Have you ever watched the ABC show “Primetime: What Would You Do?” This TV news magazine is a bit of a takeoff on my generation’s “Candid Camera.”
Like Allen Funt before him, correspondent John Quinones hosts while actors play out scenes in public involving illegal activities or interpersonal conflicts. Meanwhile, the hidden cameras are rolling. Like “Candid Camera,” the focus is on whether or not bystanders intervene — and how.
One interesting aspect of the show is how individuals deal with a tough colleague in a professional setting. Wherever we are in our careers, I think most of us can remember a time or two when we had to work alongside a cantankerous boss or co-worker.
Do you recall what you did in those circumstances? How did you cope? Was a client or a client’s work affected negatively as a result of the discord?
I recently attended a networking event comprised of lawyers and non-lawyers. Typically, each businessperson in attendance will introduce himself or herself, tell the group about his or her business and describe a professional need he or she has.
Listening to group members’ needs always creates sparks where members of the group are only too anxious to make connections, offer assistance and show support in any way they can. This is truly the most genuine part of the meeting, where there is give and take, where group members can truly help each other professionally in countless ways.
On one day in particular, a non-lawyer introduced himself and told the group about his role in his organization. His “need” from the group was rather unusual — he wanted to learn generally how to work better with lawyers. In particular, he was having a tough time earning respect from a difficult attorney with whom he was newly partnered on a long-term project. I’ll call his colleague Impossible Lawyer.
Turns out, our non-lawyer colleague had been repeatedly chastised at work by Impossible Lawyer, who refused to accept any ideas or analysis that was not her own. Specifically, Impossible Lawyer would only accept a methodical approach developed by Socrates himself — i.e., she only wanted to accept a legal analysis.
Our non-lawyer friend explained that he had a very logical and very professional approach to a long-term problem confronting the organization, an approach that was shot down instantaneously.
Readers of this column know that I am a big proponent of mediation techniques, even when there is no actual dispute in question. Much like the patriarch Gus Portokalos in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” who sprayed Windex on every problem large and small, I, too, spray my mediation training on all problems — interpersonal and professional.
Mediation skills are perfect for resolving issues brought on by difficult people like Impossible Lawyer. (Note: The Center for Conflict Resolution, where I was trained in mediation by Alyson M. Carrel, doesn’t pay me to sing its praises the way that Windex makers SC Johnson likely paid for its product placement in the 2002 film.)
Now, back to those Impossible Lawyer window streaks. After the meeting, I told my non-lawyer friend how I might handle a situation like the one he described. I explained that when I sensed that a difficult person was about to throw stones at one of my ideas in an unprofessional way, I would, like a good mediator, simply begin to ask her some open-ended questions.
First, I would ask about the trouble she was having with my approach and, second, about her ideas about how best to proceed.
I would ask many non-threatening questions about how she would tackle some of our goals. I would focus on where she wanted our energies to be expended. I would outline the many ways her approaches would be effective.
Then, very methodically, I would brainstorm with her about her plan’s strengths as well as shortcomings. Where I would anticipate problems with her approach, I would gently ask about her thoughts and how best to get around those hurdles.
Next, I would ask her to weigh the hurdles we uncovered with her approach on a 1-to-10 scale, putting a value on each. At least in this way, she would be able to pull apart her own priorities and reasoning in a more objective way.
Hopefully, this methodical and unthreatening approach will have taken the emotion out of her previously black-and-white analysis.
While this give-and-take exercise may have taken the meeting off-track temporarily and cost the parties time, it sets one thing straight: Even Impossible Lawyer has now obtained a clearer picture of her own views through a wider lens.
When Impossible Lawyer is asked in a very upfront and logical way why she clings so tightly to her views, layer by layer, and is asked to talk about the value of those layers themselves, she receives validation.
She is clearly being heard, and her concerns are receiving attention or being analyzed objectively. Impossible Lawyer is receiving what she needs — the respectful give and take about her approach. In my view, the side trip was valuable and worth the trip.
The moral of the story is that it doesn’t matter in your profession when someone impossible tries to shoot you down so they can shine.
When asked how not to get sidetracked by those who looked down on him, newsman Quinones took advice from his mother.
“She always taught us that no matter where we lived, no matter what side of the tracks we lived on, that that didn’t matter, that we could be a success at whatever we tackled,” he said. “I just never looked at any negativity … (She told us not to) let anyone tell (us) that just because (we’re) from the barrio, (that we’re) anything less. And because of that, I just never even thought that I wasn’t going to make it.”