EPISODE 593: Trauma – The Hidden Threat to Salespeople’s Health and Performance with Dan King

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DAN’S TIP:  “If you’re having a struggle, I think the first thing to acknowledge is – and this is a hard thing to remember in moments of struggle, but life can actually be incredible. Life can be a mind blowingly wonderful experience, but with those wonderful experiences come discomfort. I think just checking in with yourself and understanding first and foremost, if I’m feeling uncomfortable, I’m okay with it. But I also know in the long term, it doesn’t have to be this way. “


Fred Diamond: Dan, the topic of today’s show is Trauma: The Hidden Threat to Salespeople’s Health and Performance. Like I had told you, mental health, we talk about it every third show. Sometimes, it’s just glazing over the top. “You should meditate, you should breathe, talk to a friend,” and I want to get a little bit deeper. Give a little bit of a perspective on why I brought you onto today’s show and what it is that you specifically do. Then I want to get really deep into how sales professionals can be more conscious of their mental health, and how sales leaders can be more conscious of the mental health of the people on their team.

Dan King: Thank you for having me, Fred. It is always a pleasure to speak with you. I always learn so much from you. A major reason why I’m here is that we do want to go deeper into mental health. We don’t just want to speak of it at a surface level. It’s one thing to understand that our society is deeply struggling with it. It’s another thing to understand why and what can we do about it. For a living these days, I buy mental health practices and I grow them. I run a private equity holding company. But before that, I was a lawyer and a salesperson. Today I have absolutely nothing to sell you, mister or miss member of the audience. I’m here because this is just a super important subject and it’s vitally important to raise our awareness of it.

Why does this matter for salespeople? Well, sales people are often very socially sensitive. They are the kind of person that love other people usually. Even if you’re not an extrovert, you don’t have to be to be a great salesperson. You are going to spend a lot of your time with people. This means you need to understand how to relate to them at a deep level. One of the most important truths about relating to anyone is you got to relate to them and their trauma.

What do I mean by trauma? We all have what I would call stuck emotional energy in our bodies. We speak about mental health, we speak about changing our brains to improve our health and our performance. Trauma takes us a level deeper. As humans, we aren’t just brains, we’re bodies as well. It’s really important to understand that lodged deep in our bodies, there is energy, there is pain, there is suffering. This may sound a little woo-woo, but science is really, really clear now that when we run into challenging situations in our life that we struggle to process, what happens is – and I can go deep into how this happens if it’s of interest – guilt, fear, anger, shame. All these uncomfortable emotions, they’re lodged in our bodies. Whenever we have a challenging conversation with someone, when we realize that someone isn’t woken up on the right side of the bed, this could very well be a big reason for that and many of the health problems that we’re all struggling with as a society.

Fred Diamond: What does that mean when you say the emotions are stuck in your body?

Dan King: Humans are animals, first and foremost. We don’t realize it because we have more powerful brains than most animals. But think about a prey animal that’s running in the African Savannah. A lion or a leopard could eat them. What happens in those moments when that prey animal is confronted with a big, powerful lion? Well, there’s three things that could happen. There’s fight or flight. They could try to fight, but the lion’s pretty strong, so it’s probably not going to go well. They could try to flee, but if it’s a leopard, those are fast. I don’t know that they’ll be able to escape. Then there’s a third response, which is freeze.

Imagine that you’re a salesperson. You’re in an extremely challenging situation. You’re young, you have this huge account, and it could make or break your career. Things could go really well if you get it. You think you’ve got it, and you’ve been told that it’s going to close. All of a sudden you realize it’s not going to. You realize that you made a major mistake. Like that prey animal, you might freeze.

Now, in contrast to other animals, humans, when they freeze, when they encounter a situation that’s a real struggle for them to process, they often don’t finish that freezing response. The guilt, the anger, the fear, the shame in that moment that you’re experiencing, if you don’t finish it, if you don’t let it flow through your body, which most of us don’t, because we don’t know how to process the situation, it actually gets stuck in our nervous systems. It can be lodged there very deeply, and the consequences are really bad.

Fred Diamond: Have you ever read the book The Emotion Code?

Dan King: I have not.

Fred Diamond: I forget the name of the author, but he goes deep into the emotions that are stuck into your body and how you can release them. It’s a pretty fascinating type of a thing. Again, I mentioned in the beginning that a lot of people will just throw out mental health and, “We need a mental health day,” or, “Actually, everybody, you know what? Take an extra hour and go walk at the ocean.” But let’s talk about that versus what I had alluded to in the beginning, the real deep-seeded type of mental health challenges. Do you see those? Am I correct in my assessment that what’s happened over the last couple of years has really accelerated some of the deep-seeded emotional challenges that you had alluded to, is this really a problem out there?

Dan King: It’s a huge problem. Let me say, just for the audience’s background, I’m not a clinical psychologist, nor am I a trauma therapist. But I am what’s called trauma informed, which means that I’ve studied trauma. I’ve read a great deal about it. I have experienced it myself under the care of a trauma therapist. I can tell you right now that it is a huge, huge problem in our society at the moment. It’s great that we’re now more aware of mental health, that we talk about it openly, that the stigma is diminished, but that doesn’t mean that these problems are solved. I think because so much of it is beneath the surface, because so much of it is lodged in our bodies – and as a society, we’re not aware of our bodies. We spend most of our time in our head. As white collar professionals, we’re thinking all the time. When you think, you lose connection to your body. It’s just the reality of things. Animals don’t have this problem because they’re not thinking all the time, but as humans we do. Our fears and our worries lodge us even deeper in our brains. In this pandemic moment, there’s so much to worry about. There’s so much to be afraid of. That’s a reason why this is a huge problem right now.

Fred Diamond: It’s interesting too because, again, on the Sales Game Changers Podcast, and we talk about high performance. We talk about grit. We talk about the fact that the sales organization has and will continue to be the organization and the company that is moving your company forward out of the challenge. Actually, we’re going into some potentially even additional challenges with macro level type things. There’s a lot of pressure on salespeople. I want to talk from a simple level. Again, I had alluded to the fact that mental health day, “Take an hour, go to the beach.” What would be some of your recommendations for those simple types of, “Gee, I’m having a bad day.” Then I want to get deeper into the deep-seeded type of mental challenges that people may be facing in sales right now. But from a top level, if the sales professional listening today really is just having a struggle, what are some of your recommendations for that?

Dan King: If you’re having a struggle, I think the first thing to acknowledge is – and this is a hard thing to remember in moments of struggle, but life can actually be incredible. Life can be a mind blowingly wonderful experience, but with those wonderful experiences come discomfort. I think just checking in with yourself and understanding first and foremost, if I’m feeling uncomfortable, I’m okay with it. But I also know in the long term, it doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s acknowledge the way things are. Let’s not try to force ourselves to change. Let’s be okay with the fact that there’s some discomfort, but let’s also appreciate that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are deep things you can do to heal, very deep things that are rarely discussed. I think just checking in with yourself and being honest in that respect, not judging yourself harshly, but also not accepting in the long term that you have to suffer and be in a great deal of pain. It doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

Fred Diamond: Again, we’re talking sales here and the way some people, when they say, “How do you describe sales?” It’s like, “Ugh. Ugh. Yay.” Then you get something like a return email from a prospect. You mentioned in the beginning of the call, you have this deal you’re working on, you expect it to close. Maybe you’re early in your career, you don’t know all of the signs. We have to be aware of what’s really going on with the customer. But when you have those wins, do you recommend that people celebrate? I’m just curious, how should a sales professional be celebrating those moments so that they can live in those?

Dan King: I love the question. One of the big things that improved my own sales performance is a gratitude practice. It’s a very embodied willingness to celebrate. Not just to say yay, but to authentically, in your body, feel excited. Because if you did something impressive, that is worth celebrating. Sales, as you say, is often a struggle. In those moments when something great happens, I think if you can authentically be grateful for it, you can feel deep down in your body, “Yes, this happened. This is worthy of celebration,” I absolutely recommend people do that.

Gratitude is one of the most science-based ways to improve our mental health. As sales professionals with so many dangers to our mental health, I think it’s vitally important that we have a gratitude practice. If there’s one simple thing I can recommend, and we’re not even talking about trauma here, just one simple mental health practice, Google around gratitude practice. Find something simple, find something on YouTube. If you really stick with it, you’d be amazed at how your mental health and experience of the day-to-day can improve.

Fred Diamond: There’s so many things to be grateful for. The fact that if you’re listening to this podcast right now, you have access to technology and you are self-aware enough to know that there are some experts out there that can help you, and that you are a high performer, and that you have recognized that something is in the way. Let’s get a little bit deeper now. Again, trauma. There’s been so many traumatic things.

One of the things that’s happened over the course of the last couple of years is that the circumstances related to the pandemic and COVID and everything else have added stress levels and have caused unseeded trauma to come to the surface for a lot of people. Trauma that might have been repressed for decades and scores potentially. Let’s say you’re a high-performing sales professional and all of a sudden you’re faced with that. You’re faced with some things that happened a long, long time ago, and now they’ve reared themselves. Let’s talk about things that you should be doing. Then let’s talk about, from a leadership perspective, how you should be aware of this as they may be affecting your team members.

Dan King: I love the questions, Fred. I think what I’m going to do is tell you a little story about how this happened to me and pick up on this key theme that you mentioned, that it could have been repressed for decades. That’s absolutely true, because remember, it’s lodged in the body. In fact, about nine years ago, nearly a decade ago, I left a very stable career path in corporate law, making an easy six figure income. I had no idea what I was going to do. I just wanted to make a living without a boss. That was my sole plan. I did a number of things, but I found myself in a sales role. It was a sales role with one of the first companies that was running Facebook ads and teaching people how to build businesses off of Facebook ads.

I didn’t deeply believe in the product, but I sold it. This was a rapidly growing company. At the age of 27, 28, had I really done this for a full year, I could have made about three quarters of a million. It was a damn good gig. I didn’t deeply believe in it, but on the other hand, nothing else I was doing was working, and I was getting close to running out of money. I was feeling fear about that. But then on the other hand, I was feeling guilt that I was selling, effectively, this product that I didn’t deeply believe it. I got trapped and I internalized this energy of fear and guilt in my nervous system.

Lo and behold, five years later, I’m selling something I do believe in, my nervous system can’t tell the difference between that moment and five years ago. Because this energy of fear and guilt is lodged deep in there. In an analogous situation, in a situation that the nervous system perceives is similar to the moment when the trauma entered my nervous system, it’s going to come up and it’s going to sabotage my performance.

Let’s say you’re a sales manager and you’ve got a team member and you meet them and you think, “Man, this should be a hot shot. This is someone who should be top of the leaderboard,” and they’re not, and you’re wondering why. All the typical performance routines, the performance improvement approaches just haven’t worked. Yet you know on paper, and seeing this person’s skill level, you know they should be crushing it, and you wonder why they might not be. These are the sorts of deeper truths that might be at work here.

One of the world’s greatest experts in trauma is a man named Peter Levine. If you want to understand this at a deeper level, I highly recommend the book Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine. His work is called Somatic Experiencing. It’s a way to go into your body to see, pretty quickly, do I have trauma lodged in my nervous system and could it in any way be related to my work performance? The thing about this pandemic moment, to answer your question, Fred, about why now, well, all that’s repressed is coming out. While many of us struggle with that, it’s a good thing in some respects. It’s an opportunity to heal and to come to grips with all of this.

A somatic experiencing therapist, I can’t recommend that enough for those that really feel there’s something possibly at work here. If you feel a really high level of stress when it comes to work, if you’re a salesperson who knows you’ve got a ton of ability, and for whatever reason things aren’t quite lining up for you and it’s been years of middling performance when you know you’re capable of so much more, somatic experiencing is a very powerful way to determine, is there something really, really deep stuck within me? If so, it’s a beautiful journey in the end to unlock really high levels of performance.

Fred Diamond: Let’s talk about, again, sales leaders. We have a lot of sales leaders who listen to the show. What are some things that they can be looking for at their performance? You said a couple of interesting things here that you tried all the usual stuff, performance improvement plans, PIPs, and maybe recommendations on strategies, making additional phone calls, coaching, things like that. But when this deep-seeded trauma’s in there, man, again, sometimes you just don’t see it. Then you wake up and it’s like, “Geez, what happened to the last three years of my life?” You went through living, you thought you were conscious, and then all of a sudden some event happens to say, “Well, I was way off base.” From a sales leader perspective, what are some signs to look for and is it possible to see the signs?

Dan King: One of the first things I would say is that trauma’s relational. If we take the time to really get to know someone well, and this may sound a little woo-woo, but we shift into our own bodies and really deeply listen to someone, and we ask them some questions to say, “What was that last call like for you? What did you experience? What was going through your body?” We open ourselves, we open our hearts to the other person that we’re speaking with, our team member. You can actually start to feel – and you can do this with prospects as well – you can start to feel what’s going on in their nervous system.

As humans, we’re all deeply connected. The more somatic experiencing we do – somatic just means the body – the more we get into our own bodies, the more we can feel what’s happening in other bodies. The thing about sales is that it’s a very psychologically-charged context, just like the pandemic itself. The pandemic itself is a psychologically-charged experience. So is a sales conversation. You’re closing a deal for $500,000 or a million, that’s a psychologically-charged conversation. If you’re in your body, you’re going to feel what other people are feeling.

If you listen to a sales call that one of your team members has done, you watch a recording, you want to coach them, sit with them and ask them to get into their own bodies. You do the same. Ask them how they were feeling. Don’t just listen at a superficial level. See if you can feel what they were feeling in your body. That’s going to give you a clue. If it’s really uncomfortable, if you feel a real weight, that could be a sign that there’s something deep within there that you may want to work on.

Fred Diamond: I want to ask you a different approach to the question. As you know, I wrote a book called Love, Hope, Lyme: What Family Members, Partners, and Friends Who Love a Chronic Lyme Survivor Need to Know. One of the most important steps in recovering from chronic illness is dealing with childhood trauma. A lot of times, if you can’t deal with it, the body will respond in continuing to keep you chronically ill. I’m going to ask you a slightly different question about the sales leaders. Let’s say that you have somebody on your team that you’ve identified is struggling. They were a high performer, and were in the space. I loved your answer about trying to get inside their body to understand where they’re coming from.

Let’s say it doesn’t work. Let’s say that you know what? It’s just not working. You have nine other people on your team, and you’re a sales leader, and you have a $50 million quota. Nine of your people are hitting the number and one guy or lady who you really care for and you really care for this person… What is your recommendation to the sales leader? Because you could go down this rat hole of trying to figure it out. If it’s so deep, and you’re a non-trained professional, you ain’t going to figure it out and you’re going to go down the rat hole too. We don’t want that to happen.

Dan King: No. If you discover that there might be something afoot here, I don’t recommend that you try to solve the problem yourself. You’re not a trained professional. I’m not myself. I’ve done this work, but I’m not a trained professional and you’re not as a sales leader either. You’re a businessperson. Seeking qualified help for someone is really the way to go if you have any sense that there could be something going on here. But that in itself is a huge service, because as a sales leader, we lead organizations that often repress a lot of what’s going on. As sales leaders, we can be hard driving and we have a quota to meet, as you say.

We need to appreciate that while quotas may seem like the most important thing in the world, people matter more. The best thing you can do, if you have a sense that there’s something off, you can recommend a qualified therapist, and I think somatic experiencing is probably the most impactful therapy there is in the world, I’m just going to come out and say it. But I’ll also say that sometimes sales is just not a fit. Sometimes if you’re in a really, really tricky position, your mental health is in a pretty bad place, maybe you should just leave sales. I’ll say that as well.

Fred Diamond: It’s interesting, employers are trying to figure out how they operate now moving forward, because of all the things that have happened for the last couple of years. One of our partners at the Institute for Excellence in Sales just implemented a you-don’t-have-to-come-to-work policy. It doesn’t mean it’s work from home or in the office. It literally is, you don’t have to work today. I don’t mean Saturday or Sunday. You don’t have to work on Thursday. You have to do your job. You have to still perform, but you know what? Schedule’s open. At the professional level, you typically don’t punch a clock, but the same thing. It’s like, “Hey, if you want to take off the next week, sounds great. You still got to hit your number or else you ain’t going to work here. But you got to be conscious of that.”

Dan, I got one more question before we get to your final action step. Let’s talk about the future of sales in a mental health sensitive age. Again, I think it’s going to be a challenge for the next at least 20 years for so many reasons, but we’re more conscious of this. You and I are having a conversation on the Sales Game Changers Podcast about how sales professionals can get past their trauma, how sales leaders can pay attention and be aware of what is going on with their performers to be better leaders so their company can achieve their goals. There is an awareness. A lot of the stigma of taking care of your mental health has gone. Not all of it, of course, but in a lot of cases it’s gone away over the last couple of years because it’s affected us no matter where we are in our life. What do you see as the future of sales at a more mental health sensitive age?

Dan King: It’s a really good question. I’ve seen a number of sales organizations change their relationship to quotas. On the one hand, numbers matter. We’ve got metrics to hit. You want to grow a business. But on the other hand, I’ve seen some sales organizations remove quotas and exceed what the quotas would’ve been dramatically. Different organizations have different cultures, and I’m not saying that this is a fit for all organizations, but I do see a lot of sales organizations, especially in SaaS, especially in tech, I see them actually doing away with the old school quota, doing away with face time, doing away with a lot of these older school requirements. I think if you hire the right people, if you make sure that you hire for culture fit, I do see that working in a lot of situations.

I’ll give one other big thing that I’ve seen in a lot of sales organizations, and that’s a move away from, you could call it the bro boiler room culture. Sales for so long has had so much of that, and I’ve been amazed at how many sales organizations have moved away from that. It even opens up possibilities for a different kind of person or people that don’t quite fit in in that sort of culture to envision themselves in sales roles. Who the ideal salesperson is, that role model I think is changing, and it’s up for grabs. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to define who that person is, and I think that’s generally a good thing for people’s mental health and potentially sales performance as well.

Fred Diamond: Again, like we mentioned before, every employer is looking at ways to be more effective for their people moving forward to take things into consideration. Like mental health and some of the suggestions that you have brought up are spot on. Dan, I just wanted to acknowledge you. This is a hard topic. I doubt that there are very many sales podcasts that have gotten as deep as we have gotten today, and we can even continue to get further. Once again, just saying, “Okay, you need a mental health day,” or, “Go breathe and meditate.” You know what? I’m a big believer in breathing. I’m a big believer in meditation as well. I’m a big believer in mindset. But at the same time, the traumas have gone so deep into so many people that it gets beyond those things. Leaders need to be aware of what they can and can’t do to solve the problem. Then people who are struggling need to be aware of what they can and should be doing.

Dan, you’ve given so many great ideas. Let’s wrap it up here. Give us a final action step. Something specific that people should do right now to take their sales career to the next level.

Dan King: When you are on sales calls, it’s important that you’re powerful. That’s just the reality of things. This doesn’t mean that you want to dominate the person that you’re speaking with, but you do need to exude a sense of power. You need to feel comfort in your soul, in yourself. One of the things that really changed the game for me, before the pandemic, I was doing more sales calls off of Zoom. I was doing more sales calls on the phone, and I used to pace around. I would stand up and walk around sometimes. At least for me, that created a nervous energy.

Now, doing sales on Zoom, or even on the phone, I will sit. When I sit, I will feel my feet rooted to the ground. We’ve been talking a lot about somatic experiencing, about placing your consciousness in your body, feeling your body rather than your head. For me, I can’t explain it, but something very powerful happens when I feel my feet against the ground. There’s this sense of rootedness and comfort. As salespeople, it’s important we have agency and power. One of the things trauma does is it takes those away from us. When the pandemic hits, it’s this feeling of powerlessness, about how I’m losing control. One of the things we do to heal trauma and to succeed as salespeople, we got to feel empowered. For me, I place my feet against the ground. I feel rooted, I feel strong. I feel like nothing can knock me down. I don’t care if it’s a CEO of a billion dollar company, they take a swing at me, my feet are rooted to the ground and they’re not going to knock me down.

Fred Diamond: That’s a great advice. A lot of times I’ll think about doing calls with my hands up or my hands down, and the same thing. I’m doing today’s interview with you, I’m standing. I have a standup desk and I go back and forth. I’ve sometimes paced through, but you’re right. When I’m standing and I’m rooted with my feet on the ground, it definitely gives me a different level of grounding.

Dan, I want to thank you again. This was a great episode. It’s a topic that we haven’t touched on, but it’s a critical topic. Like I said, every third or fourth episode of the Sales Game Changers Podcast, we bring up mental health and we usually just gloss over it. “Hey, make sure you take care of your people’s mental health.” I really appreciate you going deep into this. I want to thank everybody for listening today. My name is Fred Diamond and this is the Sales Game Changers Podcast.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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