Working with Opposing Counsel or Colleagues Who Have Low Emotional Intelligence

Ronda Muir

Trying to work well with someone with low emotional intelligence (EI) can be daunting and not easily addressed with a stock approach, but here’s a strategy to consider.

Remember that high EI does not mean that someone is nice, just that they are successful in interacting with people by using a panoply of emotional skills. If your experience with this person is hardly one of successful interaction, it’s important first to consider that you yourself may be missing or misinterpreting something, even if you generally have high EI. Pass the interchange in question by someone you consider good at reading these situations, maybe someone who has worked successfully with the person in question.

Nonetheless, because low EI is fairly pervasive among lawyers, you may be right on the money that you are dealing with a low EI person. Emotional perception is particularly low among lawyers, and misperception can set off a chain of bad moves. For example, low empathy is often a complication of poor emotional perception—it’s hard to be empathic when we can’t read what others are feeling.

So, someone sees aggression or criticism in your innocuous comment and responds in kind. There is a good chance this person not only misreads the situation but also doesn’t realize what he is telegraphing—how hurtful and disdainful it is, and also doesn’t “get” your reaction. You may have to make the situation as you see it explicit, making your intention clear—“I only meant to get your time line, not to question your meeting it,” and also naming your reaction: “I am taken aback by your comment—it feels very hostile.” Following up with a question in a non-judgmental fashion can help reset the interaction: “So I understand, are you saying that you feel this timetable is too tight?”

It’s important that your comments are even-toned and on the friendly side, that your body language is free of disdain or other negative emotions, and that you finish up with a collegial gesture, such as saying you appreciate the input, even placing a hand on the other person’s shoulder.

With both opposing counsel and colleagues, the objective is to be rational, clear, firm (i.e., not defensive), and also open-minded to what they may be trying to say, however unartfully. If there’s a nugget of evidence or strategy in that emotional mess, you want to find it.

With colleagues, you want to give them even more leeway but also use your comments to help reeducate them so they are easier to deal with in the future. Encourage their being more direct and less negative by focusing on what they mean and reinforcing their relaying that without a negative emotional overlay: “Thanks for that bottom-line concern. That’s helpful in finishing my brief.”

None of these suggestions preclude your adversaries or colleagues from being annoyed, defensive, angry, or incensed about your “instructing” them, so be prepared for an unpleasant reaction. But again, your response should always be even-toned, rational, clear, and firm. No need to apologize, other than to say that you didn’t intend to do whatever you are accused of. You would just like to make sure you understand their (undoubtedly important) point.

Do you want to know how Emotional Intelligence can help you advance your career? Watch the webinar replay of Advancing Your Career with Emotional Intelligence and the Facebook live recording with Ronda Muir.

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Ronda Muir

Ronda Muir is principal and founder of Law People Management, LLC. She is a leading authority on solutions to people management challenges unique to the legal industry. She is the author Beyond Smart: Lawyering with Emotional Intelligence.  

Do you want to know how Emotional Intelligence can help you advance your career? Watch the webinar replay of Advancing Your Career with Emotional Intelligence and the Facebook live recording with Ronda Muir.