‘You can’t make me!’ – How to defuse buyer reactance
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‘You can’t make me!’ – How to defuse buyer reactance

Ever find yourself telling somebody – maybe a prospect – “This is what you need to do,” or words to that effect?

If they’re honest, most salespeople would admit they might have done so. Sometimes what the customer needs is so cryingly obvious that you just can’t help yourself.

And that’s too bad. Because when you use phrases like these, you’re less likely to persuade the buyer than to trigger a psychological effect known as “reactance” that can be fatal to your sale.

Psychology defines reactance as what happens in a person’s mind when they experience a perceived threat to or loss of their freedom to behave as they like. Any forceful attempt to persuade, whether in sales or another arena, can trigger reactance. The person pushes back, sometimes in a hasty or irrational way, thinking, “You’re trying to get me to agree, but YOU CAN’T MAKE ME!” This may sound childish, and perhaps it is, but it’s a reality about how people’s minds work, including your customers’.

Rejecting the confident

An experiment at Duke University illustrates reactance in action. The researchers presented two pictures to participants and asked them to choose their preferred one. The researchers also told these people that they’d been assigned a “teammate” in another room, and passed along notes from these fictitious teammates.

Some participants got a note with a very confident tone – for example: “I think we should both choose picture X.” Other notes were more tentative and unsure: “I would prefer X,” or “I think I like X a little better than Y.”

Result: Participants were twice as likely to reject the confident advice and agree with the more ambivalent statements.

This is a perfect example of reactance. People interpreted the prescriptive advice as an attempt to limit their freedom of action. So they took a contrarian position – not because they liked or disliked X or Y, but purely to assert themselves.

Because reactance is triggered by emotion rather than reason, it can even derail decisions that are in a buyer’s best interest. It’s tricky — effective sales professionals are confident in themselves and what they’re selling, and they know it’s important to be seen as authoritative. At the same time, though, you don’t want to come across as a high-pressure operative.

Preserving freedom

Here are a couple of steps you can take to preserve the buyer’s sense of freedom and avoid triggering reactance pushback:

  • Offer multiple choices, outlining the pros and cons of each. You can tell buyers which one you prefer, but make every effort to acknowledge that the buyer is in control of the ultimate decision.
  • Use tentative, ambivalent language when you present your recommendations.

This is the kind of language we mean:

  • “Based on what you’ve told me, I can think of several solutions that might work for you. Of course, the choice is up to you.”
  • “With your permission, I’ll come back to you with some options and get your feedback.”

With language like this, you’re acknowledging the buyer’s freedom of action. Buyers are less likely to feel pressured and more likely to think, “This is a salesperson I want to do business with.”

This blog entry is adapted from the Rapid Learning module “Reactance: Why Buyers Feel Pressured and Why They Push Back,” based on the following research studies:

Brehm, J. W., & Sensenig, J. (1966). Social influence as a function of attempted and implied usurpation of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology4(6), 703.

Miron, A. & Brehm, J. (2006). Reactance theory — 40 years later. Zeitschrift für Sozialpsychologie, 37(1), 9-18.

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