Emotional Intelligence for Lawyers: A Deeper Look at Expression and Self-Regulation

Clearly expressing your opinions and what you want to communicate, utilizing all the tools at your disposal, will strengthen your standing and lend more consistency to what you say and convey.

Author: Marisa Méndez, Director of Psycholawgy.es and Associate Professor at IE Law School.

Welcome, lawyers, to the next stop on the emotional intelligence journey. During the first step, we took a closer look at emotional self-awareness. Now, we are continuing on this journey with emotional expression and self-regulation.

Before going into detail, I would like to reflect on the role played by “controlling your emotions” in our everyday and professional lives. Education—or rather, the absence of emotional education—has taught us that keeping our emotions in check is beneficial. This has led us to conceal our emotions to such an extent that we prefer to show other emotions and/or deny others’ emotions when interacting with them, because we think that they are “not controlling themselves.”

The goal of these two intrapersonal skills is to live with our emotions, accept and modulate them, without feeling forced to exaggerate them or to hide them. Of course, all of this offers benefits for your professional life.

Before continuing, let’s do a little exercise. It is 8:30 p.m. on Friday and you have just cleaned up your desk to enjoy your weekend. Your plan is to relax and disconnect after an intense week— just like almost every week! At that moment, a partner appears and asks you to prepare a very urgent proposal for a new client. They give you a copy of an email—dated Thursday of last week—and stand there without looking at you, checking their phone. At a quick glance, you conclude that it will take you a few hours to collect the information they are asking for: credentials, a team, the scope of the task. You realize that the people that could have helped you likely went home a while ago.

This is not the first time that this partner’s lack of organization and difficulty delegating tasks has burdened you.

Specifically, over the past months, you have had to cancel your Friday plans on multiple occasions due to similar situations. You have never paid attention to what you felt during these times and have simply acted like a robot, canceling your plans and concentrating on what you had to do while repeating, “that’s just my job, that’s just my job…” like a mantra. But today, something different happens.

Over the past few weeks, you have learned about the role of emotions and how to identify them. Imagine yourself in this situation and answer the following: What do you feel? What part of your body feels the most active? How are you communicating this through your gaze, your posture and your voice? What reaction is the emotion asking for? Considering the situation and your relationship with the partner, is this the most appropriate reaction? What alternatives do you have?

“In order to recognize and express your emotions, you have to be able to regulate them in an adaptive way.”

Emotional Expression for Lawyers

There are multiple aspects to expressing emotions, but I will concentrate on two. Firstly, there is the skill that lets you locate where an emotion is expressed in your body. This complements self-awareness with additional information in order to allow you to more clearly identify what is happening internally. Secondly, there is the ability to communicate what is causing the emotion, triggering the skill of self-regulation, which we will see later on.

Learning to pinpoint pleasant or unpleasant sensations related to the emotions that you feel in a location (or locations) in your body is like a compass for problem-solving, transforming maladaptive cognitive and emotional reactions and helping you choose the most suitable behavior for you and the situation.

In the above situation, you might feel sensations such as the activation of some of the muscles in your limbs, faster breathing or an increase in heart rate. Your body might feel tense as a result of the release of adrenaline. You might feel offended, annoyed and disrespected. All of these emotions seem to be consistent with the situation: this partner had the email for the past eight days and if they had passed the information on to you beforehand, you could have managed your time in order to send the proposal and enjoy your Friday.

Moreover, this is not the first time they have done this. This anger may be accumulating on top of previous anger, whether conscious or not. Furthermore, it is very possible—even though you think that you did not convey this emotion during previous circumstances and are not doing it right now—that in your way of responding and acting, you are expressing this anger. By feeling that your boundaries have been crossed, you are expressing your fight or flight response. That is when the following skill comes into play.

Clearly expressing what you want to communicate and your opinion, using all of the means at your disposal, will strengthen your standing and lend more consistency to what you say and convey.

A way of developing this skill at the firm level could be to incorporate mindfulness programs, which allow you to observe your internal environment in a safe space. Another option could be to hold programs to learn and practice verbal and nonverbal communication, teaching people to become aware of inconsistency when conveying messages. This is because the concrete message (what we say) must be interpreted in conjunction with paraverbal communication (how we say it, our pace of speech, and the pauses we take) and our body language. And remember: the last two communicate over 90% of the message.

Emotional Intelligence for Lawyers | IE LawAhead

Emotional Self-Regulation for Lawyers

Emotional self-regulation is the ability to express both pleasant and unpleasant emotions in a suitable and conscious manner in order to manage them as a function of your specific situation. This skill is so useful that it is a milestone in emotional intelligence. In order to recognize and express your emotions, you have to be able to regulate them in an adaptive way.

In the case of lawyers, this allows them to calmly express themselves in difficult situations, and analyze and think ahead without denying the information provided by the situation. To continue with the previous example, even though your anger is telling you to defend yourself in attack mode, this is not the best decision when it comes to preserving your work relationship or getting what you want. Moreover, if you simply suppress the emotional response triggered, this will be of no help in obtaining better control of your work and time, and can also affect your self-esteem or physical health.

It would be better to assertively express yourself, without exaggerating or assuming that you know the other person’s inner motivations. You should also carefully consider when it would be good to discuss the matter, as two elements are in play: completing the proposal, and making sure that this situation does not repeat itself (except in cases of real urgency).

How can you practice self-regulation?

Like all emotional skills, this skill has to be continuously assessed, as practice and reflection are what establish your reactions. There are a large number of self-regulation authors and models, but in the pursuit of making it more accessible to beginner lawyers, I recommend two things in particular.

The first is to use your imagination. This is a superpower available to all humans, including lawyers! It consists of imagining the consequences—whether positive or negative—of your actions. This connection will motivate you to use behaviors to establish a better understanding or distance, helping you to identify the skills or resources that you need to address the situation, or even to recognize that you do not yet have an answer, giving yourself the time necessary to decide what to do. All of this is self-regulation.

The second strategy, which is particularly useful when automatic behavior takes over, is the ability to put what is happening into words in order to become aware of it. Consequently, you can decide on an alternative way to address it and behave differently. This is also self-regulation. In this case, as a mentor, it is very important to remember that your way of acting in a given situation does not have to be the same for someone else. In that sense, it is essential to avoid mandating what others should do.

To conclude, it is always worthwhile to remember that you may experience times of serious crisis or intense discomfort that make it difficult for you to self-regulate. If these occur frequently and cause harm and changes for the worse in your life, it is a good idea to consider seeking professional help. Fortunately, prejudices toward therapy are becoming a thing of the past.

Emotional expression and self-regulation are some of essential tools all lawyers must develop at the beginning of their career. That’s why we incorporate must-have emotional skills into our law degrees, offering specific and directed units on the subject. As a leader in legal education, our goal is always to train lawyers with a solid grounding in intrapersonal skills to empower them to establish meaningful professional relationships.

Read the article in Spanish published by LexLatin

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Marisa MéndezMarisa Méndez is a psychologist and life coach. Currently she is Director of Psycholawgy.es and Associate Professor at IE Law School. She started her career as a lawyer and solicitor at Clifford Chance, London, and left legal practice to work as a consultant leading projects in Jordan, Brazil and Peru, where she came across the real meaning of resilience, as she worked with people in adverse situations. Years later, Marisa returned to Spain to combine her two passions: the study of psychology and emotional intelligence in the workplace and teaching at IE Law School.

Note: The views expressed by the author of this paper are completely personal and do not represent the position of any affiliated institution.