Being Great At Argument And What This Means To Relationships In and Out of Law

Law students and lawyers are trained to hone their skills in making legal argument. While, theoretically this is based on legal analysis and rationale, clearly emotion plays out in many Judges’ chambers, courtrooms, and depositions. In fact some of the most heated exchanges between lawyers occur outside of the courthouse. There are records replete with these disputes turn into full blown arguments that even cross ethical guidelines as well as more drastic cases of physical violence ensuing.  Even without the extreme cases of anger management issues, I think it can be safely said that no lawyer wants to carry this tendency to get into heated argument to the home or personal life.

It is a bit of a paradox for a lawyer when considering his/her personal life versus professional life, as one model that is effective for some is the ‘attack’ model whether in the forms of pleadings, heated calls and debates or the heated proceedings already mentioned.   Additionally, law firms are not exactly known as a place of safety and consolation for most lawyers. In this regard, a lawyer often feels like he/she is arguing with everyone in the course of the professional day.

John Gottman is known for his work on marital stability and relationship analysis through scientific direct observations. Gottman has even developed models, scales and formulas to predict relationship stability and divorce. His predictive studies regarding newlywed couples are most well known. I think his studies are relevant to relationships in and outside of  marriage.  Gottman found that the four negative behaviors that most predict divorce are as follows:  Criticism of partners’ personality, contempt (from a position of superiority), defensiveness and stonewalling, or emotional withdrawal from interaction.  One might reasonably conclude that these behaviors make up most of a lawyer’s day.

So, how is a lawyer to hone the skills he/she believes necessary to make it as a lawyer and to also cultivate and sustain healthy relationships? It is a bit of a conundrum. 52% of lawyers describe themselves as unhappy and are in remarkably poor health and predisposed for depression.  This clearly indicates an adverse impact on relationships as well within the profession.

Gottman answers this perhaps by suggesting the models for happy, stable relationships. Three of these are particularly amenable for lawyers both inside and outside their professional lives which are as follows:

  • Turn Towards – State your needs and be aware of bids for connection. The small moments of everyday life are actually the building blocks of relationships.  The casual conversation after a deposition is one example of a way to connect with the ‘other’ side’s lawyer and would be considered a building block toward a positive connection.  Discussing and resolving a heated dispute after a hearing or deposition would be another great way to make a bid to connect as humans.
  • Share Fondness and Admiration – The antidote for contempt is to express appreciation and respect.
  • The Positive Approach-Focus on positive qualities of the other, positive feelings for each other, and the things you may have in common.

It is clear the legal professional has a lot of competing demands during a workday and therefore many means of interaction. The key to more healthful relating both inside and outside of his/her professional life is to become aware of the positive interactions that may be cultivated and be made part of the norm.  As such, the lawyer can develop a more positive interaction style as a response rather than a reaction.  There is a whole topic regarding effective advocacy and the ‘kind’ lawyer considering legal duties to clients which will be explored in another writing. For now, I close with the notion that cultivating more positive interactions with other lawyers will most certainly also have many healthy effects in relationships outside of law.  This is indeed good news!

Contact to schedule an assessment and coaching session. Pam Olsen is a practicing attorney, M.S. Mental Health Counseling, and ICF certified coach. Her interests include helping lawyers rediscover their life passions, purpose, and meaning in their lives.