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The Emotional Sport of Business and Selling



At the recent BenefitsPro Broker Expo, I had the privilege of listening to Charles Duhigg's keynote presentation on his book Supercommunicators. The presentation was enlightening and focused on the power of questions and vulnerable conversations.  

It wasn’t long into the session that he explained, “In about 40 minutes, you are going to turn to the person on either your left or right and share the story of the last time you cried in front of another person.” You can imagine the level of excitement and anticipation that announcement brought to a room full of employee benefits professionals. 😑 

He then went on to share some of the core tenets of his book and explained that the goal in conversation, personal or business, is to find a common perspective and identity. Of course, it takes effort to find the commonalities. It requires a natural curiosity that is all too often missing in today’s hurry-and-get-to-the-point conversations.

Regardless of how natural this curiosity may or may not be for us personally, he shared how we can all, with a little effort and practice, build it into our conversations. The key is to bring meaningful questions into the process.  

These can’t be gratuitous, manipulative questions; they must be genuine. If they aren’t, they’ll never create a safe space for vulnerability and uncover the elements that create genuine connections and allow for effective communication. The questions we ask must uncover the following: 

  • Needs  
  • Goals  
  • Beliefs 
  • Emotions 

Most of us are very adept at asking questions that uncover needs and goals, but most of us also fall short in taking the line of questioning far enough to uncover beliefs and emotions. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we avoid that boundary out of fear. However, it is the respectful crossing of that boundary that takes our conversations someplace special. 

Selling is an emotional sport 

I’ve always believed that selling and business are emotional sports. Reflecting on Charles’ ideas and the “crying exercise” (more on that in a moment) gave me a whole new perspective and appreciation for how true that is.  

Our industry tosses around the label “trusted advisor” so casually that, in my opinion, it has become meaningless. But let’s pull out one root word, “trust,” from the label. There may not be a more powerful force, not just in business, but in life. And there can never be genuine trust until both sides are able to share their beliefs and emotions—until there is a safe place to be vulnerable for the purpose of having an honest and meaningful conversation. But once we do, almost everything becomes possible. 

I know, I know. This is sounding a bit too touchy-feely, and you may be asking, “How in the world can this apply to growing my business?” Mr. Duhigg answered that question directly: “Instead of asking about the facts of someone’s business, ask how they feel about their business.”  

During the sales process, we may not be able to start with a feeling question, but we can ask “safer” first questions that lead to more emotional follow-up questions. It’s also important that your prospect isn’t the only one sharing emotional answers. You need to be prepared to share your answers to the same questions you’re asking. 

Bringing the idea home 

We are in the process of adjusting our sales conversations with prospects based on these ideas. Here are some examples of opening and follow-up questions we’re evaluating. In the spirit of vulnerability, I’ll share how I’d answer the questions myself.  

Question seeking to learn their “Why”

Why did you start your agency/business?  

My personal answer: We started Q4i to provide a benefits-focused community and platform to help benefits professionals grow more effectively and efficiently.  

A follow-up question to get to the emotional core of their “Why”

Now that it’s built, do you love it as much as you hoped you would? 

My personal answer: Absolutely! It is so satisfying to witness the Goose community supporting one another and to get emails or hear on coaching calls how our platform and system made a difference for someone. Don’t get me wrong; there are days I don’t love it, but the satisfaction scale is definitely in our overall favor. 

Question designed to get to know them more personally

We often hear agency owners admit to suffering from imposter syndrome. Have you ever felt it yourself?  

My personal answer:  Oh yeah, I feel it on a regular basis. Every time we evolve and promote a new idea or resource, we jump into the deep endnot sure how we will get back to safe ground. There is always a slight feeling of imposter syndrome as we “learn to swim” again. 

A follow-up question to better understand their emotional response

When was the last time you felt it, and what action did it cause you to take? 

My personal answer: When we were writing our book, The Salesperson’s Guide to Growing a Business. Here we were writing what we were promoting as THE guide for benefits professionals to grow. I mean, that’s a bold freaking claim! The action I took was to take inventory of what is in the book. Sure, Wendy and I were the ones pulling it together, but it represents the collective wisdom of so many others. I left the feeling of imposter syndrome behind with the confidence that I was merely part of a messenger sharing proven ideas on behalf of an industry. 

Question to understand their personal goals

What is the greatest accomplishment of your career?  

My personal answer: Bringing the Q4i Growth Platform to new life with the release of the book and the launch of Goose. 

A follow-up question to understand what motivates them

What about it did you find most rewarding? 

My personal answer: These are projects we’ve considered and been encouraged to pursue for years. Accomplishing them has resulted in tangible manifestations of what we have always coached. But the most rewarding part of this accomplishment is that our platform is now accessible (financially and conveniently) to anyone interested in personal development and overall growth. The feeling of getting feedback about how our ideas and resources are resonating and making an impact is beyond humbling. 

Will you take this idea home? 

If you didn’t stop to think about your answers to both the initial and follow-up questions, go back and do so.  

I’m serious; I’ll wait.  

Think about the power of those follow-up questions. The power isn’t in the order of the questions; the power comes from the emotional response they elicit.

Look one more time. There’s nothing threatening about them; there’s nothing that seems unusual. But if you find yourself engaged in a conversation with a client or prospect and sharing answers to questions like these, do you believe the level of trust and connection between the two of you would deepen exponentially? 

Asking people to change their behaviors is hard work—for both sides. As employee benefits advisors, that is often the role you're playing with employers. If you can connect with them at a level that elicits emotional responses to the role they play with their employees, clients, and community, you can dramatically change their perception of the need for change and their willingness to take on the hard work of making the change. 

So, when did you last cry in front of someone? 

Now, back to that sharing exercise Charles promised/warned about at the beginning of his session. After he gave the simple instructions of the conversation he wanted us to have, it took almost no time until you could hear the buzz of engaged conversations take over the room.  

In fact, the conversations became so energized and passionate that Charles had difficulty bringing them to a close. The reason for his difficulty became obvious when he asked audience members how they felt about the exercise; the responses were overwhelmingly positive. There had been hugs, tears, and personal breakthroughs. People appreciated the conversations and didn’t want them to end. 

The stories my partner and I shared were no different. I told of a recent conversation I had with a favorite server at a local restaurant/bar. He has always been quick to share his personal life with me.  

On this particular day, I could tell he was a bit off his game, so I asked if he was okay. He said, “No, my dad has been in the hospital and is quite ill.” We chatted about this for a bit, and then he asked, “Is your dad still alive?” 

“No.” I told him, “Dad passed away a little over ten years ago. He had been diagnosed with non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver and needed a transplant. I went to visit him in the hospital the night before Thanksgiving 2013. While his health had been deteriorating, we were still all quite optimistic for his recovery.” 

“He and I visited for a while, talking about the usual stuff, and discussed Thanksgiving and the family bringing dinner to enjoy with him. As I was walking out of his room, I heard him say to me, ‘I love you more than you could ever know.’” 

“Dad passed away that night. I can’t imagine more beautiful final words to ever hear from someone, but I would have already known that even if I hadn’t heard him say it that night.” 

My already strong relationship with my server friend became noticeably stronger after our emotional and vulnerable conversation and the sharing of a few tears.  

Shouldn’t we all be willing to emotionally invest in the meaningful conversations in our lives? 


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Content originally published on Q4intelligence