What I learned selling cars
Many years ago, I found myself between jobs and took a job selling cars. They had an excellent training program for new sales people. I learned two things in that job that I found quite helpful when I returned to residential work.
The first was how to take control of a customer. The second was knowing when to shut up.
We were taught to greet customers pleasantly, welcome them to the dealership, then ask how we could help them. They would say that they were looking for some kind of car or truck. At that point, we were taught to say, “Come with me,” and then turn and walk out onto the car lot. The customer, they told us, would have to follow us. Consequently, we had just established control over the customer. In a period of nearly two years and hundreds of customers, it only failed once.
The same technique has worked for me over the years in dealing with children who were escalating out of control. I would simply say, “Come to my office,” or “Let’s go to your room,” and turn and walk away. Over the years, it only failed me once when I invited an oppositional adolescent to my office. It works best when you use their room – they really don’t want you going in their room without them.
Of course, once a child has begun to hit people or smash things, it’s usually too late, but in the early stages of a crisis, it can effectively remove children from the situation and the other children without having to put hands on them or to otherwise engage them with an audience. And I don’t recommend it when a child has picked up something to use as a weapon, although I have used it in such circumstances.
The other technique, when to shut up, is much harder for me to use. I like to talk too much and I hate to see people uncomfortable.
After customers picked out a vehicle they liked, we were trained to take them to our office where we wrote up a buyer’s order for the car they had picked out. Then we wrote down a price and drew a line on the paper for their signature. Then we pushed the paper over to them and said, “If I can get this price for you, will you buy the car today?” After that, we shut up. We were taught that the next person to talk loses.
It got very uncomfortable for me as a salesman, but it was excruciating for most customers. They would sit there and fidget and the sweat would begin to form on their brow. Eventually, they had to speak. The pressure is incredible. On rare occasions, one would say ok and sign. More often than not, they would state some objection. Too much money. I really want to look somewhere else. I thought I could get more for my trade. I really wanted a red truck but you don’t have one.
Whatever objection they raised, we were in control and the game was afoot. They provided the information we needed to overcome their objections. If I could get this amount for your trade, could I earn your business today? If I could get you this truck in red, would you buy it? And we would write it on the buyer’s order and pass it back to them.
With just a few differences, the same technique can be helpful with children, especially when they are being oppositional. Simply tell them what you want them to do. Then shut up. (It’s better to tell children what you want them to do instead of telling them to stop doing something.) Oppositional children will usually state objections or make excuses. If we answer, the game is afoot, but they are in control. Oppositional children need somebody to oppose. If we engage them, they can go on forever, opposing everything we say so long as we continue responding. Such children are very good at provoking adults into saying or doing something stupid. And avoiding whatever it is we want them to do.
When we shut up and simply maintain eye contact, refraining from responding to their objections and provocations, they don’t know what to do. Their statements become less and less assertive. They become unsure of themselves until they sound almost timid. Finally, they have little choice but to follow our request.
Of course, it helps if our initial request is simple, direct, polite, and respectful. If we precede our request with a lengthy lecture, it might not be so effective.
Knowing when to shut up can also serve classroom teachers well when dealing with backtalk. Fred Jones says it better than I can.
I have found the technique helpful in interviewing, too, whether it’s interviewing an applicant for a job or a child or a staff about an incident. Ask the question, then shut up.
The tendency for us helping professionals is to want to help when someone hesitates to answer a question. We want to rephrase it or make it somehow easier for people to answer. We suggest possible answers. We end up giving them clues about what we want to hear, and they end up telling us what we want to hear. If we shut up, eventually, they almost always have to say something, and what they say is much more likely to be accurate, informative, and sometimes quite revealing.