Lawyers are notoriously uncomfortable around emotions. When feelings might run high and hot, most lawyers want to keep parties apart. After all, we went to law school to solve problems, not be therapists. Nonetheless, lawyers deal with conflict and like it or not, conflict precipitates passionate reactions and sometimes those responses are challenging. There is good news though . . . if we can learn to work through the emotional reaction — instead of trying to avoid it — we have a better shot at finding a superior solution to the problem.
Law school and our early training teach us to prepare a researched and thoughtful argument and then make it. Our gut instinct from our training then is to argue and try to be rational in the face of an emotional outburst. It’s ridiculous actually to think that we will have any possibility of convincing an emotionally flooded person that their reaction is wrong by using a rational argument or frankly any argument at all. Contrary to the lawyerly gut instinct to argue, the best response to an emotional outburst might be to check in with yourself.
Take 3 breaths
Literally take the time of 3 breaths to gauge your own reactivity. Check on your demeanor, tone of voice, nonverbal communication, facial expression, think about slowing down and lowering your voice if needed.
- With breath 1, wonder what is going on for the person or people;
- With breath 2, notice how it makes you feel and what it touches in you.
- With breath 3, resolve to act with empathy from your insights not your own reactivity.
Listen to the other person and let them know you heard them. In our Working Creatively with Conflict: Mediation and Conflict Resolution Training basic training, we teach participants a fundamental two step skill for listening that we call the Loop of Understanding. Mastering the skill of “looping” helps lawyers learn to respond appropriately to what is being said without having to argue or try solve the expressed problem before truly understanding it. Looping what is being said often has a soothing effect and also buys time to figure out what to do next.
Looping the Dynamic
Observe what happened in the room and remark on it without judgment. We call this looping the dynamic – commenting on what is happening in the room that caused the emotional outburst. Looping the dynamic may stop the defensive reactions and – create space to move beyond a right-wrong conversation.
Don’t Take it Personally
Take the initiative when you think it might be about you. Try especially hard to do this when people are mad at you – e.g. your client thinks you aren’t protecting them enough. If the person is angry at you, it may not be about you. You have triggered something in them. Or they may be triggered by the other party, attorney or something else. The triggering event may be personally directed but the strength of the reaction is about what is going on for them. Rather than reacting defensively to what may feel like a personal attack, ask questions to understand what has triggered a strong reaction.
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