Practice skills: resilience (part 2 — the strategies)

As promised in Wednesday’s post on resilience, today’s topic is how to be resilient in the face of challenges and adverse events.

I recently worked with a client who tended to get stuck in things that had gone wrong or felt like slights to her. For instance, after opposing counsel accused her of acting in bad faith in the course of a discovery dispute, she found it difficult to pull herself out of that and wanted to over-correct to demonstrate the good faith that permeates her practice. She felt personally attacked, and she felt defensive and angry. Critically, she experienced great stress in dealing with that lawyer and was concerned that her feelings could compromise her representation of her client. After some probing, we came to the conclusion that developing resilience would help her to move through those stages with greater ease. Here are some of the steps we worked through that resulted in a substantial shift in her ability to recover quickly from adverse occurrences.

1. Examine the event and assess what’s really going on. In this example, was opposing counsel offering valid feedback, or was he attempting to knock her off her game to gain advantage? Is there a third possibility? Was my client exhibiting bad faith?  (And if the upsetting event had been a mistake my client made, the task here would be to determine what caused the mistake — miscommunication, undue hurry, etc.) This reality check leads directly to step 2…

2. Put the event in “proper perspective.”  My client concluded that opposing counsel, known for trying to provoke litigation opponents through accusation and displays of anger, made his assertion because he calculated that it would draw her attention away from the case. Given that conclusion, ruminating on the accusation and bending over backward to prove it untrue would give the event more energy than it deserved. More importantly, such behavior could damage the representation and harm the client’s interest. Analytically, then, it made no sense for my client to continue to be upset or to react to the accusation. But it still hurt.

3. Self-reflection.  My client checked in with what she knew to be true. She knew that she was not acting in bad faith. She knew that she seeks to act and speak in integrity, and she knew that she had done so in this instance.

4. Acknowledge the reaction and then choose the response, and/or shift the emotional energy.  Emotions are what they are. They’re neither good nor bad. My client was hurt and upset by the situation, and it was important that she acknowledge that. Having done so, she then had the choice of whether to respond from the hurt and upset or to rely on what she’d uncovered in steps 1-3 and to respond from that knowledge. In other words, she applied problem-solving skills to determine what would be most effective.

In other situations where there’s no actual response appropriate (for instance, if a lawyer has been trying to develop business and is told no by a prospective client), the best action is likely to shift the emotional energy by asking what else is true. Does the “no” mean this lawyer is incompetent? That he’ll never get other business? Probably not. After acknowledging the disappointment, the lawyer can recognize that he’s been retained by other clients and has done well for them, perhaps shift to a sense of gratitude for those clients and that experience, and shift the emotional energy.

These steps facilitate dealing with whatever has happened by (1) acknowledging the event, its cause, and its impact and (2) responding to the event effectively rather than getting stuck in it.  That’s resilience, and that’s a key skill for lawyers.

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