5 tips to best manage problems with people

In a multipart series for the American Bar Association Legal Technology Resource Center, career coach expert Debra L. Bruce offers several tools to add to your communication and management toolbox for troubling situations with other people.

The first tool: Monitor your attitude.

“As lawyers, we have honed our skills at identifying what might go wrong and designing protections against that,” said Bruce, president of Lawyer-Coach LLC, which provides executive coaching and training for lawyers on leadership and management. “When something does go wrong, we’re skilled at building a good argument for assigning blame and finding the fallacy in anyone else’s argument. We’re predisposed to use those skills that we have developed so diligently. Unfortunately, those time-tested legal strategies don’t work so well for developing and maintaining important relationships or eliciting cooperation and collaboration from other people.”

To develop better tools, lawyers need to engage in a few practices before trouble ever develops, or at least at the first sign of trouble, Bruce said.

Flip your issue-spotting skills on their head. Practice engaging in “right-spotting.” Usually, a lot more things are going right in the situation than going wrong. Focus on areas of agreement and build from there.

“It is a lot easier to lead someone in the direction of your viewpoint if you first stand beside them in theirs, instead of confronting them about the difference,” Bruce said. “You can practice this attitude shift before the crisis occurs by making a habit of noticing and acknowledging the accomplishments and contributions of your co-workers. This has the added bonus of building goodwill that you can draw on later when you need to bridge a gap.”

Let go of having an opinion. Lawyers thrive on being asked their opinions and “we would go broke if no one wanted them,” Bruce said. In everyday life, however, most situations don’t require “our perfectionist evaluation of the quickest, safest, smartest or otherwise most effective strategy, and our unsolicited advice is unwelcome.”

Lawyers often create their own frustration, dissatisfaction and irritability with others when they unnecessarily judge people's decisions and behaviors in circumstances where there are many reasonable paths to an acceptable result, Bruce said. “In other words, stop evaluating the small stuff, and it will be easier not to sweat it,” she said.

Keep this question in the foreground: What do I really want? Lawyers are trained competitors who often get caught up in “winning” an argument on insignificant matters and unduly alienate opposing counsel or even their own colleagues, Bruce said. “We engage in defensive or territorial behavior,” she said. “We obfuscate instead of acknowledging our own mistakes.”

In this manner, lawyers inadvertently sacrifice the opportunity to have what they really want most, such as:

  • Happy clients who sing their praises for helping them solve their problems quickly and at a reasonable cost.
  • Subordinates who ask questions that can save time and avoid mistakes.
  • Colleagues who like and respect them.
  • A sense of collegiality and pride in the legal profession.

Approach others with curiosity instead of judgment. Before opening your mouth, get curious about why a reasonable and rational person might behave a certain way, Bruce said. “Notice that this policy requires you to forego labeling them as villains, enemies or idiots,” she said.

The second part of Bruce’s series addresses active listening; the third part deals with confronting touchy issues.