Why so emotional?

White Background, Purple Underscore Ampersand

Emotional agility rather than avoidance is the key to managing strong emotions in your relationships with stakeholders, writes Anthony Kearns, Practice Group Leader - Consulting.

Simon is a senior in-house lawyer in a large organisation. He has worked hard over the last few years and has recently been promoted to manage a team of five lawyers that is embedded in a business unit. A new executive director, Rachel has also been brought in to lead the business unit following two years of underperformance and most of the team is worried the unit is being prepared for sale. While Simon really enjoyed working with her predecessor, he is struggling to develop a good working relationship with Rachel. She seems frustrated most of the time and is often angry at the pace of change in the unit. As a result, she is very aggressive in meetings and will not accept any suggestion that change should happen more slowly or that some changes are not possible at all. Simon is also becoming increasingly frustrated and often comes away from meetings feeling that he has not been heard or respected even though he feels he is the only rational person in the room. To make matters worse, Rachel has recently provided feedback to the Group General Counsel that Simon lacks impact and needs to develop more confidence in meetings.

The most common reason I am asked to coach senior in-house lawyers is a lack of confidence or impact in meetings. However, in my experience this is often an unhelpful simplification of what is inhibiting their performance. Sure, the primary symptom can be a lack of impact but when we go a little deeper, we often find the underlying problem is an inability to process strong emotions both in themselves and in their relationships with key stakeholders. So, Simon may well lack the competence rather than the confidence to deal with this situation. The good news is that the ability to work effectively with emotions can be learned by developing what Harvard psychologist Dr Susan David calls Emotional Agility.

The first step for Simon is to learn how to observe, understand and accept the role that emotions are playing in the situation and in his relationship with Rachel. The key is to see emotions as data you can observe rather than things that either drive you or define you. IT is also important that he does not allow his internal stories and assumptions to amplify the emotions or pull him into dysfunctional emotional management strategies that Dr David describes as “brooding” or “bottling”. Once he is able to objectively observe emotions as data, he has a much better chance of choosing how he responds to them. Hence, with increased emotional agility Simon would be able to approach Rachel with greater empathy and his own emotions with equanimity, thereby enhancing his effectiveness and influence within the relationship.

As a profession, we seem to have convinced ourselves that strong emotions not only have no place in legal practice but also have no place in business generally. Hence, Simon is likely to label Rachel as “unprofessional”, “irrational” or "a bully" even though her emotions may well be both understandable and appropriate in the circumstances. This will prevent him from finding the empathy and connection with her that are critical to building trust. We are taught in law school to distrust our own emotions and the emotions of others and instead rely on the rational and objective application of our knowledge. This is unrealistic, and even more so for in-house lawyers, as they work in emotionally rich environments with stakeholders who haven’t been enculturated into our distrust of emotions. Learning to effectively manage, rather than avoid emotions is critical.

If you are interested in enhancing your emotional agility you might want to try the following three experiments:

Find two other reasons: The next time you are confronted with someone who is angry or frustrated and you find yourself describing them as unreasonable or unprofessional think of at least two other reasons why they might be behaving in that way and see if that changes the way you perceive them.

Go meta: If you are working with someone who is regularly angry or frustrated you might try “going meta” (briefly adopting the perspective of an objective observer of the relationship) by saying something like “I notice that in the last few meetings this particular project has made you very angry, what is it about this project that causes you to feel this way and is there something we can do to alleviate this?”

Foster your "observing self": Mindfulness practice is one of the most effective ways to gain perspective on your own emotions and increase your ability to approach others with empathy. It is also an essential component of self-compassion, which is the first step toward approaching your own emotions with equanimity.

All information on this site is of a general nature only and is not intended to be relied upon as, nor to be a substitute for, specific legal professional advice. No responsibility for the loss occasioned to any person acting on or refraining from action as a result of any material published can be accepted.

Key contacts

Anthony Kearns

Practice Group Leader, Consulting