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Responding to ”Lawyering”

It's easy to slip from honest expression to expressing your needs as though you were making a case to the judge? (i.e., lawyering for your needs).  For example, lawyering for your needs sounds something like this:

"I am wanting you to just listen.  As I go through this difficult time I want to be able just to express my pain and I don't think I do it that often.  I mean there are plenty of times when I listen to you and your struggles with finding work and having interviews and all those things.  I think it is okay for me to say what's going on for me.  This is my experience right now.  I listen to you. You know the other night when …"

What if you are on the receiving end of this?  How can you respond in a way that keeps you connected?

In Nonviolent Communication (NVC) there are always two choices in the dance of connection with another :  honest expression or empathy.

In this example, if you choose empathy, you would likely interrupt the speaker right before or right after you heard "and I don't think I do it that often."  Before this phrase, you have already heard the observation, feeling, and need.  All the words that come after express the speaker's nervousness about revealing their feelings and needs and their need for acceptance regarding that expression.  Jumping in quickly with an empathy guess helps meet their need for acceptance, thus bypassing the lawyering talk.  Interrupting with empathy could sound like the following:

span>Offering Empathy

You:  Hang on a second, let me see if I am hearing you.  Sounds like this is a painful time for you and what really helps is to have listening about your experience of it.  Is that right?

Speaker (the speaker is so nervous that they don't take in your empathy and respond in the same vein):Yea, I mean I listen to you and all I am asking for is the same.  It's not like-

You:  Hang on, hang on a sec, I am guessing your worried and want some acceptance around having this need.  Is that right?

Speaker:Well, I mean is it so much to ask-

You:  Wait a sec, I am really wanting you to hear that I get that this is a painful time for you and some listening would help.  I would like to offer that listening.  Can you tell me what kind of listening really makes you feel heard?

Speaker:  I don't know.  Just listening.

You:  Yea, so just giving you my attention and silently listening and nodding?

Speaker:  Well, yea, it also helps if you ask me a question about my experience.

You:  I can do that.

Speaker:  Thanks.

Interrupting with honest expression could sound like the following:

span>Honest Expression

You Hang on, I want you to know I have space to listen to you.  Go ahead and share what's on your mind.


You: (For honest expression you interrupt as soon as you begin to feel disconnected).  Um, just a sec, I'm feeling lost and I really want to get what you want me to hear.  Would you be willing to tell me what is the thing you most want me to hear?

Speaker: Well, I just want listening. And I listen to you so -

You:  Okay, I am noticing that I feel happy to offer that and I need some clarity about what that would like.  What kind of listening works best for you?

Speaker:  Well you know just listening, it's not rocket science!

You: Yea, hearing you say "it's not rocket science" I feel confused and want to understand what's going on for you.  Would you be willing to say?

Speaker:  I don't know.  You just make everything so complicated.

You:  (You might guess here that the speaker is feeling vulnerable and reaching their limit in that regard.  If you continue by guessing their feelings and needs out loud, or expressing your own, you will likely stimulate more disconnect.)

Hmm, I want to keep us connected.  How about we come back to this after dinner and get dinner started now?

Speaker:  (If you have guessed right here, a little wash of relief might show on the speaker's face and they will likely move quickly to the next task.)  Sounds good to me.

In general, it's a safe guess that when someone is "lawyering" for their needs they are feeling insecure and nervous and need acceptance.  Somewhere at some time or many times they were told their needs aren't valid. Thus, expressing their needs and making a request is very risky business. 

Take a moment now to reflect on the last time you heard someone "lawyering" for their needs.  Placing yourself in that scene, let go of the words, and hear the heart of the other.
  What would it have sounded like if you had interrupted with empathy or honest expression?

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Questions: A Cry for Empathy in Disguise
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Lawyering for Your Needs

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