The Buddhist Eightfold Path of Mindful Sales #1: Right Speech

Years ago, I took a massive risk by sharing a part of myself with colleagues that had been hidden away, at least professionally, for years.  After starting a new role with a company, I decided to start sharing a bit more about how I navigated through the ups and downs of a life in sales.

The proverbial toe in water moment came as I set up my new desk with family photos, a few carefully placed bobbleheads, and one tiny yet profound book titled The Dalai Lama on What Matters Most: Conversations on Anger, Compassion, and Action.

The book is a transcription of an interview from prominent cultural anthropologist Noriyuuki Ueda with the Dalai Lama.  Before securing this desk, I was a field sales rep whose desk included a steering wheel and a stack of notebooks in my car’s passenger seat.  Ueda’s small, powerful book acted as an anchor for me as I journeyed through the stressful world of medical device sales.

The book became a catalyst for conversations between myself and co-workers about my Buddhist practice, specifically meditation and its role in my sales career.

But meditation was not the only Buddhist tradition that I brought with me to sales.

Over the next eight posts, I will be discussing one of the most impactful Buddhist concepts: The Eightfold Path, which consists of eight practices, including:

  • Right Speech
  • Right Understanding
  • Right Intent
  • Right Action
  • Right Livelihood
  • Right Effort
  • Right Mindfulness
  • Right Concentration

These practices are a practical set of instructions to help align your intentions with your values. In doing so, it will lead you towards happiness and liberation.

Right Speech

There is no arguing that the words and tone we use can either make or break a conversation.

Countless sales gurus thought leaders, and wordsmiths galore are willing and able to offer their expert opinion and data-backed insight into precisely what you should say and even when you should say it.

But this isn’t an article about which words to use and when.

It’s about aligning your intentions with your values and using skillful communication with peers, clients, and yourself.

It’s important to note that the use of the word “Right” is not a moral judgment to be contrasted with bad or wrong but means “leading to happiness for oneself and others.”

The Buddha defined Right Speech as “abstinence from false speech, abstinence from malicious speech, abstinence from harsh speech, and abstinence from idle chatter.”

In simple terms, this means not lying, not using words in ways that may create conflict or hostility in others, not using cynical or hostile words or tone of voice, and refraining from gossip.

When reframed positively, these guidelines help us speak truthfully, promote partnership and harmony with others, use a tone of voice that is pleasing, kind, gentle, and speak mindfully so that our words are useful, relevant, and purposeful.

Admittedly, right or skillful speech is one of the most challenging practices to adhere to in a life of sales.  Lying is counterproductive, especially in a technologically mature society where everyone is connected and can share their thoughts and experiences at the snap of their fingers.

Fortunately, bro culture’s glorification of cutthroat sales tactics is coming to an end.  Saying and doing whatever it takes to close the deal is as antiquated as Don Draper’s Brylcreem pomade.

At its core, Right Speech is a mindfulness practice that manifests greater awareness of body, mind, our emotions, and the habitual reactions that arise.  Mindfulness, which is cultivated through meditation, allows us the space to recognize what we are about to say before we say it and provides us the opportunity to choose when to speak, what to say, and how to say it.

Right Listening

To truly cultivate skillful communication or Right Speech, it’s necessary to discuss the importance of what can be called Right Listening.

Right Listening goes beyond the simple dictionary definition, which describes listening as “the ability to receive and interpret messages in the communication process accurately.”

Effective listening, or what Chris Voss describes as Active Listening, engages all senses and brings the listener’s attention to the present moment.  To actively experience what’s being said and communicated to us, we must focus on the tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, pauses, underlying meanings, and nuances that accompany others’ spoken words as well as the words used.

It’s no surprise that data shows sellers to be more effective when they talk less and listen. The highest producing B2B sales professionals speak 43% of the time (on average), allowing the prospect to speak 57% (on average).

Thankfully Conversation Intelligence platforms like SalesLoft and Gong exist, which enable sellers to analyze the length of talk time and identify tone, keywords, and more.

Here are a few ways that help me cultivate Right Speech as a seller:

Be Direct

A common thread that weaves itself through the idea of Right Speech or skillful communication is speaking truthfully.

The truth (or lack thereof) can manifest itself in various ways throughout a sales cycle.

For example, there are countless tips and tricks that we have ALL used while cold calling or emailing prospects.  Everything from clickbait subject lines to disruptive talk tracks on the phone, we go to great lengths at times to cut through the noise and start conversations with our prospects.

Although these techniques aren’t explicitly dishonest, there is a sense of manipulation at times, which could lead the person on the other end of the phone or email feeling like they have been tricked into having a conversation.

I’ve found that being direct, honest, and, most importantly, relevant can be an effective technique.

Here’s what the typical cold call format looks like for me:

Hi (Prospect), this is Keith with SalesLoft. How’s your (Day of the week)?

I know that I just jumped into your day but if I commit to being brief, can I give you the reason why I’m reaching out?

(Hypothesis > Value Prop > CTA)

In addition to prospecting, it’s important to be direct in other areas of the sales funnel as well.  I do this by sharing a Mutual Success Plan with the customer’s key criteria at the start and end of each call, which acts as both a plan for the current call and a blueprint for the next steps.

Setting expectations and following a Mutual Success Plan ensures that the conversation stays on track and clarifies agendas at every opportunity stage.

Be Compassionate

For clarity, compassion is not the same as empathy, which is one of the biggest buzzwords in sales at the moment.  Though the concepts are similar, empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel another person’s emotions. In contrast, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help.

With that said, the ups and downs of sales can quickly begin to eat away at our very core, leaving us frustrated, irritated, and generally down in the dumps.  At times, these feelings are projected outward towards family, friends, co-workers, and even prospects and customers.

It can be challenging to remain compassionate after a day of being rejected left and right on the phone and email.

I’ve found meditation to be the easiest way to set my intentions before meetings and long stretches of prospecting activities.  I’m a massive believer in blocking each activity into chunks to focus my attention on the task at hand.  It’s helpful to start each block of time with a short 5-minute breath meditation.

But there are times when 5 minutes of breathing just isn’t enough.

When I have a negotiation call or a meeting with a potentially difficult prospect or customer, I will engage in a more focused meditation called tonglen or “taking and sending” meditation.

Essentially, tonglen is a technique where we visualize taking in others’ pain with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath.  I start by imagining someone I love and then moving on to those I feel neutral about, and finally, those I find to be challenging or may even dislike.

By practicing this type of visualization meditation, I can expand my compassion, which allows me to be more mindful about how I react in certain tense or difficult situations.

Don’t Gossip

There’s no question that talking about people positively or negatively has a certain sense of allure.  Not only can it provide us a sense of relief, but it’s also a way to connect with others (not the people we’re talking about, obviously).

Gossip is defined in various ways.  From merely sharing information about someone who isn’t present to false rumors insidiously spread, to idle chit chat.  An important question to ask is what is our motivation when we talk about others?

From a Buddhist perspective, the value of our speech depends principally upon the motivation behind it.

Being aware of our motivations, and understanding their root, is essential when determining if certain speech falls under the category of gossip.  Again, meditation and the space it provides us when noticing our motivation and setting intention become extremely powerful.

Tips to Stop Gossiping:

Speak about someone as if they are in the room.

Practice saying something kind to someone every day, especially people you find difficult or challenging.

Forgive and understand that everyone is suffering in some form, and sometimes their actions are direct reflections of that suffering.

I’ve found the best antidote for gossiping is a consistent meditation practice, specifically one focused on cultivating loving-kindness towards others.  Allowing yourself time to sit and reflect on the day and cultivating gratitude for the opportunity to serve your customers is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself in a career in sales.

Next, in this eight-part series: Right Understanding.