Persuasion and negotiation are essential skills in the practice of law. But they are also key aspects of other tasks performed at law firms. For example, in human resources, you must persuade someone to hire you, pay you more money and advance you in your career. And, of course, a lot of law firm persuasion takes place in the realm of business development. You must persuade clients in your marketplace that you are an expert in your field of practice. You must persuade influencers to refer potential clients to meet with you. You must persuade current clients to stay with you and give you more work.
In light of all these necessary acts of persuasion, wouldn’t it be much easier to connect with others if you knew what they were thinking and they trusted you? The ability to read body language provides valuable information about the individual, and by adjusting your own body language, you can help facilitate an instant bond of trust.
The Importance of Body Language
Lawyers tend to be word people, which means that they put too much emphasis on what they are communicating. They will spend hours researching and writing a presentation, and then simply read it. They place far too little emphasis on how they are communicating. This can be a huge mistake.
“Research shows that people form first impressions about the likeability and trustworthiness of another person very quickly,” said Boulder, Colo.-based persuasion expert Traci Brown. Brown teaches lawyers how to use body language to pick and persuade members of a jury, and she has authored “Mastering Magical Persuasion” and “Body Language Confidential.”
“This determination of ‘OK’ or ‘not OK’ happens instantaneously in the deep unconscious,” she said. “Once this impression is made, it is almost impossible to change.”
According to a widely cited study by UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian, body language accounts for an overwhelming 55 percent of the first impression. By comparison, 38 percent of a first impression comes from the tone of your voice and a mere 7 percent from your actual words.
Body language includes how we position our bodies, such as how close we stand or sit to someone; how we use our hands; how people perceive our facial expressions, especially our eyes; how we touch ourselves and others; and how we connect with items around us like pens, eyeglasses, jewelry or even the change in our pockets. Even breathing rate and perspiration are part of body language.
“If the person you are meeting is somber and guarded, you will never persuade them by being cheerful and demonstrative. That will only set off their alarms,” Brown said. “If you want to get different results from your efforts to persuade others, you need to do things differently, and to get better results in the area of business development, one of the most effective things you can do is change your body language. With an understanding of how body language works, you can talk just about anyone into anything.”
Reading and Responding to Body Language
An effective persuader will pay close attention to the body language of the person he or she is trying to persuade and then mimic that body language. “People like and trust people whom they perceive to be similar to themselves,” Brown said. “The more you can be like the person you are dealing with, the more you will be able to establish essential rapport.”
Good friends and romantic partners, for example, tend to do this naturally. Is the person you are sitting across from soft-spoken? Does he speak slowly, smile and laugh a lot? Is his notepad on the desk or his lap, does he take copious notes, are his legs crossed, is he leaning forward or backward? These are important cues to notice and reflect in your own body language. Neurolinguists often use the terms “mirroring” and “matching.”
“Mirroring occurs when you copy a person’s body language as if you were that person’s reflection in a mirror,” Brown said. “If the person you are facing leans to the left, for example, you lean to the right. In other words, you might both lean toward the door. Precisely mirroring another person at exactly the same time, though, can be too intense. It can actually backfire by making the person too uncomfortable. The only time mirroring works well is when you are sitting across from someone who is stiff and symmetrical.”
Almost always, you want to match rather than mirror the person you are speaking with. “When you match, you copy the person more loosely,” Brown said. “If the person you are facing leans to the left, you lean to your left — the other way from a mirror image. If the other person leans toward the door, you would lean away from the door. You don’t want to do this immediately after the other person moves, but perhaps five or 10 seconds later, or when it is your turn to speak.”
Brown also suggested that when having a conversation, it is a good idea to stand or sit at a 45-degree angle to the person on whom you want to make a positive impression. Standing or sitting right across from someone and staring them straight in the eye can be seen as confrontational and put that person on his or her guard, rather than creating rapport.
How to Interpret a Handshake
Brown discussed a number of circumstances where it can be useful to understand and correctly respond to another person’s body language. The handshake, for example, is the standard greeting in business situations. The ideal handshake is the “equal shake,” where the clasp is vertical and the grasp is firm, which says that you are meeting on common ground and want a nice, even interaction.
When the other person shakes your hand and turns the palm down, he or she wants to dominate the interaction. The same holds true for a “bone crusher.” When the person turns his or her palm up, the individuals is welcoming and likely to do what you want. A limp “dead fish” handshake indicates a lack of backbone. A person who shakes hands with just the fingertips is unlikely to want to do business with you.