Smelling a Rat: Selfish versus Selfless Communication

On a busy Saturday afternoon, while trying to prevent my child from careening head on into an “Ultra thin” condoms display, the supermarket checkout clerk asks if I’m keen to buy some facial cream. Staring nonchalantly at the various other items on the belt, she holds up the oval container in her left hand and says in a tone that could put a meth addict to sleep, “If you buy two creams, you get one free.”

I smile politely, holding tight to Mica’s sleeve to avoid a total supermarket implosion, and say, “Thanks so much, but I’m good”.

“You sure?” she perks up to look in my eyes. “I use this all the time! It’s great, and I’ve never seen it so cheap!”

This may be so, I think to myself, but if you think for one second that I’m buying whatever you’re selling me, you have a long and desperate journey ahead of you.

“No, thank you”, I respond calmly. “I’m not interested.”

“Ok. I’m just thinking you could benefit from it. I mean you’ve got great skin, but everyone could use a little help, no?”

And now I lose my mind. My shoulders and stomach get tense; my breathing slows to halt; and my overall disposition goes from wide open to Fort Knox level closed. I’m seconds away from throwing my toddler at her like a rabid dog.

THIS is my consumer nightmare: someone focused on the goal of the sale and not the human either in front of them or inside them.

I’ve termed this phenomenon, The Law of Incongruence— when what lies outside of you doesn’t jive with what’s inside you.

In this moment, our clerk neither believes in the product nor her job. How does this manifest? Her eyes are focused on everything but the task at hand. Her shoulders are slumped. Her voice is monotone and bored. And her overall demeanor is that of complete disinterest. In short, her body is saying one thing, while her words are telling a different story.

This lack congruence manifests a second time when I clearly state my needs, “I want to pay for my goods, and not the cream”. But instead of honoring my needs, she’s targeted at the task at hand — to sell! My “no” turned into a challenge, a mountain to conquer.

The end result was not only a failed attempt at a sale, but a very unhappy customer.

When people think you’re trying to influence them, they put their guard up. But when they feel you’re trying to help them, to muse your way to the right answer, or to be honest about your own imperfections, they open up to you. They hear what you have to say. — Susan Cain

What could she have done?

  1. Admit to herself that she neither cared for, nor wanted to sell, the product. We’ve all been in situations that we don’t especially want to be in; but by admitting it, it allows us to be conscious and in control of what we’re doing instead of victims.
  2. Make a joke about her mission at hand. This would immediately allow me to empathize with her situation and keep the lines communication open. “Listen, I’m required to share this with you, but I know nothing about it. Though I wonder if it might come in use when your kid gets his hand, or head, stuck in something — if he hasn’t already!”

Speaking human isn’t just about being more authentic with others, it’s about being authentic with ourselves.

Photo by Barbara Eckstein

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