What if I told you that often the first thing your prospects are trying to determine when they engage you in conversation is whether the interaction will harm or help them? What if I also told you that your sales intent and biases led prospective clients to believe your conversation would harm them?

This initial assessment of how and if an interaction will harm or help is the primal assessment of trust. I’ve seen some anthropologists hypothesize that this method of assessment formed tens of thousands of years ago, when tribes started to interact over food, fire and shelter. As each tribe approached the other to trade, they needed to quickly assess if the interaction was going to be harmful (violence and brute force) or helpful (fair value trade). You can imagine how these experiences, repeated over millennia, would have created enduring memories for our ancestors to act upon to improve their odds for survival.

Today, this harm or help assessment can still be found within all of us. Remember the first time your teacher asked to speak with you after class, or when a boss asked you to stay behind after a meeting? What did you anticipate? You might still recall what was said during those important conversations, as well as the verbal tone and body expressions. These details are embedded in your memory to help you assess the harm or help of future circumstances. They have shaped your expectations and trust moving forward.

As a salesperson, this subconscious help or harm judgment directly correlates with the trust you build with prospects, the level of honesty and vulnerability they invest in a conversation with you, how much you learn about them, how much learning they accept and their eventual willingness to embrace the idea of making a change.

Your prospects want to protect their time, mental investment, pride, reputation, political currency, loyalties and the memories they’ve created. Prospects may feel these things are threatened when salesperson after salesperson is trying to prove, promise and persuade them to make a change decision they are not ready to make. When prospects feel that you want or need something from them, the conversation can immediately be labeled as harmful and they may go into self-preservation mode, thereby limiting their thinking, vulnerability and answers. It’s a back-and-forth game of cat and mouse.

For example, if the  salesperson says, “I’m here to show you why I’m better.” The prospect may think, “You might be better, but I don’t trust your intentions and promises, so I’m staying where I am.” Or, if the salesperson says, “I need you to be open and honest with me.” The prospect might think, “I’m not going to be open and honest if you’re going to use my vulnerability against me.”

So, how do you adapt your sales approach so that, instead of triggering survival memories and reactions, you help prospects see the benefits of making a switch to your service and expertise? Let’s study the motives behind harmful vs. helpful conversations.

Harmful: You ask questions and listen for things that can help position your value. Your goal is to “find the prospect’s pain.” Stop for a second and put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Don’t you think that after a few sales experiences, prospects can tell when you are trying to find their pain and they might be wary that it can be exploited? If you felt that someone was trying to exploit your vulnerability, how would you respond? How many times would you need to experience this before you’d catch on to this self-serving approach? Your prospects don’t openly share personal details or consider your ideas because they don’t trust how you’re going to use the information.

Helpful: You ask questions that help prospects objectively evaluate if what they’re doing is what’s truly best for them. You do this by approaching the conversation in a way that helps them remove the weight of their own biases. You don’t label their answers as good or bad. You don’t pounce at the slightest hint that your expertise would serve them better. Instead, you listen. And you help them debate the relevance or merits of improvement. Your goal is to help them avoid the safety zone of rationalization and justification. This kind of conversation allows prospects to form their own conclusions. It does not serve your need, want and hope for the sale.

The result?  They are more likely to invest time and thought in answering your questions, less apt to disqualify your expertise and more likely to trust your intent.

Now, which conversation would you trust and want to continue?

In the end, a harmful conversation is when everything you do, say and ask serves your need to establish next steps and gain some kind of commitment from your prospect that serves your pursuit of a sales outcome. What you say and do are making you the lead character in your own sales story.

Helpful is when the intent of everything you do, say, and ask serves your prospects’ best interests. You are helping them break out of their biases and evaluate and debate change with a more objective mindset. You are helping them decide if they want to become the lead character in their change story.