The 7 R's That Turn a Negative Conversation Positive

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Leslie Ye
Leslie Ye





When you work in a people-focused profession like sales, you’re bound to encounter conflict once in awhile.

Trying to persuade people to part with their money, make a strategic decision for their company, or generally shake things up -- no matter how beneficial purchasing your product will be for them -- dredges up a whole mess of emotion.

There’s fear that a bad investment might incur company losses or hurt an employee’s personal reputation. Maybe there’s suspicion that you’re selling snake oil or aren’t being 100% truthful. There might even be anger if your prospect’s expectations aren’t being met fast enough.

Of course, there are plenty of positive emotions salespeople can tap into as well. Excitement about fixing a business problem, hope that things will get better after implementing a new product, and the promise of positive accolades for a sound business decision are all sentiments that can motivate a prospect to act.

If possible, stay positive. While playing up a prospect’s fear of professional failure to incite them to make a change can spur a sale, going negative within reasonable limits is a tricky balance to strike and only increases the opportunity you’ll turn a prospect against you.

But what if you already have?

Kathleen Kelley Reardon, an author, management researcher, and professor at the USC Marshall School of Business, is here to help. In her recent Harvard Business Review article, “7 Things to Say When a Conversation Turns Negative,” she outlines seven strategies for turning a negative conversation positive. Try the most relevant tactic the next time you have a sales conversation that’s on the verge of going south.

1) Reframe

To reframe a negative conversation, “cast the issue in a different light,” Reardon writes.

Example: If a prospect calls your motives into question -- “You just want to make a sale so you can make some money” -- shift the conversation back onto productive ground. You could say, “My main objective here is to assess whether I think I can help you. If at any point in the conversation it seems like it’s not a good fit, I’ll tell you so I’m not wasting your time.”

2) Rephrase

Rephrasing means exactly what it sounds like. If your prospect starts describing a situation using negative language, rephrase what they say in a more positive light.

Example: Your prospect might say something like, “You’re forcing [recommendation] on me.” Rephrase their words like so: “A few companies I’ve worked with in the past have seen a lot of success with [recommendation]. Based on the information we’ve discussed about your goals and current strategies, that seems like the best option to me, but I’m happy to revisit this if I’m not on the right track.”

3) Revisit

One misstep can tank an entire successful relationship. But by revisiting past successes, you can remind your prospect that this specific failure isn’t the whole picture.

Example: You recently upsold your prospect on a secondary product, and the implementation has been judged a failure. Your prospect is furious and wants to cancel your contract. If they’ve found success using the initial product they purchased, try saying something like, “You’ve seen [success metric] over the past few years with us. I’d hate to see that progress halted because of this decision.”

4) Restate

A spin on rephrasing, restate prompts your prospect to correct themselves if they’ve gone too far.

Example: Reardon writes, “Give [your prospect] a chance to do the right thing. ‘Surely there’s another way to say that’ or ‘Did you mean what I think I heard?’ are useful ways to encourage a person to reconsider and alter what was said.”

5) Request

This strategy will be familiar to all salespeople. If a prospect makes an ambiguous statement that sounds negative, press them to provide more detail to clarify whether your impression was correct instead of diving right into damage control.

Example: If your prospect says, “Your product doesn’t do X in the same way as [competitor]!”, your instinct might be to dive right into a strident defense of your product. But pause and dig deeper before you apologize or start rattling off a list of competitive advantages. Is this really a problem, or is your prospect going in another direction?

6) Rebalance

It’s natural to get upset if your prospect gets emotional and starts throwing around personal insults or attacking your company. But giving into your own emotions is to give up your agency in the situation. Stay calm to rebalance power in your relationship with your prospect.

Example: If your prospect’s incredibly rude to you on the phone, never be rude back. Not only have you damaged your reputation, you’ve also given your prospect more ammunition. Instead, keep a cool head and respond with something like, “We never like to leave our customers dissatisfied. Let’s dig into the specifics of why you feel that way.”

7) Reorganize

Sometimes, people get so caught up in the little details they lose sight of the big picture. You can keep them on track by reorganizing what your prospect cares about -- if they’re getting lost in the weeds, remind them of their ultimate goals.

Example: Say you sell training to sales organizations. You’re in late-stage talks with a manager of 15 salespeople. Her boss has just let her know the company needs to hire five more reps in the next quarter, and now she’s worried that the influx of new employees will be too much to handle in addition to implementing training and wants to hold off indefinitely.

Instead of letting the deal slip through your fingers, you could remind the prospect that the new salespeople will still need to be trained. Reardon suggests a soundbite like, “We seem to agree on the need but are having some difficulty with the how. Let’s figure out how to deliver this training in a way that works with your new hiring schedule.”

The next time you’re in a tense sales meeting and tension rears its ugly head, try using any of these seven strategies to steer the conversation back on a productive track.

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