which you believe the event will be permanent. Pessimists believe negative events will be permanent, while optimists believe that they will be temporary.
The second component is pervasiveness. Pessimists believe the causes of negative events are universal, affecting everything they do. Optimists believe them to be specific, and limited to the individual circumstance.
The third component is personal. Pessimists believe that negative events are caused by themselves. Optimists believe that the world is at fault.
Here’s how this behavioral perspective works in the everyday life of a salesperson.
Let’s say you visit one of your large accounts, and your main contact announces that the vice-president for operations has signed a prime vendor agreement with your largest competitor and that all of your business will be moved to that competitor within the next 30 days. That’s a negative event.
As you drive away from the account, you think to yourself, “I blew it here. I should have seen it coming. I’m never going to learn this job. I’ll blow the next one too. I mismanage them all.”
Now, that’s a pessimistic explanation of the event. Notice that you have explained it in a way that is personal, “I blew it.” Your explanation is also permanent, “I’m never going to learn to do this job,” and pervasive, “I mismanage them all.”
Now stop a minute, and analyze how you feel as a result of this explanation. Probably, you feel defeated, dejected, depressed, and passive. These are not the kinds of feelings you need to energize yourself to make your next sales call.
Let’s revisit the situation, this time offering optimistic explanations. The same event occurs — you receive bad news from your best account. As you drive away, you think to yourself, “They really made a bad mistake this time. It’s a good thing the contract is only for a year. That gives me time to work to get it back. I’m glad it was only this account and no others.”
That’s an optimistic explanation because your explanations were not personal, permanent, or pervasive. How do you feel about your future as a result of this explanation? Probably, you feel energized and hopeful.
See the difference? The event was the same. The only difference was the way you explained it to yourself. One set of explanations was optimistic, leading to energy and hope, while the other was pessimistic, leading to dejection and passivity.
Dr. Seligman has isolated optimistic behavior as one of the characteristics of successful people. Using various techniques he’s developed, he predicted elections by analyzing each candidate’s explanatory style. The most optimistic candidates often win elections.
The implications for you are awesome. If you can improve your explanatory style, and make it more optimistic, you’ll create more positive energy and hope for yourself, no matter how difficult or negative the circumstances with which you must deal.
Learned optimism can be one of your most powerful self-management techniques. It’s based on this powerful principle:
Your thoughts influence your feelings and your actions, and you can choose your thoughts.
Here’s how he suggests that you do that:
Step One. Analyze your explanatory habits.
Wait until you must deal with some negative event or some adversity in your life. Then, stop and observe what you are telling yourself about the event. What do you believe about yourself and the reason why bad things happen? Ask to what degree your explanations are personal, permanent, or pervasive?
Step Two. Note the consequences of your explanatory style.
Pessimistic explanations always lead to passivity and dejection. Optimistic explanations always lead to energy and hope. Which is more likely to propel you to future success?
Step Three. If you’re pessimistic, you must change the way you think.
Your future success depends on your ability to rise up and meet adversity with renewed energy and optimism. You can do this by choosing to think differently. Dr. Seligman makes the following suggestions.
Distract your thoughts. In other words, when you find yourself thinking negative and pessimistic thoughts, tell yourself to “Stop!” You can even say it aloud or shout it to yourself. Just “STOP” thinking those things.
Then, shift your thoughts to something else. I’d suggest you think about something that brings you pleasure or satisfaction, or something at which you’re good.
Dispute your explanations. This is a longer-lasting approach. Argue with yourself. Reason your way out of your negative thoughts. Look at the evidence, or suggest alternatives. Reason from the implications or usefulness of what you’re thinking.
Back to our example. On the way out to your car after your miserable call, you are thinking to yourself “I blew it here. I should have seen it coming. I’m never going to learn this job. I’ll blow the next one, too. I mismanage them all.”
When you catch yourself thinking defeating thoughts, argue with yourself. Think, “Wait a minute. While it’s true I may have been able to do something if I had seen this coming, the truth is that the VP would never see me. The other company must have had some special “in”. That doesn’t mean that this will work anywhere else. It’s just this account. There certainly isn’t any evidence of this possibility happening anywhere else. And, the truth is that the entire purchasing department is not happy about this course of events. If I stay close to the account, they may find lots of reasons to continue to do business with me. ”
What you’ve done is argue with yourself in order to change your thought processes. As a result of thinking differently, you have more energy, more hope, and therefore, more likelihood of success in the future.
You can change your thoughts. You can choose to think differently. You can choose to believe differently.
And that fundamental decision about how you think can, more than any other single decision, affect your future success.
Dr. Seligman has discovered, through his scientific research, a truth that has been known for thousands of years. The Apostle Paul, writing in the book of Romans, counseled new Christians to, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” And Solomon said that “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”
Your choice of what to think about, and how to think about what happens to you, is one of the most important choices you’ll ever make.
So, when you find yourself feeling depressed, dejected, and with little energy, recognize how you are thinking, and think differently.