I recently came across this question about power and influence while listening to an NPR Hidden Brain podcast episode, and later reading “The Power Paradox — How We Gain and Lose Influence,” by UC Berkeley psychologist, Dr. Dacher Keltner.
In the book, Dr. Keltner explains results of scientific research studies that show emotional and social intelligence — that is focusing on others, being empathetic, and practicing generosity — is what drives a long-term rise in power. In listening to the podcast and reading the book, I began to wonder how we can apply some of this to marketing our clients’ law firms.
Coercive Power vs. Collaborative Power
The book focuses on a shift in the perception of power over the last few decades: from one of coercive power (more Machiavellian type power) to one of collaborative power. The book references studies where teams are provided complex problems to solve; the teams that had empathetic and collaborative leaders tended to solve problems better than teams that had one or more coercive style leaders. Furthermore, Dr. Keltner discusses the power that the U.S. has in the world. He posits that, while yes, we have coercive power through economic and military might, there has also been greater influence from the power of the U.S. ideals and emotions distributed through books, art, movies, and journalism.
Abraham Lincoln is an example to which Dr. Keltner refers in both this book and on the podcast. He claims that a journalist at the time answered why Lincoln, who was not a typical powerful politician of the times, successfully rose to the highest office and was able to move significant change through. Lincoln is said to have treated everyone with respect no matter his view of their opinion. Furthermore, Lincoln was known to keep himself very close to the suffering that was involved at the time. His social intelligence, empathy, and a commitment to the greater good and needs of others drove his rise in power.
Fortunately, the book takes us from the large scale U.S. influence on the world down to smaller scale power dynamics, discussing studies done on middle schoolers. Again, empathy and generosity provided the most long-term power.
Look at your law firm. Yes, you have the education and experience that your client does not possess, and thus, have a (coercive) power to tell them what needs to be done to solve their issue. However, what they say when they are done working with your firm is based on the relationship that is created.
In this client-lawyer relationship, are you gaining power through coercive or collaborative means?
Dr. Keltner shows that power shapes all of our relationships, from dozens of studies from middle schoolers to corporations and even to the US Senate, power dynamics are always formed. These studies show, against Machiavellian ideas, that those who focus on others, and practice generosity, rise in social power. Yes, the “bullies” sometimes get attention early, but over the long haul the connected person, the empathetic person, rises to have the most social power.
A law firm is a service providing business, and thus relies on relationships between the law firm and the client. The lawyers and their extended team at the law firm are the ‘product’ the client is purchasing. The way the client feels about the legal service experience they received is often just as, if not more important than the outcome. Word of mouth comes from building a positive relationship with your clients.
How can we apply this to your marketing?
Many first experiences potential clients have about your firm come from what they see online. On your website, are you showing how you understand their problem, showing how you care, and how you can help vs. just beating your chest about how smart and awesome you are? Do you have testimonials that talk about how great it was to work with you, how great a listener you were, how you didn’t talk down to them? Or do they just say that you won but don’t go into how they appreciated the relationship? Through our research in working with our law firm clients, we see a lot of online reviews of law firms, I can assure you that most of the negative reviews do not focus on losing a case, most negative reviews focus on the poor relationship the law firm created by not being responsive, empathetic, taking time to explain things, or simply just returning a phone call.
Once your website design and copywriting shows that you care and want to help, you have begun to build the initial foundation of this collaborative power. It is then up to your law firm team to follow through on that and continue to build this power by showing your empathy to the client’s needs. Through simple things as taking a little extra time to explain what is going on and why, being quick to respond to questions, and treating everyone as important you can build strong power in your relationships that will lead to word of mouth referrals and hopefully some amazing testimonials.
Speaking of testimonials, if your firm has succeeded in building this relationship power with your clients, when you ask a client for a testimonial, ask them to focus more on what it is like working with your firm, and less on the outcome.
The paradox that is discussed in The Power Paradox is that studies have also shown that once people have earned relationship/collaborative power and begin to realize they now have this power, they become less interested and less empathetic toward people. I am not going to focus this article around this paradox, but suffice it to say, that as lawyers, you have the ability to gain a lot of social power from your clients and community thus you should be cautious that you or anyone at your firm does not fall into this power paradox.
If you lead your marketing with how you can help prospective clients, and then follow through with real empathy for your clients, and work hard to avoid the power paradox, your firm will gain significant social power in your community. This will lead to a strong position for your firm against your competition and strong growth in your business for many years.