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Persuading through compassion

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Many times I write about reversing roles with opposing lawyers, witnesses, judges and clients. It is one thing to understand that in the intellectual zone, but much harder to do so in the heart zone when the other person seems to be acting heartlessly, threateningly, and with the ability to inflict severe damage.

Recently, for the first time in my twenty years of criminal defense practice, I witnessed a police officer advise a civilian prosecution witness not to speak with me. I nearly blew a gasket inside. I came close to asking if he wanted me to report him to his superiors for that (which I would hesitate to do with anyone merely for their words, the free expression fanatic that I am, but not as lenient when the damage is coming from a state agent). I remembered back to the compassion exercises my family and I were doing just two days ago during an amazing local gathering with  Anh-Huong and Thu Nguyen. Anh-Huong is a niece of Thich Nhat Hanh and fully embodies his compassion, calm and peace.

In the courthouse hallway, with my trial to be called later that afternoon, I thought fast, took off my lawyer hat, and interacted with the police officer more as a human to a human, eventually. I emphatically underlined to the cop: "You cannot tell him not to talk to me." The police officer seemed genuinely unaware of that, and curiously replied: "I can’t?" I felt more calm at his seeming admission of not realizing what he had done was not right: "You cannot do more than telling him of his option to talk with me or not. However, he is clearly an intelligent man who already knows that and has decided to speak with me."

The police officer caused me no more problems the rest of the day. He did not intervene any further between me and the witness, with whom I spoke further. The officer answered my questions without obstruction. My client walked out of court with a very favorable result.

Social justice has been my passion for decades. During much of that time I have often looked at would-be-oppressors as nasty people who had to be stopped. I did not stop to think enough that plenty of them get no joy from oppressing, do not see themselves as oppressing, and would change their ways at least somewhat if they saw themselves as oppressing. Many feel in an economic bind not to change, unfortunately.

In 1987, I joined one lunchtime day when I was working as a law clerk at a federal agency, with some other Amnesty International activists to deliver a petition for the release of a political prisoner we had long been supporting, to the Chilean ambassador while the grossest human rights violations continued running rampant in Chile.

I was completely unprepared for the reception we received. Instead of being treated dismissively, we were face-to-face with the embassy’s skilled public relations expert. It would have been one thing for him to have seemed as slick as axle grease. This man somehow had found a way to balance working for an oppressive government and putting as best a public relations spin on it as possible, while finding a way to connect person to person even with those, like myself, who vilified Pinochet and the rest of the Chilean government’s oppressors. The man seemed to have reversed roles with us, and spoke with us at that level, assuring us he would get the petition to the ambassador, and even at one time patting me on the back as we were about to leave, whether or not that all was a snow job.

This man had disarmed me a bit, temporarily. I did not like it one bit. However, his actions of finding a way to talk with us as human-to-human rather than as adversary-to-adversary forced me to remember that even the most flagrant human rights violations are perpetrated by real human beings with blood in their veins, who at one time were needy and sometimes frightened babies, and who still have their dreams, hopes and fears today.  

People are persuaded most at the heart zone rather than at the head zone. Compassion is critical on that path.