The art of dealing with frustrating people
"It means no worries for the rest of your days
It's our problem-free philosophy
Hakuna Matata! Hakuna Matata! Hakuna matata! ..."
– Music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, performed by M. Casella, T. Allan Robbins, S. Irby-Ranniar, and J. Raize
It goes without saying (but I will say it anyway) that the practice of law can be frustrating at times. I get calls on a regular basis from lawyers who are trying to deal with demanding self-represented parties (some of whom seem to adopt a hyper-aggressive stance to all and sundry); with counsel who are overly assertive and who refuse to accommodate anyone’s calendar except their own; with clients who adopt a scorched-earth policy toward all opposing parties in litigation and unfortunately, from partners who perhaps are facing the effects of burnout in themselves and are taking it out on those near them.
What is a lawyer to do? For one thing, it is infinitely easier to help someone else with a frustrating situation than dealing with one yourself. The detachment and clarity of thought that you achieve by looking dispassionately at someone else’s problem, as opposed to your own, cannot be overstated.
The first thing to do when you get caught in a frustrating situation is to close your eyes and take a deep breath or two and let them out slowly. Will yourself to relax. Recognize that the "fight or flight" response has been triggered and that you need to rein that in before you can go on. To be an island of calm in turbulent seas is a skill that can be learned and nurtured. Next, notwithstanding what has been said, focus on the issues and not on the people. Responding to a personal attack, particularly if you were the person attacked, will only elevate the emotional temperature and make the eventual dealing with the issues even harder.
Stop and listen to what the other person is saying. Don’t interrupt, don’t adopt an aggressive body posture or prejudge what that person will say. Try to understand what is motivating the person’s behaviour. State your needs and your remedies relative to what needs to get done. See if the other person responds in kind and starts dealing with the issues rather than the emotions. If not, then you may have to take steps, going forward, to only deal with this person in writing, thereby creating a record of how you are dealing with the situation (that can either be used defensively to counter any allegations of professional misconduct or offensively if this matter has to go before a judge in order to move it forward). If this person happens to be a client, then you may have to take steps to end your retainer as professionally as possible (on the grounds of there being a "serious loss of confidence between solicitor and client"). If this is a partner, then LAP and/or counselling may be in order. Whenever you are in such a situation, consult with a colleague. Both of you will learn from the situation.
While it is unrealistic to believe that we can go through life without ever encountering difficult situations, keeping our principles and values close at hand and utilizing clear and unemotional communications that establish boundaries and constrain the discussions to the issues at hand will go a long way toward dealing with life’s little frustrations.
The views expressed herein are strictly those of David Bilinsky and do not reflect the opinions of the Law Society of British Columbia, CBABC, or their respective members.
© 2014 David J. Bilinsky
David J. Bilinsky is the Practice Management Advisor for the Law Society of British Columbia.