Difficult conversations training

The Challenge

One of the divisions of a large international law firm had many sophisticated clients from the banking and finance industries. These clients had stressful jobs that included long hours, significant travel, and tight deadlines with large sums of money at stake. Many of these clients were impatient, demanding, poor listeners, and quick to become angry and assess blame. As a result, they could often be very difficult for the attorneys to work with. The attorneys wanted to do the best job possible for their clients, but at times felt unfairly criticized or thought that their clients’ requests were unreasonable. However, in order to maintain good working relationships, they did not want to disagree with or criticize the clients. The department head believed that dealing with these clients was causing unnecessary stress for the lawyers in his department, and he was concerned that that stress was behind some recent attrition. He hired me to teach the lawyers some communication skills they could use to deal more effectively with their clients.

The Process

I developed a program to teach the attorneys basic conflict resolution skills. These techniques allow people to have difficult conversations that they might otherwise avoid.

To prepare, I asked the attorneys to provide me with several examples of situations in which they had dealt with a client who was being difficult and had not handled the situation as well as they could have. I changed some of the facts to protect the identity of the people involved, and rewrote these scenarios into role plays.

When we met for the training, I began with a brief overview of conflict resolution techniques, including reiterating the other person’s position before stating your own, acknowledging his or her feelings (in this case, usually anger or frustration), ensuring that body language and tone of voice are nonthreatening, and adhering to appropriate timing for developing solutions. I then had the lawyers participate in role plays or observe as audience members. I assigned the audience members specific techniques to watch for, and at the end of each role play, asked them to critique the way the participants handled the techniques.

After the training was over, I met individually with the lawyers for a one-hour coaching session to give them the opportunity to thoroughly discuss the techniques learned and to apply those techniques to specific situations that they had faced or were expecting to face. I was then available to talk to each participant on an ad hoc basis as issues arose over the next six months.

The Result

The role plays emphasized why role-playing is much more effective as a learning tool than simply listening to a lecture. The first participant did the exact opposite of what I had described during the conflict resolution lecture. Rather than listening to his client to send the message that he was paying attention and wanted to resolve the situation, he started off by interrupting and disagreeing with the client. On the positive side, this greatly amused the audience and allowed them the opportunity to provide the participant with constructive feedback.

As the day progressed, people rapidly learned how to listen to their clients, even when they disagreed, and when and how to share their thoughts and positions. Although having a client who is displeased is never an easy or pleasant situation, the informal feedback that I received is that the attorneys were better able to counter what they perceived as unfair demands, explain differences of opinion, and soothe irritations without damaging their relationship with their clients.