Playing With Beliefs: An Exercise in Devilry

Mark Bennett, the Texas Tornado, has a great series called “Trial Theory” going on at his blog “Defending People.”  His first post concludes with a thought I want to address in a different light.

Most jurors form a belief about the right result in the case by the end of opening statement; this belief will not be changed absent blockbuster evidence that they have not been primed to expect.

Beliefs are interesting to me in the world of psychological mind reading, mentalism, and suggestion.  It’s my job as a mentalist and persuader to take a subject’s belief, frame it in a different light, and then play with it to my liking.  By the time I’m done playing with a subject’s belief structure, they might have changed their minds.  They might not. But under a theory of suggestion and belief open to the idea that humans aren’t rigidly locked into a certain worldview, one that shows under the correct conditions beliefs can be shaped, twisted, bent, and stretched, one can persuade a person to open up and provide you with more information than ever before.

I’ve not been partial to cold readings in the past.  After a bit of reading into the art form, I’m warming up to the idea.  I’d go as far as to say a study of it is an excellent idea for anyone whose livelihood depends on persuasion, or making a sale to someone.  The best “psychics” understand the art isn’t about reading into someone’s lives and looking for a good hit or miss, then fixing your work and moving forward.  It’s about developing an empathy with the person who you’re reading so they provide you with all the information you want or need.

Herb Dewey, the “King of the Cold Readers,” didn’t spend time making statements and carefully checking vagaries for a person whom he read.  He’d ask a subject for their full name, place, and date of birth.  Dewey would then shut his eyes and for twenty minutes tell his subject things about them no one could possibly know.  He did this because of an understanding how open people are to suggestion, and knowing the skeptic would be watching him for a “read” of hits or misses.  After that twenty minute time frame was up, he’d usually open his eyes and say “Oh, I thought I was boring you to death and you’d left.  I didn’t know you were still here.”  The last ten minutes of a half hour session with Dewey would usually be him answering questions the subject wanted based on the previous twenty minutes’ divination.  Not surprisingly, most of the questions would contain extra information Dewey never uncovered!

Because I apply the principles I learn in my “off hours” to my law practice, a study of cold reading now leads me to take Mark’s above statement and address it with a “Yes, and” approach I think he’d appreciate.  If I were to take that statement it would probably read as follows:

Most jurors form a belief about the right result in the case by the end of opening statement; and this belief will not be changed absent blockbuster evidence that they have not been primed to expect or the attorney’s ability to reframe the juror’s belief.

There are times when working as a defense lawyer I’m tasked to work with someone a jury may not particularly care for.  When I get a sense the trier of fact isn’t keen on my client or the outcome I desire, a certain onus then shifts on me to take their belief and test it, through evidence or developing a sense of empathy.  If I can get an “in” with a “hit,” be it through a rhetorical device, piece of evidence, timely objection, or otherwise, I have to exploit this to see if I can get them to give me more information.

Subjects don’t have to express their beliefs for me to shape them.  A slight smile, a half frown, a look of contempt all give me enough information to pursue a certain avenue that will work to provide the best outcome possible for my client.  In other words, if a juror has a certain “belief” about the “right result” of a case, they also have a “disbelief” about that result.  I want to take that “disbelief” if it’s in my client’s favor, toy with it and then see if I can suspend it.  Once the suspension of disbelief about the “right result” kicks in, it’s time to manipulate that subject into what is hopefully the desired outcome for a client.

Mentalist Peter Turner studies astrological signs heavily.  It’s not because he places a belief in them, it’s because he knows others believe fixed patterns of stars rotating in the heavens dictates the course of their lives.  Once he can get an “in” by plucking the star sign from a person’s head Turner uses that to “read” the person and get information “no one could possibly know” about them.  What that person doesn’t know is Turner is they’re providing him with every bit of unseen information he needs as he speaks.

How often do you look for the commonalities in life?  When you’re attempting to gain empathy with someone in any setting, what information are you leaving on the table?  As you’re working to establish credibility with your counterpart in a negotiation, what are you refusing to see?  That’s why cold reading is so important, and why it’s an important weapon for litigators, mediators, and anyone interested in effective communication.  Empathy can stretch even the most rigidly held belief.

The best time to establish that empathy?  Jury selection.
And if you’re interested in learning a bit more about that from a devil’s perspective, you should definitely find a way to attend the TCDLA’s voir dire seminar in Dallas this coming Thursday and Friday.

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