Sklover’s Monday Thought: “If you can’t be kind, at least be vague.”

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“If you can’t be kind, at least be vague.”

– Unknown

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I remember it well. It was in 1993 or 1994, when now-Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor was in the second year of her judicial career as a U.S. Federal District Court Judge. She had been appointed by former President George Herbert Walker Bush. I was, let us just say, “a younger lawyer” than I am now.

When our case was called, my Opposing Counsel and I rose and approached the Bench, while dozens of other lawyers awaited their own calendar appearances. I don’t remember the details of the case, but it was one in which both my adversary and I had hurled “hot words” at each other in our written correspondence to each other. I don’t recall how, but Judge Sotomayor had seen some of the “spicier” letters that had been traded.

Initially, Judge Sotomayor was soft-spoken. Soon she raised her voice a bit, and then she just erupted about the nasty tenor of our unprofessional correspondence she’d seen, and finally – and it seemed like forever – she just “tore our ears off.”

For the past 30 or so years, my letters to opposing counsel have become much tamer, more reasoned, less “spicy” and more tasteful. Throughout the ensuing 30 years, each time I have drafted a letter to any Opposing Counsel, no matter her tone or his tenor in writing to me, I have said to myself, “Careful, Al . . . Sonia Sotomayor might somehow read this letter.” And you know what? Over that time I’ve observed my “softer” letters became among my more effective letters, too. Now I do all I can to hold off on the hot air, and instead limit myself to warm words.

Now I don’t attack people; I raise principles. I don’t say exactly what I think, but I do suggest what “others might think” of my adversary’s approach and arguments. I have come to understand that it is better to first try “honey,” and hold off on using “vinegar” as long as I can, and that “once you use vinegar, you really can’t go back to honey.”

Several times my clients have been amazed at how their “better angels” are also their “better negotiators.” More than you might imagine, my clients have achieved multiples of their negotiation goals by our discussing, first, the other side’s perspective and perceived needs, even before the other side brings them to our attention. It pulls people closer to you, and when “closer” they are more open to your view, as well.

Judge Sotomayor observed a shortcoming in my communications, and not all gently, helped me fix it. She wasn’t at all gentle or vague, but she was so very kind in the “gift” she gave me that day in Court. Years later, at another Court Appearance before her, she took a moment to ask “Hello, Mr. Sklover . . . how have you been behaving?” I couldn’t help but smile and laugh, and, sure enough, she joined me in both.

So, be kind, but “If you can’t be kind, at least be vague,” at work, at home, and if you ever find yourself in Court. It really does pay off in oh-so-many ways.

This quote was recently sent to me by a long-term client on her retirement day. She shared how much he enjoyed the fruits of my unusual style of negotiating.

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