Self Improvement

Over at Defending People, Mark Bennett is explaining to lawyers how to decide when to reject a potential new client, and what to do about it.

I have developed, and I suspect that most criminal-defense lawyers develop, an intuitive sense for when we shouldn’t take cases. I get myself in trouble when I ignore that intuition. So I listen to it.

As Mark points out, this is also good advice for avoiding trouble in other areas of your life. Your intuition about bad situations isn’t always going to be correct, but it’s always based on something that triggered it, and it’s not acting in anyone’s interests but yours.

His advice about what to say is also spot-on:

There had been one unfortunate incident after another, and even with prompting he was unable to explain the logical connections between the incidents and his immediate need for a lawyer. My “spidey sense” tingled. I told the caller: “I’m sorry. I can’t help you with that.”

That is all the explanation that should be needed. You don’t owe anyone a justification for not taking his case… If you tell someone, “I’m sorry. I can’t help you with that” and he demands an explanation, be glad that your intuition has been confirmed.

This is great advice for every area of your life. There are no rules of social behavior or good manners that require you to explain yourself when you reject an offer from a stranger. Whether it’s the salesman who just spent 30 minutes showing you a new car or the guy at the bar who wants you to leave with him, you rarely owe them anything more than some variation of “I’m sorry, but I simply can’t.”

That’s not to say you couldn’t explain more if you want to, especially if you have a good specific reason for your decision and you want to help the other person understand it. So if you’re a criminal lawyer and the client has a matter of civil law, go ahead and explain. If you’re at the bar with your husband when a man offers to buy you a drink, go ahead and tell him you’re married. But if your reason for declining an offer is because your intuition is screaming “No!” then remember that you don’t have to explain anything.

Think of it as a form of rhetorical self-defense. By not offering an explanation, you’re keeping them from getting a grip on you. If you offer explanations and equivocations out of a desire not to seem rude, you’re just opening yourself up for them to take advantage of you. It’s one of the tools that manipulative people use against you.

Salespeople, for example, are taught to get reluctant customers to explain their concerns so they can offer counter-arguments. If you really want to know more about what they’re selling, go ahead and enter into this discussion. But even after they’ve addressed all your concerns, you can still say “no” and you still don’t have to explain yourself.

I’ve had salespeople get angry at me when I do that. I can kind of understand that. To them, it seems like I’m being childishly unfair and not playing by the rules. I’ve also heard of guys swearing at women who decline their advances without offering an explanation. Again, I can kind of understand. It feels a bit rude. Nevertheless, people who get angry because they think strangers owe them explanations are probably going to be unreasonable about other things.

(Some manipulative people will try to trick you into offering explanations by implying that you have  disreputable motives. Maybe the prospective client will accuse you of not wanting to help people of his ethnicity, or the pushy guy at the bar will tell you that, “I can see you’re uncomfortable letting yourself trust people.” A less obvious variation that you’ve probably seen is the salesperson at a high-end store who subtly implies that a person of your station in life wouldn’t appreciate what they have to offer. Don’t fall for these tricks by offering an alternative explanation. When someone tries this on you, it’s just more proof that you should stay away.)

Note that I’m not saying you should be rude to strangers when you turn them down. You should be polite. Maybe even excessively polite. But your politeness should not take the form of explaining your decision.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, but I simply can’t.”

If they press you for an explanation, just keep repeating your apologetic refusal.

“No, really it’s just not possible.”

They’ll usually get the message. And if they don’t. Well, then you can be rude.

According to Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing, Maya Angelou once said

I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he or she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.

I don’t know if she really said that, but I thought it would make a nice blog post to explain how I’d handle those three things, so you folks can learn something about my character.

Rainy Day

I guess I don’t understand this one. Except for cancelling activities that require a clear day—outdoor photography, washing the car—rain has no effect on my day. I don’t mind driving in the rain, and I have rain gear to keep myself dry.

Lost Luggage

I would be filled with righteous rage. All manner of indignities are inflicted upon air passengers in the name of false security, but when it comes to keeping our luggage secure, pathetic failure is considered an acceptable standard. My anger would be tempered only by the knowledge that yelling at front-line customer service people never really helps me get what I want. I would keep the white-hot fury inside me as I fill out the paperwork.

Tangled Christmas Tree Lights

Those tiny lights don’t last very long and they only cost something like $2.99 for a string of 100. If I need some, I just buy new ones.

Lots of people are making New Year’s resolutions right now. Something about the list at Not Guilty made me decide to do my own:

Windypundit’s New Year’s Resolutions for 2006
  1. Same as everyone else: lose weight. I lost a bunch of weight in the first half of this year and then gained a bunch of it back. I weigh less than I did a year ago, but not by as much as I’d like.
  2. Take a lot of photos with the D200, learn a lot of photography. I enjoyed it a lot with my Z3, now that I’m buying a more expensive camera, I really better enjoy it.
  3. Sort my photos more regularly. I don’t like to sort through them right after I take them because they usually aren’t as good as I imagined. But if I let them age a while, I lose my preconceptions about them, and many of them surprise me. The problem is that I’m falling behind. I have unsorted photographs going back to July.
  4. Blog more, and blog more consistently. 2005 was the year my blog begain to take off. Maybe I can make 2006 even better.
  5. Take more pictures for the eminent domain series. I think it has the potential to attract attention to this site.
  6. Launch my new website. (More on this in another post.)
  7. Port the benefits export code to .NET. (Special private resolution for one of my clients.)
  8. Get the house organized. I need to clean up and organize my office and my work area in the kitchen.
  9. Finish several home remodeling projects that have stalled. Most importantly, put the 2nd bathroom back together.
  10. Play more computer games.

Update:

  1. Write more software for fun. All of the software I write these days is work-related, but I really do enjoy software development, so I should write some fun stuff that isn’t part of my job.
  2. More catblogging. (Per spousal request.)