The panic started on finding several emails and a fraught voicemail message from my client. We were about to sign off a relationship property agreement that had taken a lot of work and fraught negotiations to arrive at. Now, just as I thought we would be ready to sign off, she was panicked. She had discovered a change in the value of some assets that had her riled up. She thought her ex was about to get an unfair financial advantage.
I read the emails and as if by osmosis, her panic became my panic. I felt it rising in me. I could see our agreement slipping away. I called her. She was angry. She was scared. She was determined this was unfair situation was not going to happen.
She started blaming the process and, although she told me she was happy with my work, I felt to blame.
My heart started pounding harder. I heard my voice somehow rise up in pitch. My head felt tight. Everything felt tight. I found myself starting to speak over her in order to be heard. The temperature of the conversation was starting to rise. My ego began stomping around between my ears, making it hard to properly hear her. My desire to see the agreement finalised momentarily meant I couldn’t see anything but that crumbling away.
The ticker tape in my head started up, stealing my clarity. “Have I screwed this up? I’m sure I haven’t. How has this happened? None of us could have seen this happening! But, cripes, this just proves that I really am a terrible lawyer. The truth is out. I shouldn’t be doing this. I really am not good enough. I feel so bad. This will be the end of my career…” (There's a whole other blog in this kind of thinking!)
Then...“This is madness! You are not being the lawyer you want to be in this moment! You are not being the HUMAN you want to be in this moment. You need to bring this to an end now.”
The call ended and I took some deep breaths, spoke to a colleague and then calmly emailed the client to ask that she send me a relevant document. As soon as I saw it, I knew what had happened. The client had misinterpreted and miscalculated. I let the client know. She was equal parts relieved and embarrassed. She had no reason to be.
Lessons are often found in unlikely sources. My client and I could both have taken a leaf out of the US Navy Seals’ lesson book. In a recent interview, a Republican Congress member who also happened to be a decorated, former Navy Seal explained “Exuding positivity and calmness in crisis is exactly how we ask our Seals to lead. When bullets are flying past my head, I don’t need to raise my voice. Calm breeds calm. Panic breeds panic.”. There it is.
Her panic bred mine which in turn bred more panic in her and so it went on. Clarity could only arrive when I removed myself from the situation and calmed the hell down!
Her panic was excusable and was a reminder to me that finalising a relationship property settlement can be another painful layer of grief being peeled away within the client’s separation. Her stress levels, as she faced forging ahead a financial future on her own, were heightened. Her brain was in fight or flight mode. Is it any wonder she misinterpreted the document and jumped straight to fear and panic mode?
My panic was far less excusable.
This year, I have been striving to bring increased awareness to what I am bringing to my interactions with others, including clients and colleagues. I think this is more important than ever at this time. On top of our usual daily stresses, our brains are currently also responding to the dangers of the Covid pandemic and trying to process the steady stream of news about those dangers, driving us into “flight or fight” mode. Even if we feel we are coping through the pandemic and doing "Ok", behind the scenes our brains are in a state of heightened receptivity to danger. Our panic response is loaded and ready to go. With this in mind, as I move through my work and dealings with clients and colleagues, I have a new mantra running in my head: “Calm breeds calm. Panic breeds panic”.
Had an experience like this? What works for you to keep calm when all around you is a big, hot, flailing mess? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments or over in The Law Lighthouse Group's private Facebook page.