How To Turn Enemies Into Friends

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.



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.


  1. Avatar shg says:

    A person is not only known by his friends, but his enemies. Perhaps the question isn’t how to make everyone your friends, but why would you want to? There are people I dislike, and prefer to continue to dislike, because they do things or say things I find dislikable.

    Now why would I want to go and ruin that?

    • You wouldn’t, because (I suspect, having never met you in person) you embody an anti-Franklinian approach to living and lawyering.
      I’m more fascinated by the psychology here than the practical applications of it. But it’s worthwhile to ask if one has enemies due only to circumstance and not to thoughtful analysis (including, in particular, honest self-analysis).

      • Avatar shg says:

        I had a friend in college who was just a great guy in every way. Name an aspect of a person you would like, and you would describe him. He had plenty of friends, but he also had plenty of enemies. Why? He was too perfect, and his perfection made others see a reflection in the mirror that was unflattering, and they hated him for it.

        We used to laugh about it and shrug. Beyond the obvious, that no one is loved by everyone, who cares? The effort to try to make everyone like you (often needed by those whose self-esteem is lacking and who desperately need validation) is a fools errand, like trying to teach a pig to sing.

        With a little effort, chances are we could charm many (though not all) into liking us, or at least not hating us. But why bother? At most, it reflects a character flaw in us that needs to be liked by others. At least, it’s a waste of time that would be better spent with those who we like and with whom we want to engage.

  2. Sam Glover Sam G. says:

    In general, I would rather have friends than enemies. I find, however, that sometimes my enemies are my enemies for their own inscrutable reasons. I used to try to have lunch with opposing counsel in my FDCPA cases, since it was always easier to litigate with someone when we were on speaking terms. But one opposing counsel consistently refused, even telling me to my face that he just didn’t like me (although I couldn’t figure out on what he was basing his judgment). I didn’t worry too much about it, and amused myself by continuing to ask him to lunch even though I knew he would say no.

    My point is, I guess, that you can’t win ’em all.

    • Avatar Andy Mergendahl says:

      Human relationships are complex (duh). But it does make sense to suggest that in the cases you describe, opposing counsel resolved the cognitive dissonance in the other direction.

  3. Avatar Dave S says:

    Some people I deal with, I’m including Adjusters as well as Lawyers since I deal with a lot of Insurance Adjusters, may it not possible to be friends. I remind myself I’m in business not to make friends with opposing counsel but to get the best results for my clients. Sometimes, befriending the opposite side accomplishes that goal. But, other times, when the opposing side acts a certain way, I feel the way to get the best result requires otherwise.

  4. Avatar Sweet_Veritas says:

    I read this same suggestion somewhere a long time ago… ask an enemy or a stranger to do you a favor and an enemy or stranger they are no more. It’s a great mind trick, and I don’t me that in a manipulative sort of way. I just mean that it works and it really makes sense.

    I try to live by the principle that you should be nice to EVERYONE because you never know who they are. In addition, it doesn’t make sense to me how people still have “enemies” past high school. If you don’t like someone, try to separate yourself from them. And if you can’t because their office is right next to yours, then try not to let their dismal little lives get to you. Obviously easier said than done…

    One of my law professors once said, “When I encounter someone I don’t like or can’t work with I just think about how awful it must be to be them and live their lives. Then I feel bad for them. It’s hard to be mean to someone you feel bad for.” Good advice.

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