The very public separation of Alice Evans and Ioan Gruffudd is a story that, in some ways is as old as time. Man leaves his wife and starts a relationship with a younger woman. His wife vents her anger to all and sundry in a highly public way. Then a bitter divorce ensues.
It’s a very sad situation. But it also highlights something important for lawyers and other professional advisors.
That our tactics of persuasion may not be quite as persuasive as we think.
Evans referred to the involvement of lawyers in her separation, lawyers who advised her to stop ‘airing my dirty laundry in public’.
What’s controversial about that? That’s advice that all lawyers would give in that situation, right?
But what’s revealing is what she says next: “It might seem odd, but the more I was pushed, prodded, told to get in line, the more the lawyers told me not to talk, the more I felt like doing it.”
This highlights a psychological truth that’s important for all lawyers and professional advisors to understand – that often, the harder you push, the more resistant your clients will become.
Paternalism doesn’t pay
Coming across as too paternalistic in your advice (repeating it ad infinitum in a variety of different ways, hammering home the potential consequences again and again) comes at a high cost. In short, you run the risk of turning your client off. You are likely to activate what we therapists call your client’s psychological reactance. What does this mean in ‘normal language’? Well basically, stubbornness. We all have this trait. If someone tries to push us too hard (coming across like a parent), our inner rebellious teenager comes out and we dig our heels in. Even if, in our rational brains, we can see that their advice is sound.
It can be frustrating of course working with clients in high states of emotion. They behave in seemingly irrational and self-destructive ways and often don’t respond to our rational advice as we’d like them to. Rather than dismissing this behaviour as ridiculous and trying to hammer our points home even harder, it’s important to remember that what’s behind this behaviour is often our clients’ pursuit of ‘emotional justice’. They’re trying to find coping mechanisms (however dysfunctional we might deem them), to scratch an emotional itch that often can’t be satisfied by practical, analytical legal ‘solutions’ or processes. For us to dismiss that and say, “you shouldn’t do that, it’s not rational” can sometimes be perceived as condescending and may be futile. Because attempting to excise the emotion from legal disputes by telling your client ‘not to be emotional’ is like trying to remove the eggs from an omelette – it can’t be done. Law is emotional (even if the only emotion on display is anger. Anger is also an emotion)
So, if it’s true that our traditional approaches don’t work, how can we be persuasive?
Don’t tell them to be rational!
As I say, understand that the legal process can only go so far to help your client with the messier aspects of their feelings. Don’t ignore their need for ‘emotional justice’ on the basis that you only deal with the intellectual or rational stuff. Your client will need an outlet and you can point them in the direction of therapists, divorce coaches etc. But don’t simply outsource all of the emotional stuff. You need to demonstrate some acceptance and at least a rudimentary understanding of it. So, practice all of your acknowledging skills. Don’t say ‘calm down’, ‘say ‘I hear how difficult this is. I would probably feel vengeful too in this situation. That’s completely normal’.
Avoid too much paternalism
Don’t keep banging the same drum about why they shouldn’t do the thing, telling them the consequences etc. After you’ve discussed the ‘bad thing’ they either want to do or have done already, ask them how they think things might play out from here. Not in a confrontational headmasterly ‘I know the answer but you need to tell me now’ way. In a curious way. ‘How do you think things might turn out? Where do you see this leading to?’ Your job is to get them thinking about consequences, to evoke the answers from them, not attempt to drill them in your school of thought. They may start to see the potential consequences themselves. If they don’t or they respond with something you think is wildly unrealistic, ask if you can offer a view. Then give it. By this point, they will be much more receptive to listening to you. You’ll have developed an interactive, two-way adult-to-adult relationship rather than the typical top-down lawyer-client dynamic in which their rebellious teenager side is likely to come out and they may dig their heels in.
Speak as collaboratively as possible
Your job is not to direct, your job is to guide. Of course, as their professional advisor, you are better placed than them to understand the terrain ahead. But you can’t drag them there like a dog on a lead. Don’t tell them ‘I’m going to get you the best outcome’. Instead, use phrases like this: ‘our job is to work out the best way forward for you from here’ and ‘we need to work together to achieve that’, ‘we won’t tell you what to do but we will point out the potential pitfalls and advantages of each approach’. Making the relationship collaborative will responsibilise a client who might otherwise have become recalcitrant.
Those of us in professional services all often talk about ‘difficult clients’ don’t we? But the resistance we encounter in clients may not always be about them being difficult per se – it may also be about the types of relationship dynamics we develop between us.
So let’s act as guides, not directors.
If you’d like to learn more about how to persuade effectively and about the tips in this article that come from the therapeutic technique Motivational Interviewing, do get in touch on email@example.com