How many times a day do you ask judges, clients, or co-workers to do something or to give you something? During any given week, you probably make hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of requests. You ask your co-worker to work on a project, you ask your assistant to handle a client issue, you ask your kids to help with the dishes… The number of requests that you make each week is staggering. But how many of those requests are actually granted? Have you ever had a problem with someone not doing not what you asked?
Why? You’re a lawyer. Shouldn’t you be the master of persuasion who can get what you want, when you want it, and how you want it, every single time?
Unless your name is “Svengali the Master Manipulator,” chances are that many of your requests are not being granted, or at least not being carried out exactly the way you’d like to see them handled. But it’s not because your requests are falling on deaf ears. In fact, your listeners are probably hearing exactly what you’re saying. The problem is that you’re asking for the wrong thing.
That’s because when most people make requests, they don’t ask for what they want. Instead, they actually ask for what they don’t want.
For example, has your boss ever asked you to work on an important client issue? Many bosses will say something similar to, “This is our most important client, so whatever you do, don’t mess this up!”
But look at the embedded command in that request for help: “Mess this up.” Rather than asking you to do a great job or to help the client, your boss is telling you to do the exact opposite of what he really wants done.
The reason he’s telling you to do the opposite of what he wants is because our brains aren’t wired to hear the word “Don’t.” Our minds think in images. When you hear the word “Orange,” you don’t think of the letters “O-R-A-N-G-E.” Instead, you think of the fruit, the color, or maybe even a bottle of orange juice. When you recall information, your mind pulls up the pictures that help you “see” the memory.
This phenomenon makes it difficult to see the negative of something. If I ask you to think of “Not an Orange,” your brain has difficulty following my request, because it doesn’t have a readily available picture for “Not an Orange.” Instead, your brain reverts back to your picture for “Orange,” because that’s the only picture it can pull up. Rather than thinking of what I hoped you would think about, you actually began thinking of the exact opposite.
The same thing happens when your boss tells you “don’t mess this up.” You don’t have a readily available picture for “Not Messing Up,” but you sure have a great picture of “Messing Up.” Your picture for “Messing Up” may include the image of you fumbling and bumbling your way through the presentation, missing an important legal development in your research, or maybe even an image of you sleeping through the filing deadline. Whatever your picture of “Messing Up” looks like, that will be the image that jumps into your mind when your boss tells you not to mess up.
That’s why it’s important to ask for what you want, rather than what you don’t want. Rather than telling you “not to mess this up,” your boss would get better results from you by saying, “This is our most important client, so I know you’re going to do an exemplary job.” Rather than embedding a negative command into your head, now your boss is embedding a positive command, “Do an exemplary job.” Your brain can absorb this positive request and put it into action, because you know (hopefully) what an exemplary job looks like.
If you’d like to get better results when you ask others to do something, take a moment to rephrase your request in a positive format before you make your request. Anytime you feel yourself getting ready to say, “Don’t,” ask yourself, “What do I want this person to DO?” Rephrase your question positively, so that the listener is given a positive command and clear direction for what to do next. Here are some examples of how changing the phrasing of your request can change the outcome:
- Rather than: “These are our most expensive dishes, so whatever you do, don’t drop them.”
- Ask for what you want: “These are out most expensive dishes, so whatever you do, hold onto them carefully.”
- Rather than: “The game is on the line, so don’t drop the ball.”
- Ask for what you want: “The game is on the line, so protect the ball.”
- Rather than: “The statute of limitations has almost expired, so don’t miss the filing deadline.”
- Ask for what you want: “The statute of limitations has almost expired, so file these pleadings by Friday.”
By changing the picture in your listener’s mind, you change the outcome. Rather than urging them to focus on the negative outcome, you shift their focus towards the positive outcome that you desire. Eliminate the word “don’t” from your request vocabulary, and ask for what you want. When you do, your presentations and your requests will become dramatically more persuasive.