Why Lawyers Avoid Conflict And What It’s Costing Them

Are you surprised that lawyers tend to be people that avoid conflict? Are you one of them?

It turns out that there are reasons why lawyers tend to avoid conflict.  An avoidance “strategy” can be useful but it can also cost you a lot. Observe yourself this week to see if your conflict style has a lot of “avoid” in it and consider what it is costing you.

There are five modes for responding to conflict: competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, and accommodating, according to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). Your “conflict style” is your overall go-to pattern of behaviors in and responses to conflict. It’s some combination of the five conflict modes. Ronda Muir, cite below, has a nice discussion of TKI and conflict. You could likely guess that one of the top two preferred conflict modes for lawyers is competing.  Makes sense, right?  After all, lawyering has a strong competitive element.  You want to WIN!! Win the case, win the trial, win the negotiation. Surprisingly, the other top preferred conflict mode for lawyers is conflict avoidance.  It tends to show up for non-legal issues, like dealing with colleagues, or your company or firm.

Why might this be?

Here are some possibilities:

  • Conflict is endemic to practicing law, and possibly we don’t have any emotional energy left over when it comes to addressing conflict within partnerships, corporate departments, staff, etc.
  • Let’s face it, lawyers tend to have low EI (Emotional Intelligence).  We routinely score lower than average in overall EI.  And it takes a fair amount of EI to address, manage, and resolve conflict.
  • The Almighty Billable Hour reigns over many of us, so we overwhelmingly choose to invest our time in technical legal work, leaving the other aspects of the job to work themselves out without intentional oversight.  (Why am I going to “waste time” on the thankless job of working out complicated conflict resolutions when I have important legal work to do?).
  • Most lawyers are “thinkers” on the Myers-Briggs scale, a personality trait that has tendencies to prolong conflict, for instance with a pattern of unresolved frustration leading to outbursts.
  • Lawyers want to be seen as capable, competent professionals and they sometimes think that acknowledging conflict reflects poorly on them or shows weakness.

Three primary ways that conflict avoidance manifests itself in the workplace, according to Stuart Hearn, CEO of Clear Review:

  • Ignoring the issue by denying it exists.
  • Sidestepping the issue by changing the subject.
  • Completely withdrawing from the situation.

Hearn writes that, from a corporate standpoint “The negative side effects of conflict avoidance are often high turnover, a dysfunctional working environment, strained communication, loss of productivity and impaired teamwork.”

On a more personal level, if leaders avoid conflict and don’t make decisions while they hope things will “settle down”, then people under them are forced to take matters into their own hands. Or there are changes in direction as the decision maker changes his or her mind in response to different waves of pushback. And small disagreements have a way of turning into big disagreements if they are allowed to fester.

Patrick Lencioni of The Table Group describes the different conflict patterns in organizations along a conflict continuum from conflict avoidance and superficial agreement to mean-spirited destructive conflict.  In the middle is the ideal conflict point, where parties are engaging in highly constructive conflict but avoiding destructive, personal attacks. Many law firms tend to fall into the avoidance portion of the continuum.

Finally, if you are not getting what you want and deserve, is conflict avoidance part of the reason?  You can often change what is happening around you if you are willing to negotiate for what you want. There might be some conflict, but it could pay off.

  1. Daicoff, Susan Swaim, Expanding the Lawyer’s Toolkit of Skills and Competencies: Synthesizing Leadership, Professionalism, Emotional Intelligence, Conflict Resolution, and Comprehensive Law (2012). Santa Clara Law Review, pp 795-874, at 867; Available at: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2448922
  2. Muir, Ronda, Beyond Smart Lawyering with Emotional Intelligence, (2017), ABA , at 192-195.
  3. See Stuart Hearn’s remarks about conflict avoidance at: https://www.clearreview.com/conflict-avoidance-destroys-work-culture/
  4. Lencioni, Patrick , The Advantage, (2012), Jossey-Bass, at 42

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