First, let me get this out of the way: kindness isn’t my strongest instinct.
That doesn’t mean I'm a huge bitchface, either. What I mean is that I tend to be reactionary (a.k.a. hot-headed) or irreverent (read: a smartass) rather than understanding or sympathetic in the face of hostility.
But I know this about myself and that I need to be very mindful of my interactions with others in high stress situations (e.g., all the lawyering).
I’m telling you this so you’re aware that I’ve had to work hard at this compassion business.
And I’ve cocked it up numerous times while living the law firm life. (Like that time I yelled back at a named partner because I just. couldn’t. take. it. I also may or may not have dropped a four-letter word...Did I mention I was new to the firm?) But by the end of my seven year stint as an attorney, I’d gotten the hang of the whole kindness to a-holes thing.
“That’s all fine and good,” you might be thinking, “but I just can’t let it slide when someone is a dick to me.”
Because it’s tough to be kind in the face of rampant assholery.
I totally get that. I really do.
But if we don’t break the cycle of jerkiness, condescension, rudeness and (dare I say) bullying, the legal profession’s culture of disrespect will continue to be accepted as the norm. Which translates into more jerks to deal with.
So I’m going to let you in on a little secret that may shift your mindset.
When someone is a jerk to you, it’s not aboutyou. They're the jerk.
My theory based on thirty-some-odd years of observation is that we are born knowing that kindness is the way to go, then something teaches us to be unkind. Blame a messed-up home life, butthead classmates, anxiety disorders or whatever.
Presto change-o, a jerk is made.
So besides the obvious reasons (e.g., nobody likes a butthole, you get more flies with honey than vinegar, it’s unprofessional), here are some helpful nuggets to prevent you from losing your shit when dealing with jerks in the workplace.
1. Jerks lack a sense of belonging.
Let’s start with the peeps in your office and opposing counsel. How nerdy were the jerky partners and other attorneys back in the day? Most people who went to law school were mega dorks at some point. (Hellur, yours truly.) Some still are mega dorks. So being excluded is an all-too-familiar (and painful) feeling for them.
But even jerks need to feel included.
So whether your colleagues are still nursing social scars from the past or continue to be adorable weirdos, know that any lack of kindness you show them is likely to stir up some resentful feelings on their part.
I’m not saying you need to be besties. Just that hell hath no fury like an awkward lawyer scorned.
With clients (you didn’t think I’d leave out some of the biggest jerks of all, did you?), having their legal issues front and center does not automatically make them feel included. Their status as outsiders is made ever clearer with each of their interactions with the aforementioned awkward attorneys.
And the fact that clients are paying a pretty penny to have their dirty laundry analyzed by some jargon-slinging lawyers only adds to their displeasure -- and their jerky tendencies.
The solution? Treat them like members of your legal team.
Better yet? Like they’re your MVPs.
Be proactive about keeping them in the loop. Answer their questions as though they’re the most insightful thing you’ve heard all day. Don’t screen their calls.
Because let’s be clear -- without them your job doesn’t exist.
(But if they really are THE WORST, maybe you don’t care if they’re no longer your client. We've all been there…)
2. Jerks tend to be defensive.
They’re so used to being reminded of their jerkiness that they don’t bother to act any other way. And they’ve got no apologies about it since it’s just the way they’ve learned to interact with the world.
But the classic (albeit cliché) trick here? Kill ‘em with kindness.
When you treat a jerk like they’re a normal person, your warmth disarms them.
You don’t say anything they can interpret as an attack and thereby diffuse their urge to defend. And when they’re surprised by your unexpected kindness, they have to stop and piece together a thoughtful response rather than their usual defensive retort.
I also *highly* recommend speaking in a calm and quiet voice. At first it may piss them off even more, but eventually they'll realize they can't get mad at you for not being a dick to them.
End result = less hostility.
You can thank me later.
3. Jerks have trust issues.
Who knows where their trust issues come from and, honestly, who cares? The point is that some people are jerks because they’ve gotten screwed over a few too many times. And now they’re distrustful of (and jerky toward) pretty much everyone.
Your best bet with this breed of jerk is to follow through on what you say you’ll do.
With colleagues and clients alike, set realistic deadlines and meet them. Be proactive about updating them on their matters. When you say you’ll get back to them, DO IT. If you’re unable to follow through on something, let them know as soon as you realize it.
Honesty is the best policy -- particularly with jerks.
4. Jerks are used to being disliked.
Imagine that. People don’t like jerks.
And this isn’t news to jerks. In fact, it actually causes them to act like jerks. People expect them to be jerky and treat them accordingly, so jerks act jerky in kind. It’s a vicious cycle.
Patience is the key.
When you’re dealing with a jerk, it’s almost primal instinct to return the ugliness. Instead of being a punk to them, though, take a deep breath. The jerk might not even be done talking yet.
We have such a habit of interrupting when we think we know what to expect (good or bad). So imagine how shocked a jerk will be to actually feel heard for once.
I’m not saying you’ll like what you hear, but over time an extra dose of patience will go a long way toward making a jerk feel like a person and not a villain. Be patient and give the jerk a chance to stop acting like a jerk.
You’ll be surprised. Pleasantly.
5. Jerks aren’t used to being appreciated.
What? How could jerks possibly feel unappreciated? *Ahem*
As much as it may pain you to do so, find something for which you can thank the jerk.
Like returning your call (leave out the part about them yelling into the phone). Or reminding you about some task (even if you already completed it).
Even the littlest expression of gratitude can make someone feel validated and appreciated.
The bonus on this one? Expressing gratitude is scientifically proven to increase your own happiness. Truth.
The takeaway here is that someone else’s jerkiness is not about you.
Jerks are rude to you because they’ve got personal pain that manifests as unbridled buttholery to anyone in their path.
So don’t take it personally.
Do take a deep breath.
And give that jerk a piece of your kind.