Communicating with People Who are Not Lawyers

By John Allison

In law school we learned to apply legal principles to a set of facts and use reason to analyze an issue and construct an argument.  As a result of our legal training, and in some cases our predisposition, lawyers are inclined to communicate in a logical and linear fashion and to rely on reasoning to persuade other people.  Yet people who are not lawyers are more likely to make decisions based on their intuition or “gut feeling,” and then use reasons to justify their decision to themselves and to other people. 

This difference between lawyers and people who are not lawyers is confirmed by a nationwide assessment performed in 1992 and reported in the Journal of the American Bar Association.  On the Myers-Briggs thinking/feeling scale, lawyers are significantly more likely than non-lawyers to prefer thinking to feeling.  Conversely, non-lawyers are significantly more likely to prefer feeling to thinking, making decisions subjectively based on personal feelings, values, context and the impact on others.

To communicate effectively with non-lawyers, either individually or in a group, it is important to engage your audience on an emotional level and to resonate with their values.  Reasons may be useful to give your audience the tools needed to justify a decision.  Yet reasons alone are unlikely to persuade.

When communicating with other people you will increase the chance of being heard and understood if you also adapt your communication to the preferences of your audience.  People have different communication styles.  Some differences are based on gender or culture.  Generally speaking, men like to stay focused on the specific issue being discussed, while women tend to be interested in having a conversation that addresses the context in which an issue arises.  Cultural differences can be based on ethnicity or geography.  Some people are accustomed to communications that are direct and even blunt, while others may be more comfortable with indirect and subtle communications.  Differences can also be based on individual temperament and the circumstances in which a communication takes place.  To consider a couple of examples, an executive may want to hear the bottom line conclusion first in a presentation about a business issue.  In contrast, a social worker may want to hear about the context and the emotional factors associated with an issue before being presented with the details of a recommendation.