A large part of practicing law is persuading someone to believe, act or agree with your client’s position, whether in a courtroom or boardroom or at a negotiation or dinner table. We seek to persuade juries, judges, colleagues, friends, family or the media that we are right, and others are not. Following these six principles will help you be a more persuasive lawyer.
The Art of Being a More Persuasive Lawyer
There is an art and science to persuasion. Unfortunately, this art is not on the curriculum of many law schools. Several fundamental principles of persuasion are commonly suggested by psychologists and marketing experts. In the years I’ve spent researching how to persuade people and coaching lawyers to hone their skills, here are the six principles I’ve found most effective.
1. Acknowledge their efforts
We are often 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 thinking. When you encourage people to rise above their failures, they look to you for guidance.
As lawyers, we are not in the business of making people take responsibility for their lives — we are trying to persuade them. When you acknowledge the struggle of others and tell them you understand, they are much more open to your position. If you can demonstrate that you do not judge people for their struggles, they will be more likely to view you as a friend rather than a foe.
2. Calm their fears
Everyone has fears and biases. It is human nature to recoil from threats and prefer safety. When you can calm the fears and uncertainties of the people you are trying to persuade, not only do you increase your persuasiveness, you also establish rapport. (See below).
How? Tell stories, express your understanding. Acknowledge their suspicions, doubts and fears, and give them support. Give them reasons to be courageous. Validate their misgivings as normal and take the approach of an older, wiser confidante with the bigger picture. I am reminded of this 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
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 we don’t agree with, the natural biological response is to shut down our frontal cortex and go into survival mode. This is commonly known as “flight, fright or freeze,” and it’s much harder to break through to someone in this state.
When we feel safe, however, we don’t usually go into survival mode. This is why it is important to create a rapport with your audience to make them feel safe. Look for commonalities between your client and your audience. Find out what your audience believes and trusts. Find a way to connect with those concepts. Be humble, be understanding and, above all, be respectful. If you can get them to smile or laugh, you are establishing rapport.
Be aware of your body language, your tone and your facial expressions. If appropriate, tell your audience something about yourself. Be personable and friendly. Relax and smile. Don’t be afraid to talk about emotions or ask how they feel.
4. Do it in just one sentence
To be a persuasive lawyer, you must be able to say what you want in one sentence. The more words it takes to explain what you want, the more difficult it is to convince someone you are right. It doesn’t matter whether you are arguing a complex business trial or criminal case; you must make it simple. Everyone remembers Johnnie Cochran’s famous statement, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
This is true in boardrooms, conference rooms and sales meetings. The term “elevator pitch” was coined for effective sales talks that are boiled down to the essentials and bite-sized bits of information that the buyer can understand. You must set the theme of the negotiation and let everything flow from that.
One benefit of refining your position to one sentence is that the process often reveals the flaws in your position and allows you to adjust accordingly. Also, one sentence is a lot easier for others to remember than a lengthy hour-long explanation of why you deserve what you want.
5. Stand in their shoes
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. Help them be right. Find out their beliefs and find a way to show that your position confirms those beliefs.
You might appeal to their notions of fairness and justice and show them how giving what your client wants fits into this narrative. Ask them to empathize with your client and invite them to step into your client’s shoes. If you can get them to identify with your client, you have won.
6. Throw rocks … together
One of the most powerful persuasion techniques is finding a bond with your audience through common beliefs and experiences. No one wants to be unfairly judged, and no one wants to be the victim of prejudice. We all prefer people who are understanding and open-minded. We all prefer people who believe the way we do.
If you can establish a common enemy, bonding is ensured. Discover what you both stand against and use that to create a bond. Then craft your argument to fit the common bond — become partners with your audience.
We All Do the Best We Can With What We Know
As I look back over the cases I tried, the matters I negotiated and mediated, even the documents I drafted and reviewed, I wish I had known these principles. I can see how I could have been a more persuasive lawyer. I know that you will be much more persuasive if you follow these tips.
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