Why is it that some people seem to be naturals at selling, while others struggle to close every sale or even fail completely in a role that requires them to sell? In 1982, psychologist Martin Seligman, PhD, set out to answer that question for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Seligman had been studying optimism and pessimism in the laboratory for almost twenty years when Met Life heard about his research. Could Seligman help them learn how to hire more effective salespeople, they asked?

Half full or half empty

As it turned out, he could. In a series of studies for Met Life that analyzed the relationship between successful selling and the personality of the salesperson, Seligman confirmed in the field what his laboratory research had predicted — optimists make more sales than pessimists. They are more persistent in the face of rejection, more likely to stay energized without any encouragement, and less likely to give up when things don’t go well.

How Optimistic Are You?

Seligman developed a simple questionnaire to measure a person’s relative level of optimism vs. pessimism, which is still in use today. You can take a modified version of his test online. (Look under Engagement Questionnaires for the Optimism Test; free registration is required.) A more detailed questionnaire that further explains your results is in Seligman’s book Learned Optimism. If you’ve always thought of yourself as an optimist, you may be surprised at some of the pessimistic tendencies this test can uncover.

So what if you discover that according to Seligman’s rating scale, you are more pessimistic than optimistic? Are you then doomed to poor sales forever, or worse, should you leave your profession if sales is part of the job?

Luckily, no. What Seligman’s research discovered was that it is possible to turn pessimists into optimists. Using a step-by-step process, in study after study, he has helped thousands of people increase their level of optimism, thereby increasing their success at work and in life. According to Seligman, it’s all about changing what he calls your “explanatory style.”

When a pessimistic thinker fails to close a sale, he tells himself, “I’m no good at selling,” or “No one wants to buy from me,” or “I’ll never be able to sell anything.” When an optimist loses a sale, she says, “That customer wasn’t ready to take action,” or “The competition won this one but there’s plenty of other fish in the sea,” or “It wasn’t the right time for them to incur a major expense.”

Pessimists explain negative events as being personal, pervasive, and permanent, while optimists explain them as having causes that are external, specific, and temporary. And these explanations drive their behavior.

If you tell yourself that lost sales are all your fault, that no one wants to do business with you, and that you’ll never be able to sell, it’s frequently a self-fulfilling prophecy. You literally talk yourself out of trying to sell any more. But if your explanation points to the customer’s choices rather than your own skills, names the specific situation instead of a universal condition, and identifies each incident as a one-time occurrence rather than a recurring event, you’ll be ready to try again within the hour.

Turning Pessimism into Optimism

Seligman uses an “ABCDE” model to help people turn their pessimism into optimism. It works like this:

1. Identify the pessimistic beliefs you currently hold about the causes of adversity, and the consequences of these beliefs. For example —
[A]dversity: You made ten follow-up calls and no one you called was interested in your offer.
[B]elief: You think, “I’m not getting anywhere. This is stupid. It’s a total waste of effort.”
[C]onsequence: You feel frustrated and angry and don’t make any more calls.

2. Dispute these negative beliefs with evidence to the contrary, alternative explanations, or by questioning their implications or usefulness. For example —
[D]isputation: You tell yourself: “It was only one day and only ten calls. Everyone has difficulty with sales calls, and days like this are going to happen from time to time. It was a learning experience — I got to practice having sales conversations. Tomorrow I’ll get better results.”

3. Observe the re-energization that occurs as you succeed at disputing your pessimistic explanations. For example —
[E]nergization: You realize, “I still feel a little frustrated, but not nearly as much, and I no longer feel so angry. I believe I will do better tomorrow.”

4. Externalize this internal conversation — bring your thoughts out into the open where they can be dealt with. Start by writing down the ABCDE of each situation that provokes pessimism. Then role play the disputation process with a trusted friend, colleague, or coach, and observe what happens.

Optimism Can Be Learned

Perhaps Seligman’s process seems too simple to work. In fact, the most difficult part can be sticking with it. As with changing any long-standing habit, re-training yourself to give optimistic explanations instead of pessimistic ones can take considerable time and dedication. In Learned Optimism, Seligman gives detailed instructions and examples for working with the ABCDE process over time.

But the payoff could be dramatic. Imagine how much difference it could make to your life and your business if you not only started to sell more, but you also became more optimistic about your future and less likely to feel depressed when setbacks occur. Seligman’s research shows that optimists not only have more success in their careers, but lead longer and healthier lives. And unlike many self-help prescriptions, Seligman’s process has been proven by clinical studies to alleviate depression, decrease anxiety, and accelerate achievement on the job.

So why not give it a try? All you have to lose is a bit of time and a litany of negative thoughts you’re probably more than ready to get rid of anyway

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