Can Parenting Tips Improve Your Client Effectiveness?


Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

Recently one of my lawyer clients described to me how he handles things with his high-strung child. As he described his process, it reminded me of how really effective family lawyers handle clients in the emotional throes of a divorce or custody battle.

In this time of economic turmoil and uncertain futures, today every lawyer has a stressed out client to deal with. See if this parent’s process might help you be more effective in managing both yourself, and those you advise, in stressful situations.

1. Prep them for everything. Let them know in advance what the two of you will each do, and what Plan B will be, if Plan A doesn’t work.

2. Prompt them during the process. As you engage in the process and things get a little scary, remind them that this is what you were expecting.

3. Expect a meltdown at some point.When too many obstacles or unfamiliar circumstances make things seem out of control to them, they may lose their composure for awhile. Don’t get upset when they get upset. Don’t take their reaction personally.

4. Expect to hit a few speed bumps. You can’t always predict how they will react, or what obstacles you will encounter. A familiar highway for you may seem like a rocky road to them. Slow down. Remain flexible. Have a repertoire of Plan B’s for different reactions.

5. Acknowledge their successes. When they respond flexibly and nimbly to obstacles and changing circumstances, point out their accomplishments. Help them become aware and confident that they can do what works.

Why CEOs May Behave Like Children

If treating CEOs and other high functioning adults like cranky or fearful children seems inappropriate, consider what Daniel Goleman, author of Working with Emotional Intelligence, calls the “amygdala hijack.” In prehistoric times, we needed the ability to instantaneously assess whether we might be about to become lunch for whatever just snapped that twig. The part of our brain called the amygdala helped us survive by immediately commandeering our brain function at any threat. It routed blood flow to our arms and legs to prepare us for fight or flight. It shut down blood flow to less crucial functions like our digestive system and the prefrontal area of our brain, where complex thought occurs. Using the prefrontal lobe to pause and reflect on the best course of action isn’t helpful, when survival requires a split-second response. Even today, when a car suddenly stops in front of us, the amygdala helps us slam on the brakes without taking time to decide what to do.

Today’s threats at the office are more likely to be emotional, rather than physical threats. The amygdala hijacks our brain at any perceived threat, however. It shunts blood away from the higher cognitive centers and floods our bodies with adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones. Just when we need to think most clearly, we are least equipped to do so.

In difficult situations, successive upsetting events cause a build up of stress hormones, until the amygdala develops a hair trigger response to any disturbance. With stress hormones coursing through their bloodstream, previously rational adults may experience a nuclear meltdown at the slightest provocation. Some of them demonstrate the adult version of a toddler tantrum at the grocery store.

Applying Parenting Tactics to Clients

We can help our clients stay reasonable and rational by preparing them for what to expect, and by rehearsing response strategies. When they know what to expect, they are less likely to get triggered into the fight or flight reaction. If they do get triggered, the dulled brain can do best what is already well-rehearsed, in the same way that a professional baseball player can instantly decide whether to swing at a 95 mile an hour fastball hurtling past him. Give your clients a chance to practice effective reactions, to supplant the default reactions they may have rehearsed since childhood.

Your positive feedback will make a difference, too. Be careful not to have a condescending tone, however. Some examples of how you might give that feedback include:

“I saw you do a great job of reigning yourself in today when the hot button issues came up for negotiation.”

“I was impressed by the way you didn’t take the bait when he seemed to be personally attacking you.”

“You’ve been on target with our goal of only answering the questions you are asked, for the first two hours of this deposition. Keep it up for the afternoon segment, which may be harder.”

When stressed clients hear they have responded well, it reassures them. It trains them what to do more of. The reassurance helps reduce their stress level, making more cognitive brain power available for ensuing responses.

Lawyers in every area of practice deal with stressed people who experience anxiety and meltdowns when they don’t know what to expect, or don’t have a Plan B for coping with changes. Effective attorneys, like effective parents, develop strategies to head off the predictable crises, and ride out the unpredictable ones.

Adapted and reprinted with the permission from the author’s article in the October 8, 2009 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2009 Incisive Media US Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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