Have you ever read an article in your reading pile (i.e., that stack of old papers that you plan to read someday but often never read), only to ask yourself why you waited so long to do so? We had that experience recently with an article by Bill Murphy Jr. entitled “17 Tricks Emotionally Intelligent People Use to Avoid Awkward Conversations and Get Along With Everyone,” which was published on Inc.com in July 2022. The article provides several excellent go-to techniques for creating connections with people in conversations that might otherwise be difficult or awkward for any number of reasons. The ideas include sharing a self-deprecating and humorous story that invites a connection with the other person, asking someone for details of a matter of importance to them or letting them know that you used a suggestion of theirs successfully. The common goal with these techniques is that they are designed to place the other person at ease and make them comfortable in the environment or experience that the two of you are sharing. The article was an excellent reminder of techniques for placing others at ease, but more importantly, it reminded us of the need to be on the lookout for opportunities to do so.
As lawyers, much of our work involves creating the opposite environment. Indeed, we often excel at doing so. Negotiating a complex transaction or the settlement of contentious litigation is usually not the right time to put the other side at ease. The same holds true for cross-examining a hostile witness or sparring at oral argument with opposing counsel before a judge. In those situations, and countless others, we want our opponent to be uncomfortable rather than relaxed. Of course, this is not the goal in every environment, so we should make the most of important opportunities to place others at ease.
Clients often have anxieties and concerns that they do not immediately share with their attorneys, but we can uncover and address them if we are on the lookout. One colleague had a recent client encounter that demonstrated this point. A representative of a longtime client emailed a contract to review and pressed for a highly accelerated time frame for completing the review. Fulfilling the timing request would have required setting aside prior commitments, and the representative’s answer to our colleague’s triage questions demonstrated that a normal turnaround time was sufficient. However, our colleague could tell that something else was going on, so he emailed back a message stating “I know this contract is really important to you. Let’s talk.” The client immediately called and explained that he had read the contract and was concerned that some of the other party’s contractual demands indicated that it was likely that a deal could not be reached. In other words, this issue wasn’t a quick deadline, but the need to relieve the anxiety caused by his concerns about losing the contract opportunity. Our colleague was able to reassure this representative that a deal was highly likely. The client was very appreciative of the call and agreed that the matter did not need to be expedited. Our colleague could have simply told this representative that an expedited review was not possible, but by recognizing something more was happening and sending a simple message inviting a conversation, he opened the door for a conversation that allowed him to better serve the client.
We have similar opportunities in the office. Our staff and younger lawyers often feel uncomfortable sharing job-related concerns or frustrations with their bosses. They may be unwilling to approach them with mistakes they have made. This is understandable because bosses can often hold a subordinate’s livelihood in their hands. However, this is information you need to know. Are you on the lookout for opportunities to place co-workers at ease so they are comfortable sharing information with you? Several of the techniques listed by Murphy can be useful in this context. For example, Murphy suggests that admitting your own flaws from time to time can help foster a good environment for communication and relieve job stress by helping co-workers see that you also are not perfect. You become more approachable in the eyes of your co-workers, and that is the kind of environment where they are most likely to share information, relax and do their best work. The entire firm benefits from that type of environment. Give these techniques a try, and let us know how they work.