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High stakes bring high emotions

Anger can be neutralized and used effectively
By Saul Chernos
May 27 2016 issue

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Nathalie Boutet, a family lawyer in Toronto, was working with opposing counsel to draft a separation agreement when she began feeling flustered.

“It was a very difficult file,” Boutet recalls. “It had been over a year, trust between the two clients had eroded, and it was getting late. We were arguing over a point, and she (the opposing counsel) was starting to go into a cycle.”

Feeling on edge herself, Boutet recognized the need to avoid an escalation.

“I wanted to get excited back at her, but I saw that,” says Boutet, whose practice focuses on advocacy and mediation outside the courtroom.

“I simply said I needed a break. I knew I needed to walk away from the situation and bring myself to a different place.”

After a few minutes apart and drinking water to rehydrate, the two lawyers returned productively to the task at hand.

In the throes of a demanding negotiation, Boutet found herself in a situation familiar to lawyers — the thermometer rising rapidly to the boiling point.

Taking a break worked. The two lawyers kept their cool, and the water provided a welcome recharge.

Anger is an emotional reaction. But Steve Prentice, a Toronto workplace productivity consultant, says it has a physiological basis and can be countered by deliberate effort.

“Anger is essentially a defence mechanism,” Prentice says. “It’s a result of the fight or flight response to defend yourself.”

Prentice says people can restrain their anger by working to neutralize it. “It’s not just simply that you’re a screwed up personality. There’s physical chemistry involved, and you can manage it.”

A good starting point, Prentice says, is the old adage of counting to 10 before reacting. “By taking the time to count to 10, you allow your body to overcome the adrenalin and balance it into a more neutral space.”

The desire to restrain anger doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t justified. Rather, Prentice says, it’s how you choose to handle matters.

“The problem with anger is you turn to reflex, which doesn’t allow for forward thinking. That’s why so many people do things in anger that they regret later. If you take time to calm down and think through how you can best resolve a situation or conflict, you have a better chance of winning than if you just deck somebody in the face.”

Prentice concedes he’s had his own anger-management issues. “It was very easy for me to get frustrated at something as simple as not finding a parking space. Some people are naturally hot-blooded.”

Prentice advocates getting down to the actual tangible, logical roots of any problems and mapping out a strategy. He also recommends long term, practical steps to neutralize anger.

“It can be as simple as putting things into proportion. People tend to get totally wrapped up in their careers and their work, so determine if it’s a lifestyle thing or a work thing.”

Prentice points out that anger can work in a positive way if managed constructively. “Instead of lashing out at the judge or anyone else in the room, lash out with a brilliant piece of work. Channel your anger into a focused, brilliant presentation or summation.”

Jana Schilder, a Toronto communications professional who advises lawyers, says anger is usually the result of miscommunication or missed expectations.

Lawyers should communicate clearly and consistently, ensuring that when they delegate tasks such as document preparation to staff they’re clear about content, deadlines and other expectations, Schilder says.

“Time limitations get in the way. But associates and support staff aren’t mind readers. You have to communicate.”

In some cases, an expression of anger might be constructive and effective, but it should be applied sparingly and with forethought and consideration.

“Anger might signal to an associate that sloppy work won’t be tolerated,” Schilder says. “But as a routine way of handling issues…anger incites fear and loathing of the person who is angry all the time. It becomes counter-productive.”

When expressing anger, focus comments on behaviour rather than the person, Schilder recommends. A person being yelled at can offer to talk and resolve the situation when the yeller has calmed down.

Anger can rear its ugly head not only in the office but also the courtroom. Schilder says tensions sometimes flare when one side finds itself besieged by new evidence that was missed or not disclosed during discovery.

“There’s a disconnect,” Schilder says. “Lawyers are frequently if not always under pressure and under deadline, and when this kind of stuff happens they can get angry.”

While it might be tempting to use anger as a courtroom tactic, Schilder urges caution. “Some of the best litigators don’t actually gravitate towards anger but towards a very carefully measured delivery accompanied by a pregnant pause,” she says, carefully articulating each word with a soft, smooth tone that doesn’t sound condescending or sarcastic.

AJ Jakubowska, a family lawyer in Newmarket, Ont., says she’s learned to respond calmly when feeling provoked. Sometimes she finds a matter-of-fact reply to an opposing counsel’s over-the-top remarks yields an offer to “turn the page” and start fresh.

“Our clients’ disputes are very human, personal disputes, so it’s easy to get caught up in their cases and put ourselves in our clients’ shoes,” Jakubowska says. “We sometimes forget we’re just advocates, and when our client is angry at the other side we perhaps get angry at the other lawyer because they’re the image of what the other side represents.”

Jakubowska praises an earlier mentor, a senior lawyer she once worked for, who taught her the 24-hour rule. “You get a nasty letter from the other lawyer, and the natural tendency is to pick up the Dictaphone or sit at your keyboard and punch out an equally nasty response. The rule says you set your draft aside for 24 hours and look at it again.”

Ultimately, Jakubowska sees anger as a by-product of stress. When there’s an element of pressure, she says, it’s easy to snap at people. “Sometimes I push myself away from my desk and do something completely unrelated, or even breathing exercises, it’s amazing what a difference that can make.”

Lawyers need to openly acknowledge stress in order to deal with it effectively, Jakubowska says.

“Talking about stress and anger and feelings is more acceptable these days than it has (been) in the past 20 years. You’d be amazed how many lawyers don’t talk about it, don’t admit to it. Once we do, we can come up with more active strategies.”

Click here to see this article in our digital edition (available to subscribers).