Contributing Author: Meri Althauser, Workplace Wellness Specialist, National Wellness Institute & Resilience and Thriving Facilitator, Organizational Wellness and Learning Systems
If it seems like these days more people than usual are stressed, hard to get along with, or quick to get petty or selfish, you’re not alone. A common stressor that comes in high on the list of attorney stressors is dealing with difficult people. I’m surprised each week with the new things folks devote their mental energy to. Did I really go to law school to help people spend three attorneys’ time arguing about meeting at the south versus the north end of the Target parking lot?
Why everyone’s edginess? In a 2018 study, scientists tasked participants with sorting “bad things” from “good things” in a few contexts, like finding threatening faces, or unethical job proposals. No matter what ratio of good to bad was presented, participants always settled on a certain percentage of bad things: let’s say 30%. So, no matter the landscape, we’re potentially hard wired to need things to be 30% bad [Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope by Mark Manson]. What an interesting, non-judgmental and brain-sciencey way to explain why someone, who HAS to find 30% bad in their otherwise great day, will yell at the barista for getting too much ice in their drink!
If remembering this phenomenon is not enough to help remain calm with a difficult person here are a few more tips on how to maintain your sanity while cueing cooperation when people are “difficult.”
1. Context Questions. Why is this stressful today? Why is this a bad idea coming from her? Why do you need my help in particular? Context questions may reveal the cause of the anxiety behind the situation. Maybe this is not about the Target parking lot and is only a problem because it was a new girlfriend’s idea.
2. “How?” How would that work? How would she prove that to you? How would I get the judge to do that? “How” questions put the person making the demands in the shoes of the person tasked with meeting those demands, cuing some empathy and problem solving.
3. “Do you understand?” Maybe you’ve told someone three times that an option would be too expensive. Rather than repeating the advice, try asking, “do you understand how expensive that will be?” This will cue your difficult person to repeat back and digest the advice instead of arguing.
4. “Would it be out of the question?” When an unreasonable demand is made of you, like “please wrap this up by Sunday at 10am,” try “would it be totally unreasonable to try and finish this on Monday?” “Would it be just awful of me to ask that we talk about this at our next meeting, instead?” Nobody wants to be “totally unreasonable” or “awful” so this dramatic reframing may cue them make a reasonable proposal.
5. Deep breaths. When you know how to empathize and deescalate a difficult person, but it still makes you anxious, take care of yourself by “box breathing” during the conversation. For several breaths, breath in for 5 seconds, hold for 5, out for 5 and hold for 5. Without anyone noticing, this will oxygenate your blood and activate the valgus nerve (your calming, anti-fight-or-flight nerve) so you can continue exercising your de-escalation skills without getting agitated yourself.
6. Flush the bad vibes. Most importantly, don’t forget to take care of yourself after the difficult situation has passed. Make time for exercise, nature, family, or whatever helps you to feel like the stress has been purged. We are not meant to handle a difficult situation then move straight on to the next task. You would never sprint a 5K then directly sit down at your desk to write a brief unless you wanted to be sore the next day and turn in a pretty crappy brief. Just like lactic acid from exercise, stress manifests physically with stress hormones, changes in brain chemicals, and rises in blood pressure that need to be physically flushed out in order for you to feel relief and maintain your physical and mental health. So, find an activity that helps to bring a feeling of relief to flush the stress out and be sure to schedule it after your day of problem solving!
Meri Althauser is an attorney of 10 years, certified Workplace Wellness Specialist through the National Wellness Institute, and a Resilience and Thriving Facilitator through Organizational Wellness and Learning Systems. Please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 406–325–7100.