When you think of conflict at your law firm work, what comes to mind? Wouldn’t it be great to have a relatively simple model to keep in mind that you could use with any situation? We tend to remember well when we focus on three items. With that in mind I am suggesting you take LEA with you when you have a conflict at work. LEA stands for Listen, Empathise and Act. When you carry out all three of these actions at work that can make a major difference to resolve conflicts. The conflict could be with peers, clients, customers, vendors, external stakeholders, subordinates, supervisors, adversaries in court, and others. As you know the potential for conflict at a law firm is just about endless.
In previous blogs from my web site information has been provided on the value of and how to connect with those with whom you disagree. There literally are a plethora of ideas to help you resolve conflicts. Sometimes all of the ideas can seem overwhelming.
This time a relatively simple model is being presented. That is LEA.
A natural response when threatened is to attack. We are at the ready to defend our position. This is why the first response is to acknowledge this emotion and then work to calm your own fire. Realise that your natural response quite likely is to raise the adrenaline level and prepare for a fight. Don’t proceed while you are in this mindset. You need to be there to help. It is very important to listen to the other party first. Only when you are calm and you are prepared to listen to them should you proceed. Actively listen to them by paraphrasing, summarising, and asking open ended questions. Your goal should be to summarise what they said even better than themselves.
Approaching the problem with these kinds of questions
When you are calm, start by asking open ended non-threatening questions to explore the facts. For example, in an inquisitive and nonthreatening tone ask:
“What happened on the ABC case this time? “
“What were lessons learned from this case that we can apply going forward?”
“How can I help you so that we can avoid this in the future?”
“What can we do together to avoid this from happening next time?” [note “we” and forward thinking – this is called feed forward rather than feedback]
“What would you like to have happen in the future?”
These kinds of questions raise an issue in a non-threatening way to explore the facts and the emotions behind those facts. When you do that you will be able to potentially work together to address both of your interests. This can become a teaching and bonding moment.
Besides asking these questions, your responses to these questions really matters too.
Responses on your part
You need to listen with respect. That is without negative judgments.
You want to check for understanding. When you check for understanding you are making sure that you really are able to fully comprehend the situation from their perspective. Are you correctly understanding and labeling the other party’s feelings? That is not only with the words, but with the tone and meaning behind those words. Did you really understand what the other person was saying? If not explore additional open ended questions like “what you like to have happen?” Use statements like “Tell me more.” Be there to help and understand. Avoid judging. When a person really feels listened to, then they are far more likely to be receptive to listening to what you have to say.
So, listen to them first. Make the first step towards reducing the anger and promoting understanding. This brings us to the second element with LEA. Listen with empathy.
Understanding with empathy means to really reflect the feelings of the other party. Share the pain. First put yourself in their shoes. How do you think they are feeling? Understand that this is an emotional situation for them too. Perhaps you can find the words to demonstrate that you can relate to their frustration, irritation, anxiety, or sadness. By taking this proactive step this helps put you in a better frame of mind for your interaction.
Do a check in. Ask something like
“How did you feel about working on the ABC case and how are you feeling now?”
“Based on what you experienced what could be done to make you feel better about these types of situations in the future?”
Acknowledge their feelings and your understanding of their feelings. If you are not understanding ask for further clarification. Keep working this issue with the other party until you really can reinforce what they are saying in your own words. Demonstrate that you understand their feelings and that you care.
First and foremost, having listened with empathy you demonstrated your acknowledgement of the other persons feelings. That in itself is an action. When you were empathising, summarising and paraphrasing what the other person said each of those is an action. See you were ahead of the curve and you were already taking action simply by listening and empathising. Now your verifying this with the other party.
“You have a right to be upset.”
“That put you in a really tough spot.”
“I can understand why that would make you angry.”
As another action, if you screwed up (and we all do) apologise. This goes a long way towards reconciliation. From the book The Servant Manager Tip 73 states in part that an apology involves three items.
“Proper apologies have three parts:
- What I did was wrong
- I feel badly that I hurt you
- How do I make this better”?
This works. First, you have to say you are sorry and admit what you did was wrong. Second, you have to indicate that you truly are sorry you hurt the other person and you won’t do it again. Finally, you have to ask what you can do to make this better and be prepared to take actions to do so.”
As the actions requested by the other party are considered, this demonstrates a real concern for the other party. As you work together to explore options from the question “what would you like to have happen?” this can actually lead to an aligning of mutual interests. If that is the case, consider how far you have come from the original situation. Now instead of a potential adversarial situation you have an ally that is helping you to address the issue.
Editorial note: A version of this piece was published by Michael Gregory Consulting LLC (www.mikegreg.com).