Key to Character: The Self-Image


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One of the few men able to influence President Woodrow Wilson was Colonel Edward House. Why? Because early in their relationship, House discovered that Wilson could not stand being told what to do by anyone. Somewhat childishly, the President was incapable of admitting that his knowledge of any subject was insufficient or limited.

“After I got to know Mr. Wilson,” House once reported, “I learned that the best way to convert him to an idea was to plant it in his mind casually, but so as to interest him in it, to get him thinking about it on his own account. The first time this worked, it was an accident. I had been visiting with him at the White House and urged a policy on him that he appeared to disapprove. But several days later, at the dinner table, I was amazed to hear him trot out my suggestion as his own.”

It was largely in this way that House established his tremendous hold over Wilson.


Because Colonel House was keen enough to recognize President Wilson’s “self-image,” that of a totally self-sufficient, completely knowledgeable man and then use it when he thought it necessary.

To some extent, each of us entertains a somewhat distorted notion of the kind of person he is, and this self-image is a reliable clue to our character. Learn what a person’s self-image is, how he sees himself, and you have one important key to what makes him tick.

One man, for example, may picture himself as the epitome of all the major virtues, a born leader, better than most people. Another may view himself as possessed of a keen analytical mind, unswayed by emotional considerations. A third may entertain an image of himself as a great innovator and idea man.

As a general rule, people tend to respond positively to those external forces that affirm their own opinions of themselves and negatively to those external forces that deny their self-images.

If you wanted three such men to wear their safety helmets on the job, for example, you would be wise to approach them in terms of their individual self-images.

To the first, your most effective appeal might be, “Everybody looks up to you, Joe. If you made a point of wearing the helmet, the others would follow your lead.”

To the second, the approach that worked best might be, “Those helmets have reduced head injuries more than 90 percent wherever they’ve been used in our industry, Harry. Don’t you agree that they’re worth using?”

The third man would be most apt to respond to something like this:

“You’re a bright buy, George. I don’t have to draw pictures for you on the subject of safety. These helmets have tested out and we want all your men to take advantage of the latest safety equipment.”

What have you really done in each case? You’ve put what you want done in terms of each individual’s self-image.

A bit childish? Maybe. Immature? Perhaps.

But it works.

When They Say, “We’re Satisfied, Why change?”

While there are a number of persuasive answers to this exasperating sales objection, they all share one strategy. Regardless of the product or service concerned, when a prospect pleads satisfaction with the status quo, the sales person must sell constructive dissatisfaction.

One effective way of doing that is to change the frame of reference.

People tend to become rigid in their thinking, to see things in one way and one way only. The person used to judging the value of a product according to its price is apt to use price as the frame of reference for all other products. The person to whom efficiency of operation is most important will consider efficiency the sole touchstone of value for other products. Another may consider durability the ultimate test of value.

If the salesman can introduce another consideration, however, thereby altering the prospect’s frame of reference, he may break through this resistance to change. By calling attention to other things, he enlarges—or shifts—the criteria by which the product is judged.

Some examples of “changing the frame of reference”:

“That cooling system does a pretty good job, all right. Too bad it’s so noisy.”

“True, your present machine is turning out your product at a profit. But will it still be making money for you in 2010, when your volume requirements will be higher?”

“Our fertilizer isn’t much different from the brand you’re using, I admit. But it comes in 20-pound bags that one man can easily handle.”

Suggests a sales rep for a valve manufacturer: “It doesn’t matter what your product or service is. Examine it from every conceivable point of view until you find at least three new advantages in using it. Will it improve employee morale? Does it eliminate bad odors? Might it reduce leg work? Will it impress your prospect’s customers? You never know what consideration will change a person’s perceptions. Therefore, the sales pro draws up a mental list of as many new reasons for discontent as he possibly can. If one doesn’t budge the prospect who is satisfied with his current supplier, then he tries another. And another. And, if necessary, still another.”

When was the Last Time you…


  • Reviewed your day’s activities with a view toward delegating some of the details?
  • Analyzed past mistakes in order to improve your future performance?
  • Made your people aware that you appreciate their efforts?
  • Asked your people for their ideas on a subject that has you stumped? Investigated the possibility of using new equipment in your department or business that would make you more efficient?
  • Called upon your trade association for specialized information or help?