One key to a successful law practice is effective communication. Whether you’re a partner, associate, solo practitioner, or support staff, you likely field countless requests from colleagues and clients on a daily basis. When your workload is at max capacity, it can be challenging to discern what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to.
A Common Law Firm Communication Breakdown
Saying “yes” to everything, especially when you want to say “no,” often leads to communication breakdowns and complicates intra-office relationships and client services. Many attorneys share some variation of this communication breakdown with me:
A colleague says “yes” to a request when they really mean “no,” “not now,” or “I’m not sure.” For example, a partner asks an associate (or staff person) to perform a task, and the associate/staff person agrees because they feel like they can’t say “no” without repercussions.
Or a client makes a request, and the attorney feels like they can’t say “no” or “not until later.”
In either scenario, saying “yes” often leads to a work product created under stress and a less-than-optimal deliverable. This can disappoint and frustrate both the requester and the doer. Associates share with me that feeling like they must say “absolutely yes” to a partner’s request often results in overwhelm, feeling disempowered, and feeling chronically anxious. On the flip side, partners share with me that they feel frustrated and bewildered when a work product is done poorly or turned in late. Both sides of the coin lead to strained work relationships, and over time can lead to burnout and attrition.
Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before You Say “Yes” to a Request
Since workplace communications have changed—and been strained—as a result of the pandemic, firms have recently been asking me to conduct trainings on effective communication skills. Through the process of creating and conducting these trainings, I have dialed in on five key questions to ask before responding to a request:
- Can I pause before saying “yes” or “no”?
- Do I have capacity?
- Can I give a qualified yes?
- What am I afraid of?
- Does it feel right?
These five questions guide the doer through an internal process that helps to clarify a response before answering
1. Can I pause before saying “yes” or “no”?
Pausing before replying to a request gives you time to check in with yourself and assess the situation from a broader perspective. Due to the fast-paced nature and pressures of practicing law, you may feel you must urgently respond to a colleague’s or client’s request. Most inquiries, however, aren’t so urgent that you can’t take five minutes to pause and evaluate your options. It doesn’t have to be awkward to take a pause. If the request comes through email, take a mental break by stepping away from your computer or phone for a few minutes and then respond. If the request is made in person, get the information you need and then say, “let me check on a few things and get back to you [offer a day or time].”
2. Do I have capacity?
Capacity is your ability to do something in the timeframe requested. Having capacity includes whether you have the skill, competence, experience, and time to deliver on the request. If you determine that you don’t have skill, competence, or experience, but you do have interest and time to deliver, ask yourself: “Who can help me so I can learn what is needed here?”
If you want to say “yes” but don’t have the time to do the task in the timeframe requested, ask the requester: “Can we negotiate a more doable timeframe?” Negotiating a workable schedule gives you the time to deliver a work product that you enjoy doing and feel proud of.
It can be challenging for lawyers to admit that we don’t have capacity. However, saying “yes” when you don’t have time or proficiency can erode trust with the requester, as you may deliver either a tardy or a shoddy work product, or both. Conversely, discussing capacity can build trust as it helps the requester understand your capacity and where you need assistance. It can also offer you a valuable opportunity to ask for and receive help and to learn something new.
3. Can I give a qualified yes?
Instead of an “absolute yes,” consider instead a “qualified yes.” A “qualified yes” is a “yes” with a condition or a clarification. For example, if asked, “Can you do this now?,” a “qualified yes” from an associate to a partner might sound something like, “Yes, but can you please clarify if I should do this project before or after the project you assigned yesterday?” or “Yes, if you are able to help me better understand the format you’d like me to use.” A “qualified yes” to a client may sound something like, “Yes, but not until next Friday,” or “I would like to say yes, but I need to do some research first; I’ll get back to you by the end of the week.”
4. What am I afraid of?
Saying “yes’’ out of fear, such as the fear of disappointing the requester or the fear of missing out on an opportunity, may result in compromising yourself. You may also compromise your mental or physical health, your other commitments, and/or your work product.
Agreeing to do something out of fear often results in procrastination or rumination, both of which generate stress and decrease efficiency. If you feel anxious or dread when fielding a request, pause and see if a “qualified yes” or a “no’’ is a better choice. If you find yourself wanting to say “yes” out of fear or reactivity, pause and see if a “qualified yes” or a “no” is a more appropriate response.
5. Does it feel right?
This is your opportunity to do a “gut check.” Our bodies register our stress response to requests in a way that our thinking brains may miss. Any physical tightness—commonly felt in the stomach, shoulders, chest, or jaw—is our body’s way of telling us that something is not right, and a pause is in order. Emotional tension (such as frustration or resentment toward the requester or about the situation) is also an indicator that pausing to reflect on the questions above would help before responding to the request.
Conversely, feeling physically relaxed, or like you have energy to mobilize toward the task requested of you, or feeling curious or enthusiastic about the request are good indicators that you’re ready to say “yes.”
Make it Meaningful
Once you’ve agreed to deliver on a request, find something about completing the task that makes it meaningful to you. For example, ask yourself, “How will completing this task further my career goals?” Or “What is the most interesting thing about performing this task?” Focusing on what is meaningful to you before performing a request will help you engage in the task and increase your satisfaction in the process.
Saying “Yes” When You Really Want to Say “No”
Something else to consider is if you find yourself frequently saying “yes” at work when you, in fact, feel like saying “no.” In this situation, it may be helpful to pause and reflect on whether your current job is a good match for you and your values. Ideally, your overall impression of your work should feel positive despite the volume of requests. However, if you feel chronically overwhelmed at work and feel like saying “no” most of the time, it is advisable to seek support from a resilience coach or therapist. With professional support, you can cultivate healthy workplace boundaries and assess whether the culture in which you’re working is generating sufficient satisfaction for your life goals. A resilience coach or therapist can also help you determine if you’re burning out and offer tools to help you recover.
If you’re a team leader noticing that your team is having ongoing struggles with communication, delegation, and boundaries, it could be helpful to consider hiring a consultant to help the team learn effective communication skills. A whole-team approach to solving communication disconnects will ease frustration and improve team efficiency, while more effectively meeting client demands.
Putting It into Practice as a Pathway to Well-Being
For individuals: take yourself through the five question inquiry process the next ten times a request is made of you, particularly if you notice yourself wanting to give a “knee-jerk yes’’ when you actually feel like saying “no.” You can go through the process mentally, verbally with another person, or by writing out your answers. The more you practice with the questions, the quicker the inquiry process becomes and the better you’ll be at responding clearly to requests.
For team leaders: share this article with your team so that everyone is on the same page about how to effectively respond to a request. It may be helpful to bring in an outside expert to help walk through implementing these questions into your workflow and to address how to effectively make a request and clean up communication disconnects.
Addressing communication challenges—especially those that pop up chronically without resolution—is an important but often overlooked pathway to firm-wide well-being. As humans, we are “wired for connection.” Our nervous systems require healthy relationships in order to feel safe and at peace in the world. When communications with colleagues and clients go well, we feel connected. Healthy interactions feel good physically and emotionally: we look forward to connecting with the other person and anticipate comradery and good will. When we intentionally and effectively address communication challenges, we build trust and reliability among team members. Similarly, cleaning up communication disconnects with clients builds integrity, accountability, and loyalty.
Conversely, when communication breaks down, it creates disconnection and a lack of ease in our nervous system. Without repair, communication challenges create relational discomfort that stymies or halts team efficacy. Practicing effective communication includes having both clear expectations about making and responding to requests, as well as a structured process for “cleaning up” communication disconnects.
The five question inquiry process above is a building block for effective communication and healthy boundaries in the workplace. There may be a period of adjustment as you or your team implement these questions before responding to requests. Over time, however, you can create a “new normal” that cultivates better workplace boundaries, a more safe and satisfying workplace culture, and a greater sense of personal well-being and accomplishment. As you progress, notice how your mental and physical health are positively impacted and look for signs that indicate your resilience and performance are improving.
Laura Mahr is a North Carolina and Oregon lawyer and the founder of Conscious Legal Minds LLC, providing mindfulness based well-being coaching, training, and consulting for attorneys and law offices nationwide. Her work is informed by 13 years of practice as a civil sexual assault attorney, 25 years as a student and teacher of mindfulness and yoga, a love of neuroscience, and a passion for resilience. If you’d like to learn more about cultivating effective communication skills with your team, contact Laura Mahr, consciouslegalminds.com, info@consciouslegalminds, 828-484-2004.
As an additional resource for building resilience to workplace-related stress, check out: “Mindfulness for Lawyers: Building Resilience to Stress Using Mindfulness, Meditation, and Neuroscience” (online and on demand mental health CLE approved by the NC State Bar): consciouslegalminds.com/register.