How to Handle Disagreements in the Law Office
Question: Do you have any recommendations for dealing with disagreements between co-workers? I don’t mean just staff. Sometimes it is even an issue among the lawyers in our firm. What’s the best way to get people to resolve their differences?
Denise Abston: Disagreement and conflict occur in any setting. And, since we spend a large portion of our day in the workplace, it would be naive to think we would never have a disagreement with anyone at work. Many disagreements stem from miscommunication, whether it is in person, on the phone or in an email. Some conflicts are entirely emotion-driven rather than logic- or reason-driven and, therefore, are the type that may need intervention from a third party. That third party may need to be you. If that is the case, you may want to first spend some time with each person individually, and then together with you as the mediator.
Even healthy discussions will sometimes lead to disagreements among co-workers or team members. Here are some suggested ground rules to use when a disagreement occurs:
- Remember that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, whether we agree or disagree with them.
- Take time to listen to people with whom you have a disagreement. Hear what they are saying. Repeat back to them what you heard them say. Ask if you stated their position correctly. Ask questions to obtain more information. Make it clear what points you agree and disagree on.
- Be aware that it could be they are operating under too many deadlines and expect you to know what they are up against.
- Try to see things from their perspective. Do not resort to manipulation, name-calling or demeaning a person in front of others. Be respectful of the other person. Keep a cool head and remain professional. Do not take the disagreement personally. Keep it on a purely professional basis.
- When you have an opportunity to speak (not over the top of them), restate your position. Ask questions to find out if someone else on the team can be of assistance. Is it a delegation issue? Are they comfortable with any of the solutions you suggested or all of the suggestions? If it’s not all, what aren’t they comfortable with?
An important goal for everyone to remember is that in a law firm we serve on the same team, with the same mission. Given that, won’t you be willing to compromise to ensure the team is successful?
Denise J. Abston is Office Administrator and Paralegal at Fenton Fenton Smith Reneau & Moon, a primarily insurance defense law firm in Oklahoma City. She is President of the Oklahoma City Chapter of the ALA, a member of the ALA’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, and an adjunct professor at St. Gregory’s University teaching Critical Thinking, Introduction to Philosophy, Theology, Introduction to Management, and Personalities.
Cindy Schuler: In most cases, we spend more time at work than we do at home. Our workplace is essentially our second home. While working side by side with this “second family,” workplace disagreements are bound to occur.
First, setting expectations when we hire people with respect to workplace conduct is essential. Offering soft skills training in office etiquette, as well as stressing respectful communication as an organizational value, helps set the tone for your overall office atmosphere.
Second, it is important to have ongoing discussions with attorneys and staff regarding the importance of cultivating and maintaining positive workplace relationships.
Third, it may be beneficial to provide confidential coaching to both attorneys and staff regarding discussion and resolution of workplace disagreements. This will assist both parties with their communication skills and protect developing relationships.
In the event a workplace disagreement cannot be resolved, despite soft skills training or confidential coaching sessions, bringing in an outside professional for a “sit-down” or mediation session may be warranted.
Working under strained conditions because of workplace disagreements affects overall morale and productivity in your law office. By employing the methods mentioned here, people should be able to co-exist in a healthy work environment.
Cynthia Schuler is Director of Human Resources for Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox P.L.L.C. An HR professional with over 20 years of experience in the legal field, she is responsible for planning, developing and evaluating all human resource related initiatives that support the firm’s overall objectives. She provides consultation to management on recruiting, compensation, benefits, training and development, budget, diversity initiatives and employee relations.
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