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The Key To Credibility
The following is a section I found a few years ago in the book “How To Argue And Win Every Time” by lawyer Gerry Spence. I re-read it whenever I’m working on an important ad or sales letter.
His formatting sucks. And it’s a little disappointing to learn so much from a lawyer. But if you’ve ever had difficulty arguing any point successfully to anyone, I suggest you read these paragraphs again and again and again:
The key: Openly revealing our feelings establishes credibility. We are what we feel.
How do we feel about our child’s conduct, our mate’s plan to change jobs, the boss’s hiring policy, or the city’s proposed zoning ordinance? Our willingness to openly reveal our feelings in our argument nearly always builds our credibility. But many of us refuse to express our feelings because we fear we may become angry. “I keep mum so I don’t blow a fuse,” says someone. But often our anger shields fear. Our child’s conduct may make us angry, but we are afraid our child will get into serious trouble. Our boss’s hiring policy may cause us to rage, but behind it we are afraid the boss’s policy will put our job in jeopardy. The city may make us furious when it rezones to permit a business in our neighborhood, but underneath we are afraid the city’s zoning decision will affect the value of our property. Argument may be combat, and like any combat it ultimately gives rise to fear – our fear of losing the argument and the resulting consequences of our loss.
Fear, the fuel of successful argument: I cannot remember an argument I’ve ever made that did not in some way engender some fear. If I lose my argument, even a minor argument, I will at least feel disappointment. Disappointment is unpleasant, and the operative avoidance mechanism, even to escape disappointment, is fear. Small doses of fear as well as large ones move us to avoid the pain – large or small – that constitutes the risk we assume when we argue. Even a small amount of pain is still pain, and even a small amount of fear of experiencing pain is still fear.
Credibility and the confession of fear: I have made the simplistic but correct argument that to be credible we must tell the truth. We have already discussed the notion that it is all right to be afraid and that we should feel that fear. But should we go so far as to confess one fear to the Other? I say that acknowledging the truth, even the truth about our fear, perhaps especially the truth about our fear, creates credibility.
Recently I was about to make my final argument to a jury in a widely publicized trial, the defense of Randy Weaver, who was charged, among many other crimes, with the murder of a United States marshal. The assistant U.S. attorney had just concluded what many said was the best argument of his career. My client’s life depended upon how convincingly I could make my own arguments. The court had called a five-minute recess before I was to begin. I was pacing up and down, my belly tight, my nerves tangled and raw. A friend of mine, an attorney with whom I had tried another murder case, called me over to where she was sitting in the courtroom. She had seen my pain.
“Let me tell you a new joke,” she offered.
“Don’t tell me a joke,” I replied in my preargument agony. “Tell me how to be real.” Then suddenly I knew once more how to be real. I had to feel the fear – again. Always the damnable pain of fear. I could cover the pain of fear. But what could I cover it with? Could I cover it with bravado? Who loves a swaggering **** of the walk? Could I cover it with a cold, unemotional blanket? Who cares for the callous, the insensitive, the apathetic? Who would believe them? Could I withdraw like the turtle into its shell? Who trusts those who hold back from us? Could I attack the way the lion attacks? Who is open to such a fearsome beast? Could I run for my hole like the rabbit? Who believes those who hide? The turtle when it retracts into its shell, the lion when it charges and the rabbit when it scurries into its hole all react to the same emotion: Fear. I watched the jury march in.
I heard the judge speak those fateful words I had longed for, and dreaded. “Mr. Spence, you may begin your argument.” I glanced quickly at the jury. They were watching me as I walked toward them, waiting to hear me, waiting to judge me. Could I answer the U.S. attorney? Would the jury believe me? Would I measure up? I felt like running. Trapped, I, like the lion, felt like charging. My heart was racing. I was afraid. God Almighty, I am always so afraid!
Then I looked down at my feet and I tried to feel where the fear actually lay. There it was, where I always found it, pressing at my ribs on each side, up high. I looked up at the jury. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” I began. “I wish I weren’t so afraid,” I heard myself saying. “I wish after all these years in the courtroom I didn’t feel this way. You’d think I would get over it.”
Some of the jurors looked astounded. Here was this lawyer who had fearlessly guided the defendant’s case through the cross-examination of over half a hundred mostly hostile witnesses – the FBI, the marshals, the experts. Here was this man who seemed always able to prevail now confessing his fear. They watched. They waited. Their tentacles were out – feeling, probing.
“I’m afraid I won’t be able to make the kind of argument to you that Randy Weaver deserves,” I said. “After nearly three months of trial, I’m afraid I won’t measure up. I wish I were a better lawyer.” As always, the fear began to slink away and the argument began to take its place, one that was to consume nearly three hours. It was an argument that was honest, and angry and humorous, one that was punctuated with defects and false starts and syntax that would horrify any self-respecting English professor. It was an argument that was as real as I was able to be – an argument that, in the end, was to free my client.
After the arguments were over and the jury had retired to deliberate, a young lawyer came up to me as I was leaving the courtroom. “Mr. Spence, how come you started so rough?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked back.
“Seemed like you were all hung up to begin with, but then you got going and, boy, it was hell to pay after that.” He laughted. “But you started rough.”
“I started ‘rough’ because that’s the way I was,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. But he didn’t seem to understand what I meant. He had experienced the credibility of my argument, but he did not understand that the argument’s credibility was the product of a lawyer who was afraid he could not measure up, and was willing to admit it.
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