Why lawyers need to be taught more about emotional self-awareness

A truly useful classification system tells us whether or not emotions are adaptive and what to do with them.

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

A few months ago, I invited lawyers to take their first dive into the subject of emotional intelligence. The article was entitled “The 6 Emotional Skills That All Lawyers Should Develop” and was published on this same platform. It was so well-received that we decided to take a closer look at these six emotional skills; self-awareness, emotional expression, self-regulation, empathy, social skills and self-motivation.

More law schools are offering specialized courses on emotional intelligence every day, fully aware that these skills play an extremely important role in a more fulfilling and effective professional career. However, while these courses have been useful in raising students’ awareness around the existence of emotional intelligence, they tend to be very short.

As a recommendation, law firms should also incorporate these courses into their training programs. By doing so, they will ensure that they have a strong emotional basis for managing interpersonal difficulties or conflicts and relations with others.

This article delves deeper into the first of these emotional skills, which is the first and most basic step on the path to achieving that goal. It is called emotional self-awareness and consists of learning what emotions are, the types of emotions that exist and how they communicate with you.

Why are emotions important?

The first thing that I would like to say is that emotions make up a part of your intelligence; they are not separate from it. Without the information that they give you, you would be hindered in your decision-making; you would be unable to recognize, interpret or regulate any situation. Your ability to think clearly and make better decisions would also be limited.

They can be compared to your senses, which provide you with information on what is happening inside and outside of your body in order to act. For example, if you are in the office and feel cold, you turn up the thermostat or close the windows.

Emotions also give you information on what makes you feel afraid, disgusted, happy, sad, proud, embarrassed, guilty and so on and so forth. Emotions exist regardless of whether or not you are aware of them. They are regulated by influences, life experiences and expectations.

The first step to identifying them when they appear is knowing them. This is also very useful when it comes to later recognizing them in the people you interact with.

Emotional self-awareness post | IE LawAhead

Are there good emotions and bad emotions?

In my emotional intelligence courses for lawyers, I always ask whether the statement “there are good emotions and bad emotions” is true or false. The large majority of the attendees almost always vote that it is true. Generally speaking, what comes next is that they categorize sadness, fear or guilt as “negative emotions” and happiness, love and similar emotions as “positive” ones. This is one of the most common mistakes: believing that emotions are either good or bad. It is a mistake that not even the Disney movie Inside Out has been able to eradicate!

In reality, all emotions are positive because their function is to give us an assessment of how events affect our well-being and even our survival. Fear warns you of threats; disgust makes you reject something that will hurt you; happiness tells you about important achievements; sadness is indicative of the loss of something meaningful and anger tells you that your boundaries have been crossed.

A truly useful classification system tells us whether or not emotions are adaptive and what to do with them.

Let us take a look at the example of lawyers. If a coworker always arrives late to your weekly coordination meeting, your emotional radar will tell you that you are annoyed, as he is not respecting your time. This anger will tell you to set a boundary. If you listen to it at the time, the result might just be some irritation, and taking the situation into account, you will express your displeasure assertively, or may be calm enough to think and propose a change to the meeting time if this lateness will be repeated. This is an example of adaptive anger. If, as is often the case, you do not connect with your anger and communicate vaguely and in a passive-aggressive manner, or prefer to say nothing and accept that your boundaries have been crossed, at some point this anger may become explosive and maladaptive, triggering negative consequences for yourself and your relationship with that person.

How can you develop emotional self-awareness?

To become aware of emotions, it is important to be familiar with them and to explore beyond the most “famous” ones. You have to try to recognize them in yourself, without running from the reactions of your body and mind when they appear. When you identify one or notice something in your body that seems like one, you have to welcome it and name it. Only by doing so is it possible to communicate with the emotion and decide what to do afterwards.

Therapy or psychological training can let you delve deeper into this first emotional skill. It’s a basic step in order to continue on the path of emotional skills that will increase your well-being and effectiveness, both at the office and at home.

Aristotle is credited with a phrase that summarizes emotional self-awareness well: “Anybody can become angry—that is easy, But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way—that’s certainly not easy.” It is almost as if Aristotle spent time working as a lawyer at a law firm!

As we have seen, emotional self-awareness is simply the first step to developing a broader set of emotional skills essential for current and future lawyers. At IE University, we offer our students comprehensive programs that include modules specifically dedicated to these skills, enabling you to become a “2.0 lawyer“ with a versatile and adaptive emotional and professional skill set, thus standing out in the current digital world.

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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.