Mindful interactions with colleagues

Mindfulness and listening go together in a lot of ways, some obvious and some subtle. A recent HBR Blog post, “See Colleagues as They Are, Not as They Were,” challenged readers to be more mindful in working with colleagues, especially longtime colleagues.

The post defines mindfulness as “noticing what is happening in the present moment, without judgment.” And thus the post raised the question: when we interact with colleagues, are we present and mindful of who they are now? Or are we substituting our own mental shortcuts of who they were and what they’ve done in the past? The post encourages readers to “See your colleague as they are today, not how you remember them from yesterday”:

[A]s an experiment, simply notice your colleague afresh. How do they look today? What is their tone of voice? What are their facial expressions? Are they really saying the same old stuff, or is there something new to be heard that you could notice and appreciate?

Noticing colleagues afresh is a challenge. This is partly general human nature: “By the time we have worked with someone for a few months or years, we have developed expectations for what they will say and do.” It’s always been that way, of course.

The ever-present role of email only exacerbates these expectations. The author, Duncan Coombs, describes his findings that email communications reinforce and solidify expectations about coworkers:

I’ve previously written with my good friend and colleague, Darren Good, about the “flash images” we form about people when we see their names in our inboxes. This flash image, based on past experiences, happens before you even read the content of the email, and then influences the way we read the email. While this is a normal part of brain functioning, it has a potentially adverse impact when our negative lens leads to negative interpretations.

I believe the legal workplace suffers from these issues as much as any other industry, and maybe more so (at least in law firms).

An associate does good work, and she builds the “halo effect” around everything she does—whether the work remains stellar or not. Another associate produces a weak assignment or two, and she her billables just start fading away. The effect cuts the other way too: Associates may develop positive expectations about working with a particular partner, which lead them to enjoy the work and do it well. Conversely some partners may engender a sense of existential dread among associates prodded onto their teams. The same effect influences relationships with paralegals, administrative support staff, and legal professionals throughout the firm. And the e-mail “flash image” reinforces all of the above.

Many would say this is far from a problem; in fact it is (a) reality and (b) a good thing.

In a law firm, an associate builds her reputation—for better or worse. Keith Lee wrote about the difference in personal brand (what you say about yourself) and reputation (what others say about you) . The work inside a law firm flows toward the individual lawyers with strong reputations, and away from others. Individual lawyers’ reputations are important because they contribute to (or detract from) the overall health of the law firm.

This is true in any business of course, but the competitive reality of law practice and the pessimistic mindset of lawyers may exacerbate it. As one lawyer stated to Law360 in giving advice and admonitions to new associates, “what takes years and hard work to build can be lost in a second with one bad decision or lapse of judgment.”

I don’t think the HBR post is arguing against a lawyer’s earned reputation and its deserved effects. Nor am I, here in this post.

I think the post is digging into the process of how a reputation happens in the first place. If a reputation comes about from non-mindful, even lazy mental shortcuts of others based on insufficient, incomplete, or inaccurate information, reputation is not only not a good thing but actually bad or at least far from optimal. Consequences that come to mind include frustrated individual working relationships that result in less accurate information, less effective distributions of work, wastefully “writing off” legal professionals despite achievements and potential, and shrinking or illusory opportunities for professional development.

Is working with someone for “a few months” enough to accurately define that person’s capabilities and, accordingly, their reputation? Even if a working relationship has lasted years, could a person actually change?

These questions open up numerous discussions on assessment and evaluation, as well as a “growth” or “fixed” mindset about human capacity, with implications too big for one post. At the individual level, the HBR post goes on to some positive recommendations for interacting more mindfully with colleagues:

As an experiment, consciously seek to notice something positive about the person. What is one thing about this person that you appreciate? What is one thing they say that is helpful? What is their contribution to the organization? What is their single greatest strength? Focus on that and pay total attention to that one thing. Hold that focus and make that your first “foothold” on the path to an improved relationship.

These are recommendations that some skeptical lawyers may find naive. Supervisors who complete and sign semi-annual evaluations simply don’t need to make this effort. There’s a path of less resistance: directing their work and their time to other associates and legal professionals where the positive reactions come more easily and naturally. (Thus it’s very good advice for new attorneys to treat partners like clients from day one, and try to avoid this situation in the first place.)

But for attorneys and legal professionals who are committed to—or stuck in—working arrangement for some time, this positive advice may be helpful to frame more mindful, constructive interactions.


For more on mindfulness, see the work of Jeena Cho. Her book, The Anxious Lawyer, will be coming out this year. Her course on “Better Lawyering through Mindfulness” touches on mindful listening and many other topics. She writes for Above the Law.

This article originally from the Vermont Bar Journal and now posted on the Ohio Supreme Court’s website also touches on themes of mindfulness in interacting with others.

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