Lo♥︎ing legal life: How to communicate calmly during conflict

This week, systemic coach Zita Tulyahikayo and barrister James Pereira QC look at how we can manage our emotions and the way we communicate in order to remain calm and resolve conflict in a less stressful way.

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Regardless of our professional training and background, most of us have been educated from birth to compete, judge, demand and diagnose – to think and communicate in terms of what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with ourselves and with other people. Such thinking adds to our stress as we are forced to navigate our emotions through a minefield of conflicting interactions with other people on a daily basis.

To manage this stress load, communication skills play a very important part: the better our communication skills, the more likely it is we will get our basic needs met. Our most basic need is to survive. Work – earning our livelihood – sits at the forefront of satisfying that need.

One of the most common issues in managing stress and communication is the difficulty so many people have in managing themselves and their emotional reactions, particularly at times when it would be more useful to control or contain them.

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James Pereira QC

For anyone in any kind of leadership position this can be all the more challenging. The expectation of a leader is that they can ‘handle it’ by maintaining a calm, rational and balanced view. People rely on leaders to navigate the choppy waters and to have the personal resources available to save those whom they lead.

At some point we have all experienced working with someone who has lost control of their emotions. Shouting, verbal abuse, threats, or intimidation are just some of the symptoms of someone out of control.

We know too well the damage caused by such outbursts to reputation and self-esteem. An entire career can be tainted by it, since our working relationships rest just as much on what we do as how we make people feel while doing it. Those on the receiving end will for many years easily recall the impact of being poorly treated by a colleague or superior who lost control, and share that story repeatedly in an effort to relieve the trauma.

Two simple techniques

At any time we have available a range of techniques that can give us mastery of self and emotions, and provide us with strong communication skills to reduce stress and enhance our work performance.

These skills are essential: clients are attracted to lawyers who can maintain a statesman like presence, and whose communication skills sooth, rather than aggravate, the tensions that arise in disputes.

We discuss two such techniques below.

Managing your emotions

First, what can you do when your emotions threaten to get the better of you?

A simple first step is to name the emotion you are experiencing as you are experiencing it. An out of control person will act out the emotion, a person in control will name it and perhaps even describe the effect it is having on them.

When we have the ability and presence to name the emotion, something important happens at a biological level. The part of our brain that is triggered by the emotion – the amygdala – is deactivated and the intensity of the emotion is reduced significantly.

When we experience someone able to manage their emotions in this way they often appear statesmanlike, our ability to trust and respect them is deepened, and we are more inclined to want to engage with them.

If we master the ability to control our emotions in this way we can apply that skill to other situations, so as to naturally adopt a more detached, non-emotional, and less judgement perspective. This improves our ability to appreciate and evaluate the perspectives of others, which is an essential tool for lawyers.

Taking the conflict out of communication

Secondly, how can we communicate better so as to avoid unnecessary conflict and stress? A useful technique is Non Violent Communication, or NVC.

NVC is based on the principle that all humans are innately compassionate, kind and considerate, contrary to what we have been taught, so that violent, aggressive or forceful behaviour – be it verbal or physical – is not an effective communication strategy.

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By having a clearer focus on what we are observing, rather than simply diagnosing and judging, we are better able to communicate from a position of attentiveness and empathy. This in turn is more likely to avoid increasing stress and resistance through our language.

NVC has much to recommend it when it comes to negotiation and conflict resolution. Since the majority of people live from the place of fear, they are more easily disarmed by kindness and compassion than by combat. By adopting more compassionate linguistic patterns in our communication, we can secure a successful outcome while reducing the scope for overt conflict and stress.

Just remember: people never forget how you made them feel. If you can make people feel good through your handling of potentially stressful situations, you will always be in demand.


The authors welcome feedback from anyone concerned with the issues raised in their writing, and are also interested in hearing from anyone with suggestions for future articles. You can reach them at zita@lifetherapywithzita.com and on Twitter @LifeTherapyZita and at james.pereiraQC@ftbchambers.co.uk and on Twitter @JamesPereiraQC.

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