Legal professionals can and must appreciate that they can learn to truly excel in the face of hardship, difficulty and uncertainty, and not be dictated by it, writes Louise Mathias.
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, four years after admission to law, and two years after being called to the Bar. I was shocked, and that’s an understatement. I never imagined something like that would happen to me (it happens to others, right?). I was employed in medicine for 15 years prior to entering law. Nevertheless, I still felt like I was in a medical vortex, immediately the doctor uttered the words “you have breast cancer.” I felt like I was locked in a fast-moving time capsule, with multiple urgent appointments to complete extensive testing. The first surgery was completed within three weeks of diagnosis. It felt like a hailstorm hit, without any weather warning! After surgery, I commenced six months of chemotherapy, I lost my hair (and it came back grey!) and that was followed by five weeks of daily radiation. The turbulence then abated for six weeks, to allow me to summon physical strength, to reach the final step, 12-hour reconstructive surgery.
My life and career were disrupted, by circumstances that were out of my control and it caught me by surprise. My life changed forever as my “new normal” was different to what I had known. I had no guarantees about my future life, personal or professional (none of us do)!
I knew I could handle the experience in one of two ways:
1. Allow myself unlimited time to resent the diagnosis with unmanaged emotions, to live in daily fear, hold onto “the past” tightly and reject current realities and opportunities, let thoughts run riot, lose hope and joy, don’t dare dream or work towards goals, thinking that’s crazy, you don’t know what your future holds, it’s too uncertain, baton down the hatches, stay still and fixated on doing what you always have done and wait, there may be better times ahead; or
2. Alternatively, I could recognise the enormity of the obstacle I had to overcome, appreciate life is fragile and be thankful that I was in a unique position. I had an opportunity to attain “mortality clarity”, clear vision about what is most meaningful in my life. Most people only choose to get really clear, on their death bed, and it’s often too late for change, which leaves them regretful. Louise, you have the opportunity to pass on your experiences and lifelong learnings, to inspire others to live their lives fully, to their full potential (holistic approach). How fortunate are YOU!
I chose option two! Choosing this option in any challenge or when facing obstacles will always lead to learning, growth, happiness and more successful outcomes!
The surprise assault of COVID-19 has brought many of the same challenges; uncertainty, disruption, higher risk to the world, organisations and individuals. Nevertheless, it provides opportunity; to make new choices to assess the “new reality”, to learn, grow, develop, innovate and change. Unexpected obstacles shake complacency, to sharply remind us of what matters most. Challenges and overcoming obstacles are the catalyst for transformative changes for individuals, leaders, organisations and the delivery of legal service, to the highest magnitude… As General (Retired) Eric Shinseki said “if you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less”.
Let’s not buy into the falsehood you have no power to change, or give away your personal power, holding onto beliefs that originate from what other people taught you or are accepted as the “traditional norm” and which might not be based on current research or reality. Taking back your personal power builds courage. When you realise you have the ability to learn and figure things out, the capabilities to overcome negativity and you have choice… you will make great progress, happier choosing your own attitudes, actions and mindset, that will support your authentic journey to resolve conflict easier... fully alive!
Let’s talk about what we witnessed at the US Capitol building, as it relates to people in conflict, who had a ‘me versus you mentality’, with aggression directed toward those who had differing views, where fear was encouraged, division fuelled, no trust, unmanaged emotions, where people who had opposing views were dehumanised, without concern for their wellbeing. We each have a responsibility to choose to bridge the divide between people in conflict, so we don’t personally contribute to a “Capitol Hill” re-enactment at mediations.
I am sharing some of my learnings and experiences to help you resolve conflict easier and more often, as well as and to create healthy work environments, which are sourced from Harvard, certified high performance and EQ skills and habits:
1. Intentional: focus and be purposeful about who you want to be, how you want to show up in legal practice everyday, intentional about your goals when you attend mediation. Take ownership of your freedom to make intentional choices. If the methods you use to resolve conflict, are not chosen by you, you will find yourself enslaved to other’s opinions, expectations and demands and your own reactionary impulses. High performers demonstrate a tremendous amount of emotional intelligence, striving to be purposeful role models, everyday. Others rely on you to be on your “A game”;
2. Have a desire to create great relationships: focus on all of the balls that need to be juggled at different times, during the mediation process, to resolve conflict more easily. Aspire to create fulfilling, trusting, friendly (make your adversary your colleague “me and you” not “me versus you”), instead of an enemy mentality, even though each party has differing opinions. Friendly relationships, reduce stress, brings greater connection, joy and success to the process, where reason, logic and emotions are maximised and resolution is achieved, more often; and
3. Communicate with influence: How many arguments are escalated by posturing, trying to impress others about how much you know, you’re better, you know more, you are right, and the other side is wrong, you will “win”. Instead, build your confidence. Ask open-ended questions such as “tell me more”, be being genuinely curious in the answers, while demonstrating empathy. Empathy doesn’t mean agreement, rather putting oneself in the other persons’ shoes, exhibiting a willingness to try to understand. Listening is the cheapest concession you can make in conflict resolution.
You are stronger than you think, you can climb to the top… get “rich” and be a successful conflict resolver, creating less stress in the process, building relationships that show concern for the wellbeing of others, reaching resolution more easily, and more often. Remember, we don’t know how others are feeling, if they have mental health issues, or what they may be struggling with at mediation. Let’s make high-performance conflict resolution!
Your success is not dependent on external circumstances, it’s dependent on YOU! Get out of your own way! Hardship, difficulty, uncertainty and overcoming obstacles… that is where you learn to truly excel!
Louise Mathias is a barrister, mediator, coach and consultant.