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Handling Volatile Situations

Furniture World Magazine


How managers can make use of presuppositions to avoid nasty confrontations with their salespeople.

As in the last issue, again we'll draw from Suzette Haden Elgin's book, "How to Disagree without Being Disagree-able," this time to help managers use presuppositions when handling potentially volatile situations with their workers.

While I have written my own scenarios to better fit the working environment of our industry, I strongly advise my readers to study Doctor Elgin's Chapter Seven, "Using Presupposi-tions." By doing that they should be able both to understand this article better and to increase their overall knowledge of presuppositions.

The fictitious scenarios I have chosen should be familiar to those experienced in managing a furniture store.


Jim has been selling bedding for thirty years. He has always been either the top bedding salesperson or a close second to the top salesperson. He has worked at Morpheus Sleep Shop for the past two years.

Recently Morpheus Sleep Shop hired a new manager, Janet, who has had little personal experience selling bedding. Her management experience includes increasing the bedding business of a furniture store that was doing next to no bedding business to very high levels.

When we meet with Janet in this scenario, she is about to engage in her first biannual appraisal of Jim. She's not comfortable with this assignment. Jim has a lot of weight in this company and loves to throw it around. He has been number one at Morpheus Sleep Shop for twelve months in a row, yet the owner is not entirely happy with Jim. He sells very few of the top sleepsets in the store's line-up. "Who cares?" he was heard to say more than once. "The bank doesn't ask me how many of my top beds I've sold. They only look at the bottom line, and so do I. So should my boss. If they don't appreciate me, I can go to any other store in the city and they'll welcome me with open arms." While Janet, like her boss, appreciated Jim's volume, she too knew that the company was losing a substantial amount of money because Jim neglected to sell enough of the top beds. So did Jim. More importantly, while many of Jim's customers ended up sleeping on good and better beds, too few of them ended up on what they truly needed and deserved--the best beds Morpheus Sleep Shop sold. Here's how Janet handled the situation.


Janet: (Taking a deep breath, she says to herself: Well, I might as well get this over with). Jim, you're simply not selling enough of our top beds. You're short-changing our customers, the company, and yourself. You'll have to do better, much better!

Jim: (To himself: I knew this was coming). Not so fast. What do you mean I don't sell enough top bedding. I certainly sell my share. You're exaggerating the situation.

Janet: (Pulling out the computerized reports) Look, Jim. Here are the facts in black and white. First three months, six top beds, last three months, two top beds. These reports don't lie.

Jim: I knew you were going to do this. I just knew it. OR. You made your point. I don't sell a lot of the top beds. Big deal. Does your report also show that I'm by far your top salesperson? Well, does it?

Janet: (To herself: I knew this was coming). Jim, we all know you're

our top salesperson. That's not what we're questioning, and...

Jim: all right. I've been through this before with our last manager.

You're not happy with me

Janet: Jim, it's not that we're not happy with your volume, but...

Jim: You're happy but you're not really happy. Well, let's see how happy the boss will be when you tell him I quit.

Jim stands up and without saying another word storms out of Janet's office.


What happened in this scenario? Some good things, some bad things. Let's discuss some of the bad things that might have been avoided and replaced with good things.

1. Jim lost face. Forget the fact that he played a part in his own loss of face. He knows he should be selling more of the top beds but down deep he lacks the conviction and the confidence that he can. He feels both angry and diffident and even a little guilty. He doesn't really want to quit, but his self-esteem stands in the way. The fact that he is a man and Janet a woman has not made Janet's challenge any easier.

2. Meanwhile, Janet isn't feeling great either. She didn't really want to go head-to-head with Jim. She would have preferred putting this appraisal off. She foresaw the result. She now believes that either of two things is going to happen. Jim will quit as he threatened to, or the boss will ask her to back paddle and get Jim to reconsider. The latter will surely leave her authority diminished. The former will bite into the bottom line. High volume writers like Jim don't turn up every week.

Let's consider how Janet's skills at using presuppositions might have salvaged the situation. Let's examine the first type of presupposition which Doctor Elgin teaches, namely, that called nominalization.


To understand nominalizations it helps to understand the difference between nouns, adjectives, and verbs, and in addition, to know the difference between subject and predicate. For example, in a normal declarative sentence, the subject comes first, followed by the predicate, namely, that which tells you what the subject does or is. In the sentence, "You are selling too few of our top beds," the subject is you, while the rest of the sentence is the predicate. As the sentence stands, the one being addressed, like Jim, will find himself being accused and therefore hurt, angry, embarrassed, disappointed, etc. Through the nominalization of the predicate, that is, by making the predicate the subject, the person being addressed is not made to hear a personal attack. Thus, through nominalization, Jim can hear something like the following: "Not selling enough top beds is unproductive for all concerned." If you read February's article, you will recognize that nominalization has the virtues of computing, that is, it removes personal and hostile words and replaces them with abstract and non-confrontational ones.

Doctor Elgin gives an excellent example of how nominalization works, the gist of whose scenario is reproduced with some changes as follows.

Ann: Becky, your mom can't cook. I'm finding it difficult to imagine what she threw into this soup.

Becky: Cooking has become more important in the last ten years, hasn't it?"

Ann: You're darn right. Cooking is important.

Becky: Right. It sure is. Say, Mary tells me you're an expert at Italian cooking.

Ann: I do alright, but I wouldn't go that far.

Becky: Now don't be so modest. I'll bet you can show me why my meatballs don't turn out very tender.

Granted, this scenario may be a bit easier to defuse than the one between Janet and Jim, but the principle of nominalization can work equally well in both. Let's show how Janet might have made use of nominalization in handling Jim's situation.


Janet: Jim, selling an adequate number of our top beds is important to all three of the bottom lines: the customer's, yours, and the store's. Let's talk about this.

Jim: Sure, what do you have in mind?

Janet: Jim, I need your input in this. I need to hear from you why your overall volume is the best we have while your sales of our top numbers is lagging behind.

Jim: Are those sales really that bad?

Janet: Let me be honest, Jim. They wouldn't be as apparently low if you didn't do the high volume you write, but here, take a look at your progress report. What do you see?

Jim: OK. I don't sell a lot of the top numbers, but there's a reason for that.

Janet: (Avoiding the assumption that she knows why, she clarifies) What is your reason, Jim?

Jim: The average customer doesn't want to buy our top beds. They either can't afford them or don't perceive the need.

Janet: Tell me more.

Jim: Janet, you've never sold bedding. Do you know how risky it is to try to sell something the customer won't buy?

Janet: I admit, Jim, I don't have your experience. But tell me Jim, you're great at selling a lot of our premium beds that are not at the top. Right?

Jim: Yes, but I don't see your point.

Janet: I have three of our salespeople... think you know which ones I mean--who wish they could do as well as you. Where are they failing, Jim?

Jim: I know which ones you mean. They think every customer that walks in is a pauper and can only afford a $399.00 set at best.

Janet: So where do you think their weakness is?

Jim: They don't qualify enough.

Janet: Jim, let's see if I've understood you. You don't sell more of the top beds because you feel it would seriously bite into your overall volume of all your other sales. Right?

Jim: Right. I can't afford to jeopardize my overall volume.

Janet: And you also are convinced that our weaker salespeople don't sell at your level because they don't qualify their customers well.

Jim: I'm convinced of that.

Janet: Jim, I'm going to ask you to give my next question your honest reflection.

Jim: Shoot.

Janet: Is it possible, Jim, that the reason you don't sell more of our top beds is the very same reason our weaker salespeople do so poorly. I mean, Jim, is it possible that you too are selling some of your customers short?

Jim: Well, I don't know I really don't know.

Janet: Jim, we need your help and desperately. We're satisfied with your volume.

Jim: I'm happy to hear that!

Janet: And we need to get you and our other top salespeople selling more of our top beds. Any ideas on how we can get you to start doing that without letting your high volume suffer?


How different this scenario from the first, and it all started out by defusing the situation through nominalization. Along the way, Janet showed some other skills too like those of acknowledging, clarifying, confirming, giving balanced feedback, and exploring ideas. Nevertheless, she might never have reached the point of the other skills if she had not used the skill of nominalization.

I urge my readers to read Doctor Elgin's seventh chapter and to study what she has to say about the other presuppositions, both those to use and those to avoid.

Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furninfo.com.