People come to you for help because they feel stuck. They seek a lawyer’s help when they hit a wall: they don’t understand the information they’re finding online, or they start questioning themselves about what to do.
Feeling stuck comes with feeling stress. Stress is the body’s response to the realization that you lack the resources you need to overcome an obstacle. According to Avvo research, 9 out of 10 people who feel stuck in their legal issue are also stressed out.
People under stress aren’t their usual selves. Under stress, people transform from thoughtful, open-minded, and rational people into something entirely different. Knowing how stress impacts decision-making can help you better relate to your clients and avoid doing things that might alarm them or scare them off. Here’s what you need to do:
- Don’t ask them to use reason. People who are stressed out abandon reason and start looking for shortcuts. They lose the capacity for thoughtful decision-making and fall victim to shortsightedness and bias. They may do whatever they did the last time they were in the same situation or what they’ve heard others do. So, if you want to push clients to their breaking point—to the point that they run out of your office screaming—call attention to the fact that they’re being irrational. Sketch out a strategy flowchart that carefully weighs the pros and cons of every possible move. However, if you want to keep clients, remember that they probably hired you to be reasonable on their behalf. It might be okay to let them go on not making much sense, if that’s what they need to do. Focus on staying the course despite their panic attacks.
- Focus on the positive, not the negative. People under stress tend to remember and hang onto positive information. When they hear negative information, they’re more likely to discount it. So if you’re feeling vindictive and want to give a client anxiety, embrace the gloom and doom. The more clients hear about the bad stuff that could happen, the less likely they are to listen to you. They might decide you have no value, and they’ll find another lawyer to hire. If you want to do right by your clients, alleviate their stress by letting them know what positive things are possible and what you’re doing to move toward resolution. Focus on anything uplifting.
- Don’t ask men to be more careful, and don’t ask women to take more risks. Research on the effects of stress on decision-making reveals that men under stress are willing to take more risks while women under stress become more risk-averse. Stress also makes women want to bond with others and seek companionship while men are more likely to experience a fight-or-flight response. So if you want to get rid of a female client, be emotionally unavailable and encourage her to make high-risk moves. If it’s a man you want to fire you, tell him to chill out, take it slow, and be cautious. If you want to help your clients, however, listen to your female clients and offer validation while respecting their need to be careful. Respect the fact that your male clients are going to want to take action—either by moving forward or fleeing—and that they may be looking to you to be courageous.
Stress isn’t our friend; we all know that. But the more you understand what your clients are going through, the better equipped you are to help them. It’s also worth noting that clients aren’t the only ones who stress out. You are under stress too. Realizing how stress can impact your decision-making and training yourself to override its basic human reactions can make you a stronger and better lawyer.