Effortlessly Persuasive: A Trial Lawyer Shares Insights

I was recently interviewed for an interesting article about persuasion by Ruth-Anne Eisler Business Writer, Editor, and Corporate Communications Specialist.

Persuading: it’s a key component of business communication, even for those with expert knowledge of their subject matter. From a presentation to a pitch to meeting with potential clients, the ability to persuade is a necessary and practical communication skill for all of us—and arguably one of the most important skills you’ll need in 2020 (and beyond).

And who better to discuss than a trial lawyer, one who routinely appears before judges, juries, and insurance adjusters with the goal of persuading them of the merits of his clients’ claims?

Jan Fishman, a leading insurance and disability claims lawyer in Vancouver, BC, spoke with me recently about the art, science, and psychology of persuasion. If you’d like to improve your persuasive skills, consider these insights from Mr. Fishman, whose ability to advocate and persuade with integrity and commitment—in situations where lives and significant amounts of money are at stake—underpins his life’s work.

1. Understatement is key.

For many of us, this might come as a surprise.

But “Understatement is so much more persuasive than overstatement,” says Mr. Fishman. “You want to communicate without hyperbole. Calmly and with quiet certainty set out your facts one step at a time, and build your case brick by brick, without hammering, without pounding.”

Avoiding an overly confident attitude is critical, particularly because most of us experience a daily deluge of data, information, and asks, almost always for the purpose of selling or persuading us to do something, buy something, take action. A strongly assertive or vehement approach can lead to feelings of manipulation, and that’s when resistance kicks in.

As psychologist and author Adam Grant wrote in his acclaimed business book, Give and Take, “When we hear a powerful persuasive message, we get suspicious. In some cases, we’re concerned about being tricked, duped, or manipulated by a taker. In other situations, we just want to make our own free choices, rather than having our decisions controlled by someone else.”

2. It’s also important to acknowledge the desire of your audience to arrive at their decisions on their own.

Mr. Fishman emphasizes, “You want your audience to come to their own conclusion, one that makes sense to them.” And if your audience has preconceived ideas or has already made a decision, helping them see that their approach may not be the best can be a tough job. “It’s important to lead them gently, one step at a time. And if I’ve done my job well it will be so clear and obvious to them, and the inescapable conclusion that I want them to see is now their own.”

As Robin Dreeke, author and former head of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Behavioral Analysis Program, said in a recent interview, “Human beings do not like being told what to do, and they want to be offered choices – and you’re just going to offer them some choices about how they want to proceed.”

3. And being likable will help your cause.

There’s plenty of proof of this concept, documented through research and studies in the field of social psychology. Psychologist Robert Cialdini, who wrote the classic Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, lists likability as one of his six “weapons of influence.” We’re more readily persuaded by those we already like.

Mr. Fishman notes, “I specifically talk about likability with every client before every trial and mediation, because it’s extremely important. I’ve seen dramatic examples of the way likability influences outcome. For example, I’ve seen counsel and insurance adjusters eager to settle and pay a likeable client the maximum possible, and I’ve seen the opposite—counsel and adjusters who didn’t even want to be in the same room much less settle the claim of an individual who, through demeanor, body language, responses, attitude, and facial expressions, demonstrated unlikability.”

4. Try putting yourself in the other’s place, and approaching with honesty and authenticity.

A little preemptive analysis and empathy are key components of persuasive communication.

“I always aim to put myself in the other’s shoes and ask What would persuade me?” Mr. Fishman says. “If I analyze from that perspective, I can try and consider what the other person is thinking and understand and anticipate and deal with that.”

“And I know what would persuade me. It’s not tricky arguments. It’s about what honestly makes sense.” And it goes without saying, Mr. Fishman concludes: “Honesty and authenticity form the foundation, and are always the most persuasive.”

This is sound practice from an analytical, ethical, and emotional intelligence perspective. And coincidentally, putting yourself in another’s place in order to understand that person’s perspective and find common ground is a key element of likability.

Putting it all together

This litigator’s strategies for persuasive communication have aided him in effectively resolving over 200 mediations and trials. Mr. Fishman’s tools—understatement, gently leading your audience to their own conclusions, likability, and putting yourself in another’s shoes while communicating honestly and authentically—are tools that anyone can use to ethically persuade. It’s a powerful way to demonstrate your leadership abilities and advance your career.

Ruth-Anne Eisler is a business writer, editor, and corporate communications specialist at RaeWrites.ca.

Here is a link to the entire text of Ms. Eisner’s article: