Unsure How To Communicate

  • April 12, 2022

Dear Advy, 

I am concerned about my legal assistant. I have noticed that she seems to be going through something on a personal level, based on her general demeanour and a slight change in personality. I should explain that I tend to be a no-nonsense type of person. While I also do my best to be friendly and professional, I try to stay out of the personal lives of those around me. While this approach has always served me well in the past, I am concerned that I may lose her as an assistant if I do not make some sort of outreach. Her work has not suffered at all – she is probably one of the best assistants I have ever had, but I am not sure how to open this type of dialogue without coming across as though I am criticizing her performance and causing her additional distress.

Unsure How To Communicate

Dear Unsure How To Communicate,

We will all go through times in our lives when things are falling into place perfectly and times when they seem to be unravelling. Very often, this can be noticed in the work product of those affected. If that were the case, then as an employer, you would be right to approach them. A gentle approach, showing genuine care can work magic, but if that person does not want to talk about their own problems, you can focus on the work issues. More about this in a minute.

If there hasn’t been any decline in performance, then, in the end, she has every right to say it’s none of your business. Most of us (I would hope all) are concerned about performance. No matter the reason, when we are taken aside by our boss, it can often feel like being called to the principal’s office. If there is no performance issue, then a first step should be to assure the person that this meeting is not about performance. You care about this person, and you are concerned for them. 

Even with the best reassurance possible, however, some conversations are just difficult. Part of your job as a lawyer is to reframe your own demeanour to relate to others. You can refer to my response to a question regarding difficult conversations for some guidance, but as a lawyer, you are a problem solver. A difficult thing to absorb is that some people aren’t looking for a solution; they just want to be able to talk. So, if your employee does open up, it is important to clarify your role in all of this and ask if they want your help or advice before dispensing it. This is especially important as advice on personal issues can often unintentionally sound like lecturing.

If performance issues do start happening, then it could be that these are a result of whatever else is going on in their life. Offering that opportunity to talk will provide you with a chance to craft any performance management to potentially treat the cause and not just the symptoms. As a lawyer, however, you are in the business of risk management, and in the end, poor or erroneous work, whether by lawyers or their assistants, does bring a risk. One way or another, you will want to manage the performance, but if you can help them at the same time, your compassion will lay a foundation for a good working relationship. By the way, what you’re describing is kind of the mirror image of a letter from June, and it might be worthwhile giving that a read because it may give you some insight into what your assistant is feeling.

In the end, your staff, co-workers, bartenders and baristas have no obligation to open up and tell you their problems. Nevertheless, these people are often there to listen and sometimes to impart sage advice (wanted or not). If they do not want to talk, and there is no performance issue, you will have to respect that.  Let them know you are there for them - even if it is just to sit with them.

Be well,

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