Making tough conversations easy(er)

  • October 20, 2016
  • Kim Covert

Symptoms: Mouth goes dry, knees start knocking, body starts to shake.

Possible diagnosis: You’re about to propose marriage. Or maybe you have to have a chat with the boss.

Either way, it can be a tough conversation to initiate, generally because you’re afraid of how it might end.

Hard conversations for young lawyers are most likely to occur with colleagues, senior associates and senior partners than with clients simply because, depending on the kind of practice they’re in, their exposure to clients tends to be smaller.

One of the most difficult hurdles for young lawyers is getting over the fear of asking for feedback, especially when they may have done something wrong but don’t know how to make it right, says Liane Krakauer, a certified career coach and leadership consultant with Krakauer Coaching & Consulting in Toronto.

“I’ll say ‘did you ask someone to clarify what you did wrong there?’ and they’ll say, ‘no.’ They’ve thought about it and they’re afraid what the outcome might be if they do ask,” says Krakauer, one of two presenters lined up for a CBA Solutions Series webinar on tough conversations that will touch on a range of challenging discussions for lawyers at all stages of practice.

“There’s a big fear of looking incompetent, of owning up that ‘I didn’t really get it,’ and that’s a fault of the profession, not giving people permission to make mistakes. It’s a highly perfectionist profession.  For learners in any profession you need to give them the chance to learn from their mistakes and do better the next time.”

Not only is there an emphasis in the profession of getting things right the first time, but junior associates are also coming from an academic environment where they’re used to being high achievers, so the law practice environment can present a steep and intimidating learning curve, says Krakauer.

Krakauer says that in some professional settings there may indeed be repercussions for admitting that you didn’t understand what was expected of you – showing your vulnerability is always risky. But, she says, the payoff of learning how to do the thing correctly offsets the risk that you might not look perfect.

“Because if you don’t, the long-term risk is you’re not going to correct that error, you’re not going to be able to meet whatever goals you have in that organization anyway.”

Krakauer has some tips for young lawyers in this situation:

  1. Acknowledge you aren’t perfect. Reframe failure as steps toward success. Even Edison failed 1,000 times before the light bulb went off. You can’t always get things right the first time.
  2. Practise, practise, practise. Rehearse, either by yourself or with a partner, what is that you want to say. Write it down, get it straight in your head, before you approach the colleague or senior partner whose help you need.
  3. Focus on the desired outcome. Lawyers are good at saying “Oh, this is going to be a disaster,” says Krakauer, it’s in their training and also probably hard-wired into their personalities. “What I as a coach do is say, ‘Fine, write down your worst-case fear and what will happen if it comes true, and now I want you to argue for the other side.’ Take the other position, the best-case scenario. What would that look like?
  4. Feel the power of positive thinking. We change our behaviour sometimes unconsciously on what we expect will happen, says Krakauer. If we expect we’re going to get fired because we ask for feedback we’re not going to do it. Instead, focus on a positive outcome and then act as if that’s going to happen.

Kim Covert is the CBA’s Editor, Publications