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What do you mean “It’s not personal”?

Many lawyers and law students have learned early on that the world of law is often a harsh world, filled with conflicts and high-levels of stress. Whether it is direct disagreements, criticisms, or perceived attempts to manipulate, interactions between lawyers can often feel contentious and many individuals react defensively to protect themselves.  Many individuals find it difficult to separate the professional activities from the personal feelings which result from being criticized, or disagreed with.  However, an attorney’s job is to be objective and realize that these interactions are not personal attacks.  If you find that you overly personalize your work, then you need to find a way to step-back to an objective view to better serve the client and to have less high-level stress.  Is it possible? In short, yes.

The way that you think about and explain another person’s actions, has a direct impact on how you feel about that person and his or her actions. We do this constantly, throughout the day with everything that we see. We are constantly trying to explain the reason for someone’s actions (see a previous post for more details). If the explanation we come up with is positive, that makes us feel positively toward the other person. And likewise, if the explanation is negative, we end up feeling negatively toward the other person. So the key to influencing how you feel about a person, and his or her actions, is to change the explanation you come up with for why they are doing what they are doing. Consider two hypothetical examples:

  1. The opposing counsel disagrees with your proposed settlement and criticizes your plan as being unfair. You come up with the explanation that the opposing counsel is criticizing your plan because they are mean-spirited, rude, and don’t respect you as a professional. I mean, why else would they be so adamant about disagreeing with you. This explanation makes you feel defensive, upset, and insecure about your abilities. Hence, you take it as a personal attack about your character and professional competence. This leads to feeling anxious, wanting to avoid further confrontation, and an increase in procrastination.
  2. The opposing counsel disagrees with your proposed settlement and criticizes your plan as being unfair. You come up with the explanation that the opposing counsel is trying to do their best to fulfill their legal responsibility of representing their client’s interest to the best of their ability (and in fact might not actually disagree with you at all). This explanation makes you feel positively toward the opposing counsel because you respect their professionalism. You can also see them as someone to learn from (as they present a challenge to you, you sharpen your skills in response) and you do not take their criticisms as a personal attack (because it really has nothing to do with you personally). You feel like the opposing counsel is a sparring partner with whom you can have a positive relationship and opinion of outside the courtroom.

Distinguishing what you have control over (your thoughts and how you explain things around you) from what you do not have control over (how others behave or interact with you), and putting your energy into those things you have control over, is the key to influencing how you feel about others, yourself, and the world around you.

Shawn Healy, PhD

 

 

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