The art of influence when logic just won't do: How to develop client relationships and advance your career using influence

Issue September/October 2016 By Susan Letterman White


The biggest mistake lawyers make when they are in the midst of trying to convince someone to work with them is to assume that the other person has the decision authority to hire. The second is that the person will make a decision logically. Assuming logic will guide the decision-making process causes people to provide a logical argument for why they should be hired into a new position and why they are trustworthy. Unfortunately, the decision to trust, which is at the foundation of a decision to hire a professional, is grounded in emotions.

Fun Fact: In a research study of investor trustworthiness, investors, who appeared fatigued were rated as less trustworthy.1 Their knowledge of investing wasn't nearly as important as their appearance.

Whenever your goals require someone else to do something, your ability to influence their decision-making matters. In 2011, I published a book with Thomson Reuters/West for lawyers called Power and Influence for Lawyer: How to Use it to Develop Business and Advance Your Career. Do you want to know the secret of being more influential? More influential means that other people see you as trustworthy and confident and are primed to make the decisions you want them to make, which coincidentally are those that are mutually beneficial - decisions that will make their lives better and yours.

The secret to being more influential, trustworthy, and confident begins with knowing what you want. If you find that surprising, consider this. Trust is the conclusion people make when they believe they are accurately predicting what a person will do and whatever that behavior also aligns with their interests. People, who don't know what they want can be unpredictable and unpredictable people aren't trustworthy because others don't know what they will do.

What do you want?

I ask this question of every client and it gives about 99% of them difficulty. Many will say that they want to feel happy or successful. There are two problems with that answer. First, human beings are notoriously bad at predicting what will make them feel happy.2 Second, when I ask them to describe their future happy life, they have a difficult time answering the question.

People are motivated to act in particular ways because of their particular goals. Knowing what you want in a very deep way is a highly motivating force. People perform better when they are doing something that interests them - what they want.3 Laura is a lawyer in a health care company. I interviewed her in 2010. She advises lawyers to know "what you really like to do and look for a job that lets you do more of that [because] it's hard to get the energy to do what you need to do to advance" your career and feel successful."4 Knowing what you enjoy and want to do is important for your career and it turns out that it is also an important resource for influencing others to trust you. The decision to trust is partly a consequence of perceived competence, which takes practice, grit, goals, and knowing what you want.

Knowing what you really want motivates because the strong desire is intertwined with positive emotions like hope, inspiration, and joy. Figuring out what you want is the first step in developing an important resource you will use to influence others. Knowing what you want comes from knowing what you enjoy. Think about what you enjoy doing and what you find absolutely unbearable, then ask yourself these four questions to discover what you really want:

  • When you have free time, how do you spend it?
  • When you imagine the lifestyle you are accustomed to or aspire to, what will you need to maintain it?
  • What resources do you want for your lifestyle?
  • What do you need to have happen to attain that lifestyle?


You just identified something that you want. What has to happen before you can attain that goal, meet that need, and satisfy that desire? You have to do or say something to get noticed for what you want by the people who can help you get what you want.

It's easy to feel uncomfortable with the word "selling." After all, that's what the supermarket or the used car salesperson does. It's not what a highly trained professional does! Or is it?

If you are trying to persuade another person that your position is the correct one, then you are selling an idea. If you are hired for your advice, then you are selling your advice. If you want others to trust and like you, then you are selling yourself. If you are thinking about your personal brand, you are thinking about selling yourself. Yet, accepting the idea that you need to sell someone on something is just the first step.

Most people never bother to consider the decisions that must be made in their favor for them to attain their goals. Most people never think about who will make those decisions. That's why so many people try to sell something to someone who either doesn't need or want it or lacks the decision-making authority to purchase it. I've worked with many lawyers trying to develop new clients, yet expending way too much effort and time trying to persuade people who lack the power to hire them or people who don't need the services they can provide. This is the same problem facing people who want to be hired for a skill-set that is not in demand in an industry that is changing the way they do business. Is this you?

Think about a professional goal. Some common goals for lawyers are to get hired, secure a promotion, or bring in a new client. Then answer the following questions to identify the decision-makers and decisions that matter to you today.

  • Describe your goal in specific terms.
  • Who will make the decisions that affect whether or not you attain that goal?
  • What are the decisions?
  • What factors will affect the decision-maker's thinking and feelings?

Confidence and trust

By now, you've figured out what you want, the decisions that must be made for you to get what you want, and the empowered decision-makers that matter to you. Here's the next hurdle to overcome.

Once you have identified the right people, the next most popular mistake is assuming that those people will make decisions the same way you do and that it will be driven by data and logic. First, you, like everyone else, usually make decisions using emotions much more than logic. Second, even if you know how you feel about something, there is no reason to assume everyone else feels and thinks like you do.

This is where trust matters and enters into the equation. Even if you are talking to the right people, before they will consider buying from you, they must trust you. Don't assume you can persuade someone to hire you for a job, promote you, or give you a business opportunity because you are good at what you do. Their decision will be more about them and who they trust than it is about your ability to do the job.

So, let's assume you've done a few things right and the right person with the right decision-making power has noticed you. Then, what? Here are a few "fun facts" about trust.

  • We are less likely to trust others who appear fatigued or impulsive. So make sure to look well-rested and professional in your appearance.
  • We are less likely to trust others who cross their arms, lean away from us, or touch their faces, necks, or hands. Keep these "no-nos" top of mind in your next presentation or interview
  • We are more likely to trust others who:
  • Use an expanded posture
  • Stand up straight
  • Tilt their head upwards
  • Place their arms open and raised above their heads
  • Place their arms akimbo
  • Display a decreased gazing at others
To learn more about conveying confidence, Google Amy Cuddy Ted Talk to learn more about how to use your body language to convey confidence.

Unconscious bias in decision-making

You've figured out what you want, the decisions that must be made for you to get what you want, who the empowered decision-makers that matter to you are, and how to appear confident and trustworthy. There is much more to unconscious bias in decision-making than you can imagine. Here's a summary.

Logic and reason

Lawyers, accountants, financial service providers, researchers, and analysts, among other service providers, assume logic and reason - rationality-based persuasion - is the most important decision-making driver. Consequently, that tends to be the only driver they use when trying to influence the decision-making of another person.

How effective is reason and logic at changing your attitudes, beliefs, or emotions? Have you ever changed your feelings from sadness to joy because someone told you why you were wrong to feel sad? If you continue to think that logic is purely objective, think again.

Let's look closer at reason and logic. How objective is it? It is not surprising that a person is more likely to respond favorably to a request for a favor if he or she is given a reason to do so. What is surprising is that even a spurious reason works. Compare the results of the compliance rate with the three requests in the experiment summarized below.5

Framing a request and compliance rates

Logic isn't totally logical after all!


Are the interests of various individuals or groups driving the decision making process? An example of competing interests is when two departments in a law firm want to advance their own associate to partner and there is only one spot available. The outcome may depend on alliances and trading promises or other favors with anyone who has voting power. Even if the only need is to influence a person not to argue with a firm decision, understanding that person's interests, in the nature of organizational politics and power, helps.

Aspirations and inspirations

An aspiration is a desire to achieve something. One of my clients, who is in marketing, recognized the need to transform her skill level on the use of a piece of design software that didn't exist when she began her career. After finding the perfect new position and aspiring to be seen as indispensable, she decided to take a university course. Her aspiration led her to decide to do whatever necessary to attain that vision of success.

An inspiration is a feeling of enthusiasm. A student, after hearing the managing partner of a particular law firm talk about the opportunities at that firm, might be inspired and decide that joining the firm is the best path to work with the best lawyers and on the most interesting projects in the field to attain his aspirational goal to be doing interesting work. Influencing a decision by inspiration is "focus[ing] on the ideas . . . hopes for the future…people's personal goals with a meaningful vision."6

Emotions, anxiety

Emotions motivate human beings more than anything else. People who were socially anxious increased their rate of cooperation and trust of others by approximately 50 percent.7 When someone concludes that a situation is similar to a past experience, the person will pull up the past decision with its emotional tagging and use it as a guide for the present decision making. The stronger the emotional tag, like vivid events, personal experiences, or easily imagined events, the more likely the memory will be used for comparison.8 "If a selected action, and its projected outcome, has strong emotional tags, then we are likely to act more decisively. If we have conflicting emotions, then we are more likely to be ambivalent about the proposed action."9 Finally, "sadness biases preferences toward high-risk/high-reward options, whereas anxiety biases preference toward low-risk/low-reward options."

On top of all that, our emotions influence the emotions of others.10 As Wharton Management professor Sigal Barsade puts it, "people are walking mood inductors, continuously influencing the moods and then the judgments and behaviors of others."11 Barsade ran an experiment in which a group of people simulated acting as managers who were meeting to allocate bonuses. Each person represented a single candidate and had two goals: (1) to get the best bonus for his or her candidate, and (2) to help the group allocate the bonus money in a way that would most benefit the company as a whole. Unbeknownst to the rest of the group, a trained actor, who was planted in the group, always spoke-up first and made an identical argument. The only variable from group to group was the emotional tenor of that argument, which ranged from the positive: cheerful enthusiasm or serene warmth to the negative: hostile irritability or depressed sluggishness. When the actor used positive emotions, the groups allocated the bonus money more fairly and in ways to benefit the company as a whole.12

What might that mean for you when negotiating on behalf of a client, trying to advance your ideas within your organization, landing your next client, pleasing your peers, boss, or client, or for negotiating your next raise? To prepare for your next negotiation, choose a specific goal and identify the person or persons, who own the decision-making power. What will you do or say to influence the decision-outcomes most favorably disposed to your goals?

Answer the questions below to develop your influence strategies.

  • Describe the goal:
  • Identify the decision maker or makers:
  • What will you say and do to influence the decision outcome?
  • Which decision-making biases are part of your strategy?
  • How will you address them?

Do you want to learn more tips for effective ways to reach your goals and the career and life you want? Your solution is a click away:

Susan Letterman White, JD, MSOD, is an Organization Development/ Change Management Consultant in Boston, Massachusetts with 25+ years of experience working in the legal sector, consulting sector, government, and higher education. She is chair of the MBA's Law Practice Management Section.

  1. DeSteno, David (2014-01-30). The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More (pp. 25-26). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  2. Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness (2006).
  3. Angela Duckworth (2016-05-03). Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance (p. 97). Scribner. Kindle Edition.
  4. Susan Letterman White, Power and Influence for Lawyers: How to Use it to Develop Business and Advance Your Career (2011).
  5. Robert B. Cialdini, Ph.D. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion 4 (1984).
  6. Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, and Annie McKee. Primal Leadership 212 (2002).
  7. DeSteno, David (2014-01-30). The Truth About Trust: How It Determines Success in Life, Love, Learning, and More (p. 20). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  8. Sydney Finkelstein, Jo Whitehead, and Andrew Campbell. Think Again 64 (2008).
  9. Id.
  10. Rajagopal Raghunathan & Michel Tuan Pham. All Negative Moods are not Equal: Motivational Influences of Anxiety and Sadness on Decision Making,   79 Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 56-77. http://www.c˜tdp4/OBHDP1999A.pdf (last visited on November 19, 2010  (1999).
  11. Sigal G. Barsade. The Ripple Effect: Emotional Contagion and its Influ- ence on Group Behavior 47 Administrative Science Quarterly 644-675 http://lin xE2.0.CO%3B2-Z p. 25 (last visited March 2, 2010).
  12. Id