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.
How can lawyers derail the hijack? Goleman suggests that people tell themselves the hijack is starting by noting to themselves, “I’m really upset now” or “I’m overreacting.” I do this by repeating to myself a line from my favorite William Butler Yeats poem, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”: “Those that I fight I do not hate/Those that I guard I do not love.” Bottom line: Recognize the hijack early, then derail it. That enables a better decision.
Goleman also suggests taking an empathetic response to anger. I was on a lengthy and tedious multi-party conference call, and one of the parties spoke harshly to me. The hijack started to kick in, but I derailed it. As Goleman advises, I told myself things designed to stop the amygdala’s takeover: The other party isn’t always this way, so maybe something else is going on in her life of which I am unaware; I should listen calmly and not react angrily. It turns out those internal messages were right. She later apologized. I learned this lesson many years ago, but it stays with me.
Insight No. 3: Coming soon to a theater near you: “The Buddha Meets Aurelius.” No, it’s not the next Hollywood buddy movie. But, what a pairing! Here is their mutual insight: People have zero control of what others do but 100 percent control of their reactions. It is a liberating idea. Here is Marcus Aurelius from the “Mediations”: “If you suffer pain because of some external cause, what troubles you is not the thing but your decision about it, and this it is in your power to wipe out at once.”
The Buddha takes this story line and teases it out into a movie-like scene. A man seeks to anger the Buddha, calling him names, insulting his ancestors and hurling epithets. None of it works. Conceding defeat, the man asks the Buddha why he could not provoke him. The Buddha replies that the man wanted to give the gift of anger, but the Buddha refused the gift. A gift refused stays with the giver. Next time an opposing counsel raises his voice at a deposition, or a maladjusted judge chews you out, think of this unlikely duo.
Insight 4: Apologize if needed, and stand up when necessary. These insights are not foolproof. I was deposing one of several plaintiffs in a hard-fought case. Opposing counsel, a good friend, laughed at one of my questions. I was hijacked, asking in an angry and uncivil tone, “Exactly what is so funny? Care to tell the class?”
The next day, I apologized. She remarked that she laughed because my question’s phrasing was not only effective but amusing. What was my problem in the deposition? I resorted to anger because it gave me a false sense of clarity. What was the solution? A real apology — explicit, directand drained of lawyer-like equivocations.
But don’t misunderstand me. While anger is useless, standing up for oneself is not. During a break in a trial, an opposing counsel aggressively flopped a stack of documents in front of me: “Tell me if you’ll stipulate to their admissibility before the judge comes back.”
I asked myself one question: “Will anger make this situation better or worse?” So, I turned from anger to quiet resolve and said, “Never throw anything at me again. If you hand them to me, I will look at them and let you know.” He did.
Insight No. 5: Each person gets to pick. Anger invariably makes any situation worse. But the situation is not the only casualty. As they say in the military, there is often collateral damage. The collateral damage is you.
In “The Tools: Transform Your Problems Into Courage, Confidence, and Creativity,” Phil Stutz and Barry Michels make this point: Anger drives you into the gaping maw of the “maze,” and in the maze you ruminate and obsess over injustices and wrongs done to you. The result: “[L]ife passes you by.” The escape: “You may be justified in reacting the way you do — but it doesn’t matter.“
Move on from your anger or suffer because of it. How would you rather go through life, with a scowl or a smile?