WALK THE TALK: How WHAT We Do Affects HOW We Live
As lawyers, we’re trained to be advocates. We fight for our client’s rights; we confront those that take advantage. We’re always on the offensive, ready to pounce when we perceive injustice.
This instinct to fight also tends to bleed into our personal lives. I’m guilty. Totally guilty. I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve said the words, “You can’t do this, I’m a lawyer!” Yes, I’ve said them more than once. I once wore these words like a sword and shield, ready to wield them in the face of any adversity. I’ve said them to bad landlords, employers violating the labor codes and former business partners trying to steal proprietary information. The very moment those words left my mouth, I was horrified. And a little proud. And can I say it again? A little embarrassed. Why? Because I’m not sure I believe that people are really threatened these days by lawyers the same way they used to be. I’m not sure those words helped in the way I hoped. In fact, I’m pretty sure that the words “You can’t do this, I’m a lawyer” often made people even more angry and confrontational.
As a “neutral,” I’m trained to think outside of the advocacy role and instead engage in problem solving and relationship building. The problem is that “neutral” implies I don’t have any skin in the game. “Neutral” implies that the ultimate outcome doesn’t really matter to me. “Neutral” implies that I don’t advocate. That’s fine for the cases for which I’m hired. That is my job description after all, but you can’t live your life as a neutral… can you?
I recently personally and very purposefully tested this theory. First, my plumber installed the wrong replacement faucet in my kitchen and then my TV cable provider botched a new receiver order not once, not twice, but four times. Rather than take on an aggressive advocacy role, I decided to put on my neutral hat to engage each party in the process of helping solve the problems.
THE CASE OF THE KITCHEN FAUCET
When my kitchen faucet broke, I called my trusty plumbing company. We negotiated a fair price and I agreed to the work, specifying that I wanted them to replace my current faucet with the exact same faucet.
Long story short, the plumbers installed a faucet that looked nothing like my old one and was in fact, less functional. I complained. I wanted the plumbers to replace it with what I ordered.
The plumbing company manager tried to argue that I made an oral contract. He said I was either stuck with it or could pay for both the replacement faucet and the additional labor.
I wanted to scream, “I’m a lawyer, I damn well know what an oral contract is this ain’t it, buddy.” But I didn’t. Instead, I put on my mediator hat and went to work. I told them how much I valued our relationship and that I appreciated how well they had worked with me for the past 12 years. I then went onto describe my point of view of the events, reiterating over and over that I could understand how such a mistake could be easily made, but that my interests in having a different faucet went beyond style and price and instead affected my ability to cook and clean for my family.
After some back and forth, they agreed to replace the faucet at no cost, but insisted I pay for their extra time. The company felt this was a fair compromise. I did not. I felt they were trying to bilk me, especially after learning that they upcharged me on the faucet I hated.
Instead of aggressively arguing the point, I instead offered to do research on the original faucet “to help them save time.” This seemed like a big concession on my part, but in reality, it was something I would have done anyway. In the meantime, I asked them to send me a detailed account of all charges to date so I could better evaluate how I wanted to proceed. I wanted to be able to objectively quantify my feelings of being taken advantage of.
Once I looked at the accounting, I saw an opening and formulated a plan. I discovered my old faucet model was no longer made, but that I could get a similar model at a similar price. I also discovered the faucet they installed was significantly less expensive than my model, although I was charged for the old model. I felt cheated and decided to call them on it. Instead of continuing to insist they get me the exact same model which no longer existed, I decided on a new style which just happened to be $150 less than the original model.
I came up with a plan to discuss how I was feeling on a personal level, what my underlying interests were with regard to the new faucet and how I didn’t want to pay more than the original agreement. Because I ended up choosing a faucet that was less expensive than my old one, I was able to position my argument as a compromise for both of us rather than a win for me.
They replaced the faucet at no extra cost for parts or labor. I sent the plumbing company a personal thank you note letting them know that not only had they retained me as a customer, they had earned my respect and my ability to recommend their services to others. It actually worked out as a win-win for both of us.
THE CASE OF THE TV CABLE ORDER
I ordered a new receiver for one of my TV’s. Although it wasn’t a difficult order, for various reasons it was a little unusual. My cable provider got the order wrong a grand total of four times. I spent hours on the phone trying to straighten things out. I even hired a specialty cable guy to prepare my house for the new receiver. When the crew came to install the system and had the order wrong for the fourth time, I didn’t get angry, aggressive or yell. Instead, I told the technician, “This is totally not your fault, but you should know that…” And I calmly related my story of the four wrong orders. I said, “Is there any way you can help me? I really don’t know what to do.”
The technician thought for some time and then suggested an idea. He told me that the company says no to this idea 99% of the time and that it probably wouldn’t fly, but he offered to make the call anyway. The technician calmly related my story to his boss and amazingly, the boss agreed! The company agreed to upgrade my whole house for free (a value of over $400) because I asked their technician to help me problem solve. It turns out that the technician was a mediator too! The company retained my business and I walked away a happy customer instead of cancelling my service in frustration.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
Walking the talk works! Acting as a mediator helps problem solve in real-life. Here’s how I did it and how you can do it too:
1.) Stop your natural instinct to fight.
2.) Take time to express your frustration in a calm manner, avoiding accusations. Be friendly, remember the person’s name, and ask them personal questions about their lives. You get more flies with honey!
3.) Illustrate your issues in a way that helps the other party understand and empathize with your position and interests by making your issues personal to you and to them… it’s not always about money. When I explained how these problems affected my family in meaningful ways, I found that the companies really wanted to help.
4.) Do your research and keep records of your interactions so there are no later misunderstandings. Don’t make assumptions! Your best weapon is to know your enemy and any possible argument they will make against your interests. Deflect their arguments and turn them to your favor.
5.) If you can, take your time to make decisions. Tell the company you will wait to pay their bill until you have a resolution so you can pay for everything at once. This doesn’t commit to you to paying more, but it signals that you’re open to discussions and compromise, even if you’re really not. It also lets them know you’re serious about finding a solution and won’t easily go away. Withholding payment is a powerful tool.
6.) Find your opening. You may have to wait for it or create it, but find it!
7.) Make your compromise seem like a “win” for them when it’s really a “win” for you.
8.) Be sure to thank them for working with you. Do this in a personal and meaningful way. Hopefully, this will help “pay it forward,” and it will allow you to continue working with them in a positive way.
Try it! Let me know if it works. And as always, if you’re not up for problem solving for whatever reason, don’t hesitate to call me for help.