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Persuade by asking the right questions

Relationships, dialogue key to getting point across
By Saul Chernos
March 31 2017 issue

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When the opportunity of a lifetime came knocking for Toronto lawyer Taras Kulish and his family, and he needed to make the ‘Big Ask’ at the firm where he’s an associate, he was thankful he’d spent years nurturing close relationships with colleagues and senior partners.

Kulish specializes in trademark and charity and not-for-profit law, and his practice doesn’t require significant time in court or face-to-face meetings. So when his spouse landed a two-year work contract in Switzerland they leapt at the chance to live abroad.

Thanks to an array of communications technology, Kulish had mastered the art of the remote office. But, as an associate, would he carry enough weight to convince senior management that he could manage his files successfully from afar?

Kulish approached the partner with whom he had the closest rapport and explained his situation. “The answer was immediate. He told me, without question, that they would work with me and do whatever it would take.”

Grateful, Kulish realized he’d earned the firm’s trust. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that without doing all the right things beforehand.”

The right things, as Kulish explains it, included joining colleagues for weekly lunches and requesting an office next door to the senior partner he worked most closely with on files.

“I didn’t want to be way down at the other end of the office and only see him once in a while,” Kulish said. “We’d say hello every day and catch up on news. He was always asking about the kids so he became involved with my life as a result.”

The Big Ask wasn’t planned — the opportunity to live in Switzerland arose unexpectedly. But Kulish said he’s always considered building connections in the workplace to be beneficial for everyone involved and appreciates in hindsight that his efforts earned him the firm’s trust.

Whether the matter at hand is a Big Ask or an everyday strategic or intellectual question involving a client or case, relationships are the foundation to establishing trust and being able to carry influence.

“If you don’t have the trust of someone you’ll never persuade them of anything,” said Dennis Nerland, managing partner with Shea Nerland in Calgary.

Nerland is a big fan of asking good Socratic questions designed to encourage the other person to think matters through and reach a logical conclusion on their own.

“There’s a tool we use here called the Five Whys. If someone says something, you ask why five times. Whoever’s on the receiving end comes to self-realize the answer.”

Nerland says Socratic questions have worked when he’s needed to discuss performance issues with employees. “If something goes wrong, I’d ask what happened. There’s no way in the world I can say you need to change this, this, and this, or you’re gone. That won’t work. With the Five Whys they figure it out on their own.”

The same approach also works on the intellectual issues lawyers routinely face. Nerland said he wanted to persuade a colleague to adopt a risk-management approach rather than an hourly approach for billing on a particular case. By asking questions rather than pushing his point of view, Nerland says he effectively persuaded his colleague to reach a logical conclusion on his own. “I didn’t convince him of anything, he convinced himself.”

Garth Sheriff, a Toronto communications consultant who works with lawyers, said it can take considerable effort to come up with appropriate questions and then listen carefully during the ensuing dialogue.

“People sometimes think they can come in and just do it, but there’s work involved. You have to figure out the right questions and where to ask those questions to start the discussion.”

Rather than going in intending to persuade, Sheriff said the immediate goal should instead be to establish understanding.

“It’s about getting the other side to understand your position and building a process from there,” Sheriff said. “If you get them to understand, you’ll be in a better position to react and to create a tailored conversation or written report that might ultimately persuade.”

Sheriff recommends listening actively and looking for non-verbal cues which can reveal whether or not the person is comfortably engaged.

“The indications are there even in the first five minutes,” Sheriff said. “If the conversation seems choppy or it feels like I’m not necessarily affecting the person and having them understand what I’m trying to say, I might think about how we’re communicating. Do they engage in small talk? Do they want to move the conversation to another topic? You can use that information, if you’re aware of it, early on in the conversation.”

Dawn Marchand, vice-president of marketing with the Canadian Bar Insurance Association, once met with a group of lawyers and was gently chided for using too many exclamation marks in an e-mail.

While punctuation might seem trivial to some people, a subjective matter of perception, that’s precisely the point. Marchand says people generally fall into one of four dominant personality types — analytical, driver, amiable and expressive — and anyone who wants to persuade needs to recognize their audience.

“The lawyers agreed with my comments, but with them being analytical and me being expressive, to them I overused exclamation points,” Marchand said. “I realized that I can make my point without driving it home like that.”

The key, Marchand said, is adapting to your audience. “Most people are so worried about getting their point across that they don’t look at the objective.”

Marchand said a person looking to be persuasive needs to recognize that their own personal brand — how others perceive them — is what ultimately enables influence. “If you’re known as a person who is reasonable, listens and has good ideas, then you’re going to have a much easier time persuading someone.”

Of course, persuasion isn’t a one-way street. Marchand warns that the best, most sincere efforts might quite reasonably not carry the day. “You might only be able to get them over 60 or 70 per cent,” she said.

“If you’re speaking to them in their language, and they’re still not coming around, then I suggest that you consider what they’re saying very carefully.”

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