Skeptics and Cynics. And Coincidences.

“He was so cynical, it was impossible to deal with him.” My friend told me about a prospective client she had been talking to, and went on to describe how one of her mentors had recently talked with her about dealing with people in the sales process, and how the hardest two categories were Skeptics and Cynics. “What’s the difference?” she wondered aloud.

I almost spit my coffee out on the table. My friend had just voiced a question I’d been asking myself for several weeks. How weird is that?

I can’t even remember what started me thinking about it, but it has floated through my mind several times recently. In and out. Here and gone again. Unresolved. And here it was again, this time in a voice outside my own head.

I managed to swallow rather than embarrass myself, and we started talking it through.

What is the difference between a Skeptic and a Cynic? Why is one easier to deal with than the other? How can we tell them apart?

Here’s what we came up with:

Skeptics are at least a little curious, whereas Cynics are not. Cynics are sure.

So, how can we tell which one a person is?

Well, we decided, by asking them questions. Not by asking, “Are you curious?” but by asking other questions, and by paying attention to how they react.

The idea is that a Cynic is probably not open to being questioned, definitely not open to changing his or her mind. The Cynic is potentially threatened by the possibility of being wrong. The sureness of their views makes the world a safer place, and their egos – and their places in the world – are at stake.

A Skeptic, on the other hand, is willing to listen, willing to consider the possibility that something else might be true, or possible, willing to change his or her mind. Willing to be (at least a little) vulnerable.

Curiosity. If someone responds positively to Curiosity in us, and if they are willing to be Curious, this is a sign that what we’ve run up against is healthy skepticism. But if someone doesn’t respond well to our Curiosity, is not Curious about other possibilities, if someone is Sure, or feels disrespected by being questioned, then it’s a good bet that this is a Cynic. Even if they don’t see themselves in that way.

Conversations with each of them will be very different. In the sales process, my friend pointed out that a Cynic probably isn’t someone it makes sense to spend a lot of time on. But a Skeptic, now that’s someone she could work with.

Curiosity. A tool for learning about someone’s outlook, and a tool for communicating with them.

A puzzle I had been unable to unravel by myself quickly dissolved when I explored it with a friend.

What do you think? When have you encountered Skeptics and Cynics, and how did you know which was which? When have you found yourself being Skeptical, or Cynical, and how did it affect your course? How do the two feel different?

Image courtesy of graur razvan ionut /

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4 Responses to Skeptics and Cynics. And Coincidences.

  1. Birdy Diamond March 7, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    Cynical to me seems more of a worldview issue and Skeptical more of a way that information is processed.

    That said, I totally agree – Cynics are NOT our Best Peeps.

    In our line of work, I get being scared. I get being… well, skeptical. Not swallowing everything wholesale is a plus in my book.

    But like you say… curiosity. If you aren’t willing to have your point modified by evidence, then you are one of those Skeptics who aren’t really Skeptics – as you say with Cynics, their minds are made up and no amount of evidence, no matter how well-presented, will change their minds.

    I try not to encounter either these days – a bit too raw still. Or at least, the Skeptics I prefer to hang out with are very open-minded.

    For myself, skeptical inspires corn-snake, curious, thinking Cynicism shuts me down and usually puts me in a very bad place extremely quickly.

    Cynicism feels heavy, yucky, mucky. Skepticism feels lighter. Darker, but lighter. There is room for, and the possibility of, movement.

    Good to read another post from you! Hope all is progressing wondrously well!!! 🙂 :>

  2. Tammy Vitale March 10, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    I dunno – having practiced both of those I agree with Skeptics being sort of show me curious. Cynics (and I’m sure there are levels) are sort of more “I’ve been messed over before, why should I believe *you*?” There are gentle questions to get that out of them and address their pain – after all isn’t that marketing? If you win them, I think you may win them forever (speaking for myself, totally). Maybe not the best clients for some and if you don’t like working with that block in front of you at the git go, then let them move on down the line.

  3. Susan March 10, 2013 at 9:16 pm #

    Thanks Birdy!

  4. Susan March 10, 2013 at 9:17 pm #

    Tammy, thank you, you raise a really interesting point about gently getting to the source of the cynicsm, if possible, and addressing their pain – and the potential for winning them forever.

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