Tools for Constructive Tension

I am fascinated by conflict and tension because there are two extremes. On one end, some people seem to hate conflict like Mister Rogers. Is he not the friendliest person on earth? I imagine him avoiding conflict. On the other hand, Simon Cowel takes the tension to an unnecessary level. Each end of the spectrum faces challenges; those who avoid tension can be taken advantage of, and those who seek tension can grate on others' nerves. However, if you apply tension with the right pressure, you will inspire change in others.

Consider if you had a loved one who needs to improve their health. If you are too aggressive, it can be off-putting, and if you never address the issue, it may appear as if you don't care. If you apply tension in the right way, you will inspire action. The same goes for clients. If you use constructive tension appropriately, you will encourage them to take action. This article will discuss self-awareness and then five approaches to increase or decrease constructive tension.


Part 1: Self-awareness. You have to be brutally honest about your ability to handle tension. Identify how comfortable you are with tension on a scale from 1 to 10. The number "one" is you can't deal with it like Mr. Rogers and the number "ten" you love it like Simon Cowell. Rate yourself now.


If you rated yourself a 10, you need to know how to decrease tension and if you rated yourself 7 or below, you need to learn how to increase tension. If you rated yourself an 8 or 9, congratulations, but before you pat yourself on the back, spend your energy on focusing how you can improve your tact. Getting more comfortable with conflict or tension isn't easy, but it can do wonders in your life. You will command more respect, save time, or inspire change.

Part 2: Five practical approaches to increase or decrease tension.

1. Silence vs. talking. It is effortless to talk, overshare, and speak too much when silence is what is needed. We avoid silence because when it becomes uncomfortable, talking makes us feel more comfortable. After you ask an insightful or challenging question, stay silent. If you speak too early, it will ruin the impact of your question. Let the prospect ponder, think and most importantly, wait for them to respond before you speak. To fight the temptation of destroying silence on zoom calls, I will run my phone stopwatch to keep from speaking. It is incredible how 15 seconds of silence isn't that long, but it feels like forever when you broach a challenging topic.

2. Concise vs. verbose. When you go on and on, it reduces tension. Over-explaining comes across as if you are justifying or uncomfortable. Imagine if someone said this out loud, "you really should increase your cash flow through debt because it reduces risk, keeps you prepared for downturns; many clients are doing this right now, it's an easy process, and rates are attractive." Stop! Too much!

Now imagine if they said this, "you should increase your cash flow through debt to capitalize on opportunities during downturns."


When you are concise, it conveys confidence, and it makes it easier to follow if you can distill things down to the most salient points.


3. Direct vs. indirect. Are you comfortable getting straight to the point or do you beat around the bush? If you are indirect, it reduces tension, and it can be confusing. Keep in mind there is an element of local culture. Speaking directly in New York is very different from speaking directly when in California. When someone asks, "how did the presentation go?" In New York, there is no hesitancy to say, "I thought it went terrible!" In California, you would hear, "there were aspects of the presentation that went pretty well." Apply the directness that is appropriate in your market, and it is often 10-20% more direct than you believe it is. As much as we hate when people are direct many people secretly appreciate it because it doesn't waste time, it is refreshing, and few people tell us what we need to hear. If you deliver direct comments but also show you care, it is a powerful recipe for success.

4. More eye contact vs. less eye contact. When we avoid eye contact, it conveys that we are nervous, shy, or don't want to deal with the issue at hand. Jo Frost, the super nanny, instructs parents to hold eye contact because it shows you are serious. The same goes for clients. When you maintain eye contact in person or look into the camera on a video call, it can show that the topic or decision is essential and utilizes tension positively.


5. Challenging questions vs. easy questions. Unfortunately, too many people ask softball questions like Jimmy Fallon. These types of questions are bland and forgettable. Plus, you cannot support a client if you only ask them softball questions. Asking difficult questions shows you care and allows you to address the real issues your clients are facing.

The goal of constructive tension is not to intimidate the client like Simon Cowell, but to inspire the client to take action or engage in real dialogue that will benefit their business. Reflect on where you can make it too easy on your clients. Is it when they do not want to follow up with you, when they avoid making a decision, or when they do not like to discuss tough topics? Incorporating constructive tension into your toolkit can help you drive change, support your clients, and increase your sales success.

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