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Dealing to the Negative Stories Family Lawyers Tell Ourselves

Every family lawyer has one – that negative experience that they play over and over in their head. Some are fortunate to have just one in their career, many of us count having one in a week as a good week!

Perhaps it was a Court appearance where the Judge hauled you over the coals and you are replaying all the things you should have said.

Maybe it was a client berating you.

It could be a mistake you made on a client’s matter.

Perhaps it was a client complaining about you and blaming you for the outcome of their situation.

I am picking that in those moments, you become your harshest critic. You begin to doubt your abilities. You likely say mean things in your head about yourself and your aptitude as a lawyer that you would never say to a friend or colleague if they were facing the same situation. I know I do (I gave an example of me doing this in a recent blog). You beat yourself up and go back to it in your mind over and over – for months or years. It becomes a hugely significant negative story that you tell yourself on a repeat loop. It takes you on a downward thought spiral. I find negative situations are particularly hard to let go of when they carry with them a sense of being treated unfairly or unjustly, as opposed to the situations where I can hand-on-heart say “Yep, mea culpa, I didn’t do my best work here”.  

And what of the compliments you receive? What of the times you do a brilliant job for your client? When you have aced a difficult negotiation or court appearance? Do you tend to brush those off? Perhaps you may even deflect them and attribute them to something or someone else. My bet is that you probably aren’t ruminating over them months later in the way you may do a negative experience or complaint or insult.

This phenomenon isn’t something unique to you or to family lawyers. Psychologists have a name for it: “negativity bias”. Yes, it’s a “thing”.

In short, the negativity bias refers to our tendency to disproportionately take on negative stimuli and dwell on those more than we do positive stimuli. The negativity bias means we react more strongly to negative situations and stew about them more frequently and deeply than positive ones. As a result, we can build up these negative experiences or situations so they seem more significant and important to us than they actually are. It means we recall insults more than we do praise. It’s why we focus in on the few critical comments in an otherwise glowing performance review at work or still cringe when we think of a rough day in Court when everyone else has moved on from it. 

Neuroscience has shown that our brains respond more strongly to negative stimuli than positive. The bias is likely a result of evolution. Once upon a time, paying attention to threats and the bad things around us could have been life saving. Nowadays, we no longer need to be on such high alert for threats to our survival but, because of the way our brains react to negative stimuli, the negativity bias impacts our decision making and flavours our attitudes and behaviours. Appreciating this bias is fundamental to our work as negotiators and conflict resolution enablers but that’s a blog for another day.

I was reminded of the impact of the negativity bias when I was speaking with a doctor I work with. One of her areas of expertise is mental wellbeing for doctors.  She mentioned to me the importance for doctors of focusing on the “positive patient moments”, that recalling and focusing on the positive patient moments counteracts the propensity we all have for unequally taking onboard the negatives. As family lawyers we can use our “positive client moments” or (for the kiwis reading this) “better work stories” in the same way. The good doctor suggests journaling the positive client moments - keeping a list of them to reflect on when you have rough professional moments. I say, forget burying them in a journal - make them constantly visible to you and your team! Your team are prone to the negativity bias also (we all are) and often, “frontline” support staff encounter client negativity more than the lawyers they work for do.

I have an action door (well, actually, double doors) in our office - it's where our key projects and plans and goals sit.  Our better work stories are now going up on the door so we are reminded of them every time we walk through it, in order to deal a blow to our negativity bias and prevent the downward mental spiral of our focus on the negative moments (and they are just moments!). It’s such a  simple strategy I wonder why I didn’t do it years ago!

They won't be the miracle panacea for all the stresses and strains of our work and the impact upon us of our negativity bias. However, the positive client moments on the action door will serve as constant reminders of the good we do, the healing we are part of and the better work stories we have!

What do you think? Do you find yourself particularly prone to the negativity bias in your work? I'd love to hear about your thoughts and experiences over in The Law Lighthouse Group's private Facebook page.

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