Okay, I admit it. I don’t suffer fools gladly.
In fact, after 35 years of daily contact, it’s difficult to suffer them at all. When a lawyer makes untrue statements or glosses over important facts, it makes me crazy, and I attack. While this is not something I admire about myself, it has become my conditioned response. But is it a wise one?
Bad things happen when you lose your cool. We can all recall times when somebody triggered us at a negotiation, turning the conference into a food fight. And the last thing a judge wants to hear is lawyers bickering at the bench. With our adrenaline addiction, ferocious egos, and competitiveness, few lawyers can control themselves when provoked. But this is precisely what we must do to be successful both as negotiators and advocates (1).
Let’s all benefit from my personal exploration of this subject. The class: Reactivity 101. Your syllabus:
Week 1: Decide whether to engage at all.
We all know lawyers who love to quarrel. No matter the subject, they gotta argue and have the last word. Maybe it's best just to let them! Remember, if you walk away, there is no oxygen for their fire.
Instead of arguing over a paltry issue, respond, “you may be right,” or “I guess we’ll see…” Don’t burn nervous energy over trifles.
Week 2: Start by listening.
I know most of us suck at this. I certainly do. We are too busy pressing our position. But as the wise Stephen Covey observes in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (2), you must first seek to understand before seeking to be understood yourself. By listening first, you will gather helpful information to solve problems and also lower the temperature of the dispute. Learn to be present and patient.
Week 3: What is underneath the conflict?
Almost all conflict derives from the actors’ perception of an injustice (3). Identify what that is. What exactly is the other’s grievance? Admittedly, sometimes it’s just self-serving bullshit, but even knowing that is helpful.
To mine for this valuable ore, probe the other with questions, “that’s interesting, tell me more,” or “what am I missing?” Listen and learn rather than talk and reveal. Use this information to find solutions.
Week 4: Know your triggers.
Follow Socrates' advice: “know yourself.” Anticipating a clash will help you avoid a reactive response. Instead of snapping, use your brain and intuition to analyze how to move your pieces on the board. When preparing, visualize positive responses to provocation. Also, develop mantras—“calm and collected,” for example—to repeat silently to yourself when the blood pressure starts climbing. When confronted or insulted, pause, and breathe. Don’t drink the other’s poison. With a smile on your face, ask them to refrain from the negative conduct so that you can work together to find a solution. Shame, rather than bludgeon them into better behavior.
Week 5: Don’t try to impose your will.
When you try to impose your will on others, the walls go up. It doesn’t work. Don't approach conflict as a simple black and white equation. While I admire George W. Bush, the whole “you’re either with us or against us” mentality isn’t particularly helpful in problem-solving. The more you try to impose your will on others, the more their resistance increases. Pull rather than pummel.
Week 6: Be forward-focused.
Don’t get hung up on the past. The goal is to find your way out of the swamp. The question must be, “where do we go from here?” rather than “how did we get here?”
To achieve this goal, change the tense of the discussion from the past to the present and then to the future. The reason is that talking about the past focuses on blame, which is unproductive. Talking about the present brings the focus to values and needs, and the future on a new reality. Keep the discussion in the present and future tense.
Okay, class, your homework is to practice the principles I have laid out in this self-exploration. Break your reactivity habit by using wisdom and patience to solve problems. Look for roads out of the swamp. They are visible only to those who keep their cool, listen, and look inward.
(1) Not to mention saving your sanity.
(2) A self-help classic. If you haven’t yet read it, do so.
(3) I say “almost” because some conflict is tactically manufactured to conceal, distract, exhaust, etc. Avoid wasting your time trying to understand these scoundrels. And don’t take their bait––just work your case and get trial dates.