Category: Self-care

CollaborationCross-cultural communicationDiversityEmotional intelligencemindfulness

Today is the International Day of Listening

Today, September 20, 2018, is the International Day of Listening. This event, now in its third year and sponsored by the International Listening Association, aims to promote listening benefits and practices in a variety of ways, encouraging people to:

  • Become more aware of the importance of listening
  • Listen to each other better
  • Gain awareness on their listening behaviors

The theme this year is “Listening—even when you disagree.” Personal activities you can do to observe the International Day of Listening are suggested on the International Day of Listening website. Legal professionals who have 30 minutes at lunch may want to talk to a trusted colleague about their effectiveness as a listener. Or take 20 minutes for a meditative listening walk.

The International Day of Listening has broader aspirations than helping lawyers recharge their batteries by listening to nature, collaborate effectively in the workplace, and do an excellent job representing individual clients—although all of these are excellent goals and high on the priority list for this blog. The International Listening Association’s broader aims with political dialogue raise far more difficult questions about listening and power. Part of a lawyer’s job is to listen effectively in difficult situations. All professionals in the legal industry should have experience listening in difficult situations. Ideally, these skills from the professional realm can serve beneficial purposes in public discourse.

Emotional intelligenceEmotional laborLeadershipMentoringmindfulness

Listening to Combat Loneliness    

According to this study in the Harvard Business Review, lawyers are #1 when it comes to being lonely at work:

In a breakdown of loneliness and social support rates by profession, legal practice was the loneliest kind of work, followed by engineering and science.

(Hat tip to Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind and online lawyer community Lawyer Smack. He wrote more about lawyer loneliness here.)

The legal industry may be particularly prone to loneliness because of the “game face” mentality necessary to represent clients effectively. Putting on a game face on for work can be a professional necessity, but also causes loneliness if it spreads to other facets of life.

People who are lonely often think that everyone else is doing OK while they are not. They think they are the only ones carrying a burden. I have had clients talk about putting their “game face” on rather than sharing truthfully about themselves.

This quote is from British psychotherapist Philippa Perry, board member of a social business called Talk for Health which aims to create a network of long-term peer support systems for meaningful sharing and listening.

Many lawyers and legal professionals and law students already have long-term peer groups in their colleagues and classmates. But if people are gathering on a regular basis with their game faces firmly in place, those peer groups may not be serving a support function at all. Is there anything lonelier than giving a performance that everything is wonderful and there is “nothing to see here”?

Peer groups that provide real support are one of the most valuable ways to combat loneliness. To delve more into the elements of real support, I went to the books—specifically the listening textbook authored by Professors Worthington and Fitch-Hauser of Auburn, Listening: Processes, Functions, and Competency. (I met and talked with them a few years ago and would do so again anytime because they are awesome.) They lay out some helpful categories of listening for social support:

Directive v. non-directive

Directive support provides “unrequested specific types of coping behaviors or solutions for the recipient.”

Non-directive support “shifts the focus of control from the giver to the receiver” and lets the receiver “dictate the support provisions.

Problem-focused v. emotion-focused

Problem-focused support seeks to help the speaker solve a problem.

Emotion-focused support seeks to help the speaker work through their own emotions

To provide effective social support, different strategies are called for at different times and in different contexts. Coworkers who do not know each other all that well are not just going to go out for coffee and start providing open-ended, non-directive emotional support. I recently went to a women’s bar event and heard a white woman explain that she really wanted to “be there” for her minority colleagues, but they didn’t seem willing to open up and share. Someone tactfully pointed out that you can be a good colleague just by being kind and reliable over time. Small talk is not meaningless; by being really interested in someone in a socially appropriate way, maybe a deeper relationship will develop. But no one is entitled to hear another person’s story at work.

Junior lawyers and new law students may seek and crave mentors who give them directive emotional support; I recently overheard a third-year law student lecturing—in a supportive but dominant voice—a first-year student. The 3L forcefully instructed the 1L to stop being distracted by a romantic relationship and focus on school, and everything would fall into place as long as the 1L put priorities where they belonged and made a point of taking this time to do what needed to be done, etc. etc.

This kind of directive advice can feel exactly right for a person who is lonely, unsure of their own path forward and how to be effective, or both. But over time, directive support may become more about the person offering it. Directive support can foster a dependent relationship that just leaves the recipient in an even lonelier place when the “director” is not around. A thoughtful mentor should reflect on their own strategies for providing support. Someone who naturally tends toward directive support should consider mixing it up with non-directive approaches. This means asking more questions, prompting the mentee to reflect and assess what is needed. Ultimately, non-directive listening may help a professional grow and take responsibility for their development.

Assisting someone who appears to be lonely is an advanced communication challenge. Jeena Cho has written about the difficulty lawyers may feel in breaking the cycle of loneliness:

When we feel loneliness, it’s easy to continue on the path to more loneliness rather than to do something about it. It makes sense that lawyers would avoid taking steps to break the loneliness because it would require vulnerability.

Others around a lonely person may be able to sense it and help them break the cycle. Worthington and Fitch-Hauser give an example in their book of the following—something that lawyers and legal professionals may recognize from their own conversations at work:

Person 1: Hey, how are you?

Person 2: Oh hello, I’m fine. How about you?

Person 1: Hmm, you don’t sound like you’re fine. What’s going on?

Person 2: Oh nothing. Really, I’m fine.

They acknowledge that in this scenario, 1 may accept 2’s statement at face value and leave the conversation. But to  really go in for the social support, 1 might push for more with something like “Are you sure? Did something happen at work that upset you? If you’d like to talk about it, I’m here to listen.” They acknowledge this is a heavy-handed response and suggest another, less intrusive way to handle the conversation as well: 1 may choose to sit down next to 2 and ask 2 a bit more specifically how work is going. As Worthington and Fitch-Hauser point out, even the heavy-handed approach can be helpful. It’s uncomfortable and possibly annoying, but it provides the potentially lonely person with the opportunity to respond.

Both of these possible approaches also avoid the “negative social support behaviors.” In terms of what not to do, Worthington and Fitch-Hauser list the following:

  • Giving advice
  • Using platitudes or clichés
  • Saying “I know exactly what you’re going through”
  • Telling people to stop crying or stop being wrong or embarrassing
  • Saying it’s not such a big deal and minimizing the situation
  • Blaming the person seeking support

Other than unsolicited and unwanted advice, these should be pretty easy to avoid. It’s much harder to provide truly effective social support. Really good social support tends to be “invisible”: “The recipient isn’t consciously aware that support is being given and, therefore, doesn’t feel any negative consequences of being the recipient.”

I think this observation crystallizes the true art form of helping a colleague break through their loneliness. If they become aware that (1) you think they’re lonely and (2) you are trying to help, your chance of effectively helping them drops precipitously.  Stealthy, invisible support using discerning, empathetic listening can encourage someone to begin addressing their loneliness by doing what Jeena talks about in her article: taking a tiny step.

Bar exam prepResilienceSelf-care

Supporting those who failed the bar

It’s so difficult to balance empathy with advice. This post from Joe Regalia in the ABA Before the Bar Blog achieves that balance in addressing a very sensitive subject: life after failing the bar exam.

Joe acknowledges that the community of those who have failed the bar is something of a “secret society,” one that you can’t really understand unless you’re a member:

We need to have more respect for the toll failing a bar has on real lives. This is not just getting a bad grade. These people need our support.

Joe goes on to deliver a hopeful message—hopeful in the sense he compares failing the bar to getting a horrible flu but, eventually, recovering. And he describes some constructive advice for exactly how to do that.

This post came to my attention when Joe shared the reaction he’s gotten from the post. I’ll end here with Joe’s own observations:

The response to this article has been incredible this last year. It’s short and nothing special in the writing department. But I get a staggering number of emails from folks who stumble on it and ask to talk. Just this week I’ve chatted with three random people who wanted to talk about their experience.

I’m always struck by these conversations. I don’t do anything magical. I just listen and encourage. Tell them that all kinds of people have been where they are and give them a few practical tips for doing better.

But it always seems to help. For many of them, I think it’s just knowing that others have experienced this and that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Like many things in life, just having someone to listen goes a long way.

Joe-Regalia Joe Regalia clerked for several years in federal district courts and at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. These days he keeps his plate full as an adjunct law professor, an associate at the firm of Sidley Austin, and a frequent speaker and consultant on legal writing and legal test-taking.

 

 

 

 

Client relationshipsEmotional intelligencein-house counselMentoringPeople skills

Lawyer as anxiety filter?

In-house lawyer @J_Dot_J has described it most directly:

A law student once shared a related concept to describe his coping mechanism, especially during finals:

“Some people are stress emitters. Some are stress receivers. I’ve learned I’m a stress receiver, and I have to stay away from the emitters.”

The common theme is anxiety. It comes from somewhere, and it goes somewhere. Is there any pattern to the movement of anxiety, and any way to manage it?

One possible answer to this question is “Bowen theory,” which is a theory of family systems that has been extended to the workplace as well. “Are organizations emotional systems also? It appears to be the case. Theoretically, all that is necessary to create an emotional system is spending time together.” This quote is from Roberta Gilbert’s The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, which provides the basis for the following summary:

According to Bowen theory, the family—or workplace—unit is the key unit of analysis, rather than the individual. This unit is really a system of interconnected people, and it has two characteristics:

  1. Whatever affects one affects each one in the system. That is, anxiety moves easily from person to person in the group.
  2. [System] members trade “self” into the family relationship in a “fusion” of selves.

You may stop here and say that your team at work does not have these characteristics. If you’re correct, then you don’t have a true workplace unit and Bowen theory isn’t going to be helpful.

But it may be worth asking in a different way: Does anxiety move within your workplace? According to Gilbert, “where the anxiety travels defines the limits of the emotional system.” And does your workplace stake a claim on the workers in the system to “donate” some portion of their selves for work? Does the workplace send a message to “be like us” or “think as we think”? According to Gilbert, an emotional system is made up of these donations of self so that the donates parts become available “more for the family than for then individual.” In this way, members of a unit lose self into the larger unit. More togetherness means more loss of self, and quicker transmission of anxiety.

(When reading about this loss of self and its connection to “groupthink,” I was immediately reminded of compliance challenges and the work of my friend, compliance attorney Scott Killingsworth, on how organizational culture is transmitted and replicated.)

Individuals in a system are healthier and more resilient to the anxiety passed around in the group if they retain some core “differentiated self.”  The concept of the self has two components: a “pseudo self” which is the part that is tossed about by the anxiety of the group and conforms to the needs of the group, and the “basic [or solid] self” which is the part that fights for individuality and stands up for beliefs and convictions. The solid self is the differentiated self. The more the pseudo-self dominates the solid self, the more anxiety that member will feel and will contribute to the system.

Here, if you’re congratulating yourself on being an amazing differentiated person who feels absolutely no influence from your workplace, you may want to double-check yourself for some sort of emotional Dunning-Kruger effect. Gilbert states that if you looked at differentiated selves on a scale of 0 to 100, most of the population hovers around about a 30 and 50+ would be extremely unusual. But this is just an estimate; Gilbert notes that it’s impossible to measure differentiation in one segment of time. The conditions of any given moment are too arbitrary, and you can raise the functioning level of an undifferentiated person by giving them a compliment, and you can lower their functioning by criticizing them.

Within any unit, members of that unit deal with anxiety in four automatic and familiar patterns:

  • Making a triangle among three people, where one is the “problem” (such as a child, or a recalcitrant employee, or an attorney viewed as a roadblock)
  • Creating conflict by refusing to give in on major issues, expending significant energy
  • Seeking distance by slowing down or stopping communication, while still remaining emotionally defined by the problem
  • Overfunctioning / underfunctioning, in which one partner becomes more dominant and the other more passive.

These methods of dealing with anxiety are not a problem unless they become habitual and repetitive “where no one knows how to get out of it.”

There aren’t many references to Bowen theory in traditional legal literature. After reading enough to write this overview, I think it deserves more study, particularly as the legal industry becomes more focused on systems and processes. The law deals with unpredictable, complex problems; designing a system for helping clients with their problems will be much easier if the system of legal professionals is internally efficient and not clogged with stress and disrupted by attrition.

In future posts, I will explore some more ideas from Bowen theory and how they may apply in legal teams. Please comment if this overview prompted thoughts or questions.

Legal communicationNarrativeResilienceSelf-careWork-life balance

Hygge for lawyers

Hygge has been called everything from “the art of creating intimacy,” “coziness of the soul,” and the “absence of annoyance,” to “taking pleasure from the presence of soothing things,” “cozy togetherness,” and … “cocoa by candlelight.”

Hygge is an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things. It is about being with the people we love. A feeling of home. A feeling that we are safe, that we are shielded from the world and allow ourselves to let our guard down. You may be having an endless conversation about the small or big things in life—or just be comfortable in each other’s silent company—or simply just be by yourself enjoying a cup of tea.

Meik Wiking, The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living (2017)

In my last post of 2017, here’s something I’ve wanted to do all year: write about “hygge.”

The quote above from The Little Book of Hygge gives a good sense of what it is; it’s also claimed as the reason the Danish people are apparently the happiest in Europe. It’s the opposite of self-help trends such as “eating clean,” according to The Little Book of Hygge’s publisher:

Hygge is about embracing things—enjoying cake, not checking work emails all weekend, spending time with friends and family. It’s about the simple, small pleasures that make life great, which perhaps sometimes pass us by.

For some, the holiday season is a time to embrace the hygge with family and friends. NPR has this article on how to host a hygge holiday party.

But the hygge experience does not have to be limited to a holiday respite. I had a really rough first semester in law school, and one saving grace was the hygge qualities of the rental house I shared with three roommates. We had lots of nooks with comfy seating, pillows and throw blankets, lamps all around with soft lighting, a friendly cat, tons of mugs for always-brewing coffee and tea, shared meals, and good conversation whenever you wanted, but no obligation to talk. While my perception of the 1L law-school environment got worse and worse, I was able to take comfort in our cozy home and the people in it. Looking back, the first semester of law school just totally sucked, and everything got better from there. I’m grateful to my roommates—now lifelong friends—who made the environment that helped so much during that initial low point.

Away from home, aspects of hygge can make an office more supportive. The Little Book of Hygge suggests maintaining a small office garden, adding a sofa rather than just office chairs, starting a Friday office potluck tradition, and—in a perfect world (that’s an editorial comment by me) even bringing your dog to work. One of the happiest lawyers I know started his own firm and does just that, pretty much every day.

IMG_7403

This is not my dog, but I stopped and had a hygge moment with him.

So having a “hyggelig” environment can help any lawyer with the behind-the-scenes wellness. Beth Padgett of South Carolina Bar’s Lawyers Helping Lawyers program wrote about hygge for lawyers in the March 2017 issue of the S.C. bar publication (page 9 here):

Many people find the work of improving their mental or emotional health (or even their attitude) to be daunting for a host of reasons. Hygge seems to be a simple and nonthreatening way to create some change.

Note: For those who struggle during the holidays, here and here are some suggestions on supporting them.