An in-house lawyer (let’s call her Athena) was recently offended by a statement made by a law firm attorney (let’s call him Hercules). Athena shared a conversation in which Hercules had told her that his firm would never stoop so low as to represent any companies in her industry (let’s say it’s the tobacco industry).
When Athena informed Hercules that, well, his firm actually did represent her company, he told her that she must be mistaken. She responded by bringing up a picture on her mobile phone of an attorney at his firm who was working on one of her tobacco cases, and Hercules replied, “I’ve never seen her before. She can’t be very important.” With a high and (al)mighty look, Hercules then went off to clear his head by having a few smokes.
As Athena complained about this incident, she was so upset that she had trouble blowing her usually perfectly-circular cigarette rings into the air. My initial reaction (knowing how Hercules can be a jovial kind of deity character) was that Hercules had been kidding (and probably had a bit too much ambrosia, as well), and that Athena should lighten up a bit and get a sense of humor, for gods’ sakes.
A couple of years ago, my thoughts about the matter would have ended there, and I would have forgotten the incident completely after returning to my humble, mortal abode. This time, I had some other takeaways….
During the last couple of years, I’ve attended lots of trainings about communication and conflict resolution. Not just because I’m bad at it. Companies really focus on that stuff! For companies, “good communication” is everything, as opposed to at law firms where “good communication” means being told in your 12th year that you never actually had any hope of making partner.
Let me tell you though, these trainings are the best. They will change your life! You will learn to become a team player! They will give you stuff to chat about at parties! They will eliminate your bad breath! No wait, not the bad breath.
So after hearing out Athena, I decided to be the good little trainee and figure out how to apply all of these fabulous learnings to a real-life situation. I think the “good communication” trainer would have made a few points, viewed from the perspective of Hercules:
- All information, whether negative or positive, should be “accepted.” Acceptance isn’t just about listening. It’s about welcoming with it open arms and not rejecting it (just like law schools welcome all those new students every year even though the legal market totally sucks).
- Regardless of whether Hercules thought that Athena’s assessment of the situation was correct or not, he should still give value to her perception/experience of the situation.
- Hercules should understand that the initial reaction to negative information (i.e., criticism) is typically defensiveness, because lawyers are insufferable, Type A perfectionists (okay, I added that last part; the trainer never said such a thing, at least not in so many words).
- To counter an immediate response of defensiveness, Hercules can try going to the balcony; he should take a break from the situation, and try to look at it as if he were an outsider.
- To address the problem, Hercules should focus on steps he can take to change his behavior (since that’s what he can control), rather than focusing on why Athena should change her behavior.
For the situation above, let’s assume that Hercules had been joking and that Athena had wrongly perceived that Hercules was trying to diss her, her company, and the entire tobacco industry. Hercules would try to correct the misunderstanding by explaining that he had just been teasing and/or drunk (whichever Athena will judge him less for). He could probably have figured out this part of what to do without the fancy training.
Hercules would also try to figure out what behavior he could change going forward. He may decide to change nothing and risk continued misunderstandings that could potentially have an impact on his law practice. Did I mention Athena was sharing this story with other lawyers? Or he could tease people he barely knows a teeny bit less. After all, isn’t the idea that everybody loves a clown just an epic myth? Or maybe he could cut down on his consumption of ambrosia in certain situations so that he sounds less often like a doofus. (Yeah, I wouldn’t hold my breath on that last one, either.)
Taking steps to figure out what behaviors Hercules can change on his side seems kind of obvious. But many of us lawyers don’t always seem to think of this. We often focus on the person who has the wrong information (i.e., Athena) and then on what Athena should have changed, such as checking her facts before discussing the problem with others. Maybe it’s a lawyer thing, where we’ve been taught to focus on certain kinds of facts and ignore a lot of other information as “irrelevant.”
Please note, nobody’s saying that Athena wasn’t at fault also. She’s no Aphrodite, after all. But the point is that Hercules can’t make Athena change. What he can do is try to figure out what next steps, if any, he can take to modify his own behavior. In doing so, who knows, he may end up preventing a divine tragedy.
Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company. Also, the experiences Susan shares may include others’ experiences (many in-house friends insist on offering ideas for the blog). You can reach her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.