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The stress of incivility

Incivility has become commonplace in our society—not just in law practice.

Man leaning desperate
Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash

Incivility has become commonplace in our society—not just in law practice.

In a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review, 98% of respondents indicated they had experienced incivility at work, and 99% had witnessed uncivil behaviour in the workplace. Research informs us that workers who experience incivility at work suffer personally and have poorer job performance. Those who witness uncivil behaviour are also affected and may have difficulty absorbing information and poorer short-term memory leading to impaired cognitive ability.

Incivility also has a complex relationship with well-being. Think about the last uncivil exchange you had on a file, where you felt belittled or treated with rudeness or disdain. Now think about how you feel when you see an email from the uncivil lawyer pop up in your inbox. Did your heart start to beat more quickly? Did you feel your muscles tense up? Did you feel a sensation that the bottom of your stomach had just fallen through?

These are all part of our stress response. When we perceive a stressor (the arrival of an email that we think will be rude or humiliating), our bodies respond with a complex biochemical process that equips us for a fight, flight or freeze response, which includes increased blood flow and the shutting down of less essential systems like our GI systems.

As lawyers, we can’t flee—we must read the email and deal with its consequences. We may choose to freeze for a little while, but ultimately it is our fight response that we rely on.

Sometimes the email from the uncivil lawyer is benign, perhaps confirming a date or providing a factual update. You begin to relax, but while it takes fractions of a second for our stress response to be triggered, it can take up to an hour for our physiologies to return to their pre-stressor state.

When the email is as bad as we expected, we react with emotion—we feel angry, hurt, and wronged. Feelings of injustice are difficult to overcome, according to researcher Christine Porath , because memories associated with strong emotions are easier to access. We tend to ruminate about the uncivil event, making it harder to move forward, which in turn hinders cognitive growth.

Repeated uncivil interactions take their toll. We know that incivility can lead to depression, anxiety, aggression, insomnia, and substance misuse. Incivility undermines lawyer well-being.

In a recent article in The Lawyers Daily , Ontario lawyer Ryan Wozniak points out that civility has an active component (how we speak to, and treat, others) and a passive component (how we interpret the actions or speech of others). He posits that when we are on the receiving end of uncivil behaviour, we should stop to consider the issues that may be underpinning this incivility and tap into our empathy (to consider what may be going on with the other lawyer) before we respond.

He lists several behaviours common to poor mental health and uncivil conduct, including inappropriate emotional reactions, disregard for others’ feelings and rights, misinterpreting communications, poor impulse control and unreachability. As lawyers, when another lawyer reacts emotionally or impulsively, we may question whether the lawyer has lost objectivity. Lawyers who don’t respond are seen as being uncooperative and perhaps lacking in practice management skills.

These behaviours can also be warning signs that the lawyer is struggling with something apart from your file. Empathy is not usually our go-to emotion when on the receiving end of uncivil communication (or cannot get any response at all). We want to show we are smart and capable lawyers, and perhaps put down the uncivil lawyer with the greatest slam we can muster. Could engaging with empathy achieve a better outcome than firing off a response that matches the tone of their email to you?

Next time you see an email from an uncivil lawyer in your inbox, stop to take several deep breaths and tune into where you are feeling stress. Will yourself to think calmly about your favourite beach or trail or follow a relaxation breathing pattern. Then, open the email once you feel regulated and in charge of your emotions.

If the email is offensive, notice the emotions you are experiencing. Name them without judging them, and then try a simple grounding exercise to help you move beyond your emotional reaction. Look around your office and name five items you can see; four items to touch; three items to hear; two items you can smell and one thing you can taste.

You can imagine items for any sense that you cannot perceive in your current environment.

As you name and think about each item, you engage with your senses and detach from your emotional reaction, which allows for a more objective and mindful response.

You can also consider the situation of the uncivil lawyer. Do they have an unreasonable client whom they can’t manage? Could there be a mental health or addiction issue underlying their behaviour?

By considering what the uncivil lawyer may be experiencing, you are using empathy. Sometimes, just recognizing that a rude communication reflects an internal issue rather than an issue with you is enough to respond with compassion rather than anger. You can then choose to look past the uncivil communication and deal with the lawyer on the same basis as before.

When we view incivility as an indicator of distress, rather than jerkdom, we exercise compassion, bringing greater humanity to the practice of law, which is good for all of us in the long run. Incivility is, and always will be, undesirable in our profession. But when we engage our empathy, we can work to develop a more robust and constructive working relationship and enrich our resilience reserve. Choose empathy—it will make you stronger and may even create an ally of opposite counsel.