Law school never teaches you how to deal with anger, whether your own or the client's. Here are five insights to help you do just that.
Insight No. 1: Presume positive intent. Several years ago, I was at the offices of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission with a client's human resources director. I was in a conference room with our witness and the investigator; the HR director waited in the lobby with another witness. Coming out to get the second witness, I told her it had gone well, whereupon she started to let out a war whoop of victory. Placing my finger to my lips, I suggested moderation. On the train back to the office, I could tell she was steamed like a dumpling.
The email came the next day: "DON'T YOU EVER DO THAT TO ME AGAIN! I'D GRADE YOUR PERFORMANCE SO FAR AS A C-. I'LL CALL AT 3 PM."
She called; "What do you have to say for yourself?" she demanded. I calmly replied: "Two words, just two: Thank you. Too often clients are dishonest about their feelings, let anger build up and then, months later, explode over something else. I may not represent you at the end of this call, but here is why I did what I did."
I then explained that I had intended no offense but that EEOC eyes were watching. We ended up with a good result for her and for my client.
I reacted rationally, not emotionally, because I presumed positive intent on her part. In other words, I assumed our goals ultimately were aligned. Football coach Bill Parcells explains this idea in "The Tough Work of Turning Around a Team," a piece he wrote for the Harvard Business Review's November/December 2000 issue.
Parcells writes that he tells players: "It's in your best interest that you succeed, and it's in my best interest that you succeed. We really want the same thing." This mindset drains conversations of an unhealthy emotion, like anger. It makes the conversation about results, not ego.
Insight No. 2: To tame anger, understand it. Lawyers can control what we can understand. So check out Daniel Goleman's new book, The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights. He describes the engine of anger, the amygdala. It's lodged in the reptile part of the human brain, the part that is 30,000 years old. It senses danger and reacts quickly.
That works well on the plains of the Serengeti, but it's less useful in a mahogany-paneled conference room. The amygdala takes in data through a single neuron and makes snap decisions.
By contrast, the prefrontal cortex (which is what makes us human) obtains data through numerous inputs and makes considered, albeit slower, decisions. But, it is the amygdala that still gets first dibs on our reactions, "hijacks" the slow-moving prefrontal cortex and kicks in a visceral response.