I have a friend who has only friends, and no enemies. She’s smart, hard-working, warm, passionate about being a great lawyer, and she’s already enjoying career success. She’s not a brilliant orator, writer, or thinker, although she’s above average in all those respects. The secret to her success is the way she interacts with people. I very much doubt that anyone who knows her dislikes her, and if someone does, that person is a troll who hates everyone.

I’m not like my friend. You probably aren’t either. Most of us lawyers pick up enemies as well as friends along the way. And while having enemies can motivate you (another friend is a PD whose work is partly driven by her belief that most prosecutors are rotten people), most of us would probably agree that it would be great to turn our enemies into friends.

I’ve just learned how to do it. It’s simple and straightforward.

If you think you are a saint and all your enemies are demons, you won’t want to try this. But if you are willing to agree that you are not a saint, and that your enmity with a few people is due to personality differences, you might be willing to try this.

First, you have to be willing and able to be a little bit dishonest with yourself about the fact that you really dislike this person. If you’re wiling to do that, the next step is simple. You figure out some way in which the person can do you a favor. It need not be an important favor, but the person has to think that it’s important to you. You ask for the favor in a humble and very polite fashion, without a lot of extraneous explanation or narrative. Just ask the person for help—that’s the “being-dishonest-with-yourself” part mentioned above.

It’s possible the person will seize the chance to decline. But if the person agrees to help you, he will probably stop thinking of you as an enemy. If you follow up with the person to say thanks, then continue to stay in touch, it’s quite likely you will develop an (at least) amiable relationship.

How Does This Work?

Almost all of us walk around all day believing that we control what we think and do. We think we determine who our friends and enemies are based upon the rational conclusions we draw about people based on their behavior. We like good, smart, friendly people and dislike rotten, dumb, crabby people. It’s as natural as breathing. Some of us make friends easily and some of us don’t, but people become friends or enemies for good reasons.

Right?

Wrong.

Fifty plus years of psychology and social science research has exploded that myth. The fact is, our perceptions of and feelings about other people are to a very great degree determined by how we treat them. We form positive views of the people we treat well, and negative views of people we treat poorly.

An example: Benjamin Franklin had been severely criticized by a political rival. Franklin, a collector of books, wrote a letter to the critic humbly asking him to loan Franklin a rare and valuable book. The critic did so, then later approached Franklin, and the two became friends.

Why Does This Work?

The critic was disarmed by Franklin’s humble request, which was hardly the action of an enemy. After granting the favor, the critic experienced cognitive dissonance. He had thought Franklin was an enemy, but he had just been kind to Franklin. The only way to resolve that conflict was to change his view of Franklin from that of an enemy to that of a friend. Presto! Friendship. It worked for Franklin, and it can work for you. And as you already may have guessed, you will almost certainly stop disliking your (former) enemy.

The key concept here is that our behavior toward a person drives our feelings about that person as much (or more) than our feelings about that person drive our behavior. This fact can lead to both wonderful and horrible results. See, on the one hand, the American Civil Rights Movement, and on the other, Nazi Germany.

So please don’t try this technique in order to make enemies who really are evil into your friends. Since you aren’t immune from cognitive dissonance, you might find yourself becoming someone that the previous you would have hated.