On Selling and Buying
Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People

It seems to me that the nature of our relationship to one another is very often that of seller to buyer. I recognise this when I say, "I’m not buying that," to someone who’s told me something I don’t believe.

In the search for an intimate partner, one person often tries to "sell" the other on being involved, being sexual, going steady, or even getting married. We say that "he chased after her" and that he "won" her affection; in other words, that he "sold" her on (the value of) committing to him. Similarly, I recently heard someone say, "I think he’s crazy about you. Don’t let him get away." And in a current television commercial, while proposing to the "object" of his affection, the would-be suitor pulls out a series of charts depicting his valuable qualities, with the aim of convincing her that he truly is the man for her.

Numerous novels, films and television stories embrace this theme. In many of them he refuses to take "no" for an answer and continues to try to sell her on "buying" that he’s the right one for her. (I think it’s noteworthy that this effort to "sell" her on his worth is also an extremely common pattern in the animal kingdom. It seems to me that although this is a naturally evolved strategy for trying to get what we want, the advent of language—and with it civilisation—has rendered it ineffective.)

We deal with one another as seller-trying-to-persuade-buyer (and vice versa) in many areas of our lives. Among these are applying for a job or to a college, running for political office, negotiating labour-management disputes or divorce settlements, evangelists seeking converts, criminal and civil trials, and, of course, all sorts of commercial endeavours.

For example, when applying for a job we try to sell the prospective employer by putting our "best foot forward." Accordingly, it is not unusual for us to omit information from our resumes which we believe might make us appear undesirable, or to exaggerate information that we believe will increase the chance that we’ll be hired. (If I held a particular job for only a month—say, from December 15th, 1998 to January 15th, 1999—I might omit the months and indicate only that I held the job from 1998-1999. In this way I could give the impression that I had worked nearly two years, yet still be able to claim I had not explicitly stated anything false.) Parents’ urgency that their children be accepted into college compels similar omissions and exaggerations. To lure prospective students and their parents, colleges and universities omit and exaggerate, too, when they disseminate slick (read, intending to persuade) full-colour brochures and catalogues, with negative information—like incidence of assaults on campus—omitted. And, of course, we’re much-too-familiar with politicians carefully manipulating what they tell us in order to sell us on voting for them. We negotiate in many situations, such as labour-management disputes, governments negotiating trade agreements, a husband and wife negotiating a divorce settlement, or a person buying a house. It is almost universally taken-for-granted that they will take "sides" and that each will attempt to "sell" the other on the outcome it desires: They are likely to negotiate as though they’re opponents and even enemies. Commonly, each side in a negotiation will demand more than it is ready to accept, anticipating that this will make what it actually wants appear more acceptable to the other side. (Additional supposed attractions of this strategy are that it allows each side to appear conciliatory in accepting less than it originally demanded and—if it plays its cards right— each has a chance to get more than it would otherwise have settled for.) They negotiate as though one side’s losses are really the other’s gain. Moreover, the outcomes from this strategy are often arbitrary and bear little resemblance to a common good.

The necessity of this seller-persuading-buyer relationship is particularly taken-for-granted in the commercial arena. As a result, it is normal for prospective buyers to expect sellers to engage in "puffery," such as exaggeration of quality or value. (I was amazed to learn that puffery is generally legal.)

It’s normal, as well, for us to expect advertising and sales people—used-car sellers, for example—to be misleading and less than forthcoming. For example, one current copier ad claims to provide the "starter" cartridge for free. Since the cartridge is essential for the operation of the copier, it seems to me that this is like advertising a car and claiming to throw in the tires for free. Nevertheless, this is a very popular persuasion strategy.

Or there is the television commercial—showing previously spatting couples now happy together after reading a popular author’s new book—inferring that buying the book will heal your relationship. (For many reasons I very much doubt the validity of such an inference.)

Although it may be less obvious, I suggest that many of us are involved in this seller-trying-to-persuade-buyer dynamic in our relationship with ourselves, as well. This is very often the case, for example, when we try to maintain diet, exercise or sleep regimens. (I suggest, further, that this dynamic is the essential constituent of virtually all addictive behaviour; that is, the addicted person is trying to persuade himself that he is not in pain—not scared, sad, hurting, etc.)

I’ve heard some people ask, "what’s wrong with a little puffery, a little misdirection or omission? It can’t hurt much, can it? Look at how successful it’s made our economy. What’s wrong with a popular actress promoting an automobile? What’s wrong with the people in infomercials excitedly jumping up and down like they’ve just discovered our Holy Grail? What’s wrong with trying to persuade my date to sleep with me or to go steady with me?"

I want to make it clear that I am not criticising selling or buying here. But I am very concerned about what these have come to mean: that we believe it acceptable for one person to try to persuade another; that this is as true in our personal lives as in business and commerce; that we believe it is necessary, effective and valuable; and that we seem unconcerned when this effort is covert—in fact, we take it for granted that both the seller and the buyer will have hidden agendas.

We take such efforts at persuasion so much for granted that we don’t recognise that we keep paying a steep price for relating to one another in this way. In my view, the costs are quite considerable. They include:
  • distorted "maps" of our reality; therefore,
  • a diminishing ability to distinguish who’s trustworthy from who’s not, what’s true from what’s not;
  • an increasing expenditure of time and effort trying to sort these out;
  • an ever-growing view of others as opponents and even enemies;
  • an increasing fear of being taken advantage of or even of being harmed;
  • diminishing trust, safety and ease in our lives;
  • an increasing need to be wary, to maintain a more and more defensive posture;
  • increasing resentment towards those who try to persuade us.
  • in turn, an increasing willingness to also dd deceive and try to persuade;
  • increasing self-doubt and diminishing self-esteem;
  • decreasing empathy for the concerns of others.
  • I suggest that it’s difficult and perhaps impossible to remain genuine—to articulate oneself truthfully and accurately—while trying to persuade. I suggest, in fact, that any attempt to persuade involves some act of concealment (which is not necessarily thematic, "conscious" for the persuader) and is therefore disingenuous. When others are not genuine, it’s difficult to determine whether or not we’re being given false, misleading or incomplete information. Since they pretend they are being truthful, they make it additionally difficult to recognise that they are providing us with distorted "maps" of our reality. This is why our ability to discern what is true is a major casualty of others’ efforts to persuade us that they have what we want or that we owe them what we have.

    We are left not knowing whether to trust that the suitor is sincere or that the product is really as effective or fulfilling as they say. Without clear, accurate and adequate information, it’s difficult to know whether the person who’s complimenting us actually appreciates us or is seeking favours. We don’t know whether we can really lose weight by wearing a magnetic belt. The actress may sound exceedingly sincere, but that doesn’t mean we’ll like the car she’s extolling. We don’t know whether the computer being hawked on television is really as good a buy as the announcer claims it is. We don’t know whether the pain remedy being touted really is more effective than other brands.

    Without a clear understanding of the consequences of our choices, we are rendered more vulnerable to potential harm. For instance, we might be injured by a remedy that the television commercial tells us is wonderful, but whose side-effects it fails to mention (or it mentions them so quickly or in such small print that we can’t grasp them). Moreover, without clear information we are more likely to act impulsively in a time of need.

    When I try to persuade you—for instance, to be sexual with me or to sell me your car for less than you want for it—I am taking a stance opposing you; I am defining myself as concerned about achieving my own ends without any real concern about yours. (If you question this assertion, I ask you when was the last time you were concerned about the satisfaction of the person you bought something from or sold something to? When did you tell the cashier that the price marked on an item you wanted was incorrectly low. When did you report that you were given too much change? And when was the last time you were really concerned about how being sexual would affect the person you were "coming on to"?)

    In my effort to persuade you to do what I want, I inevitably "doctor" what I tell you and how I tell you: I either misinform or avoid informing you—perhaps by exaggerating, by omitting some significant information or by saying what I know isn’t true. I am likely to do this by either "guilting," shaming or scaring you. (In the most extreme cases, I "persuade" you by overtly threatening or physically forcing you to do what I want). All this I do in an effort to eliminate the chance that you will not do what I want and all without concern for what you want.

    In attempting to persuade you I objectify you and I maintain a hidden agenda. By "objectify," I mean that I have no empathy for you and thereby deny you the fullness of choice that you might otherwise have. By "hidden agenda," I mean that I conceal myself—perhaps my intentions, the importance to me of what I want, or my strategies for convincing you.

    Furthermore, when I try to persuade you, you are likely to become defensive, for fear that I am not concerned about what’s in your best interest. (How do you feel and what do you do when the sales person calls to convince you to switch long-distance companies or give to a charity, but doesn’t ask whether you want to talk and counters your every objection with a new argument?) And, though this time you might buy what I am selling, you are very unlikely to do so again.

    For all these reasons, I suggest that any time someone attempts to persuade us, we will be disturbed by it; and further, unless we genuinely articulate our distress at their disturbing efforts, and otherwise act assertively, we will be burdened by a residue of resentment that will tend to lead us to either withdraw or try to get even (in the mistaken belief that doing so will keep us from feeling that pain). So, if I believe that you’ve been unfair to me, I might bad-mouth you or refuse to return something I have of yours. Or, if I conclude that a store has taken advantage of me, I may well feel justified in cheating it in some way; perhaps I will claim that a product that I damaged was already broken when I purchased it. I suggest that this is the basic structure of "white collar" crime: When they believe their boss has been unfair to them, employees feel justified in stealing office supplies—or worse—in order to even the score.

    I propose, then, that it’s not in anyone’s best interest to persuade or to be persuaded and, moreover, whenever one person has gained something at the expense of another, everyone ultimately loses: By attempting to get what I want from you without also trying to help you get what’s best for you, I have actually participate in making my world unsafe and more difficult for me, as well as for you, and have diminished the ultimate return for each of us.

    I’m proposing that there is a fundamental difference between my pressuring or tricking you to acquiesce to my desires and my informing you about what I want and its significance to me; and that it benefits both seller and buyer to aim to inform, rather than persuade. And, of course, I’m proposing that dialoguing is the means for accomplishing this.

    Whether I’m a sales person or a suitor, when my intention is to inform rather than persuade, I do not have a hidden agenda and I am not trying to usurp your freedom to decide. Just the opposite. My aim is to enable you to make the most informed choice possible. Therefore I approach you with an "open hand." I engage you in order, first, to determine whether you’re willing to explore what I’m "selling;" and, second, to help you determine whether it will be in your best interest. This will certainly increase your safety and maximizemaximise the likelihood that you will be pleased with our encounter—and that you will be a repeat "customer", as well.

    As a prospective "buyer" I have the corollary responsibility to provide full and accurate disclosure of pertinent information (e.g., my willingness to discuss what you’re offering, financial considerations, the description of the problem I am trying to solve or the desire I am trying to fulfil).

    As seller, I’m unhappy if I’ve succeeded in selling a widget that doesn’t satisfy the buyer. Similarly, as buyer, I’m not happy if I’ve gottengot the widget by besting the seller in some way. (Sadly, few people realise the harm they do in putting something over on someone, or that it’s in their best interest to not try to persuade others.)

    None of us likes to get taken. But—not knowing what to do or not believing that we can act effectively—we tend to be unassertive in so many situations while others attempt to take us; and we often end up doing the same to them. In my view, what I’m proposing here is how we can relate to one another in a way that can reverse the trend and lead for each of us to decreasing mistrust, fear, resentment, dissatisfaction and violence.

    © 2000 Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People • www.empoweringpeople.net