The importance of EQ for lawyers

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Having high emotional intelligence can mean stronger working relationships and better mental health,according to this former lawyers partner.

Katie Gray is a co-founder of legal professional coaching business Coaching Advocates and a former banking and finance partner at global law firm Herbert Smith Freehills.

In a recent discussion at Coaching Advocate’s Virtual Summit 2022 titled “What does it feel like to be a lawyer?”, Ms Gray explained how important emotional intelligence – or EQ – is for legal practitioners to have, as well as to use it to not only feel better at work but to also create longer and more meaningful connections with others at the same time.

“Simply put, emotional intelligence involves the ability to identify and regulate our own emotions and the ability to recognise, understand and influence the emotions in others. So, let’s firstly look at the ability to identify and regulate our own emotions. And when it comes to identifying emotions, having a large vocabulary of emotions is key, and many of us really struggle in this area and can only actually name a few, mad, sad, glad, but you can develop this skill, and there are some tools that can help you here. Things like Mood Metres or Plutchik’s emotional wheel can really help us build up our emotional vocabulary,” she explained.

“Now, I want to acknowledge that there is debate between science or amongst scientists and psychologists around classifications of certain emotions. What are secondary emotions, which are primary emotions, what’s a feeling and not an emotion and vice versa, and which emotions belong in various families? But we do not need to get distracted by all of that commentary and debate.

“What we can simply do is start noticing and attempting to name emotions to help us move forward in our own emotional intelligence. It’s also important to be able to connect the names of emotions to what they feel like as bodily sensations, and this is because emotions are a physiological response. So, by paying attention to our body, we can start to recognise those emotions more effectively.”

Being able to recognise and identify emotions within oneself — rather than suppressing them — can help manage and process different feelings and allow clearer thinking, both in a professional and personal context.

“Once you have identified the emotion, you then have some power when it comes to regulating the emotion. And when I think of regulating emotions, I think of the ability to essentially create this space to choose my response to a stimulus, and some of the choices available to us are simply being in the emotion. And now it’s been scientifically proven that the physical impacts of an emotion pass through the body within 90 seconds if you allow the emotion to be felt. So, if in practice, we have the time and privacy to pause when we’re feeling a certain way, and if we just spend a bit of time noticing what’s happening for us physiologically, then within 90 seconds, that emotion could pass and would’ve moved through the emotion,” Ms Gray explained.

“If the emotion we are brooding on is not conducive to supporting us to get the results we want, we can’t regulate ourselves until we unhook from that unresourceful emotion. And we unhook ourselves not by suppressing or pushing down the emotion, but rather through centring, applying mindfulness techniques or grounding. And when well practised, it can take a matter of seconds to centre.”

But as important as recognising your own emotions are, being able to sense emotions in others is also part of having high EQ, according to Ms Gray.

“When it comes to influencing others, being able to influence emotions in others is helpful when you want to build and develop relationships. As a leader, the ability to create and cultivate a mood that is conducive to success for your team is a very powerful skill, and influencing others is essentially about building rapport. And to build rapport, you need three things. The first is shared attention and presence.

“This is when you focus on the other person and that person focuses on you. The second thing you need is synchrony. So, this is when you’ve got matched breathing rate, matched heart rate, posture, gesture, timing of speech and tone of speech. And here, if you notice that you are not synchronous to somebody, you can scan for timing and then match the rhythm without it coming across as an imitation,” she said.

“Other tools that you can use to recognise emotions in others are to also just apply context, and above all else, test your assumptions. And this is because it’s unlikely that we would know exactly how someone else is feeling, but we can use clues of the facial expressions, gestures, the feelings that you sense and context to ask open questions that prompts the person to tell you how they are feeling.”

In terms of different types of moods that are prevalent in the legal profession, Ms Gray said that the two emotions that come up the most frequently for her clients are resentment and cynicism.

“Feelings of resentment are built upon a story that you are the injured party of an unfairness and someone or something is to blame and it’s outside your control to do anything about it. In the life of a lawyer, this can show up when a client who’s been dodging your calls and emails all week contacts you on Friday afternoon with an urgent update that requires you to work over the weekend, or when a colleague brings in a large and chunky matter with a super tight deadline, but then doesn’t stick around to support on the work,” she added.

“If left unresolved, resentment breeds disconnection and separation in relationships. It closes us to people and possibilities. It stifles action and commitment between the affected parties, and this is because resentment motivates us to get even. The opposite of resentment [is described as] being peace or acceptance, or otherwise coming to terms with that which you cannot change.”

In this context, acceptance means forgiveness — and can result in an ability to continue working with clients and colleagues with ease. Similarly, Ms Gray concluded that feelings of cynicism should be combated with trust.

“Similar to the shift from resentment to acceptance, in order to combat cynicism, you can work on developing feelings of trust. Now, when we trust, we feel as though we are not taking excessive risk. Trust prompts us to interact with others, and it opens us to people. And just think of when you’re working in a team and you’ve got a very clear shared common purpose, and everyone feels that they’re in it together, then when that’s happening, it’s very hard to be cynical,” she said.

“However, when we start to feel that someone in the team isn’t pulling their weight, or they don’t care about us, or they don’t care about the team, or they don’t care about the shared goal, we can quickly become cynical then, and our productivity and wellbeing can suffer. So how do risk-averse sceptical and cynical lawyers learn to trust? Well, to quote Ernest Hemmingway, the best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”

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