Monday, January 21, 2019

Persuading Students to Logical Choices

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!  I hope everyone gets time to reflect on the impact of Dr. King today.  I will continue my quest to see beyond my privilege today and every day to help others.  Unfortunately, helping others at the law school sometimes requires tough conversations.

Throughout law schools the next few weeks, we will all have a similar experience.  Grades are released and some students underperformed.  He/she will walk into our office near tears with statistically little chance to improve his/her cumulative GPA high enough to stay in school.  Some schools provide programs or restart options to help students, but the vast majority of these students will forego the statistical odds.  They will incur substantial debt to not raise their GPA high enough to remain in law school.  Could we have persuaded them into the programs or restart with a different technique?  Chris Voss, former hostage negotiator, would say yes.

Voss gathered his experiences as a negotiator and wrote the book Never Split the Difference.  He utilizes multiple studies and anecdotal stories to illustrate how individuals rarely make decisions based on logic.  When negotiating, attempting to persuade the other side with logic doesn’t work.  I can do the math for students to demonstrate the minimum grades needed for the semester.  However, his/her self-belief and previous experience with good grades in undergrad causes them to believe with just a little more work, they can get Bs, which is usually above the class average.  For a few close to our good standing line, they are correct, but the students farther away rarely raise their GPA enough.  We have a fresh start restart program many of them should take, but most of them reject that option.

Persuasion with logic may not work, but Voss provides clear techniques that could help us talk with students about their situation.  The big theme of the book is to place ownership and control of the deal with the opposing party.  Individuals who perceive that they have control end up making more concessions if guided to what you want.  The guiding process is the difficult part.

The book has numerous helpful tips and strategies, and 3 of the big ones are labeling, mirroring, and calibrated questions.  Labeling is when we label negative feelings or roadblocks that occur during negotiations.  The other party tends to continue talking and divulge more information, which may be helpful in the conversion.  Labeling can provide us more information to either persuade our students or develop a more targeted strategy for them. 

Some labels can be pre-planned.  Starting a conversation (after the pleasantries) with, “I understand making a lower than expected GPA can make someone feel bad about their abilities” or “I know I will seem like the big bad professor telling you how you didn’t cut it 1st year.”  Many times the response will ease the tension or get them to confirm the emotions.  In the middle of the conversion, we can say “it seems like you are worried about what your family will say about the situation” or other statements that relate specifically to their situation.  It seems, sounds, looks, etc. are good ways to start those sentences.

Mirroring is a great technique to continue a conversion and gather more information for labeling.  Mirroring involves both verbal and non-verbal actions.  You can repeat the last 3-4 words someone says and they will usually provide more information.  Having non-verbal upbeat cues (smiling, etc.) also encourage further discussion.  Labeling and mirroring questions generate volumes of information to work with students.

The last big strategy is calibrated questions.  Calibrated questions are questions that reject a premise or seek information without the negativity associated with no.  The questions should place control in the hands of the other party, but if calibrated correctly, can guide them to your solution.  These are usually how and what questions, almost never why questions.  When someone makes an offer in a negotiation, asking “How can I do that?” is a rejection without saying no and makes the other side create solutions for you.  Thinking about students, we can ask “what is your plan for improvement”, “how can I help you?”, and “how will we know if you are following through with your plan?”  We can also ask, “how will you get X GPA this next semester?”  The questions are designed to get students coming up with the answers and the subsequent follow up mechanism.  They will either see the best option or will take ownership of the plan to improve.  Students may even realize when trying to create a plan that the likelihood of success is low.

The next few weeks will be filled with hard conversations.  I want to see our students improve and succeed.  While I have candid conversations, I will always work with anyone to improve throughout law school.  Similar to many of you, I think guided feedback and deliberate practice can help nearly anyone.  The struggle is the required level of improvement needed for some students.  Looking at other disciplines may help us with these hard conversations.

(Steven Foster)

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