There is an art and science to persuasion. A great deal of practicing law is persuading someone to believe, act, or agree with your client’s position, whether it is in a courtroom, a boardroom, a negotiation, or at a dinner table. We seek to persuade juries, judges, colleagues, friends, family, or the press that we are right, and others are not.
Unfortunately, the art of persuasion is not on the curriculum of many law schools. I have master certifications in a number of coaching therapies and persuasion techniques, and I have spent the last 15 years training and researching how to persuade people – all in the name of communicating and relating more effectively and helping other professionals to do the same in order to be successful.
6 Tips for Practicing the Art of Persuasion
There are a number of fundamental principles to persuasion that psychologists and marketing experts alike use with or offer to their clients. Here are six of the most effective ones for family lawyers to practice with their clients – and sometimes with the family court judge if the case goes to trial.
1. Acknowledge Your Clients’ Struggles
Many times, we are trying to persuade someone who has a bias against our position because they don’t understand, are confused, or simply tried and failed in their life. Failure has a way of closing minds, digging in heels, and causing rigidity in our thinking. When we encourage people to rise above their failures, they look to us for guidance.
When we acknowledge our (potential) clients’ struggles, validate their experiences, and reassure them we understand those struggles, they will be much more open to listening to our advice. Family lawyers are not in the business of making clients take responsibility for their lives – but we can try to persuade them to move from unrealistic demands and posturing to a more reasonable position. If we can demonstrate to our clients that we don’t judge them for their failures and struggles, they will tend to view us as trusted allies.
2. Allay Their Fears
Everyone has their own set of fears and biases. It is human nature to recoil from threats and seek safety. When we can allay our clients’ fears and uncertainties, not only do we increase our persuasiveness, but we also establish rapport. (See tip 3, below.)
Tell stories, express your understanding, give them support. Acknowledge your clients’ suspicions, doubts, and fears and give them support and reasons to be courageous. Validate their misgivings as normal and take the approach of an older and wiser confidante who sees the bigger picture.
I am reminded of an A.A. Milne quote: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, smarter than you think, and loved more than you ever know.”
3. Create Rapport with Your Family Law Clients
To convince someone of anything, or to change their minds about something, there must be trust and rapport. When our brains are confronted with new ideas or ideas that we don’t agree with, our natural biological response is to shut down our frontal cortex and go into survival mode. This is commonly known as “flight, fight, or freeze”.
When we feel safe, our brains don’t usually go into survival mode; creating rapport with our clients makes them feel safe, which keeps their frontal cortex engaged. Look for commonalities between you and your client. Find out what they believe and trust and connect with those concepts. Be humble, be understanding, and above all be respectful. If you can get your client to smile or laugh, you are establishing rapport with them.
Be aware of your body language, your tone, your facial expressions. If appropriate, tell your client something about yourself. Be personable and friendly. Relax and offer smiles of encouragement when appropriate. Don’t be afraid to talk about emotions, about how they feel – but don’t let them get stuck in their story or they may well go into survival mode.
4. Find One Succinct Sentence
To be persuasive, you must be able to say what you want in one, pithy sentence. The more words it takes to explain what you want, the more difficult it is to convince someone that you are right – whether that someone is your client, the judge, or even your spouse. It doesn’t matter whether you are arguing a complex property division trial or a high-profile custody case, you must make your statement simple and memorable.
Everyone remembers attorney Johnnie Cochrane’s famous quote in the O.J. Simpson trial: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” (This short sentence was particularly powerful because it rhymed: the cognitive bias known as the “rhyme-as-reason effect” makes people more likely to remember, repeat, and believe rhyming statements compared to prose statements.)
This is true in boardrooms, conference rooms, and family law courtrooms. The term “elevator pitch” was coined for effective sales/marketing talks that were boiled down to the essential, bite-sized bits of information that the listener could understand. We must set the theme of the negotiation and let everything flow from that.
When we go through the process of refining our position to one sentence, we sometimes find flaws in our position and adjust accordingly. One sentence is a lot easier for others to remember than an hour-long explanation of why our client deserves what they want.
5. Stand in Their Shoes
Ask your client about their beliefs and show them that your position is in line with those beliefs. People tend to favor information that confirms their beliefs and theories. Known as “confirmation bias,” people will give more weight to facts that fit into their worldview and less weight to facts that don’t. People love to be right, so help them to be right about the right things.
Appeal to their notions of fairness and show them how asking for Settlement B rather than Settlement A fits into their notions of justice. Ask the judge to empathize with your client and invite them to step into your client’s shoes. If you can get the judge to identify with your client, you have won.
6. Stand Against the Other Side
One of the most powerful persuasion techniques is finding a bond with your client through common beliefs and experiences. No one wants to be unfairly judged, no one wants to be the victim of prejudice – and we all prefer people who think and believe the way we do.
If we can establish a common enemy, bonding is assured. If we can establish that we are on our client’s side, our advice will be much more persuasive than if it were coming from a total stranger. Discover what you both stand for and stand against, and use that to create a bond. Then you must craft your argument to fit into the common bond with your client – and, if the case goes to trial, with the judge. Become partners with your client and the court.
The Art of Persuasion: Apply These Tips to your Law Practice
As I look back over the hundreds of cases I tried, negotiations I facilitated or participated in, documents I drafted or reviewed while I was still practicing family law, I wish I had known these principles. I can see how I could have easily been more persuasive if I had used even one or two of these six principles.
We all do the best we can with what we know.
And I know that you will be much more persuasive if you follow these tips.
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