Self-described “Tech/Business Geek” Jason Crawford gives us some great questions to ask ourselves before we (usually mistakenly) think of the people we work with as “stupid.” He reminds us that “[d]ifferences in judgement are rarely due to stupidity,” and suggests we instead work to understand others’ thinking process, biases and emotions. I’ve found that lawyers are particularly susceptible to mis-diagnosing their non-lawyer* clients this way.
Here are some of my favorite questions he suggests we ask ourselves before playing the “stupid” card:
- Are you answering the same question? Maybe each of you is answering a different angle on the question (e.g., “what’s our next step?” vs. “what’s the long-term solution?”)
- Are you talking completely in abstractions? Give examples, and ask them for examples, to get clear and concrete.
- Are you both being clear and precise in your formulations? Sometimes people phrase things loosely or talk in metaphors that aren’t meant to be taken literally.
- Have you seen important data that they haven’t? Maybe they missed a key fact, or they just haven’t seen the breadth or depth of data that you have. Inform them and see if they come around.
- Do you have relevant experience that they don’t? Tell them the observations or lessons learned that lead you to your conclusion (without being didactic or condescending).
- Are you guided by different goals and values? If so, you’ll reach different solutions to a problem. Get aligned on goals before arguing about problems and solutions.
And a few particularly relevant to lawyers:
- Are they afraid of the conclusion? Maybe it threatens their work, their reputation, or their self-esteem. There’s no excuse for this, but it happens to everyone sometimes. Good people recognize it sooner or later and let their emotions go. Sometimes a close friend or co-worker can get them to see what’s going on by asking sympathetic questions. (Be sure to ask this question of yourself as well.)
- Are environmental stresses degrading their judgment? Time pressure or having your career on the line can make it hard to do your best work.
- Are they intimidated by you? If you really are smarter or better-spoken, they may be swamped by emotions of insecurity that make it hard to think. You may be unwittingly shutting them down, which begins a vicious cycle. Tone it down.
Next time you are tempted to think of a client as “stupid,” you should look in the mirror first. Your failure to ask yourself these questions about your clients may make you the stupid one.
* Stop calling the talented, committed professionals in your office who were smart enough to avoid law school “non-lawyers.” It demeans them and makes you look like a smug, self-important ass.