Understanding Client Needs

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Attorneys who look past strategies to identify the underlying needs of their clients, strengthen relationships at the moment, and generate creative solutions for their clients and their practice. I’ve learned to do this in my Charlotte bankruptcy practice, to great results. When we think about needs, we tend to think about things like money, time, a new car. The truth is, those items are strategies that we use to get our true underlying needs met. Money is a strategy that meets our need for stability. Time is a strategy that meets our need for relaxation or tranquility. A new car may meet our need for safety or accomplishment.  In this way, strategies are distinguishable from needs. As lawyers, our job is to meet the needs of clients. Additionally, we have our own needs which need to be met. A skilled and creative lawyer realizes there is usually more than one strategy available to get all of the underlying needs met.

Some time ago, my six-year-old daughter was acting out on a daily basis. She wouldn’t eat her food, she was talking back to both me and my wife, she took up the hobby of hitting her little sister on the head with heavy objects. Parents, you know the drill. I decided to increase the number of minutes she spent in time out, any time she acted out. I think at one point we got up to 20 minutes a time, in time out. It wasn’t working. I became a disciplinarian, as I saw this as a struggle for authority and respect. And I was losing the war.

My wife is a kindergarten teacher. She had the idea to hang a “Responsibility Chart” on our daughter’s bedroom door. I laughed at this idea. This child needed discipline, not coddling! That being said, I was out of ideas so I caved into the Responsibility Chart. The chart had five rows and seven columns. The rows were chores or requests like the ones mentioned above. The columns were days of the week. Within 48 hours, our child’s behavior did a complete 180. And each night, she dragged us upstairs to go through the chart, placing a magnet in each box where she had successfully completed the chore. Notice that the requested behavior from us had not changed. What had changed was our strategy for getting our needs met. And she responded very well to it. Why? Because her needs were being met. The need for control, appreciation, acknowledgment—so many things are packed into a family gathering around a responsibility chart.

When you are facing your next difficult or frustrating client conversation, or when you are sitting down to overcome the latest challenge your practice faces, think about needs. Distinguish them from strategies. A client who is expressing frustration is engaging in a strategy. Perhaps they are requesting you get back to them sooner, or move things along faster. Take a guess at the underlying need. Perhaps the client has a need to feel understood. Or maybe to have the urgency of their situation appreciated. Make an attempt to reflect needs in the conversation and see what kind of response you get. My experience is you will be pleased. You and the client will re-connect at the moment. And once the underlying needs are identified, you can go about offering up strategies for meeting those needs—strategies that work for you and the client both.

Marshall Rosenberg is a wonderful contributor to the discussion of needs and has a list of needs here. It’s a great reference tool for situations and behavior which at first you find perplexing. Identify the needs, speak to the needs, devise strategies to get the needs met. The incident I described above with our daughter took place two years ago. The Responsibility Chart is rarely in use but it still hangs on the back of our daughter’s door. The other night I asked her about it. “What did you like about using that responsibility chart?” I asked. She looked at me, smiled, and said “Oh, I don’t know, dad. It was a job well done.”