One of the most effective training tools I’ve ever seen was a bulletin board in a quarry.

It was for safety training, but the lesson really applies to any kind of training, including sales training.

The quarry was a risky place, full of monster-size equipment, unstable rock, dust that could scour the paint off cars, and occasional explosions. Training was a matter of life and death. It was also a huge challenge. The crew members were as flinty as the rocks they were quarrying — rough-and-tough guys (and they were all guys) who might not always be inclined to follow rules or play it safe.

So the safety director set up a bulletin board in the staging area where crews began their shift each day. It didn’t display any rules, regulations or safety information. All it showed were pictures of each crew member’s family.

At the beginning of each shift, every crew member had to look into the eyes of his loved ones and think about what would happen if he didn’t come home that day in one piece. It was a raw emotional appeal — and it worked.

Knowledge isn’t enough

Sure, these workers needed to know the rules. But the trainer understood that knowledge transfer isn’t enough to change behavior. For example, nobody ever stopped drinking because someone finally told them about the dangers of alcohol. They also need motivation — they have to want to stop drinking. And that requires an emotional appeal as well as a rational one.

It’s easy to see how pictures of the family might soften the heart of the toughest quarry worker and motivate him to work safely. But the same equation applies to any kind of training, including sales training. To change behavior, you can’t just present the “how to.” You also must address the “why to.” You can teach the best sales techniques in the world. You can offer tons of evidence proving that it works. But if you don’t address the emotional side of the equation, will anything really stick?

Risky territory

It’s easy to assume that in sales, money is the motivator. Learn these techniques and you’ll close more sales! You’ll get fatter commission checks! Who wouldn’t want that?

Well, I can think of plenty of salespeople who might be motivated by other things. If I have a solid book of business, maybe I’m not motivated to go out and close more sales. Maybe if I do more prospecting, I won’t be able to take care of my existing clients. If they start to feel neglected and go away, maybe I’m out of a job. And if I feel that way, all the prospecting tips in the world won’t get me to change my behavior.

And yet the bulk of sales training focuses only on knowledge transfer and ignores the emotional and motivational drivers of behavior. So why is that?

I would propose that it’s because of the motivations and emotions driving the sales trainer.

There’s a technique we teach in one of our sales modules based on the principles of social exchange theory. The theory suggests that people interact with one another based on their sense of safety and risk.

Facts are the safest medium of exchange — you meet me at a party and ask, “Do you follow baseball?” That’s a low-risk question. I can’t get it wrong.

Opinions are a little riskier: “What do you think of Ryan Howard’s hitting?” Now there could be a wrong answer. Maybe you think Howard’s hitting is just fine. Maybe I don’t. We could end up in an argument.

Emotions and feelings are riskier still, because they make us feel vulnerable. If you know how I feel, you know how to hurt me. If you ask me, “How does it make you feel when you see Howard swing at those low-and-away pitches?”, I’m going to resist. Back off, pal. We just met.

But you probably wouldn’t ask me that question — because you, too, feel that it would be pushy. (Also, you’d then feel obliged to talk about your feelings.)

It’s just a party, so nobody has to go that deep. But if you’re a trainer looking to change behavior, you must push past facts and get to emotions.

My point is that trainers tend to stick to “how to” because it’s safe territory. Getting into the stuff that really drives motivation — emotions, fears, frustrations — feels riskier. We might get pushback. We might get told to mind our own business. We might provoke an argument. But if we really want to change behavior, we have to take those risks.

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