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I Object! Four Steps to Handling Objections

Many people feel there is some deep, dark mystery to handling objections. Well, if there is a secret, it lies in your proactive approach to understanding how people make decisions and intelligently mirroring their process to influence behavior. Still, if there is a secret to handling objections, you’ll find it sitting in step one below.

Step 1: Clarify
The first, and by far the most important, step is to clarify the objection. Do not be deceived by what appears to be a simple step. Clarification can be a challenge because it requires you to think quickly on your feet. Still, it’s the most important step with its own three-step process:

1. Get at the real objection. Rarely will people give their real objection right up front. Maybe it’s embarrassing, maybe they feel it’s personal, or maybe it’s because they don’t think it’s as important as you think it is. One thing is certain: When you get at the real objection, you can address it. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have personally jumped to my favorite response regarding an issue that had nothing to do with the question being asked because I didn’t get at the real objection. By the time I finished answering the question that was never asked, I was rewarded by having to fend off the objection I had now created. What a mess!

2: Avoid sounding confrontational. Here’s a strange irony for you: Let’s say you guess right and actually do understand the real objection without clarifying it first. Your reward will be annoyance regarding your confrontational, stubborn, and insensitive approach to communication. So instead of sounding confrontational, set the stage for understanding. Not only will you buy yourself time to think, by clarifying the objection that comes your way, you will send an important message regarding your intention to listen and understand.

3: Avoid talking too much. Picture yourself in the other person’s shoes. You are looking at a rather difficult decision and trying to analyze that decision as carefully as possible. You are puzzled by one aspect of this decision, so you pose a rather harmless question to ask the person to help you understand something. Out comes a response that just won’t end. It goes on and on and on. You begin thinking to yourself, “This was really not such a big deal to me a minute ago, but judging by this person’s response, I must have hit on a bigger problem than I thought!”

The longer it takes a person to answer an objection verbally, the more credibility the objection is given. So your inability to understand the objection, which you demonstrate by providing a boatload of information in which the answer is somewhere buried, dramatically damages your credibility.

If I still haven’t been able to convince you of the importance of clarifying, let me put it to you simply: One out of ten objections isn’t even an objection (and that’s a conservative number). What you are really hearing is someone who does not want to be influenced and who is stalling. If you ask that person to clarify the objection, don’t be surprised to hear, “Uh, well, you see, I think you actually answered that question earlier.” That’s because there is no objection!

Step 2: Acknowledge
Acknowledging another person’s objection means it’s time for you to confirm your understanding of the person’s concern. Clarifying may help get you to the right objection; acknowledging will confirm it for you.

Step 3: Respond
Assuming you now know what the real objection is and you have acknowledged it, it’s time to respond. To do this effectively, we need to figure out what type of objection you are responding to. Then we’ll be all set to answer it.

Two Types of Objections

  • Misunderstandings
    Ah, wouldn’t life be grand if all objections were misunderstandings? A misunderstanding objection means just that: The person you are communicating with has misunderstood something, so you need to clear it up. The solution is fairly simple, but not without an element of risk. In fact, it’s often a classic case of not what you say, but how you say it.

Avoid falling into the trap of making yourself “right” and the other person “wrong.” The goal is to tactfully remove an impending obstacle of personal ego, and get back on track to influencing behavior.

“Feel, Felt, Found”
When dealing with misunderstandings, I suggest a technique I have admired and used for years. I refer to it as “feel, felt, found,” and when it comes to gracefully telling someone he is wrong, it works like a charm.

The feel portion of this technique is designed to deflect the ego. When you tell someone that a lot of people feel the same way she does, you immediately avoid the risk of putting her in a defensive position.

The felt portion injects empathy into your response. It’s one thing for someone to hear that a lot of people feel the same way she does. However, it’s much more powerful for that person to hear that you have felt the same way yourself.

The found portion provides your response. At this point the answer should be an easy one, but there is no sense dropping the ball here. By explaining what you have found, you open the way to offer your answer with the least amount of confrontation.

Using the “feel, felt, found” technique allows you to tell someone, gracefully, that she is wrong. I would be careful not to use this technique more than once per conversation. Don’t worry if you don’t incorporate all three parts of the process. It’s a guide, and nothing more, but you will be amazed at how often it gets you out of a sticky situation.

  • Drawbacks
    The more difficult type of objection to handle is the drawback. An objection due to a drawback really means that there is a particular element of the argument you cannot address. Fear not, though, because where there’s a will, there’s a way!

First, let’s put this in perspective. The last time you bought a car, did you get everything you wanted? Oh, I’m sure you got the color or the style, but unless you ordered that car, and had it custom constructed just for you, I’m guessing it only had almost everything you were looking for.

You see, much like your car, or your job, or you house, or your spouse (okay, maybe not your spouse), you made your decision based on the issue as a whole, not on only one or two pieces of that issue. If you believe that the decision you are influencing is truly in the best interest of the person you are persuading, stay strong, and push on! After you have clarified and acknowledged, I suggest you put things in perspective and summarize the benefits of the solution you’re driving toward.

If, by chance, you are wondering where these other benefits to your solution magically come from, please remember the lessons you have learned up to this point. Rather than tell someone what he should be doing, you created trust, and you created urgency around the other benefits of your solution. It was you who created perspective!

The only gentle reminder I would like to offer involves ethics. If the solution you are proposing does not address the other person’s most important criteria, you have to think seriously about what you are influencing him to do. The idea here is to gain perspective regarding the drawback, not to convince someone it isn’t necessary.

Step 4: Confirm
It’s not uncommon to hear people say things like, “I really like that” or “That sounds great.” In situations like these, the confirmation step has already been accomplished for you. After someone has said, “That sounds great,” it would be awkward to say, “Uh, so does that address your concern?”

Now, I will not for a minute tell you that by confirming your response to the objection, you have guaranteed the objection will not be heard again. What I can tell you is that by confirming, you have psychologically made it much more difficult for the objection to be brought up again.

Sometimes an objection can be perceived simply as a question. And sometimes when people have a simple question, it can be perceived as an objection. You could try to determine which it is by studying nonverbal cues, emotional expression, and other difficult signals to pick up, but I think this will only confuse the issue more. I have a better idea. Why not treat both objections and questions the same way?

When you are asked a question, doesn’t it make sense to clarify the question to make sure you understand it, and confirm it has been answered when you have finished addressing it? When you treat perceived objections and questions the same way, you no longer have to worry about misreading someone’s intent.

Going Forward
The next time you hear someone complain about an issue involving you or your company, let this person know you have heard him by simply saying, “I can understand your frustration” or “I can certainly appreciate how disappointing that must be.” This acknowledges the other person’s concerns. Then restate the issue: “You placed a lot of income and faith in a market that has provided an enormous amount of volatility.” This demonstrates that you have been listening. It also demonstrates empathy, which is critical here. Now you can begin to address the real concern.

I cannot guarantee that if you follow this process an irate person will magically be happy with the realities of his current situation. What I can tell you, based on years of using this process and teaching it to thousands of others, is that it will dramatically help defuse the emotion. The rest is up to you.

© 2013 by Rob Jolles. All rights reserved. Excerpted and adapted with permission of the publisher from How to Change Minds: The Art of Influence without Manipulation (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).

You can learn more about persuasion in these AMA seminars:
Expanding Your Influence: Understanding the Psychology of Persuasion

Negotiating to Win

About the Author(s)

Rob Jolles is president of Jolles Associates, an international training consulting corporation. Previously, he was a record-setting salesperson and sales trainer for New York Life and Xerox. This article is adapted from his book How to Change Minds: The Art of Influence without Manipulation (Berrett-Koehler, 2013). For more information visit www.jolles.com