Monday, May 31, 2010

Pulling the Handbrake Before it's Too Late

“Okay, Rick, so you’ve told me about the fight. Now let’s look back at it. Tell me where you went wrong.”

Rick didn’t hesitate for a moment. “Well, I told you, after she said the bit about me never being around for anything important, I threw my glass into the sink and smashed it, stormed out of the room, and slammed the door. I’m ashamed of that now, and I can see that maybe that was not helpful. She just made me so mad!”

“Uh-huh, I got that,” replied John. “But my question was where you went wrong.”

Now the young attorney was a bit fazed. “What do you mean? I lost it when I slammed the glass. Isn’t it obvious?”

“Well, yes, you were out of control then, sure. But how did you get there?” Seeing Rick’s continued puzzlement, the counselor pressed further. “What were you saying or doing before that?”

“Well, I was telling her about all the pressure I am under at work, and asking her to cut me some freakin’ slack with the kids.” Rick’s verbal pace quickened and his voice tensed even as he recounted the discussion. John sat silently, understandingly, yet still probingly, letting the tone of Rick’s words hang in the air. “OK, so was that where I began to lose control?” Rick finally queried.

“Were you raising your voice?” Rick nodded. “Were you standing up or sitting down?”

“Standing,” replied Rick. “But she was across the kitchen.”

“What were you saying before that?”

“Good grief,” thought Rick. “What is this, a cross-examination? I’m the freakin’ lawyer here!”

* * * * * *

In a discussion of importance with a loved one—or an opposing counsel, for that matter—have you ever lost your temper and uttered words that you later regretted? Have you allowed a simple disagreement to turn personal, ugly, juvenile? Have you ever had to go back and apologize for talking foolishly and hurting your partner’s feelings? Perhaps, like many of us, you can maintain your cool for quite a while, but eventually something said hits a nerve and you explode in a tirade of ad hominem attacks.

Most of us, on some level, are aware that is possible to lose control of our emotions, and that anger can become destructive. What we may not realize is how we let ourselves get into an emotional state that dramatically increases the likelihood of a cruel or violent outburst. Our efforts to “maintain self-control” frequently fail because we wait far too late into the discussion to employ them—or even realize that they are needed. It’s a bit like the classic scene from old-timey movies in which a passenger senses danger and grabs the overhead hand-brake to stop a speeding train--except in this instance the train has already jumped the tracks and careened off the cliff!

The point of the vignette above is that when we become argumentative with a loved one, we risk setting in motion a chain of events that takes on a life of its own—both internally and externally. Rick wants to stop the angry outbursts that leave him ashamed, and his wife hurt and afraid, but unless he learns to keep the train from getting up a head of steam in the wrong direction, it will keep following the same path with similar results.

Why do we tend to operate this way? Part of the answer is that we are physical beings. Our emotions are not some esoteric, ethereal essence floating out in space; nor are they reflected solely in our facial expressions or body language. Rather, our bodies react physically to what our minds are experiencing, hearing, and communicating. Perhaps you can recall the accelerated heart-rate you experienced the first time a judge took stern issue with your courtroom presentation, or that you presented a research memo to the most menacing partner in your firm. The autonomic nervous system is wired to know when any part of the person is in danger. Once the biological “fight or flight” response has reached a critical mass, it is often difficult for the rational mind to regain control until the adrenalin secreted in the stress response has subsided.

Moreover, when we experience hurt or mistreatment, the urge to strike back is strong. This is both a psychological and a biological reality. The sting of an insult or criticism received dissipates if we can turn the tables and inflict harm on our tormentor. That snarky retort truly makes us feel better, for the moment at least. Unfortunately, as two people continue this escalating process, the blows hit lower, the cuts go deeper, and often the original subject of disagreement is obscured or lost altogether.

The way we lawyers work and regularly communicate makes us especially susceptible to setting this process in motion. Litigation, in particular, is all about point-counterpoint, allegation and response, query and objection. We would not be doing our jobs were we not to advocate zealously for our clients’ positions.

In our intimate relationships, though, we have to be careful not to switch into this mode of communication. The first reason is that it is beneficial to maintain composure in how we treat our loved ones—both for our own and the other person’s sakes. When we keep our tongues in check, we maintain our credibility in the relationship, probably sustain fewer retaliatory wounds ourselves, and have less relational damage to repair in the aftermath. Plus, we may even stand a better chance of being heard and understood by the other person. But the first key to controlling the conversation-stopping, partner-harming behavior lies in not boarding the argument train in the first place—or getting off it as soon as we realize what is happening.

As we’ll soon see, when communicating with our significant others, the choices that we make all along the way are important. But perhaps one of the most crucial choices needs to be made early on in a conversation of significance—and better yet, even before it begins. If we do not make the fundamental commitment to maintaining a respectful tone of voice and manner of speech early on, while we will have the ability and self-awareness to do so, there may likely come a point in the conversation that such a choice becomes highly unlikely, if not impossible.

So, the next time you find yourself in a heated disagreement, pay attention to your body. What is happening to your heart rate, the muscles in your back, the tone of your voice, the relative posture between the two of you? Notice at what point you begin talking more than listening, defending more than seeking to understand. At what point are you driving the train, and at what point are you at its mercy? Identify anything you said that you wish you could “take back,” and then consider at what earlier points you could have pulled the brake handle and had it make a difference. And, if you are truly interested in turning around behavior patterns of this sort (and really brave!), sometime after the conflict at issue has fully settled down, ask your spouse where he or she could tell that continuing the conversation with you began to feel hopeless, futile, or too hurtful to withstand.

I would be interested to hear any reader’s thoughts and experiences as you consider these thoughts and concepts in light of your own relationship. I think there is significant power in hearing the stories of other lawyers who face similar challenges.

Friday, September 18, 2009

What's the Problem Here?

“You have GOT to not argue!”

“What?” Rick replied.

Rick’s counselor, John, repeated the sentence—slowly for emphasis to Rick’s incredulous ears. “You have GOT to NOT argue!” Clearly there was a disconnect here, thought Rick, a thirty-two year old attorney. “Does this guy not know what I do for a living?” Rick and his wife had been meeting with John for a while at this point, and it seemed like John was trying to address something fundamental in their marriage. Still, every neuron in Rick’s brain flamed at John’s words.

In truth, this was not the first time John had given Rick counsel of this nature; hence his chagrin, and the note of urgency in his voice. Rick and Stephanie had started counseling seeking help in coping with a number of family challenges—an unexpected job loss, their parents’ grave illnesses, the stresses of raising young children. But somewhere along the way the topic had turned to the relational dynamics between them. They had begun delving into how they communicated, and why what perhaps should have been reasonable disagreements between two rational adults frequently devolved into shouting matches and even expressions of physical aggression. In the worst of times, if a door wasn’t slammed, then a glass was shattered, or a picture frame hurled across the room. They had both been raised as “good kids,” and by all outward appearances they were the picture of "calm, cool and collected." But behind closed doors they were capable of a level of causticity and derision that left them both embittered and ashamed. Finally, they had begun to want to know how they got to such desperate places together, and how to avoid them if at all possible.

“Okay, so how do I do that?” Rick finally asked. As he understood it, the way to get what you want—be it from a judge, a client, or a witness­-- was with words. State your case in three bullet points, right? He remembered the old “IRAC” method—Identify the issue, Cite the governing rule, Apply it to the present fact pattern, and draw the appropriate Conclusion. It’s basic first-year legal writing. And if your opponent has a counter-argument, well, there are plenty of ways to deal with that. Find the fallacy in their reasoning—maybe a hidden premise, or an unwarranted logical leap. Or maybe the other person is not “comparing apples to apples” i.e., the case law she is citing is not “on all fours” with the current scenario.

Yet John was telling Rick that continuing to argue with his wife would actually be the death of his marriage. “Hmm,” said Rick, “I thought being a good communicator was a good thing. After all, don’t most misunderstandings come from a lack of clarity? And how will I ever get her to listen to me? I don’t know about all this…”

Does Rick’s story strike a chord with you? Has your spouse ever accused you of being too argumentative? Of being defensive? Or not listening to what she is saying? Would your husband say that you overwhelm him with an endless barrage of words and emotions that is often too much for him to handle?

Relational conflict is, of course, not exclusive to attorneys. But it may be that we lawyers have a special challenge in using the correct parts of our brain to help navigate matters of the heart. Most of us were wired for analytical thinking and argument well before law school; indeed, admission to law school is a good indicator that one has well-honed skills of communication. And legal training is designed to enhance those skills even further. As 1Ls, we are instructed to “think like lawyers.” Hours are spent pouring over the opinions of Justices Marshall, Hand, Brandeis, and Holmes—the cream of the crop of analytical reasoning. Daily, one does battle with sharp minds on the faculty and among fellow students. And in practice, whether in the office or the courtroom, argument is our very stock-in-trade.

But matters of the heart seem to work a bit differently. The same communications skills and techniques that work so well in law practice frequently seem to complicate our interpersonal relationships. When two people are each clamoring to be heard, employing whatever rhetorical devices and verbal maneuvers come to mind in an effort to win the point, oftentimes neither ends up listening to the other, and thus neither ends up feeling heard or cared for. Even once one partner or the other finally surrenders, or the battle subsides due to mutual exhaustion, there has already been considerable damage done to trust and safety in the relationship.

Now, one might think at this point—“Okay, simple enough. Argue at your office, or in the courtroom, but not with your wife. Point taken, lesson learned, move on.” But often it is a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, sometimes we have shifted to “argument mode” in communicating with our partner before we even know it. For another, the underlying defensive nature that defaults so quickly to “argument mode” runs very deep in our psyches.

In future installments, this blog will look at ways that our relationships can be improved as we learn to pay attention to our methods of communication, and adopt different principles that can help build up and encourage our mates, rather than staying mired in a linguistic battle for advantage.

Until the next post, try to take note of when, if ever, your conversations with your significant other begin feeling more like a motion argument than a heart-to-heart dialogue. And, if you are really brave (and willing to take the answer seriously), ask your spouse or partner for feedback on how you communicate with them in a disagreement. You might be surprised at how much relational capital is gained just by your asking of the question.

The Launch of Lawyers in Love

Hey there! If you are finding this website, I guess it means that you are either a friend already, or perhaps you stumbled across it out there in cyberspace while either "looking for love [or a reasonable--or perhaps not-so-reasonable--facsimile thereof] in all the wrong places." Maybe you are a lawyer, frustrated with your current romantic relationship, or a law student lamenting the lack thereof. Perhaps you had the good fortune to marry a lawyer, but have been wondering lately just how good that fortune really was. I wouldn't be surprised if you were a lawyer married to another lawyer, and you have just found yourself pulling your hair out for the umpteenth time trying to find ways to meaningfully address significant issues in the relationship, without having the conversation devolve into an escalating verbal barrage of arguments, counterattacks, deflections, and evasions.

However you may have landed here, I am glad you are here. My name is Chris Osborn, and I practice construction and employment-related litigation in North Carolina. This blog is intended to provide food for thought to all of us who have ever dared to attempt to be in a meaningful romantic relationship with another person, while still courting the "jealous mistress" that we all know the law to be. My only credentials for writing this blog are these:

* I have been around the block in both realms--having been married 16 years and having practiced law for 14.

* I have made more than my share of hapless mistakes in both my marriage and my career. I very nearly ruined one by being too argumentative and selfish, and the other by being too passive and weak-willed. (Can you guess which goes with which? :-) )

* By the grace of God, a Higher Power, Providence, or just some funky cosmic quirks of the universe masquerading as divine intervention, I have been through really hard times in each aspect of my life; yet I have not only survived, but in fact have been shown (and, I would say, given) a way to thrive and grow in each. Through the wisdom, courage, perseverance, and faithfulness of many trusted friends along the way (and a professional or two when needed!), I have found a way to, as one friend once put it to her lawyer-husband, "put away the legal pad" when talking with my wife. I have had to unlearn a lot of communication habits and styles of relating that have both been instinctive, and also well-trained, as they are my stock-in-trade as a litigation attorney. Slowly, and sometimes painfully, I have been discovering a new and different way to interact with my wife that has not only stopped some of the madness that we frequently fell into (I wish I could say "all of the madness," but I am not sure that is realistic for any of us!) , but also improved our communication, trust, intimacy, and peacefulness in the midst of the inevitable chaos of family life to a degree that I never would have dreamed possible.

* And finally, and quite simply, I am willing to write about my failures, and the lessons learned along the way that have finally begun to bear fruit both at the office and at home. I do this in order to keep myself grounded, to remember where I have come from, and to stay mindful of where I might easily fall again. But I also write in the hope that you, the reader (if there are any of you out there) might benefit from reading about my miscues and ham-handed efforts.

In short, I am a fairly ordinary guy with a fairly ordinary law practice, but I am just crazy enough to pull back the curtain on the stage of my life and demonstrate the truism of the title of a recent book, Everybody's Normal Until You Get to Know Them. You'll be invited to peek in on my wife and myself, as well as other married lawyers who have made it a good ways down the road, as we describe years we spent unlearning and learning how to love one another deeply and from the heart. My hope is that as you do so, you will see glimpses of your own relational journey. If nothing else, perhaps you will get a sense that you are not alone in having poured out or suffered (or, typically, both) streams of reflexive, hyper-defensive justifications and appeals, in a desperate attempt to draw out of your partner things that, in the deeper recesses of your heart, you really wish that he or she would give you willingly and selflessly--without your even having to ask. And maybe you will draw courage--both to deal with your own part in handicapping (or even wrecking) the communications process, as well as to humbly pursue your heartfelt desire for more than the same old patterns and breakdowns, but with a dignity, confidence, and respect that compel a meaningful response.

Simply stated, my aim is to provide you with perhaps a small glimmer of hope that that real change in destructive relationship patterns is, in fact, possible--even if you ARE a lawyer or, worse yet, already married to one. :-)

Now, I cannot tell you that such change is easy. Indeed, I have no idea of the particular challenges that you and your spouse or significant other may face. But I can attest that the self-examination and processing with trusted friends necessary to pursue that change is nevertheless worthwhile. I hope somehow that this blog will encourage you to persevere in whatever efforts you are making towards deeper fulfilment in your practice and home life.

Along the way, I'd appreciate anyone's feedback, questions, and particular insights, so feel free to leave a comment or post. But let's keep the commentary honest, dignified, clean, and mindful of the interests (and the interest!) of others, if anything like that does take place.

More soon...