Does Lawyer-Speak Create Workplace Dysfunction?


Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

Dan told the group what he thought was the appropriate course of action to take. No one voiced any opposition, so he took steps to set the plan into motion. Later he was surprised to get feedback that Karen thought he was controlling and railroaded the group into doing things his way. Dan felt dumbfounded and frustrated. If Karen had another idea, why didn’t she speak up in the first place?

Have you ever been in Dan’s shoes? Or do you identify with Karen’s perspective, acquiescing to someone else’s way of doing things when you don’t really want to? The problem may be as much a matter of conversational styles as substantive disagreement, according to Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., bestselling author and linguistics professor at Georgetown University.

In her book Talking from 9 to 5: How Women’s and Men’s Conversational Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit, and What Gets Done at Work, Tannen points out that many people expect ideas to be explored through verbal opposition. “When presenting their own ideas, they state them in the most certain and absolute form they can and wait to see if they are challenged,” says Tannen. “Their thinking is that if there are weaknesses, someone will point them out, and by trying to argue against those objections they will find out how their ideas hold up.”

I would suggest a corollary to Tannen’s observation. Sometimes people merely state their preferences in a clear and direct manner to get the discussion started. They may be opening the negotiations or brainstorming. They may not intend to insist on their way as the only way. They are expecting to hear other opinions.

Law firms tend to have a culture that encourages verbal opposition. Perhaps it comes from our adversarial training. Perhaps the law attracts people who already prefer an oppositional style. Nevertheless, not everyone uses or understands that style.

Some people take challenges or disagreements personally. For them it feels like an attack or criticism. Instead of honing and clarifying their thinking, it clouds their mind with emotion and makes them doubt what they know. They do not function at their best, and the organization loses the benefit of their experience, knowledge and perspective.

When such people disagree, they may fear that controverting a forthrightly stated proposal will damage the ability to work together effectively. So they keep mum, but store resentment. Even lawyers who are quite comfortable testing opposing counsel may shy away from an “argument” with a co-worker or from challenging the boss. Staff, who have not received training in adversarial skills, may go completely mute and keep some essential information to themselves, rather than face off with a lawyer who loves a good verbal tussle.

If you are having miscommunications or difficult relationships in your law practice, what can you do? In some firms the unspoken reaction is, “Those wimps just need to get a thicker skin and speak up if they want to be heard.” Tannen might say that is half right. She reports: “There is no one best way. Any style of speaking will work just fine in some situations with those who share the style. The most common culprit is style differences.” (Emphasis added.)

Since you can’t ask everyone you deal with to read this article and adapt to your style, you may need to develop some alternate behavior strategies. Here are my recommendations.

    • a. request input,
      b. state your positive intentions,
      c. reveal your expectations, or
      d. check out your assumptions.
  1. 1. Be willing and able to flex to another style.
    2. Notice the impact you are having on the persons with whom you are communicating.
    3. If you are not certain you are having your intended impact, then

After reading this article, to be more effective next time, Dan could state his position and actually request push-back. He could say, “These are some of my thoughts on the issue, but I want to hear yours, especially if they differ from mine.” Another approach would be to state his expectations and check out his assumptions. “My expectation is that we will help hone each other’s ideas. Since I’m not hearing any refinements or other suggestions, I’m assuming you really like this idea. Is that right?”

For her part, Karen could offer input by saying, “Are you open to some additional perspectives on that?” Another way to have input without encouraging oppositional behavior might sound like this: “That sounds like it might work. I want to make sure we don’t miss out on any good opportunities, however. Would you be ok with brainstorming all the ideas we can think of before we evaluate our options?”

Some of you may be thinking, “Why should we do all this dancing around? It takes too long and requires too much effort.” Because no man is an island. Because too heads are better than one. Because a stitch in time saves nine. And all those other reasons that are so true that they have become cliché.

You may find other approaches that work for you. Please share with me your experience as you try flexing your communication style for increased effectiveness. Or… give me your push-back on the thoughts I have expressed here.

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