Defusing Angry Counterparties

In disputes, lawyers are used to dealing with each other, which insulates them from the actual parties. Even in cases where we interact with individual litigants (otherwise known as litigants-in-person or LIPs), we rarely get flak directly in our faces for doing our jobs as long as we maintain our professional distance. In these rare situations where the other party starts an aggressive confrontation, how could one defuse or redirect anger to a more productive outcome?

(This assumes that one wants to defuse the situation – I can imagine that some people may want to assert dominance to retain control of the situation, but different strokes for different folks.)

I am part of a business networking chapter and we occasionally invite visitors to attend our meetings. A fellow member invited the director of a company that had made demands against my client, a former director of that same company (the member didn’t know of this situation). While I had not placed much weight on the strident demands made by the company’s lawyers (as most lawyers are prone and/or expected to do), I had not expected the visitor (lets call this person “X”) to take on an adversarial tone with me after he realised that I was the lawyer who had been corresponding with his solicitors.

Although one of the members had texted me during the meeting to give me heads up that X had identified me as opposing counsel and would likely approach me after the meeting, I was not prepared for X to make statements such as (every thing in quotes are reproduced in gist rather than word-for-word):

– “How can you represent a liar and a traitor?”

– “I understand lawyers have to do business, but surely they have ethics too?”

– “The evidence is on my side, and I can show you right now how we would win in court!”

My blood started to boil. Nobody likes to be accused of being unethical or incompetent. Value judgments were popping up in my head thick and fast, and I decided that the best safety valve would be a simple response:

“What do you hope to achieve by telling me these things?”

(Admittedly my tone was probably one of annoyance because I had a long day and was not expecting a personal confrontation. But I like to think I managed to have the presence of mind to avoid being defensive!)

X took it as an invitation to tell me about the company’s past relationship with my client, and how the company’s controllers thought that my client had repudiated that relationship in both commercial and personal terms. This gave me some insight that we were not simply dealing with loss of profit, but some relational issues had to be addressed as well. At the same time, it acted as a pressure valve for him because he was able to talk about his frustration with my client.

I was mindful that in normal circumstances, I had to communicate with opposing counsel and not bypass them to influence their client (although I don’t recall specifically learning how to handle proactive opposing parties during my bar exam tutorials), so I had to phrase my ideas in a roundabout way.

“If I were speaking to your lawyers, I would tell them that it seems that your client wants to resolve some issues which court orders would not be able to, and if you were willing to propose mediation, I could get my client to acknowledge and work through these issues with your client in a safe space.”

X accepted this roundabout invitation, said he would instruct the lawyers and we managed to shake hands before we parted. All things considered, the situation ended fairly positively.

In my younger days I might have automatically gone on the defensive, or tried to duel X into some form of submission. But having been taught to think of negotiation as redirection, as an aikido practitioner might do to physical attacks, it is both more productive and less stressful to defuse the situation by getting the other party to focus on his underlying concerns, rather than to butt heads over positions, and then redirect that energy towards a swifter resolution. As a wise sage once said, the best way to win is to do so without a battle – and defusing the anger keeps everyone out of unnecessary fights.