It takes more than a high IQ to be a good lawyer. Your emotional intelligence has a marked impact on your ability to build strong client relationships, manage occupational stress and minimise professional liability risks. So what is emotional intelligence? And what practical value does it have for lawyers?
Legal theory has traditionally held that emotional responses distort objective legal reasoning and should therefore be suppressed. As a result, lawyers as a profession tend to be proficient and accustomed to disconnecting from emotion. However, psychologists believe this may have a detrimental impact on their ability to perform a range of critical intellectual and social tasks.
Research now suggests that individuals can improve their ability to communicate, manage stress, make sound judgments and even utilise a higher degree of their IQ, not by suppressing emotion but by enhancing their ‘emotional intelligence’.
What is emotional intelligence?
Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and discriminate between an individual’s own emotions and those of others to best guide their thoughts, decisions and actions. An emotionally intelligent person has the ability to perceive an emotion (in themselves or someone else), discern the cause of that emotion and respond appropriately to achieve a desired outcome. While this may sound overly simplistic, it can have an extremely powerful impact on the success of a lawyer’s practice. Here’s how.
Why is high emotional intelligence beneficial for lawyers?
A key benefit of cultivating emotional intelligence for lawyers is the ability to communicate strategically. This involves perceiving another person’s emotions and understanding how a particular response will either escalate or diffuse those emotions, allowing you to avoid conflicts, promote positive exchanges and instill trust in a relationship. Such skills can dramatically enhance a lawyer’s ability to negotiate, persuade, build loyal clients and even limit professional liability claims.
Similarly, the ability to halt the escalation of one’s own negative emotions caused by occupational stress not only promotes job satisfaction and harmonious workplace dynamics, but also broadens an individual’s intellectual capacity by unlocking creative thinking, critical reasoning and problem-solving abilities. Research has shown that unchecked negative emotions narrow “thought-action repertoires” and limit an individual’s ability to think laterally and explore new methods or solutions.
Emotional awareness can also promote better decision-making by enabling the decision-maker to distinguish between relevant emotions in response to the characteristics of the transaction and background stress caused by unrelated factors. Liberating a decision from the influence of personal stressors can enable a practitioner to clearly evaluate the level of risk involved and the appropriate degree of caution required.
How can lawyers improve their emotional intelligence?
The good news is that even if you are an unemotional product of the traditional law system, you can improve your lot with a bit of brain training.
Try these four steps to boost your emotional intelligence:
- Increase awareness of your own emotions: Stop and identify the emotions you are feeling at a particular moment in time, determine their cause and notice the response they elicit in you. Do this regularly and especially when facing stressful or intense situations.
- Manage your own emotions: Once you know what you’re dealing with, determine the ideal way to express that emotion, to whom it should be directed and to what extent (if at all) it should be expressed. Learn to limit your emotions to the extent that they are useful and find ways to stop negative feelings escalating unnecessarily.
- Perceive emotions in others: Learn to read non-verbal cues in the eyes, voice tone and body positioning of others. Use client interviews to gain information not only about facts, but also how your client feels about them. Try to discern the emotions that underpin your opponents’ actions.
- Influence the emotions of others: Understand how you can harness or diffuse emotions in others to elicit a specific response, minimise conflict and build trust. Use these skills to strengthen your client relationships and bring out the best in your co-workers.
Rewiring your subconscious requires hard work, but don’t give up. The far-reaching personal and professional benefits of developing high emotional intelligence will be worth it for you, your firm and your clients.