Persuade by asking
the right questions
Relationships, dialogue key to getting point across
When the opportunity of a lifetime came knocking for Toronto lawyer Taras Kulish and his family, and he needed to make the ‘Big Ask’ at the firm where he’s an associate, he was thankful he’d spent years nurturing close
relationships with colleagues and senior partners.
Kulish specializes in trademark and charity and not-for-profit law, and his practice
doesn’t require significant time in court or face-to-face meetings. So when his spouse
landed a two-year work contract in Switzerland they leapt at the chance to live abroad.
Thanks to an array of communications technology, Kulish had mastered the art of
the remote office. But, as an associate, would he carry enough weight to convince
senior management that he could manage his files successfully from afar?
Kulish approached the partner with whom he had the closest rapport and
explained his situation. “The answer was immediate. He told me, without question,
that they would work with me and do whatever it would take.”
Grateful, Kulish realized he’d earned the firm’s trust. “I wouldn’t have been able to
do that without doing all the right things beforehand.”
The right things, as Kulish explains it, included joining colleagues for weekly
lunches and requesting an office next door to the senior partner he worked most
closely with on files.
“I didn’t want to be way down at the other end of the office and only see him once
in a while,” Kulish said. “We’d say hello every day and catch up on news. He was
always asking about the kids so he became involved with my life as a result.”
The Big Ask wasn’t planned—the opportunity to live in Switzerland arose
unexpectedly. But Kulish said he’s always considered building connections in the
workplace to be beneficial for everyone involved and appreciates in hindsight that
his efforts earned him the firm’s trust.
Whether the matter at hand is a Big Ask or an everyday strategic or intellectual
question involving a client or case, relationships are the foundation to establishing
trust and being able to carry influence.
“If you don’t have the trust of someone you’ll never persuade them of anything,”
said Dennis Nerland, managing partner with Shea Nerland in Calgary.
Nerland is a big fan of asking good Socratic questions designed to encourage the
other person to think matters through and reach a logical conclusion on their own.
“There’s a tool we use here called the Five Whys. If someone says something, you
ask why five times. Whoever’s on the receiving end comes to self-realize the answer.”
Nerland says Socratic questions have worked when he’s needed to discuss performance issues with employees. “If something goes wrong, I’d ask what happened.
There’s no way in the world I can say you need to change this, this, and this, or you’re
gone. That won’t work. With the Five Whys they figure it out on their own.”
The same approach also works on the intellectual issues lawyers routinely face.
Nerland said he wanted to persuade a colleague to adopt a risk-management
approach rather than an hourly approach for billing on a particular case. By asking
questions rather than pushing his point of view, Nerland says he effectively per-
suaded his colleague to reach a logical conclusion on his own. “I didn’t convince him
of anything, he convinced himself.”
Garth Sheriff, a Toronto communications consultant who works with lawyers, said
it can take considerable effort to come up with appropriate questions and then lis-
ten carefully during the ensuing dialogue.
“People sometimes think they can come in and just do it, but there’s work involved.
You have to figure out the right questions and where to ask those questions to start
Recognition, Page 22