Earth to Client, this is Reality Calling

At times, attorneys need to deliver bad news. Maybe things didn’t go according to plan or maybe the client’s case isn’t worth nearly what he thinks it is. Discovery went sideways, the other party’s witnesses look pretty bullet proof and a lot of negative information came out. If your client can’t take off the rose colored glasses and wants to go full speed ahead into the rocks, is there anything you can do to try to right the ship?

Gleb Tsipursky, Assistant Professor of History of Behavioral Science at the Ohio State University, writes in The Conversation that denial of facts and reality are common, even among those regarded in society as wise and powerful.

A recent study found that nearly a quarter of corporate CEO’s (23%) have been fired for denying reality, or the refusal to recognize negative facts about the organization’s performance. The study was done by LeadershipIQ.com, which interviewed 1,087 board members from 286 organizations who fired their chief executive officers or forced them to quit.

You may want to change your client’s mind with facts. As sensible as that may sound research finds that’s probably a waste of time and may make the situation worse. If someone believes something others know to be false, some kind of emotional block is probably at play.

We tend to look for and interpret information in ways that conforms to our beliefs. A CEO may get bad news about sales numbers but believe he can “turn the ship around” and stop the trend. The person may also be trapped in the “sunk cost fallacy,” a tendency to double down on past decisions even when objective facts shows the decision was a mistake. Either way facing reality would probably make the CEO feel bad, something he or she may take great effort to avoid.

“The backfire effect” is another way of thinking that shows we dig in our heels if we’re given facts that cause us to feel bad about our identity, self-worth, world view or group belonging. In some cases presenting the facts actually backfires and the person develops a stronger attachment to incorrect beliefs. Anger is often shown to the person bringing the message, what researchers term “shoot the messenger” phenomena.

Tsipursky says this isn’t to say that emotions are the problem, because they’re fundamentally important to the human experience. We need both reason and emotion to make good decisions.

Don’t throw more facts at the person, try to determine the emotional blocks stopping your client from seeing reality. Use curiosity and subtle questioning to determine his values and goals and how they shape his perception of self-identity. Use empathy to stand in his shoes to try to understand why he sees things a certain way.

Once you understand his goals and values, show that you share them. Mirror him, or rephrase in your words the points made by your client. This helps show you understand how he feels and helps build trust. Once you’re on the same side, build up trust and create an emotional connection and move on to the emotional block eclipsing reality from your client. Try to show him, without creating a defensive or aggressive response, how their truth denialism undermines his goals in the long term.

If you can create an emotional bond with your client and develop trust, you can find a way to tell your client his goal of the best possible result in the case won’t be met by plowing ahead into the rocks, it’s by finding another path to make the most out of a bad situation.