Emotional Intelligence for Lawyers

by Eileen Barker

Conflict and emotions are inexorably intertwined. Emotions may be hidden under the surface of well-crafted legal arguments and strategic positions, but they are always in play. Experienced counsel know that throughout the life of a case, it is often emotions that guide the parties' decisions and courses of action they choose. The fact that parties may be adept at not showing their feelings, and may not even be aware of them, does not alter this. The fact is, emotions lie at the heart of conflict.

Remember, every lawsuit is an overlay: before legal issues and claims were identified, the parties simply had a conflict. Each person had feelings tied to the underlying situation, and they were strong enough to motivate at least one of them to take legal action. “The law” may or may not help resolve the legal issues. Rarely will it address the underlying emotions that gave rise to the conflict in the first place.

Addressing the emotional issues can be as important as addressing the legal and factual issues. Think about the most difficult clients:
the one who is never satisfied, the one whose demands are a constantly moving target, the one prone to lengthy tirades, the one who resists your advice and refuses reasonable proposals. In all of these cases, addressing the clients' emotional issues can be the key to helping the client move forward, as well as having a satisfied client.

Historically, there has been little recognition within the legal profession of the importance of emotional intelligence for lawyers. Legal education trains lawyers to identify, analyze and argue legal issues. Rarely does it teach them to recognize and understand the emotional ones. Therefore, it is not surprising that many lawyers may feel ill-equipped to deal with emotional issues. In a professional culture which prizes logic, precision and objectivity, emotions can present a foreign and difficult terrain. As a result, emotions are often overlooked, feared, avoided and misinterpreted.

Developing emotional intelligence, i.e., awareness and understanding of emotional issues, can be an enormous advantage for any lawyer. After all, some of the most interesting and challenging issues lawyers encounter have little to do with the law, and everything to do with psychological and emotional issues. Emotional intelligence offers lawyers the ability to understand what is really going on in a case, especially the most difficult cases, and provides insight on how best to approach the matter.

Just as with any skill, learning to deal effectively with emotions takes practice. The following are some guidelines for beginning on this path:

1. Develop emotional self-awareness. Emotional intelligence starts with self awareness. Begin to develop awareness of what you are feeling from moment to moment. In the course of a day, from time to time, notice what you are feeling. Are you aware of feeling anything? Are your emotions close to the surface? Or deeply buried?

2. Notice how you respond to the emotions of others. Become aware of your internal response to the emotions of others. How do you feel when someone else is angry? Sad? Afraid? Do you dread emotional expression of others? If someone is very emotional, is your first impulse to leave the room or change the subject?

3. Develop greater comfort with the emotions of others. Comfort with emotions is a function of practice, so look for opportunities to practice. When someone is having strong emotions, don't avoid them. Don't change the subject. Encourage the person to tell you what they are feeling. Then take a deep breath and listen! Do not interrupt them. Do not ask questions. Resist the tendency to stifle the person in any way.

4. You don't need to “fix” someone else's emotions. One of the greatest obstacles to emotional intelligence is the belief that one must “do something” to change the situation when someone is emotionally upset. After all, lawyers are good at solving problems. (Rest assured, the time for finding a solution will come soon, once the emotions have been heard.) However, the feelings themselves do not need to be solved, fixed or changed. They simply need to be heard and respected. The corollary is that here are no “wrong feelings.” All feelings are inherently valid.

5. Listening with empathy is the key. Generally, what the other person needs most is for you to listen. Simply hearing and acknowledging that you understand the person is enormously helpful. Develop an attitude of curiosity and compassion about what the person is experiencing. Resist the impulse to judge the person in any way.

Lawyers have much to gain by learning to embrace healthy emotional expression. Emotions often hold the key to unlocking conflict. A lawyer who can develop a bit of skill in dealing with emotions can go a long way in understanding their clients' true needs, and helping their clients achieve a satisfying resolution of their conflict.

Eileen Barker © 2006, all rights reserved.