The Big Secret of Dealing with People


Dealing with PeopleLawyers deal with people.  All the time.  In fact, it’s pretty much our job to deal with people.  Previously I’ve described it as communication, but if you stop to think for a moment communication can only really take place if it involves…. people.

As a result, a significant part of our day involves trying to get other people to do the thing that we think they should do.

Dale Carnegie proposes that there is only one way of making another person do something.  Only one.

Do you know what it is?  It’s by making them want to do it.

There are various ways you can make someone want to do something.  Here are a few that spring to mind:

  • Point a gun at their head (disclaimer: tips for lawyers does not recommend you point a gun at anyone’s head as a method of persuasion)
  • Offer a sweetener (AKA – bribe them – also discouraged in some, but not all, circumstances)
  • Allow the solution you are offering to feed their needs.

But really, it’s all just variations on a theme.  What you are trying to do is persuade someone.  In litigation in particular this has a tendency to be the “carrot and the stick” approach.  On the one hand, you are about to request 47 pages of particulars of a pleading, which will be time consuming and irritating to respond to.  On the other hand, you send a “without prejudice” letter inviting a settlement negotiation.

The lawyer on the other side and their client then have a choice.  They need to weigh up the pros and cons of answering the request (or arguing about it) versus the potential resolution that is on the table.  Thus – a carrot, and a stick.

You are still trying to make them want to do the thing that you want – to compromise.  You’re just using legal mechanisms to get there, and it’s a more legally acceptable form of holding a gun to their head.

Absent litigation tactics, however, knowing what motivates other people and their desires however is a good starting point.  Why?  Because the more you understand about what motivates the other side of a discussion, the better you can phrase your communication in a way that taps into that need.  Today we’re going to focus on an often un-met desire:  the desire to be important.  That’s not to say it’s ever the only desire, but it is a critical and fundamental one – and it’s often lacking in people’s lives.

This is frequently overlooked in the thrust and parry of legal practice, but can be a powerful motivator.  If your client’s basic motivation is commercial resolution, and you can achieve that by feeding the level of importance or victory that the opposing client feels (again our example is litigation) then why would you not use that inherent desire to your advantage?

Further, though, the feeling of importance feeds into the person’s character.  If you can tap into what it is that makes that person feel important, then you will have a better understanding of them.  So for one person a commercial victory might provide it, for another a hug from their kids.  Another might find importance in acquiring wealth, having things, dating lots of people or any number of other variations.

I’ve written previously about how important communication is to lawyers, and this is another facet of that.  Understanding more about people and what motivates them will get you a long way towards being able to persuade them to your point of view.

So when you’re seeking to deal with people look to their needs, not yours.  How is what you are offering, discussing or seeking to communicate tapping in to what you perceive as their motivation?  If in doubt – try find something that will feed the desire to be important, because it’s probably there.

Why not watch some people through the next day or so – see how they behave – what do they do which feeds their desire for importance?  Let me know (without names) in the comments, and we’ll get an idea of the sheer range of different characters out there.

Happy Lawyering!

  • Unfortunately too many attorney take approach #1 and (figuratively speaking) hold a gun to someone’s head throughout the case. That doesn’t do anything but lengthen litigation and is usually worse for both parties.

    • I think you’re right Luke, especially in litigation. Yes it’s an adversarial system (at least in many countries) but our interactions need to be more nuanced and considered than mere aggressive posturing.

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