Attorneys and the art and science of persuasion
James Gray Robinson.
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 that others are not. Unfortunately, the art of persuasion is not taught in all law schools.
There is an art and science to persuasion. I have master’s certifications in a number of coaching therapies and persuasion techniques, and I have spent the past 15 years training and researching how to persuade people effectively.
There are some fundamental principles to persuasion, which are suggested by psychologists and marketing experts, alike. Here are some of the most effective principles:
To convince someone of anything or to change their minds, 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 “fight, flight or freeze.”
When we feel safe, we usually don’t go into survival mode, so we must have rapport with our audience to make them feel safe. Look for commonalities between your client and your audience. Find out what your audience believes and trusts and 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 feelings.
To be persuasive, 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 that you are right. It doesn’t matter whether you are arguing in a complex business trial or a high-profile criminal case, you must make it simple. Everyone remembers Johnnie Cochran’s famous quote in the O.J. Simpson trial: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”
This is true in boardrooms, conference rooms and sales rooms. The term “elevator pitch” was coined for effective sales talks, which are boiled down to the essentials and bite-sized bits of information that the buyer can understand. We must set the theme of a negotiation and let everything flow from that.
When we go through the process of refining our position to one sentence, often we can find the flaws in our position and adjust accordingly. One sentence is a lot easier for others to remember than a lengthy hour-long explanation of why we deserve what we want.
Comfort their fears
Everyone has fears and biases. It is human nature to recoil from threats and prefer safety. When we can comfort the fears and uncertainties of the people we are persuading, not only do we increase our persuasiveness, but we also establish rapport.
Tell stories, express your understanding, give them support. Acknowledge their suspicions, doubts and fears and give them reasons to be courageous. Validate their misgivings as normal and take the approach of an older and wiser confidante with the bigger picture. I am reminded of the 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.”
Find out their beliefs and show them that your position confirms 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 world view and less weight to facts that don’t. People love to be right. Help them be right.
Appeal to their notions of fairness and justice and show them how giving your client what our client wants fits into those notions. Ask them to empathize with your client or your position and invite them to step into your client’s shoes. If you can get them to identify with your client, you have won.
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; 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 we can establish a common enemy, bonding is assured. If we can establish that we are on their side, it is much more persuasive than being a total stranger. Discover what you both stand against and use that to create a bond. We must craft our argument to fit into a common bond with our audience. Become partners with your audience.
Acknowledge their effort
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 lives. 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 others’ struggles and tell them we understand their struggles, they will be much more open to our position. We are not in the business of making people take responsibility for their lives, we are trying to persuade them. If we can demonstrate to them that we don’t judge them for their struggles, they will view us as a friend rather than a foe.
As I look back over the hundreds of cases I tried, negotiations I mediated and participated in, documents I drafted and reviewed, I wish I had known these principles while doing so. I can easily see how I could have been more persuasive. We all do the best we can with what we know. I know that you will be much more persuasive if you follow these tips.
James Gray Robinson was a third-generation trial attorney specializing in family law for 27 years in his native North Carolina. Burned out and emotionally spent practicing law, he quit in 2004 and spent the next 16 years doing extensive research and innovative training to help others facing burnout and personal crises to heal. In 2017, at age 64, using the tools and strategies he learned, Robinson passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. Learn more about his work at lawyerlifeline.net or email him at [email protected]
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