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How to Handle Conflicts with Colleagues in the Legal Profession

This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be used in place of professional advice, treatment, or care in any way. Lawyers, law students, judges, and other legal professionals in Massachusetts can find more on scheduling a Free & Confidential appointment with a licensed clinician here.

Workplace conflicts among colleagues are both common and necessary. Find out what you need to focus on to get better results from yours.

Despite most people’s desire to avoid or minimize them, conflicts are normal. In fact, conflicts are not necessarily a bad thing. Most of them are positive, we just tend to remember the ones with negative outcomes.

Simply put, conflicts are differences in perspectives, opinions, viewpoints or values. When viewed through a more neutral lens, conflicts have the potential to be positive agents for change.

So how do you make a shift from experiencing a conflict as destructive to experiencing it as a positive agent for change? In short, you learn about the levels of conflict and how to navigate them effectively.



At the heart of every conflict, both parties want to be understood. The thinking process goes something like this: “I’m a reasonable person. If I can just get the other person to understand what I’m saying and where I’m coming from, they will agree with me, and the conflict will be gone.” Then you try your hardest to convince the other person of your perspective. The problem is, both parties have this same desire and both want to be understood first. The result is an impasse, which usually feels negative since there is no helpful resolution.

Since you cannot control what others do, it is best to focus on what you have control over, namely yourself.

Be the first person to listen. Ask clarifying questions that will allow the person to express his thoughts and feelings. Acknowledge that you have heard what he has said and that you recognize how he feels about it. (That last point is very important.)

Feelings are often overlooked. If you simply repeat what someone has said, hoping she will feel understood, you will likely be met with a “yeah, but you still just don’t get it” reaction and get a repeat of the person’s original message. That repetition is a sign that the speaker does not feel her message (content and feeling) has been understood and acknowledged.



The next step in navigating a conflict in a positive way is to recognize what the conflict is actually about. A helpful resource for breaking down conflicts is “Getting to Yes,” by Roger Fisher and William Ury. It’s a classic, easy-to-read book on the topic. A blog post Harvard’s Program on Negotiation identifies 3 Types of Conflict and How to Address Them here.

The framework of “Issues, Positions, and Interests” is a helpful way to break down a conflict. Conflicts are made up of different levels. Breaking conflicts into these levels can help focus your efforts and prevent you from getting stuck on the surface.

  • The Issue is the question to which there’s disagreement over the answer. (e.g., ‘Should the firm take this client?’)
  • The Positions are the answers that each party gives to that question. (e.g., ‘Yes’ and ‘No’)
  • The Interests are all of the reasons why each party has chosen their position. (e.g. perceived affect)

Interests are rarely discussed directly. Most conflicts get stuck at the positions level, and many assumptions are made about the other party’s interests.

Positive outcomes from a conflict require a mutual understanding of each other’s interests, identification of shared interests, and collaborative decision-making. Achieving positive outcomes from conflict takes practice, and returning these simple steps will help guide you:

  1. Think of conflict as potential for a helpful interaction.
  2. Assume less.
  3. Be the first to listen and reflect the other’s statements and feelings.
  4. Communicate your interests.
  5. Look for common interests.



When you seek to understand, you gain confidence in the interaction, learn more than you knew before, and develop stronger connections with others. Hopefully, you will also feel more comfortable with your colleague. You may still disagree, but at least you will foster understanding and respect for each other.

But sometimes, you don’t just have a conflict with a colleague — you’re also in a toxic workplace. While the quickest change happens from the top down, you can create change even if you’re at the bottom. In fact, non-supervising employees can have a significant effect of the workplace culture. The influence that each employee has on the workplace culture is significant. Our advice in How to Clean Up Toxic Workplaces focuses largely on what supervisors can do, and also includes the following suggestions for non-supervising employees:

Be the change you seek. If your workplace culture is starting to spoil, identify specific changes that you would like to see among your colleagues. Start small, be consistent, and demonstrate those changes in your behavior toward others. The effect on others might not be noticed immediately (change is difficult), but over time your consistency will have an effect.

Raise concerns and offer solutions. When you notice a problem, bring your concern to a supervisor along with potential solutions or what you need from them. This accomplishes at least three things: (1) bringing issues to a supervisor lets them know that the problem is noticed by others and validates its seriousness in case they have noticed it but minimized its effect, (2) if brought up in a productive way, this can communicate to your supervisor that you are invested in the success of the firm and in their success as a manager, and (3) providing potential solutions both helps the manager identify options and gives the manager a concrete way to help the situation. Most people want to help others, and if they are given a concrete way to help, they are more likely to act.

Get support. Find more on scheduling here. If you feel overwhelmed by the challenges you’re facing, don’t endure it without support. Lawyers and law students in Massachusetts can talk to an LCL clinician confidentially and for free.

Above all else, always remember that while you cannot control what other people do, you do have control over what you do. Use your energy there. Others may follow your lead.

.    .    .

Shawn Healy, PhD

An earlier version of this post was originally published by as Handling Conflicts With Your Colleagues.

CATEGORIES: Career & Practice Concerns | Leadership | Relationships | Stress & Resilience | Uncategorized
TAGS: communication

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