Figuring Out the Picture in your Client’s Head

In case you didn't know, I love Stuart Diamond’s book on negotiation called Getting More. I reference the process in that book at least weekly, if not daily. My copy sits on my desk at work and is often where I turn when confronted with an issue that I don’t know how to address. That isn’t to say it is the source of all knowledge, but the process therein has helped me collect the relevant pieces of a problem and evaluate the situation in ways that can lead to better outcomes. And when you are a professional problem solver, like attorneys are, that is a good thing.

One part of the process in the book deals with thinking about the picture in the other person’s head. I find myself coming back to this idea often, especially when it comes to furthering my client’s goals. Let’s say, for example, that a client comes to you with a goal to get a divorce. A simple enough goal from a legal standpoint that is both attainable and subject to state laws that lead to predictable outcomes. That said, for those that have practiced family law, a “simple” divorce can become unpredictable quick. This is because family law, like other areas of the law, is based on people’s emotions. Emotion or a lack thereof is ever present, at every document signing or hearing along the way. Ultimately, understanding your client’s emotions and the picture in her head when she says she wants a divorce is critical to reaching that goal.

So how do we really understand what is going on in someone else’s mind? A CT scan? That might give you an idea of the mechanics at play. A questionnaire? Maybe. An intake interview? Perhaps.


Image by Stan Dominguez CC BY 2.0.

While there are many ways to become better communicators, I would like to list two ways that have helped me get better at understanding the picture in my client’s heads.

1 - Training

Understanding an area of the law is basic competence. We have an ethical duty to be competent in the legal advice we give. But to become more than someone who can pass a family law exam is how you move from a newly minted attorney to a useful attorney. While experience will most definitely help, training will take you there quicker. Training on how people react in certain situations. Training on how a particular case type might affect the people involved. For example, people who have experienced trauma might communicate in a certain way. Understanding that communication will make you a better attorney in the area of law you practice.  Seek out training on those soft-skills that your time in law school didn’t teach, or maybe even harmed.

2 - Listening

The better you listen to those who are seeking your help, the better you can advocate their cause and reach their goals. It will put you in a place to understand not only what they want but why they want it. For example, so she wants a divorce from her spouse, by why? Is it because he has been hiding money? Is it because she met someone else? Is it fertility struggles? Abuse? Ego? Neglect? Confidentiality builds trust, and trust leads to understanding the why behind the what. If you have the why your approach to the what will all the more mirror what your client is seeking.