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October 2017

3 steps to diffuse a volatile situation, manage bullies

Often in adversarial situations, lawyers encounter more than their fair share of difficult people.

In his recent Law Practice Today article, “Tips for Dealing with Difficult People,” seasoned lawyer Matt Potempa, founding partner at Martin Heller Potempa & Sheppard PLLC, in Nashville, shares three practical steps to best manage a volatile situation with a bully.

1. Listen. “More than anything, this soul wants to be heard and vindicated,” says Potempa. “Try to understand the source of the frustration while avoiding the temptation to interrupt and correct.” Stay in control and avoid matching the vitriol, as de-escalation is the goal. Remember: “By taking the high road, you won’t develop enemies whom you may be forced to work with in the future.”

2. Educate without being condescending. “As much grit as it may take, really try to understand their perspective before responding,” says Potempa. Acknowledge their frustration, as misdirected or irrational as it may be. Then, explain your point of view.  

3. Know when to confront. “Evaluate and choose the appropriate medium of communication for the situation,” advises Potempa. For example, “do not summarize the outcome of an important motion via email or voice mail.”

“Never avoid having the difficult conversation you know is necessary,” Potempa emphasizes, noting that delaying or ignoring the situation often causes the problem to fester – and sets yourself up for someone to be justifiably upset with you.

Be sensitive but direct. “Sugar-coating a difficult situation with no easy answer only creates false expectations and delays the inevitable disappointing reality all parties will be ultimately forced to reckon with,” Potempa says.

And, if you’ve made a mistake, own it and put measures in place to minimize the same error from happening again.

Law Practice Today is a publication of the ABA Law Practice Division

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