Clues You Can Use to Soothe Clashes


Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

We all have someone we have to deal with who is somehow blocking us from getting what we want. It may be opposing counsel, but it may just as likely be our own partner or a staff member who isn’t performing to our expectations. In those situations our frustration levels mount, and some of us sneer or explode. We go from dealing with a difficult person to being a difficult person.

Many such problems can be solved or prevented if we can improve our communication skills. Here are some “clues you can use” to improve your communication and reduce the conflict in your office.

1. Deal with annoyances while they are small.

This concept particularly applies to people we interact with frequently. Sometimes someone does something that annoys us, inconveniences us or hurts us, but because it is a small matter, we think it would be too petty to bring up. By the time it (or something like it) happens the tenth time, we have a big stack of grievances to address, and our emotions run high. We appear to react out of proportion to the incident, but actually we are reacting to ten incidents. Ambrose Bierce, an American author and newspaper columnist, said, “Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” If we simply address the issue the first or second time it occurs, we usually can discuss it calmly, casually and without a lot of emotional investment.

2. Find some common ground or mutual goal to set as the framework for your discussion.

Your listener will be more willing to listen when he knows you care about his goals and interests. For example, if a lawyer in the office talks too loudly, affecting your concentration, you might start with, “This is a small, but busy office. I know you want everyone to be productive, with a minimum of distractions and interruptions, right? And I assume you want to safeguard client confidences, too.”

Be sure you find some truly mutual goals so he knows the WIIFM (what’s in it for me). It must be motivating for him. Once you identify a goal that you both share, then address the behavior that interferes with the goal and that you would like to see changed.

3. Describe his behavior and its impact, not him.

Be specific and let him know how his behavior impacts you or others, without inserting barbs or judgments or characterizing him negatively. Instead of “You’re too loud and inconsiderate,” try “Voices carry pretty far in here. I can hear your conversations on the phone, especially when you use the conference feature. I find it difficult to concentrate on my work, and I worry that client confidences may be revealed to anyone who happens to be in our offices.” This would also be a good time to check to find out what impact you are having on him. It shows your concern and respect for his needs. “Do you have a similar problem with my voice?”

4. Be open to solutions you hadn’t considered.

“Could we brainstorm some solutions?” That shows respect and caring for his interests by inviting him to suggest solutions, instead of trying to impose yours. People are much more willing to comply with a plan that they helped create. They may even volunteer something that you would have been afraid to suggest, like “Gee, I didn’t realize I was so loud that others could hear me. Maybe I should get my hearing checked.”

5. Clarify your intention by expressly stating that you don’t intend something negative, and state your positive intention.

Sometimes the discussion will create defensiveness or avoidance in others. We can help prevent that, or successfully deal with it when it occurs by creating safety for them. Two tools for creating safety are treating them with respect and clarifying our intention. Think about what they might be afraid of, or what negative intention they might assume. You might say, “I’m not trying to suggest that my work is more important than yours, or that you have to tip-toe around me. I just want to maintain client confidences and keep productivity levels up in the office.”

6. Maintain respect for others by (a) noticing the story you are making up about them, and (b) checking your assumptions.

When we tell ourselves he is a loudmouth boor with no consideration for others, it doesn’t help us maintain a respectful attitude and tone in our conversation with him. Try to imagine some reasonable motivation for his behavior before starting the conversation, to calm your emotions. Perhaps he is not aware that you can hear him. Or maybe he has a sinus condition that plugs his ears sometimes. Then ask questions to check out your assumptions, or even state them and ask if you are on target. You could say, “We could hear the weaknesses of Mr. Coleman’s case as you described them on the phone today. I’m wondering if you knew how far your voice carries.”

7. Rinse and repeat if necessary.

If during the conversation the other person starts getting defensive, becomes angry or clams up, he is feeling unsafe. He doesn’t believe that you care about or have respect for him or his interests. Acknowledge his interests, go back to finding a common goal, clarify your intention or check your assumptions until you have reestablished safety. Then proceed with the meat of the discussion. You might say, “I notice that you are not saying much about this. I hope you are not getting the impression that I am judging you negatively for something you aren’t sure how to control. I value you, and believe there must be a solution that works for all of us. Can we keep talking until we find it?”

You may notice that these recommendations can be time consuming to implement. They involve a lot more words than, “Pipe down in there!” I endorse what Stephen Covey says in The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness. He points out that when it comes to dealing with people, fast is slow, and slow is fast. Take your time now so that you won’t have to spend twice as much time later patching up the new problems created by your haste.

I chose an annoying, but fairly innocuous example for this article. Many office problems start out with fairly innocuous issues that tend to grow and multiply if left unaddressed. Even if a monster issue arises in your office, however, these tools can help you tame it.

Debra Bruce (www.lawyer-coach.com) practiced law for 18 years, before becoming a professionally trained Executive Coach for lawyers. She is Vice Chair of the Law Practice Management Committee of the State Bar of Texas, and board member and past leader of Houston Coaches Network, the Houston Chapter of the International Coach Federation. She can be contacted for questions or comments at 713-682-4353 or debra@lawyer-coach.com.

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