We were on the brink of litigation. Our next step was to file suit, and we were deep in the midst of our “speak now or forever hold your peace” meeting. I had laid out the costs, possible repercussions, the risks and the chances for success. In other words, we had finished the lawyer-speak part of the meeting. We were now at what I think of as the really productive part – the part when we speak like real people.
I asked him, not for the first time, “What’s really bothering you? What do you really want to accomplish?” We’d had this discussion several times before. Each time my client went into the business reasons behind his decision. I knew all of that, but I wanted to give it one more shot.
So he took a deep breath and he said, describing the argument that sparked his decision to call a lawyer in the first place: “It’s not so much what he said; but how he said it.”
And there it was – the core of it. There may have been disagreement with the substance of what was being done. I know there was. But more to the point was the attitude. The undercurrent of disrespect. Of not hearing. And my client was just not going to stand for it. Not this time.
There’s a scene in “Fatal Attraction” (a/k/a the married man’s “Scared Straight”) that stays with me decades after I saw the movie. No, not the scene with the rabbit. This one was much more mundane. It featured Glen Close explaining her pre-bunny-killing actions to an increasingly panicked Michael Douglas.
“I’m not going to be ignored,” she said, as if her conduct had not already made that painfully obvious. It was the stress on the word “ignored.” The contempt and how it was drawn out — “ignooored” — I can still plainly hear. My client was saying the same thing, albeit differently and coming from a far more rational place.
I have yet to find studies on the subject, but I think at least half of the conflicts for which our firm is consulted find their origins in tone even more than substance. We take so much care structuring our communications to avoid the hint of culpability, lest they be used against us, as Mr. Miranda should have been told, “in a court of law,” that we forget about the humans on the receiving end. We are so careful about what we say that we disregard the importance of how we say it.
Don’t admit. Don’t back down. Don’t allow them to believe they’ll win. Don’t make an offer or they’ll think we’re scared to fight.
So much of our business communication today is devoid of tone and nuance. The fact is that it takes time and real skill to infuse an e-mail with something human and relatable. Too many business owners find themselves in my conference room because, with choices to make as to where best to devote effort in a finite amount of time, bullet points almost always win.
And that’s a shame, because when it comes to reducing the amount of time and money your company spends on litigation, the truth is that empathy and tone beat a list of great bullet points every day of the week.