A Tech Support Manual for Problems with People Part 1

Most of us have frustrating challenges with technology from time to time.

At least you can usually call tech support, an IT specialist or a trainer, and the problem eventually gets resolved. But what do you do when the frustrations that bring you to a boiling point stem from people problems? You probably don’t have a 24/7 support number to call.

In this three-part series, I’ll give you a few tools to add to your communication and management toolbox for troubling situations with other people.

The first tool: Monitor your own attitude.

As lawyers, we have honed our skills at identifying what might go wrong and designing protections against that.  When something does go wrong, we’re skilled at building a good argument for assigning blame, and finding the fallacy in anyone else’s argument. We’re predisposed to use those skills that we have developed so diligently. Unfortunately, those time-tested legal strategies don’t work so well for developing and maintaining important relationships or eliciting cooperation and collaboration from other people.

To develop better tools, we need to engage in a few practices before trouble ever develops, or at least at the first sign of trouble.

  • Flip your issue-spotting skills on their head. Practice engaging in “right-spotting.” That can be a challenge after 20 years of practicing law, but usually a lot more things are going right in the situation than going wrong. Focus on areas of agreement, and build from there. It is a lot easier to lead someone in the direction of your viewpoint if you first stand beside them in theirs, instead of confronting them about the difference. You can practice this attitude shift before the crisis occurs by making a habit of noticing and acknowledging the accomplishments and contributions of your coworkers. Even the little ones. That has the added bonus of building goodwill that you can draw on later when you need to bridge a gap.
  • Let go of having an opinion. As legal experts, we thrive on being asked our opinions and we would go broke if no one wanted them. In everyday life, however, most situations do not require our perfectionistic evaluation of the quickest, safest, smartest or otherwise most effective strategy, and our unsolicited advice is unwelcome. We create our own frustration, dissatisfaction and irritability with others when we unnecessarily judge their decisions and behaviors in circumstances where there are many reasonable paths to an acceptable result. In other words, stop evaluating the small stuff and it will be easier not to sweat it.
  • Keep this question in the foreground: What do I really want? We’re trained competitors and often we get caught up in “winning” an argument on insignificant matters, and unduly alienate opposing counsel or even our own colleagues. We engage in defensive or territorial behavior. We obfuscate instead of acknowledging our mistakes. In this manner, we inadvertently sacrifice the opportunity to have what we really want most, like:
    • Happy clients that sing our praises for helping them solve their problems quickly and at reasonable cost
    • Subordinates that ask the questions that can save time and avoid mistakes
    • Colleagues who like and respect us
    • A sense of collegiality and pride in the legal profession
  • Approach others with curiosity instead of judgment. Before opening your mouth, get curious about why a reasonable and rational person might behave the way they do. Notice that this policy requires you to forego labeling them as villains, enemies or idiots.

Bill Crook, Vice President and Associate General Counsel of Weingarten Realty Investors, described how learning this principle has made him more effective. He received a late stage drafting comment from opposing counsel inserting what he considered to be extraordinary and unreasonable indemnification provisions. Crook said, “In the past I would have been mad that someone was coming in at the eleventh hour messing up my deal. I would have been confrontational and aggressive.”

Today, however, Crook tries to react with curiosity and caution. “Even if their email seems confrontational, I wonder if they know something I don’t know,” he says. He called the opposing counsel and said, “Let me make sure. You’re asking us to sign an indemnification?” Receiving a confirmation, he politely asked why. Opposing counsel pointed to a situation that might have a risk of some environmental liability. He responded with genuine curiosity, “Are you aware that your client has [a much bigger environmental issue]?”

As it turned out, opposing counsel did not have that information. There was a rational explanation for the behavior after all — misinformation. Because of his non-confrontational attitude, Crook resolved the issue quickly and experienced a cooperative approach from opposing counsel for the remainder of the transaction. He also avoided any damage to the relationship between the respective clients.

The second tool, to be revealed tomorrow, has to do with listening.

Featured image: “Attitude is Everything” from Shutterstock.

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