Core Competency: Dealing with Emotions

We are all now familiar with the notion of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) which is commonly considered as the ability to be self-aware, self-regulate, and engage others and relationships effectively regarding emotional content. Many mediation and workplace experts contend that EQ is central to conflict competency. In other words, emotional recognition and regulation is a core skill set for successful management and resolution of conflict.

Emotions and biological changes are two sides of the same coin. Research indicates that physical responses usually come first and signal the mental and emotional reactions. Negative emotions create stress and evoke faster heartbeats, higher blood pressure, elevated cortisol levels, dilation of pupils, changes in breathing patterns, and other physical manifestations. This is part of the fight/flight/freeze automatic response. From an evolutionary basis, this is designed to promote swift movement or action for survival. 

The legal system, however, works in the opposite manner with structure, rules, and a culture that promotes rational and calm decisions and orderly conflict resolution. Displays of emotion in adversary or when negotiating transactional matters can be either staged or authentic. Emotions may bubble over as a natural consequence of humans being human. 

Lawyers are often faced with emotional clients or opposing counsel and their clients. Letting emotion flow naturally may be a strategic choice to further objectives of the clients, or to gain a greater understanding of the client’s interests, or for venting purposes.

There are, however, science-based techniques to address emotional states. As counsel, you should make deliberate decisions on which tool to use under the specific circumstances. The soft skill of consciously engaging the range of human behavior is an ability worth cultivating.

Self-distancing is a concept developed from research primarily conducted by Olzem Ayduk of the University of California at Berkley, and Ethan Cross of the University of Michigan.  It involves changing the language of the speaker from the first-person to the second or third person narratives. Speaking about oneself substituting “you” or “he/she” or “name” enhances the ability to self-regulate emotions.  

Studies have shown that recounting a traumatic event or negative experience without reflection or perspective causes most people to experience it again. Professor Daniel J. Siegel observed that the same physical and reactive flow may result from the storytelling as the brain processes the “social threat” similarly to the past physical danger. The fear and anxiety physical responses are triggered by the memories of the trauma.

The self-distancing technique places the narrators outside of the flow of events, i.e. on the proverbial balcony visualizing it happening to another being rather than themselves. One frame or explanation is that this moves the center of the story from the areas of the brain regulating emotions, particularly fear, to those in the cerebral cortex involved in reflective thought and decision making.

When lawyers want to calm down clients and focus on “just the facts” there are also ways to quickly teach the client to use self-distancing language. You start by being transparent and informing the client that research supports the concept of describing things in the second or third person. Rename the key players as if they were actors. Ask them to visualize watching the events with another person or Avatar as the central character or victim in the tale.  Ask them to describe it as if they were watching a movie or play from the safety of the gallery seats. This is a shift in perspective that does have an impact on emotions.

The professors also found that speeches improved when the presenters practiced or thought of themselves in the second or third person. This included some reports of less self-criticism and doubt after the presentation. 

Lawyers can expand their skills and tool kits by learning from the social and other disciplines.  After all, it is not just all about yourself!

References and Resources:

Ozlem Ayduk, Walter Mischel, and Ethan Kross, Pronouns Matter when Psyching Yourself Up, Harvard Business Rev., (February 2015).

Ethan Kross and Ozlem Ayduk, Making Meaning Out of Negative Experiences by Self-Distancing, 20 Current In Psychological Science No. 3, 187 (2005).

Teresa F. Frisbie, Raising Emotional Intelligence at the Mediation Table, 24 Dispute Resolution Magazine, No. 2, 19 (Winter, 2018).

Daniel J. Siegel, Mindsight  The New Science of Personal Transformation, p. 33 (2010).

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