Everyone comes across and has to deal with difficult personalities occasionally, but attorneys seem to encounter more difficult people than most. Whether it’s opposing counsel, clients, judges, or even their own colleagues, attorneys are surrounded by challenging personalities.

Why is that? In their work, lawyers more often get rewarded for their intellect rather than for their emotional intelligence. But without emotional intelligence, we are also lacking critical capabilities like empathy, compassion, and self-awareness that allow people to treat others with respect, build strong relationships, and infuse the legal profession with civility and decorum. What’s more is that having to deal with difficult personalities for a prolonged period has a strong negative impact on attorney well-being, and can ultimately lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

How can attorneys manage the challenging personalities in their lives more effectively?

The simple truth is that anyone can become “difficult,” including ourselves, when placed under enough stress or pressure. What’s more is that most frequently relationship dynamics become difficult because we do not understand how our own personality style’s values, preferences, or priorities are at odds with those of the other person.

The key to effectively dealing with others, including difficult people, is to raise our level of self-awareness by understanding our own behavioral blueprints and those of other people. We all follow a behavioral blueprint based on our unique personality style. This blueprint controls our priorities, communication preferences, qualities, and actions we value, and things that frustrate or stress us out, and how we react to them.

So the better we understand our own behavioral blueprint and the blueprint of others, the more effective we are at managing our reactions and those of other people, no matter how challenging they might be.

Strategic Shortcut to Helping Attorneys Manage Difficult Personalities

A great tool to use as a shortcut to helping attorneys manage difficult personalities, which we’ve successfully used in our work with hundreds of attorneys over the years, is the DISC Personality Style Assessment (“DISC”). The DISC methodology has been developed from research and theory spanning almost 100 years and has been used by millions of people around the world. One of the reasons we find DISC particularly effective is that it helps to understand not only our own innate personality style, but also about personality styles of people around us. This knowledge directly leads to our improved understanding of others, more effective communication, increased collaboration, healthier conflict resolution, and overall stronger workplace relationships.

Where and When to Use the DiSC

As for ideas of where and how DISC can be used in your programming, law firms may consider including it in their senior associates’ or new partner training program curriculum, as part of attorney retreats, or in individual lawyer coaching. In addition to an individualized 20-page assessment report for each attorney who takes the assessment, you can also generate “Comparison Reports” between any two attorneys within the firm as well as “Team View” and “Group Culture” reports for teams or groups of lawyers for no additional expense. Facilitated DiSC-based workshops are excellent as team-building training sessions or as live kick-off sessions in long-term training programs.

Let’s now take a closer look at the four primary personality styles in detail and the strategies to manage them effectively. Please note that many people have combinations of two styles where one is the primary and the other is the secondary. However, for purposes of this article we’ll focus on the four main personality styles, which are: Dominance (“D”)Influence (“I”)Steadiness (“S”), and Conscientiousness (“C”).

The D Style

People with the D style (or as we call it the “Let’s get it done!” style) come across as fast-paced, driven, direct, decisive, self-confident, and daring. They are motivated by winning, competition, success, and achievement. Above all, they tend to value moving fast to achieve concrete results as well as competency, personal freedom and flexibility. What they fear the most is loss of control, being taken advantage of, and displaying vulnerability. Their communication style tends to be very direct and to the point with minimal “niceties.” They see their style as being efficient, but it can be taken by others as curt, rude, or unappreciative. They are driven by their key priorities of Results, Action, and Challenge. Their core belief is “I am valuable if I am producing or on top.”

When under pressure or frustrated, people with the D style can get explosive, which can look like yelling, berating, interrupting, showing impatience and annoyance, or simply dismissing someone without hearing the other person out. They can be very blunt in the way they express their opinion and come across as bulldozing over others. Often their frustration comes from the fact that they are not able to get their way, are not moving towards achieving results as fast as they want, or have to spend a lot of time dealing with details rather than the big picture.

To manage this style, address issues quickly and directly, but without challenging their authority. Rather, make it clear that your goal is to help them achieve their goals by keeping their eyes on the bigger picture and bottom-line. It’s also important to resist the urge to give in to their demands just to regain harmony, which can be a challenge for the I and S styles that value harmony and collaboration. Most importantly, try to avoid taking their bluntness or curtness personally. Unless they are directly hostile, they are probably just being “efficient.” If you feel that their choice of language crosses over into inappropriate, calmly let them know that you respect them and want to work together, but that their language is not acceptable or that you’d appreciate them adjusting their tone.

The I Style

Individuals with the I style (or as we call it the “Let’s do it together!” style), come across as charming, collaborative, trusting, enthusiastic, and persuasive. They are motivated by social recognition, working in teams, and building relationships. They value being able to motivate and inspire others, and to freely express themselves and their individuality. What they fear most is social rejection, disapproval by others, loss of their influence, and being ignored or isolated. Their key priorities are Enthusiasm, Action, and Collaboration. Their core belief is “I am valuable if I can influence people.”

When under pressure, those with the I style can get histrionic, becoming really emotional, overdramatizing the situation, and expressing attention-seeking behavior. Their frustration is often caused by having to do dry detailed analysis or repetitive tasks (think reviewing client bills or entering their time), or not being able to express themselves openly. They thrive on collaboration and getting along with others. So people who are brusque, who shut them down or criticize them (what D styles can do under stress!), will cause those with the I Style to get frustrated and lash out.

To manage this style, it’s important to avoid personal attacks that could escalate the conflict. Be sure to acknowledge the importance of their feelings using the Acknowledge and Validate coaching technique, e.g. “I hear you. Anyone in your place would feel frustrated. Makes total sense.” If there is a disagreement, let them know that the relationship is still solid despite the differences in opinion. Another approach is to show enthusiasm for whatever they are working on or even better, offer to help them. The I style personality believes life should be pleasant, fun, and lively, so trying to help them make it that way will go a long way in helping them be at their best.

The S Style

People with the S style (or as we call it the “Let me help you do it” style), come across as calm, patient, diplomatic, deliberate, stable, warm, and loyal. They are strongly motivated by cooperation, sincere appreciation, stable environments, and actively seek out opportunities to help others. They value loyalty, being able to help others, and security, stability, and predictability. They fear most loss of stability through sudden or erratic changes, loss of harmony, and offending others. Their key priorities are Support, Collaboration, and Stability. Their core belief is “I am valuable if I am accepted, if I can please others.”

When under pressure, the individuals with the S style tend to withdraw or become passive-aggressive. Because those with the S style value stability and harmony, and are attentive to the needs of others, they can experience high levels of stress when dealing with confrontation, sudden changes to the established way of doing things or a previously agreed-upon approach, or feeling unappreciated or being taken for granted. Generally, be sure that you are not mistaking the S style’s agreeable, low-key behavior for a lack of passion, experience, or knowledge.

To manage this style, because the S style tends to withdraw or become passive-aggressive, address the conflict directly, but without being confrontational. The key to managing the S style is to avoid forceful tactics, while not dismissing the conflict completely. Unlike the D or I styles, the S style is less likely to express their frustration openly. So do not assume they are okay with everything. Ask them. And once you ask, show that you sincerely care about resolving the issues by actually hearing them.

The C Style

And last but not least, people with the C style (or as we call it the “Let’s do this right” style), come across as cautious, systematic, private, objective, analytical, accurate, and reserved. They are strongly motivated by opportunities to gain knowledge, show their expertise, and do quality work. Above all, they value quality, precision, logic, and accuracy. They fear being criticized, wrong, or accused of using slipshod methods or not being thorough. Their key priorities are Accuracy, Challenge, and Stability. Their core belief is “I am valuable if I am competent.”

When under pressure, the C style becomes overly critical, avoidant, disagreeable, and even hostile. What tends to get those with the C style most frustrated is having to deal with highly emotional or erratic people, not having enough time to do a thorough analysis, or being rushed to do something he/she has never done before or without preparation in front of others. Of all styles, the C style is the most logic-driven and skeptical, and tends to be the least socially aware. So expect that from them and do not be surprised when they don’t jump up in excitement about the latest idea. They need time to consider all options and will play the devil’s advocate to make sure they bulletproof the idea.

To manage the C style, focus on objective, fact-based aspects of the idea and avoid pressuring them for an immediate decision. Expect their skeptical reaction, and learn to appreciate it, as it’s their way to ensure quality. When conflict arises, resist the urge to make it personal or become emotional and instead support your opinions with logic and facts. When they become overly critical or start to belittle, help them understand the impact their words are having on you. You also should give them space and time to process the situation before confronting the issues.

DISC Resources

If you are curious to see what a sample report looks like, please click here for the following DISC-related resources:

  • Video:
    • Introduction to DiSC Workplace Personality Profile Assessment
  • Sample Reports:
    • Sample DiSC Workplace Personality Profile Report
    • Sample DiSC Comparison Reports:
      • Sample Comparison Person A to Person B
      • Sample Comparison Person B to Person A
    • Sample DiSC Team View Report
    • Sample DiSC Group Culture Report

When it comes to the legal industry, difficult personalities are abound. But what’s also true is that given enough stress, tension, or pressure, all of us can become reactionary, act out, and come across to others as difficult or challenging.

The key to managing difficult personalities is to understand their behavioral blueprint and use empathy and compassion as a gateway to understanding where they are coming from. Oftentimes, aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior shows up when people are triggered or feel threatened. So instead of reacting, we can start by asking: “What is going on in their life right now that might be contributing to them acting in this way?”

When we put our own egos aside and shift our focus onto others with empathy and self-awareness, we are all better off.