Practical Wisdom for Successful Selling

In the 4th century BC, Aristotle, the father of persuasion, deemed it the key to prosperous living.[1]  Likewise, it is also a core skill that enables successful selling.  Top sales performers exhibit what Aristotle called Phronesis, which is translated “practical wisdom.”  This practical wisdom is the ability to adapt to unique circumstances.  Aristotle asserted that practical wisdom had two essential components.  First, one must desire to do the right thing.  Second, one needed to have the ability to do the right thing.  Aristotle conceived the idea of practical wisdom while watching stone masons attempt to measure a round pillar with a straight ruler.  In an effort to accurately measure the pillar the stone masons fashioned a flexible ruler.  Aristotle asserted that this ability to skillfully adapt to a challenging situation illustrates the essence of practical wisdom.

Sales people are forced to use practical wisdom every day.  In fact, a sales person’s ability to effectively adjust to each prospect will ultimately determine their level of achievement.  The reason this type of innovation is an imperative is because every prospect is different.  Each prospect has a distinct problem, personality, attention span, buying motivators and beliefs.  Consequently, every selling situation is unique.  Now, this does not negate the necessity of following a compelling sales process.  To the contrary, it is a sales person’s professional dexterity that will allow him or her to accomplish the goals of the sales process.  Although, being able to competently maneuver within a sales process is often easier said than done.  Yet, because this skill effects a sales person’s capacity to sell, it is vital to master. 

In the past, the understanding of how to increase one’s practical wisdom was based on a variety of unproven opinions.  However, with the recent breakthroughs in the field of behavioral science there is now more useful information on how to grow in practical wisdom than ever before in human history.  Furthermore, through the Hoffeld Group’s integration of this proven science within selling, we have identified that there are three scientifically validated, sales centric components of practical wisdom.  When these components are leveraged they will guide a sales person in generating practical wisdom, which will increase sales production.


The first component of a sales person’s practical wisdom is empathy.  A number of years ago, the Harvard Business Review published a fascinating article entitled, “What Makes a Good Salesman?”[2]  The conclusion of the article was that there are two primary qualities that a sales person must have to be an elite performer.  One of the two qualities was the ability to empathize.   In addition, research conducted by the Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management found that sales people who have heightened levels of empathy not only sell more, but are preferred by prospects.[3] 

Frequently, when sales people envision empathy, they mistakenly equate it with feeling sorry for someone.  Yet, such a definition is terribly shortsighted.  Empathy is not merely an altruistic notion, it is far more productive than simply feeling pity.  Empathy is the ability to recognize the thoughts, feelings or attitudes of another person. 

The reason that empathy is essential in selling is because it guides sales people in recognizing and understanding their prospect’s perspective.  This attunement with the prospect provides sales people with the awareness that will allow them to successfully adapt.  As acclaimed psychologist Daniel Goleman writes, “Empathy is crucial for wielding influence; it is difficult to have a positive impact on others without first sensing how they feel and understanding their position.  People who are poor at reading emotional cues and inept at social interactions are very poor at influence.”[4]

Though increasing your propensity for empathy may seem intimidating, science has proven that empathy is a skill that can be enhanced.[5]   Researchers have confirmed that empathy has a cognitive component where one intentionally focuses on another person in an effort to accurately understand his or her perspective.  Consequently, to develop your aptitude for empathy you simply need to begin to train yourself to concentrate on your prospect and strive to become consciously aware of your prospect’s perspective.  This deliberate effort to understand your prospect’s perspective  is not a one-time event, but should be sustained throughout the sale.  Often, when sales people first attempt to empathize with their prospects they complain that it feels slightly abnormal.  However, they quickly find that as they focus upon their prospects, the information they derive from their observations amplify their practical wisdom and their sales production.

Sales Competency

The second component that a sales person must have to produce practical wisdom is the ability to competently execute the necessary selling behaviors.  As previously mentioned, cognitively discerning how to creatively adjust to a prospect is not enough.  Practical wisdom also requires that one be proficient in implementing the desired behavior.  This is why sales people who have heightened levels of practical wisdom are those who are continually striving to improve their selling skills.  There is conclusive evidence that a sales person’s competency is connected with his or her sales agility.  In fact, a sales person who is not adept in a selling behavior will be severely restricted and any attempt to alter that behavior often ends disastrously. 

The reason that skill development is a prerequisite of practical wisdom is because of how the human brain is wired.  Neuroscientists have identified that when a person engages in an unfamiliar behavior new neural pathways are created within the brain.[6] [7] [8]   As neuroscientist James Zell confirms, “It seems that every fact we know, every idea we understand, and every action we take has the form of a network of neurons in our brain.”[9]  Moreover, when neural connections in the brain are used repeatedly they become stronger.[10]  However, neuroscientists also report that if neuron networks are not used, over time they will weaken and may eventually die.

When a sales person develops skill in executing a selling behavior he or she is literally rewiring his or her brain as new networks of neurons are formed and current networks associated with the behavior are strengthened.  It is also these neural connections that enable a sales person to competently adapt his or her behavior.  The more complex these neuron networks become the greater the sales person’s capacity to display practical wisdom. 

 Understanding the Proven Science of Influence

The final, and most commonly ignored, component of practical wisdom is understanding the proven science of influence.  In the last few decades there have been thousands of scientific studies focused on obtaining an exact understanding of what creates and enables influence.  The conclusions of this mountain of research have revolutionized what scientists know about how influence occurs.  There is now a consensus within the scientific community regarding the behaviors and mindsets that support and enhance influence.  As behavioral scientists Douglas Kenrick, Noah Goldstein and Sanford Braver affirm, “For well over 50 years, researchers have been applying a rigorous scientific approach to the question of which messages most successfully lead people to concede, comply, or change.  Scientists have long employed a set of systematic procedures for discovering and replicating findings, including persuasion findings.  As a consequence, the study of persuasion no longer exists only as an ethereal art.  It is now a science that can reproduce its results.  What is more, whoever engages in the scientific process can reproduce its results.  Brilliant, inspired individuals are no longer necessary to divine the truth about persuasions, for a compelling new reason:  The power of discovery doesn’t reside, Socrates-style, inside the minds of a few persuasive geniuses anymore but inside the scientific process.”[11]

When sales people leverage the proven scientific principles of influence they will significantly increase their effectiveness.  This is due to the fact that information alone will rarely persuade a person to act.  What moves people is not mere information, but how that information is presented.  This is supported by hundreds of scientific studies that have conclusively proven that a person’s perception and interpretation of a persuasive message is shaped by how that message is conveyed.  As acclaimed social psychologists, Goldstein, Martin and Cialdini confidently assert, “everyone’s ability to persuade others can be improved by learning persuasion strategies that have been scientifically proven to be successful.  Even people who consider themselves persuasion lightweights – people who feel they couldn’t convince a child to play with toys – can learn to become persuasion heavyweights by understanding the psychology of persuasion and by using the specific persuasion strategies that have been scientifically proven to be effective.”[12] 

Understanding the principles of the science of influence is an indispensable part of practical wisdom.  When sales people align their behaviors with proven science they become more effective and their ability to adapt to each unique prospect is enhanced.  Without a firm grasp of this science, sales people will often inadvertently sell in ways that oppose science.  This is harmful to the sale because when sales people sell against science they are behaving in a way that obstructs influence.  This is not only an unprofitable business practice, but it also diminishes practical wisdom.


For sales people, practical wisdom is a mission critical skill.  Through growing in each of the three previously mentioned components of practical wisdom sales people will be able to increase their ability to successfully adapt.  This is essential since a sales person’s aptitude for practical wisdom will be a deciding factor in the level of sales production that he or she generates.   The reality is that sales people who do not have practical wisdom will struggle and so will the companies they represent.  

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[1] Aristotle.  Nicomachean Ethics.  (New York:  Library of Liberal Art, 1962).
[2] David Mayer and Herbert Greenberg.  “What Makes a Good Salesman?”  Harvard Business Review, July – August, 2006.
[3] Bruce Pilling and Sevo Eroglu.  “An Empirical Examination of the Impact of Salesperson Empathy and Professionalism and Merchandise Salability on Retail Buyers’ Evaluations.”  Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, Winter, 1994.
[4] Daniel Goleman.  Working with Emotional Intelligence.  (New York: Bantam Books, 2006).  p. 170.
[5] S.D. Preston and F.B.M. de Waal.  “Empathy:  Its ultimate and proximate bases.”  Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25, 2002.  p. 1 – 72.
[6] Richard Davidson, Daren Jackson and Ned Kalin.  “Emotion, Plasticity, Contest, and Regulation:  Perspectives From Affective Neuroscience.”  Psychological Bulletin, 126, no. 6.  (2000).  p. 890 – 909.
[7] Pierce J. Howard,  The Owner’s Manual For The Brain.  (Austin, Texas:  Bard Press, 2006), 495.
[8] Cameron Carter, Angus Macdonald, Stefan Ursu, Andy Stenger, Myeong Ho Sohn, and John Anderson.  “How the Brain Gets Ready to Perform.”  (presented at the 30th annual meeting of the Society of Neuroscience, New Orleans, November 2000).
[9] J.E. Zull. The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning.  (Sterling, VA: Stylus, 2002).  p. 99.
[10] Gerald Edelman.  Neural Darwinism:  The Theory of Neuronal Groups Selection.  (New York:  Basic Books, 1987.  p. 58.
[11] Douglas T. Kenrick, Noah J. Goldstein and Sanford Braver (eds.).  Six Degrees of Social Influence.   (Oxford:  Oxford Press, 2012).  p. vii.
[12] Noah Goldstein, Steve Martin and Robert Cialdini.  Yes!  50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive.  (New York:  Free Press, 2008).  p. 2, 5 – 6.

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