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5 Ways Lawyers Can Stop Avoiding Conflict

“You’re a lawyer — you must like arguing!” While this may be true for some lawyers, when it comes to conflict with their closest colleagues, many would rather avoid the pain and discomfort.

Although interpersonal conflict is often thought of as a battle between two people, I have learned that conflict is about tension between people when they differ in beliefs, behaviours, opinions, or values.

Some lawyers will approach the issue with colleagues, senior lawyers, and partners head-on and in doing so deliver what the other person feels as a gut-wrenching blow. Other lawyers are more passive; they either avoid the subject altogether or touch on it so lightly that the impact of the problem is not made clear and nothing changes.

I, too, have struggled with conflict in the workplace. In my work as a lawyer, manager, and leader, I often felt ill equipped to control my own unproductive — and sometimes destructive — words and behaviours, including avoidance and inaction. Without understanding how I could better manage myself in conflict, I didn’t pick up on the small complaints, negativity, resentment, blame, and noncompliance that signalled that conflict was brewing.

As lawyers, we are taught to keep our emotions out of business; while this can serve a us well in parts of our practice, it can work against us when it comes to conflicts we are directly involved in. When we don’t sit with our feelings and work through them and instead jump to a solution, we can respond to conflict destructively or not at all. We miss opportunities to clear our own assumptions and misunderstanding, learn about differing perspectives, and exercise empathy even if we disagree.

Risks to our own practices and the bottom line are present when we don’t deal with issues: confusion, division, disengagement, low morale, lack of productivity, presenteeism, absenteeism, and turn-over. Problems compound when team members feel unsafe to raise concerns or new ideas, fearing that they/their input will not be accepted or valued.

Do you want to manage conflict more productively? Here are 5 shifts in your approach to it that can help.

Understand aggression and assertion are different. Consider the difference between aggression and assertion. Think through whether you are/were motivated to get your way and win or to advocate for your needs while being open to finding a solution that considers mutual needs.

Reframe the battle mindset. If addressed early, clearly, and collaboratively with a specific goal that both people can agree to, conflict can have valuable outcomes. The next time a difficult situation or conversation comes up, ask yourself: “How could this be an opportunity to learn about or better understand another perspective?” or “How might this be an opportunity to clear the air, get focussed, and move forward?”

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Worrying about potential negative outcomes may block you from having a difficult conversation. In the legal profession, you have been trained and rewarded to respond, defend, and solve problems. Not working to find the “right” solution may feel disconcerting. Practice sitting with your own thoughts and feelings and those of another person without judging.  

Stop playing the blame game. Rather than viewing the situation as “Me v. Them,” reframe this a case of “Us v. The Problem.” If the other person is not amenable to managing or resolving the problem, express your boundaries or state your expectations.

Let your values guide you. Whether you are deciding to have a conversation, thinking about how to respond to an email that has struck one of your hot buttons, or listening to a person with whom you disagree, let your values guide you. Use them as your personal compass or GPS so that in challenging situations you can call upon them to guide you to higher ground and keep everyone’s dignity intact.

And finally, because some forward movement is better than getting stuck, choose imperfection over inaction.

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