Don’t blow it!

Lawyers who are or aspire to be leaders must learn to self-manage.  Especially when stressed or under pressure (and who isn’t, at least part of the time?).  It’s easy to let self-management slide in the face of provocation.  Some attorneys I know offer a blanket apology to staff and colleagues — something like, “I’m feeling stressed, so please excuse me if I blow up or yell at you or throw things, ok?””  I don’t recommend that approach; it’s better than nothing, I suppose, but it’s actually announcing that bad behavior is coming, apparently largely unchecked.

Let’s be real:  attorneys are often faced with statements, actions, arguments, behavior, etc. that is galling in the extreme.  It’s a common practice among some litigators to find their opponents’ hot buttons; push the button and out pops an ugly intemperate person — not someone a jury would respect or believe.  (Same goes for witnesses, too, and in non-litigation contexts.)  So how can you handle it when faced with provocation that would make the Buddha quiver with rage?

  1. Keep your attention on the motivation behind the provocation.  Is the person who’s enraging you doing it intentionally, or is it a by-product of words or behavior that he likely thinks perfectly appropriate?  If it’s the former, don’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he succeeded.  If it’s the latter, consider whether displaying annoyance would stop the behavior or simply let your opponent know that he’s found a soft spot.
  2. Breathe.  This is great advice for just about any situation, but it’s especially good for dealing with anger.  You can react, which implies knee-jerk emotional feedback made without any reflection, or you can respond, which implies feedback that follows a pause and analysis/reflection to determine the best way to address the provocation.  It’s far better to respond than to react.  There’s no reason why you can’t fall silent for a few seconds (which may feel interminable to you and your opponent) while you work through your options.
  3. Speak softly.  Most of us tend to raise our voices when we speak in anger.  Therefore, it’s disarming to do the opposite and to speak more quietly.  The effect is to appear reasonable and controlled (especially helpful if your opponent is ranting and raving and seemingly out of control) and to force your opponent to listen carefully to hear what you have to say.  I’ve been told that in Japanese culture, when two parties are arguing, the one who raises her voice first loses.  It’s a difficult tactic for many of us to master, but if you can speak softly in the face of provocation, you will stand a much better chance of controlling your anger.
  4. Vent.  Express your anger in some forum that poses no risk of exposing it.  Writing can be helpful, but especially if you write an angry response to an email, be sure that you don’t accidentally send it!
  5. Exercise.  That’s physical venting.  When feasible, get up and take a walk instead of marinating in a situation that makes you angry.
  6. Selective release of anger.  Sometimes, it’s absolutely appropriate to express your anger at the person whose behavior has caused it.  But consider the consequences of such an expression.  Will you disrupt the relationship?  Do you stand to lose ground?  Will your expressed anger cause the person to react in a way that will cause you even more trouble?  And when you do choose to display anger, consider doing so through your words only but continuing to speak in a low, even tone of voice.  That will reinforce the gravity of your words.

And, despite our best efforts at these tactics, all of us lose our tempers sometimes.  Especially in time of frustration and stress, it’s easy to let it slip, despite best efforts.  When that happens, don’t be afraid to apologize and admit to being human.

2 replies
  1. Michelle Alford
    Michelle Alford says:

    I’m good at keeping calm in almost all situations, but I find that one of the hardest things to do is not to reflect other people’s anger. If someone is yelling or raising their voice at me, it’s difficult not to do the same in return. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that by remaining calm, you look like the reasonable one, regardless of what the disagreement is about. Also, if you’re calm, the other person is likely to calm down, while if you respond in anger, they’re almost definitely going to do the same.

  2. Julie A. Fleming
    Julie A. Fleming says:


    Thanks for your comment! You raise some good points. Remaining calm and in control of one’s temper is sometimes a tall order, and yet it can keep situations from spiraling out of control. No need to be super-human, just aware of the choices we make.

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