Emotional Intelligence: The most important skill lawyers need but don’t know about.
Special skills and superhuman talents abound in the worlds of superhero movies, each character with powers that make them unique. What we often fail to notice (or is overlooked by storytellers because it’s not as flashy) is that most superheroes share the ability to know and control themselves (The Hulk being the obvious exception, but he’s working on it). They are also keenly skilled at understanding the motivations and inner workings of others. It may not sell movies, but this Emotional Intelligence (EQ) superpower plays a significant role in a superhero’s success and is a common thread throughout their stories. Unlike with their other skills, as the audience, we rarely get a glimpse into how superheroes develop their world-saving EQ. Perhaps it’s innate, unlikely, but perhaps. For the rest of us, the cultivation of EQ requires effort and is equally as important to our personal and professional success, especially in the legal profession.
Understanding Emotional Intelligence
EQ is a new term for an ancient concept.
The term Emotional Intelligence was first coined in 1990, but the roots of this concept date back to ancient religions and philosophers. A prime example is found in Socrates “Care for your psyche…know thyself, for once we know ourselves, we may learn how to care for ourselves.” Here Socrates is advocating for a Socratic-style self-examination. As lawyers, we are familiar with the Socratic method, but rarely practice it on our own internal workings, especially to better understand and respond to clients, colleagues, superiors, judges, and opposing counsel.
EQ measures how well you can understand and regulate your emotions, understand the emotions of others, and maintain healthy relationships based on these.
EQ involves the ability to identify different emotions both within ourselves and in others, understand their effects and use that information to guide thinking and behavior. The characteristics of EQ are identified as: 1) self-awareness; 2) self-regulation; 3) motivation; 4) empathy; and 5) social skills. EQ may, on the surface, appear to just be common sense. In reality, understanding both our own and others’ behaviors and the reasons behind them takes intentional effort and practice. It goes beyond the ability to think and behave in a reasonable way, requiring us to go deeper into understanding the motivations and vulnerabilities that reside in the subconscious. Like the metaphorical iceberg, there is a lot below the surface.
Contrary to popular belief, EQ is not about controlling your feelings, but rather about understanding them, and those of others’, so that you can choose behaviors that align with your goals. When we do this, we give ourselves the opportunity to thoughtfully respond to a clearer more detailed fact pattern.
How lawyers typically rank in EQ
Despite our keen ability to “argue both sides,” we as lawyers score below average on the standard bell curve for EQ. We are, understandably, typically not big fans of this finding. Often priding ourselves as excellent critical thinkers, we tend to miss the opportunity to apply these imperative skills to our own psyches. Interestingly, our training as lawyers and our legal culture is credited as a primary reason for our below-average score.
Explanations often turn to how the practice of law is fundamentally about negative thinking. We are skilled pessimists, trained from 1L year to be in search of the problems/issues and prepare for the worst. While a critical skill in the practice of law, this tends to limit our ability to look further into the forces at play behind our own perspectives and behaviors, as well as those of others’. Moreover, lawyers are not systematically hired for their EQ skills. This naturally results in a lack of intentional rewarding of EQ skills, a lack of conscious role modeling of EQ skills, and a lack of training for EQ skills. Both our training and our work environments typically ignore EQ so it’s no surprise that we as a profession tend to score below average.
As with any bell curve, this does not mean that all lawyers are entirely devoid of EQ. It simply illustrates that we as a population do not typically demonstrate the skills measured by EQ. Lucky for us, EQ is not genetically fixed. We can improve our EQ and reap its benefits by learning and practicing 1) self-awareness; 2) self-regulation; 3) motivation; 4) empathy; and 5) social skills.
Boost your EQ
Interestingly, while our legal training and culture are often blamed for our typically low EQ scores, it is also our critical thinking skills that make us well-primed to improving our EQ. Our ability to critically explore alternative explanations is key to better understanding ourselves and others and thus improving our decision-making.
RECOMMENDATION: Be inquisitive about the assumptions driving your emotions and the displayed emotions of others. Employ your Socratic skills to question “What else is at play here?” “How are my behaviors in the present being influenced by emotions from the past?” What beyond the immediately observable and typically associated could be motivating the behaviors of my colleague/friend/client/opposing counsel?”
RECOMMENDATION: Use established tools to help you identify how your own past experiences and emotions influence your current behaviors and how you perceive the behaviors of others. The more aware we are of our own thinking and feeling patterns, the better equipped we are to make choices aligned with our goals because we can better see the full picture of emotions and motivations influencing ourselves and others. Check out this quick eight-question quiz to learn more about the thinking patterns that most commonly impede lawyers and which mindset mistake might be sabotaging your EQ the most.
RECOMMENDATION: Once we understand how our subconscious rules and assumptions, and the emotions that go with them, influence our behaviors and our perceptions of others, we can systematically track them to strengthen our awareness of opportunities to practice EQ skills such as self-regulation, motivation, and empathy. In turn, this equips us to make better decisions. Download this free cognitive-behavioral tool to systematically track how your rules, assumptions, and emotions are influencing your behaviors and choices and better spot those opportunities to strengthen your EQ.
While our current legal culture does not actively cultivate and encourage the development of EQ, as lawyers, we are keenly positioned to improve our own EQ by directing our curiosity and critical thinking skills towards ourselves and the inner workings of others. The higher our EQ, the better equipped we are to understand and overcome our own procrastination, discord with colleagues, and roadblocks presented by both clients and opposing counsel. Improving EQ is a critical tool to more goal-aligned decision-making, especially in times of stress.
We invite you to watch the recorded webinar below.
About the Author
Chelsy Castro is CEO and Founder of Castro Jacobs Psychotherapy and Consulting (CJPC), a firm specializing in lawyer well-being. An attorney turned psychotherapist and career strategist, Chelsy counsels individuals and the organizations they work for on how to achieve their goals in healthy and productive ways. Chelsy’s publications and trainings focus on science-based skills and strategies for improving performance and increasing well-being in high-pressure professions.
After practicing law as a multilingual attorney in the field of international regulatory compliance, Chelsy later earned her clinical degree at the University of Chicago and shifted her focus to lawyer well-being. Prior to launching CJPC, Chelsy designed, developed, and managed clinical programs for the legal profession, and provided evidence-based psychotherapy and training for lawyers, judges, and law students.