Friday, January 4, 2013

What I Learned while Buying a Car

by Miki Kashtan

Last night I bought my first new car ever - a Fiat 500. I want to share some things I learned about how we approach buying and selling, and about human connection in general. 

I went to one dealership (at right) to see if what I had in mind in terms of budget would actually get me a new car. I encountered an almost overly friendly car salesman. I was only mildly taken aback, virgin to the world of car sales. His numbers were higher than I could comfortably stretch into. Thankfully, I remembered a lesson I’ve been working on for so long – that I really never want to make decisions on my own; I want the support of others in my extended circle, always. I am so exhausted by the level of individual responsibility, I yearn for more and more recognition of and reliance on our human interconnectedness. So he gave me two days to consider: so far so good. 

I wish I had brought a friend with me when I returned, because this time things didn’t go so well. Whereas before I clearly understood that there was lots of room for negotiation, suddenly there wasn’t, and he said I hadn’t heard him right previously. The whole interaction was back and forth with a manager I never got to engage with directly, the salesman taking long chunks of time where I just sat and waited while he talked with the manager, only to come back and say that I was being unreasonable and offering me essentially no wiggle room from the original offer. 

Instead of just sighing and letting the experience go, I walked out of that place as if I had just eaten spiritual poison. I was agitated for hours, because I immediately situated what happened to me within the larger social context that makes it possible. We live an isolated individual experience, in which an extreme priority on money drives an overwhelming amount of our choices. This level of separation, mixed with the predominant sense of scarcity, so often leaves us susceptible to acting in our own self-interest to a degree that makes others disappear. That’s when we run the danger of cutting moral corners. I learned, again, how profoundly affected I am by all that happens to me, by all my interactions with and within the world.

At a friend’s advice, I called another dealership, much further away from me. This time I asked immediately to talk with the person who makes the decisions. The person got on the phone, listened to me say that I had a negative experience and I wanted a better deal, and was completely no-nonsense in his approach. There was no attempt at chumminess. He simply asked me all the details and the numbers, then got back to me within five minutes, as he promised, with a deal that was significantly better than the first dealer’s offer. When I thanked him for being to-the-point and not faking anything, he said: “I’ve been in the industry for 24 years. I can tell you that the training they give us only works to meet the needs of 50-60% of the customers.”

Without knowing me or seeing me, he agreed to keep his offer for two days and set the car aside until I found someone to come with me to complete the deal. Somehow, in all this, I solidified my understanding of something I’ve been teaching for a while. Paradoxically, although one of the foundations of the work I do is about human connection, I can now say in simple terms something I have sometimes struggled to find words for before: I want to aim for a level of connection that is congruent with the purpose at hand. Because this salesperson didn’t feign more connection than was relevant, I actually trusted him more.

Last night, I went with a friend to complete the deal, both so that I would have someone with me, and so that he could drive my old car back. Working out the deal was quite effortless, even though there was an initial mistake, and even though I discovered one more piece of information that had not been given to me by the previous dealership and therefore we switched back from leasing to purchasing. In the end, the sales manager, let’s call him James, offered me a deal that was better than what I asked for.

Once we agreed on the price, James started working on the astonishing amount of paperwork that had to be filled out for this transaction to be completed. He asked me, casually, what I do for a living. Perhaps having my friend there with me affected what happened, and perhaps it would have happened anyway. One never knows such things. I do know that I felt more able to be myself with him there, and that some magic happened, and it wasn’t about selling cars. When I explained to James that I work with people on communication and collaboration, he lit up and said: “I need that.” Knowing we had a bunch of time ahead of us, I offered to give him some tips.

James said that very often he was frustrated with people not doing what they were supposed to do even after he explained it to them carefully and clearly and they looked like they understood. What could he do to get them to understand, he wondered. I gave him a few tips. One was to break down what he was explaining into small chunks, to explain each piece and then ask the person to explain back what they would do with what he had explained to them. At this point, he said: “Really? Is it really this simple? I’ve read so much and I’ve never heard anything so simple.” That’s when I got a huge gift: I suddenly understood one reason why some of the time people are not as open to what I offer as I anticipate – they may be invested in the amount of effort they have put into learning something another way. The very simplicity can be overwhelming at times.

The second tip I gave him was that even when people understand what is expected of them, there is a wide spectrum of how much willingness they have to do the task or project. To begin with, I know that I always want people to do only what they are truly willing to do. For my own small staff, I told him, I strive to create a situation where if someone is really unhappy doing something, it will be given to someone else who is willing to do it, and that if someone is very much interested in doing something, it will be given to them. This takes care of the two edges of the spectrum, and for the rest there is usually willingness.

The third tip was about what to do when the thing still doesn’t get done. I tend to believe that means there is some obstacle along the way to getting it done. It was in this moment that one of the salespeople, whom I will call Andy, walked into the room, and from then on the interaction included him, complete with banter and affection. James was easily able to see how asking Andy what was in the way of getting the task done, if asked openly, would give him invaluable information. Such an interaction shifts him from being the bad guy that tells Andy what to do into someone who is there to coach and support Andy. Andy himself took great interest in what happened, and indirectly asked for what he could do to shift the challenging dynamics when they happened, whereupon I proposed to him that rather than telling his boss “I don’t know how to do this,” which tends to get James frustrated, thinking Andy should know already, Andy could tell James what his ideas were about how to get
it done as far as he knew, and be specific about exactly where he got stuck and why, and ask James for directions for that part. Both of them loved it.

By this time, we of course had more connection than when I first called James and ran numbers with him, and it was clear, genuine, and organic. In addition, James and Andy got a piece of their own relationship to deepen, and some learning that may well help them do their job better by dint of collaborating more effectively. And I got a piece of my trust restored and more learning about how to engage, how to make things simple, and how to understand people ever more. 


  1. I felt absolute delight reading about this experience. I'm sure many people will find it inspiring. What a great way to begin the new year! I look forward to seeing your new car. Fiats are so cute.

  2. I love Fiats - what a great car, enjoy. But even more so, what a heart-warming story. And I think, I, too, will take your above advice to heart. May I be open and listen more.

  3. Smiling! Isn't it magical what can happen when people can be real with each other and be supported by consciously living in alignment with our interdependence. I also love the unexpected nature of it. You weren't there to "teach" him anything -- and yet the circumstances gave rise to two humans doing what they do, offering themselves and their skills, gifts, experience to each other, with the result that everyone benefits. Ya Hu! I like thinking about what could create the conditions for more of the second experience, less of the first. Part seems to be that you brought a friend, part seems to be that the salesperson understood about needs and that connection matched purpose, and part seems to be that the trust led to even more sharing (about what you do), and that you both were open to receiving the magic. Thanks for posting.

  4. I think I'm embarrassed by that part of myself that wants to ask - "And did he give you a better deal after ..." - I guess it shows what you said: "We live an isolated individual experience, in which an extreme priority on money drives an overwhelming amount of our choices" - there is this part of me that still wants to associate the "success" of the outcome with the absolute dollar amount you paid.

    I was laughing quite a bit when I read the title of this week's posting. On one of my long trips up from DC to Baltimore I started to daydream about what it would be like to talk to a car salesman today knowing what I know about car salesmen and about communication and nonviolence.

    I think what your article brings forward for me is the sense that in any interaction if I allow another person (or some part of myself) to turn the interaction into a one-dimensional tug-of-war - if you get more, I get less - than we both lose. It brings forward to me again this simplistic understanding of nonviolence that I like that my work is to find the "third way" - not to desist and give up, not to insist and force my preference, but to be creative and imaginative and create connection that enables me to better enjoy doing whatever I eventually choose to do...

    In developing countries where I've spent time, like India, there is an understanding that all prices are negotiable and yet... there often seems to be the same issue that you describe where the focus of the negotiation is simply about a number and that it somehow fails to notice the two human beings in the discussion about the number. Often, I DO care about the number but I've learned that I also care about the two human beings engaged in the discussion. I'm hoping that as I am able to widen my attention from the number begin discussed to include the two people that I will start to look forward to these engagements more and more.

    Thanks Miki for giving me yummy food to stimulate my growing awareness... Love, jas..

  5. Your post is an eye opener to the people who doesn’t know the perks of buying a car. It’s good that you asked your friend to accompany you to the dealership. It will help you decide, and he will give an honest opinion about your choices. And consulting with two or more car dealers is not a bad idea. You can compare prices and offers. I’m pleased to know that you learned a lot, and was able to buy a car in a good deal.

  6. When I bought my car, I focused on finding the best deal possible. But as I read your post, I realized that there are deeper meanings that we can find when we interact with other people and acquire experiences such as buying a car. It’s just up to us to be more open-minded and perceptive. Thank you, Miki!

    Madeline Joyce

  7. It was a good move to ask help from someone you trust and knows a car dealership. Plus, that's really how it should be, look for options first and from there, choose which one suits your needs and budget. Patience and negotiation skills will lead you to a good deal.

    -Rigoberto Axelson @ BrandonDodgeOnBroadWay