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Are We There Yet? From Chaos to Closure

by Jay Reeves |

It seems that everyone has a need for closure – but perhaps lawyers need it more than most.

Whether it’s taking a summer trip, reading a John Grisham novel or starting a new case – we can’t wait to get there. We want to know how it turns out. We crave closure.

It’s simply how we are wired.

Scientists tell us we are genetically programmed to resist uncertainty and ambiguity. When faced with the unknown, our minds shift into overdrive in search of a plausible explanation – which we will create out of thin air if necessary. And then we will cling to this invented reality as if it had been handed down on a stone tablet.

This desire for certainty in an uncertain world is called “cognitive closure” by social psychologist Arie Kruglanski.

There is even a test for measuring a person’s Need For Closure (or NFC). It consists of 42 items that gauge one’s preference for order, predictability, decisiveness, discomfort with ambiguity and closed-mindedness at any given point.

Psychologist and author Maria Konnikova, in her book How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes and a recent New Yorker article, explains how our collective NFC kicks in during emergencies like terror attacks.

We become frightened and confused. We want to know what happened and why. We grasp at flimsy reeds of speculation and false rumors. We rush to become the first to tweet or post or report The Answer – often at the expense of truth and accuracy.

6 Things To Know About NFC and The Law

  1. NFC is dynamic, not static. It rises in a crisis situation and falls once the storm has passed. Some clients are in a state of perpetual crisis. They want instant answers and immediate results. Don’t play into their anxiety. A patient, reassuring bedside manner will help lower their NFC and open their minds.
  2. NFC soars when we are stressed. Exhaustion, illness, time deadlines and money pressures cause our NFC to spike. As a result, we panic. We make poor decisions based on incomplete information. The remedy is to take a deep breath, step back and slow down. New – and better – solutions will appear.
  3. Limited choices are best. Every parent of small children knows you never ask open-ended questions like, “What do you want for breakfast?” Instead, ask, “Would you prefer oatmeal or Raisin Bran?” Don’t overwhelm clients with too many choices. Lay out a few options, and then calmly discuss the pros and cons of each one.
  4. Stay open to new ideas and information. Kruglanski posits two major stages of cognitive closure: seizing and freezing. “In the first stage, we are driven by urgency, or the need to reach closure quickly,” writes Konnikova. “[W]e ‘seize’ whatever information we can, without necessarily taking the time to verify it as we otherwise would. In the second stage, we are driven by permanence, or the need to preserve that closure for as long as possible. We ‘freeze’ our knowledge and do what we can to safeguard it. It’s a self-reinforcing loop: we search energetically, but once we’ve seized onto an idea we remain crystallized at that point.”
  5. Don’t be afraid to change your mind. Give your clients good, solid advice and counsel. But if a better strategy pops up, don’t be too proud to change course.
  6. Keep cool and carry on. Tell clients the law is not a race. Some answers take time to appear.

And resist the urge to turn to the last page of your novel to find out what happens. All things in time. Coming to closure is a good thing. Coming to a happy closure is even better.

 Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. jay.reeves@ymail.com, phone 919-619-2441.

For more information:

  • Maria Konnikova is the author of “How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.”
  • The New Yorker http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2013/04/why-we-need-answers.html

About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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