“The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis.” – Dalai Lama
In my last post, I talked about how lawyers are trained to think. Objectively. Analytically. Unemotionally. And, while it is true that such thinking helps to narrow the scope of argument in a legal discussion, it also tends to separate us from the underlying meaning of the dispute. For the lawyer it is not relevant that her client has passionate feelings about a dispute because those feelings generally will not help to win the case. Indisputable facts supported by watertight argument and uncontroverted case law does that. Lawyers are very good at putting these things together to help their clients. Lawyers hone their craft by practicing this mode of thinking and perfecting its presentation to others.
This is great for a courtroom or a brief, but it is not always the best way to handle civilian life. I hear this a lot. Lawyers often have trouble being people instead of lawyers. They want to apply the same strategic thought process to their personal lives in an effort to win their own cases. Unfortunately for them, most of the world does not operate like a courtroom, and other people, especially those closest to us, are not opponents. It can be very difficult for lawyers who spend their days battling other lawyers to step out of that mode when they finally make it home.
I recall many occasions in which a family member would say, “Stop trying to lawyer me,” or “You’re being such a lawyer.” At the time, I would take that with some pride and think that’s right, and that’s why you shouldn’t bother fighting and just agree with me. But really, they were just pointing out that I was being argumentative and obstinate and willfully ignorant of the bigger picture. One time, the person I was arguing with said something that stopped me in my tracks, “What are you trying to win?” I had to confront the fact that I was simply trying to get my way and that I had not thought about anything else other than how to construct and set forth the most forceful argument to get it. I was fighting because that’s what I always did, all day long, and all night long too. I realized that there was nothing to win in a personal matter.
But that doesn’t mean there is no victory to be had. Now, I work with lawyers to channel their analytical strengths, to look inward at their own thought processes and behaviors. Logic does not go away, but its strictures are instead directed towards constructing watertight arguments for why behaviors should change. For instance, if it is for the greater good of a marriage that a person be more emotionally present in the relationship, there is no longer a need to argue who is right or wrong about a particular incident. And isn’t this where we all tend to get bogged down? A lawyer is trained to take minutia and make it into a competitive advantage. A lawyer’s spouse hates it when they do that! That is because the relationship shouldn’t be a competition to be won. It is a collaboration to be worked on in concert. The relationship wins and the people in it are both victorious.
To appeal to the lawyerly mind, we start with a set of facts. Key among facts in therapy is that emotions exist, that they are not good or bad (especially not bad), and that they always have a function and serve a purpose. We veer away from the factual circumstances (i.e., who did what to whom) and look at what lies beneath them. We try to avoid taking positions based on those facts, but instead understand motivations. The analytical piece is to determine what emotions are at play in a given situation, where those emotions come from, and how they are affecting behavior. When broken down in this way, even a lawyer can usually point to certain feelings that have led to behaviors, circumstances and positions.
In this way, we are “drilling down” to the metadata in a conflict. We create an argument for change that is based, not on facts and circumstances or arbitrary notions of right and wrong, but rather on motivational foundations. In other words, once a lawyer (or anyone) is able to understand what she wants and why she wants it, she presents a much more forceful reason for getting it. If the goal is greater happiness, breaking down exactly what happiness means, the causes of unhappiness, and possible means to increase happiness, leads to logical analytically supported steps to take in order to obtain improvement. It provides reason for change.
When I take a lawyer through this kind of analysis, it becomes easier to accept that change is necessary. He becomes less wedded to a position and more willing to compromise for the sake of achieving an ultimate goal. He can then go about making the necessary changes to solve problems and meet goals. And that is what therapy is all about, for anyone.
What do you think? Have you been told to “Stop being such a lawyer?” How did you react to that? More importantly, what was that person saying about your behavior? As always, all comments are welcome and encouraged.
Andrew D. Kang, JD, LICSW, is a former attorney turned licensed psychotherapist. His practice, Boston Professionals Counseling, LLC, focuses on helping attorneys and professionals with the issues they face and is located in Boston, Massachusetts. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.bostonprofessionalscounseling.com