What Do Sales and Intellectual Humility Have in Common?

How understanding the components of intellectual humility helps sales effectiveness.

By now, most people heard of the concept of Emotional Intelligence.  But do you know the true meaning of it?

As a society, most people aspire to focus on self-improvement by spending their energy in the pursuit of knowledge, education, experience, and intelligence.  But do we have an understanding of our own emotions and how it affects others?  How about an understanding of other people’s feelings?

Kerry Goyette, author of  The Non-Obvious Guide to Emotional Intelligence, states the following:

When I ask people what comes to mind when they think about “emotional intelligence,” their answers are often centered around themselves. I hear things like “knowing my personal competencies,” “being self-aware,” or “managing my emotions.”

Emotions can either help or hurt you, but you have first to understand them before you can control them.  This is the gap that most people miss.

I recently experienced what could have easily been an emotionally charged discussion within an acquaintance of mine.  We both believed in our versions in what was communicated to us a week prior.  Before it got emotional, I relaxed my stance and looked at the possibility that either one of us was wrong.  As it turns out, we both were wrong and misconstrued the original communication. 

By admitting that my recollection of events could be wrong, it allowed the situation to ease in which we were able to talk about it calmly and effectively.

Ben Franklin, who was smart and knowledgable about many things, was also intelligent enough to understand that he couldn’t be right about everything. So, before he would begin to make an argument, he would start by saying, “I could be wrong, but…”  That particular phrase has an overall calming effect on other people when articulating an opposing view.

The definition of intellectual humility is the ability to recognize that what you think or believe might be wrong. It’s acknowledging that we all have cognitive blind spots and to be able to balance a willingness to change and the wisdom to know when not to.

It’s part of the emotional intelligence (EQ) toolkit because it’s about controlling your emotions in a manner that allows creativity, cognitive flexibility, and, of course, the willingness to put your ego aside.

According to Pepperdine University, there are four dimensions to intellectual humility:

  1. Having respect for other viewpoints
  2. Not being intellectually overconfident
  3. Separating one’s ego from one’s intellect
  4. Willingness to revise one’s viewpoint

An intellectually “humble” person will score high on all of these counts. Intellectual humility allows one to help themselves because it gives them the mental space to listen to others.

Looking at these four dimensions from a sales or customer support role can help discover and identify potential obstacles during an engagement with individuals when needing to lead, teach, or influence a mutually beneficial outcome.

What you don’t want is for individuals to dig-in with their stance.  Instead, you want to recognize signs so that you can lead them to a path of approachability and openness.  The last thing you want is for them to experience an amygdala hijack – but that’s for another discussion or reading.

Regarding the list above, Ed Kang, Cofounder of YouEQ, states:

“To me, this list perfectly describes what is necessary to achieve something we teach in our games called Collaborative Change.

One argument that I would make is that empathy boosts intellectual humility. Empathy allows us to be in the other person’s shoes so we have respect and can appreciate their viewpoints, while being flexible in our own intellectual capacity.”

The key is to understand that prospects and customers may exhibit one or all of these dimensions.  Isolating and targeting these dimensions can provide a practical engagement pathway. Below are the four dimensions with additional descriptors with accompanying questions that may help to catalyze a discussion.

Having respect for other viewpoints

This point deals with whether a person solicits and seeks out opposing views. Is the person seeking out differences of opinion?  Questions to ask could be:

  1. Would you like to know our points of difference?
  2. Are you open to hearing about other use cases/different viewpoints about another product/service offering?

Not being intellectually overconfident

This point involves whether or not a person will defend their stance or be willing to hear another perspective by exploring more options.  Some questions could be:

  1. What if I showed you a way that could (save, increase productivity, reduce costs, etc.).
  2. Is there any other way our product offerings/services could help you?

Separating one’s ego from one’s intellect

This point involves whether or not a person would rather be right or seek to understand a different view—a short term win versus gaining long term knowledge.  The following questions to try are:

  1. What do you have to lose in hearing what we can offer/demonstrate?
  2. Looking forward 3-6 months from now, where would you like to be?

Willingness to revise one’s own viewpoint

This point is about the enjoyment of being mistaken and learning something new.  Try these questions to help facilitate discussions:

  1. Would you look at the facts and decide for yourself if they make sense?
  2. If the demo is successful, is there anything else prohibiting you from going ahead with the order?

Lastly, studies showed that certain activities like traveling more often to foreign countries or practicing mindfulness meditation generally correlate with higher intellectual humility across the board, as discussed by Shane Snow.               

One of these activities that correlate with higher intellectual humility comes from research on the neuroscience of how storytelling helps us build empathy for other people.

Paul J. Zak, the founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University, led the studies.   

Paul and his team discovered that:

“In order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative.”

Paul also states:

“My experiments show that character-driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of these points weeks later. In terms of making impact, this blows the standard PowerPoint presentation to bits. I advise business people to begin every presentation with a compelling, human-scale story… These are the components that make information persuasive and memorable.”

So as we think about emotional intelligence, let’s also keep in mind its cousin – intellectual humility – and how we can help identify, in others, the way we need to connect with them both emotionally and with empathy.  By doing so, you can leverage your understanding and which also helps to increase your influence.

Thank you for reading!

The opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect the official position of my current or prior employers or its partners or customers.

Posted in

Leave a Comment