Washington Lawyer

Using Your Emotional Intelligence to Become a Better Lawyer

From Washington Lawyer, March 2016

By Tim Wells

Emotional intelligence illustrationDenise Perme is manager of the D.C. Bar Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), which provides free, confidential services to D.C. Bar members, judges, and D.C. law students who are experiencing problems that interfere with their personal or professional lives.

This April, Perme, a clinical social worker (LICSW), and Michelle Richards, an attorney and certified coach with MCR Strategies, will teach a six-session course titled "Emotional Intelligence for Lawyers—Developing the Skill Set" that will help participants develop their EQ skills to become better lawyers.

Recently, Perme sat down with Washington Lawyer to discuss the importance of emotional intelligence to practicing lawyers and to provide details about her upcoming course on the topic.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is a set of skills, both social and emotional, that we tap into to better understand ourselves and others. We use these skills to attain awareness and information about our own emotions, to perceive the emotions of others, to communicate with people, to maintain relationships, and to deal with the stressors and challenges inherent in life. People who strengthen their emotional intelligence can use emotional information in a healthy and effective way, and they are more likely to succeed in their careers and personal lives. The concepts of emotional intelligence were developed in the 1980s and '90s by social psychologists, and these practices received even more recognition in the mid-'90s after Dr. Daniel Goleman's bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, was published. Goleman's book brought the concepts of emotional intelligence into the mainstream of contemporary psychology.

How did you become interested in EQ?

As a clinical social worker, I know the importance of having an awareness of feelings. Many of our LAP clients are going through their lives without knowledge of their own feelings or those of their clients or colleagues. When people are unaware of emotions, they are reactive instead of contemplative. They tend to act out their feelings instead of internally processing and understanding them. Acting out causes behavioral and relationship difficulties, two of the most common problems we see in our LAP clients. As a mental health practitioner, I have a strong interest in helping people to become conscious of their emotions, to accept their emotions, and to work through them so these issues don't negatively impact professional behavior and social interactions.

How do you distinguish between EQ and a personality trait such as optimism or agreeableness?

Emotional intelligence and personality are very different, but they do complement one another. Personality is fixed, and it cannot be developed or strengthened. We have the same basic personality throughout our lives. There are personality types such as extroversion or introversion that research shows we are born with. How we make decisions and how we take in information are also personality characteristics. While personality appears to be inborn, some character traits may have their origins in early childhood experiences. Character traits such as honesty, friendliness, or optimism might appear to be adaptations over time or through experience. As such, one could posit that these traits have the potential to be developed. There are different points of view on whether a character trait such as optimism or pessimism can be changed, but in general these traits are not exactly learned, not in the traditional sense of what we mean by learned. EQ skills, however, can be developed and strengthened. People can learn to be aware of their feelings and the feelings of others. We can strengthen our ability to express ourselves and communicate effectively using our developing awareness. Research has shown that we can learn to express ourselves, manage our stress, and respond to challenges in a more effective manner by strengthening our social and emotional skills.

Why is EQ relevant to lawyers?

Lawyers are trained to approach situations by putting the focus on thinking, using their reasoning ability to solve problems. They are actually trained in law school to keep emotions out of the equation because the law is not about how we feel. Separating emotions from the process, not to cloud our judgment, is a good thing to do in the practice of law. It is just not a good thing to do in the practice of being a healthy human being. Humans have feelings that often inform us of important needs. When we don't allow ourselves to be aware of and accept our feelings, we can run into problems. When we deny our feelings of fear or sadness, for example, we can run the risk of acting them out instead. Having explosive outbursts of anger directed at ourselves or at other people, or treating our colleagues and family in ways that alienate them, are examples of this type of acting out. Lawyers deal with people all the time as part of their work. Lawyers interact with and have ongoing relationships with clients, colleagues, judges, opposing counsel, managing partners, support staff, and many others. Being aware of your emotions, and increasing your awareness of the feelings of other people, will help you in your law practice and it will help you manage and improve your work relationships. Improving your emotional intelligence also will help you with decision making, stress management, and impulse control. These are all areas that, if improved, will help you to become a better lawyer.

Tell us more about the upcoming EQ course the D.C. Bar is offering starting in April.

Michelle Richards, a local lawyer who coaches other lawyers on business development, and I will be teaching a six-class series at the D.C. Bar starting in April. We will meet six times, every other week, for 90 minutes. The class will include skill-building exercises focused on raising awareness of emotions, communication, maintaining relationships, and dealing with stressors and challenges. Before the first class, participants will be administered the EQ-i 2.0, the preeminent assessment tool to determine a person's baseline level of emotional intelligence. This assessment has many years of research behind it. During the first class, participants will receive a report from their assessment, which will provide feedback about their level of emotional intelligence. The remaining classes will focus on skill building. The classes will feature a mix of lectures and group exercises designed to improve EQ skills. Our hope is that participants will come away with a greater understanding of their own emotions as well as the emotions of others, and see an improvement in how they use this information in their communication, decision making, relationships, and stress management.

Reach Tim Wells at twells@dcbar.org.