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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    November 01, 2013

    On Balance: Other People Matter: Building Better Relationships in the Law

    Communicating well is a skill not only of interest to trial lawyers. Good communication is the cornerstone of good relationships, which all lawyers need to function effectively in their practices and to feel satisfied with their lives.

    Paula Davis-Laack

    children playing in a sandboxThe late, great psychologist Dr. Chris Peterson summed up decades worth of positive psychology research with the phrase “Other people matter”: connections with other people are so essential to happiness that you can’t have one without the other.

    Lawyers interact frequently with many people: opposing counsel, judges and other court system personnel, colleagues (whether in the office or in organizations for which they volunteer), prospective clients, and support staff. And let’s not forget relationships with family and friends. But, according to organizational psychologist and lawyer personality researcher Dr. Larry Richard, because lawyers tend to be very deep thinkers and good at abstract reasoning, they tend to more easily connect with people intellectually rather than emotionally.1 While that might work with other lawyers, it’s likely not the best strategy in nonlawyer relationships.

    Building better relationships across the board requires a focus in several areas, described below.

    Be An Assertive Communicator

    Many lawyers I worked with were one-trick ponies with their communication styles in that they communicated the same way across all situations, often times with limited success. While a somewhat aggressive style might work with opposing counsel, that same communication strategy is likely to be ineffective with a teenager. The goal is to develop flexibility with your communication styles and to always be clear, confident, and controlled in your communication with other people.

    Here is a model you can follow – just remember to make your CASE:2

    C: Communicate the facts. Discuss what you experience and observe about the situation, and use concrete terms to avoid exaggeration and subjective impressions.

    A: Address your concerns in an objective way. Express how you feel calmly and avoid placing blame on the other person.

    S: Specify concrete actions you want to see stopped or limited and those you want to see performed. Also, make sure to ask the other person for his or her perspective. What behavior are you willing to change to make the agreement?

    E: Evaluate outcomes. Suggest acceptable alternatives, negotiate, and summarize potential courses of action. In addition, set specific goals and follow up on the outcomes you set.

    Most important, do your homework before you even have a conversation. Are you jumping to conclusions about the other person’s actions? Are you expecting the other person to mind read, that is, to know what you want without you actually verbalizing your expectations? Do you have a core value or deeply held belief that is getting in your way? For example, if you believe, “Kids should always follow the rules,” that might be an important belief to identify before you have a conversation with your 10 year old about her not completing her chores. Sorting out your own thinking before you have a conversation is a critical component of being an assertive communicator.3

    Build More Empathy

    Empathy is the ability to know how another person is feeling. Research shows that empathy is related to personal and professional success, can reduce aggression and prejudice, and is an important part of successful marriages and thriving organizations.4 Clients often contact lawyers in times of crisis – divorce, probate, and personal injury to name a few – so being able to be attuned to your clients’ emotions and see the world as they see it is a crucial skill for lawyers.

    Paula Davis-LaackPaula Davis-Laack, Marquette 2002, MAPP, is a stress and resilience expert who works with and coaches attorneys to help them manage chronic stress and avoid burnout. She also teaches stress management and resilience skills to military professionals, executives, and within the legal profession. Her online magazine, Build Your Strong, is a resource to help professionals manage stress and build happy, healthy lives.

    Psychologist Daniel Goleman describes three types of empathy. The first is cognitive empathy, which is the ability to understand how another person thinks and to see that person’s point of view. The second type is emotional empathy, which is the ability to feel the emotions of the person you are with. The third type is empathetic concern, which means that you not only understand how the person sees things in the moment but also have the desire to help the person if you sense the need. Goleman states that, “One study of empathic concern in seven year olds found that those who showed the least concern when they saw their mother in distress were most likely to have a criminal record two decades later.”5

    Clients will initially hire you because you’re good at lawyering, but they will stay with you and trust you when you are able to open up and truly hear their experience.

    Respond the Right Way to Others’ Good News

    No other skill has changed my relationships more in the past few years than this one. I learned that although I was there for my friends, family, and colleagues when they needed advice and someone to lend an ear during times of crisis, I was actually damaging my relationships by not doing the same when those people shared good news with me.

    When a coworker or relative approaches you with a problem, how do you respond? Like many people, you probably suggest pulling up a chair or you drop what you’re doing and listen. But how do you respond when those same people share good news with you? Does the good news grab your focus and attention like the bad news does? Research tells us that it should. How you respond to a person’s good news is as important for the health of the relationship as how you respond to bad news. Of the four different response styles, only one actually builds relationships, while the others actively damage relationships.6

    Passive Constructive. You offer distracted, understated support, which kills the conversation. Think of how many times you’re preoccupied with your iPhone or computer when someone tries to share good news with you. This style leaves the sharer of good news feeling misunderstood and unimportant.

    Passive Destructive. You one-up the person, ignore his good news, or take over the conversation and make it about you. Many people inadvertently use this response style when they have good news that is in common with the sharer’s. A friend of mine is going to Hawaii on her honeymoon, and when she shared that with me, I was tempted to jump in and tell her about the many times I’ve been to Hawaii.

    Active Destructive. You take a negative focus when the person shares good news. Lawyers need to be particularly careful about this style because we are trained to find the “what could go wrong” in a scenario. This style leaves the sharer feeling angry and even embarrassed. If you’re truly concerned about someone’s good news, take a few minutes to actively constructively respond to it, then pick a separate time and place to have a follow-up conversation.

    Active Constructive. This is the only style of response to good news that builds relationships. You help the person relive the good news by showing authentic interest and asking questions. This style actually benefits both the sharer and the responder because it generates positive emotions. Positive emotions have been shown to increase creativity and lower your heart rate under stress, and they are contagious.7As a result, both people walk away from the conversation feeling better.

    Active constructive responding takes just a minute or two, but the relationship payoff is huge. If you support other people when they share good news with you, they’ll be more likely to come to you with bad news because you’ve built up a bank of trust. That is vital, in your role as a lawyer or as a parent. If you’re managing a case, you depend on your associates and employees to tell you when things aren’t going well. As a parent, you want to know when your kids have concerns. And I can tell you from experience, once you’re off their list as a person to approach with good news, you’ll be off their list as a person they can trust with bad news.


    The topic of connection reminds me of the words of a great philosopher, comedian George Carlin. He said, “The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less; we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time….We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often. We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life but not life to years. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor.”

    Here is my challenge to you: Pick one relationship you want to improve, and set a specific goal in the coming month to make it better using one of these strategies. Please let me know how it goes!


    1 Larry Richard, Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed, 7 LAWPRO Mag. 2-5 (2008).

    2 I developed the CASE acronym, in part, with Lorrie Peniston. It is based on a model of assertive communication created by Sharon Anthony Bower and Gordon H. Bower and is more fully explained in their book, Asserting Yourself: A Practical Guide for Positive Change (New York, NY: De Capo Press, 2004). See also Kim Cameron, Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance 51-65 (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc., 2008).

    3 The ideas in this paragraph were taken from a training activity adapted from material by Dr. Karen Reivich.

    4 Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence 96-110 (New York, NY: Bantam, 1995).

    5 Daniel Goleman, “Empathy” – Who’s Got It, Who Doesn’t? May 2, 2009.

    6 Shelly L. Gable, Gian C. Gonzaga, & Amy Strachman, Will You Be There for Me When Things Go Right? Supportive Responses to Positive Event Disclosures, 91 J. Personality & Soc. Psychol. 904-17 (2006).

    7 Barbara L. Fredrickson, Positivity 54-96 (New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 2009).

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