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The psychology of coping with change

You’re probably tired of hearing about all the change that we’re going through. It seems as though every article today starts off with a mention of the swirling environment in which we practice law today. But there’s a dimension of change that you probably haven’t considered – change can have serious psychological consequences.

There’s plenty of scientific research available on the effects of change. Consider the following:

Change comes in two flavors – episodic and continuous. As humans, we’re well-designed to cope with episodic change. A sudden loud noise, for example, is momentarily jarring, and grabs your full attention for a brief period of time. But very quickly you return to whatever previously held your attention. The episode has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

By contrast, continuous change is relentless and far more unpredictable. It puts us in a constant state of alert. We remain “off balance” much of the time. Since it has no end point, we’re never fully able to relinquish all of our refocused attention. There’s always a part of our brain that’s vigilant in case the next iteration of change brings with it some more dire consequence.

Much of this heightened threat sensitivity is out of conscious awareness, but most people feel a vague sense of unease. Change – especially change that’s been described as continuous, accelerating, disruptive, unrelenting, exponential change – produces uncertainty, which, in turn, triggers the brain’s threat response system, thus producing anxiety.

Other effects of this “change-uncertainty-stress” cycle can include:

  • Mood swings and emotional lability
  • An increase in negative emotions such as irritability, distractibility, sadness, worry, agitation or passivity
  • A narrowing of one’s attention, thus precipitating an increase in errors of omission
  • A tendency to operate closer to the “worst self” end of our behavioral repertory instead of at the “best self” end of the continuum
  • Lower levels of trust, increased cynicism
  • A disconnecting from others

Not every person will experience all of these effects, but most people will experience some.

All of the dynamics discussed to this point apply to people in general, and not just to lawyers. There are three reasons to believe that lawyers are at greater risk of suffering these consequences than others are: In fact, to be a really good lawyer, this type of thinking is essential in order to protect your clients. Good lawyers are vigilant. They scrutinize documents, promises, assertions, inducements and  anything else that might ultimately harm the interests of their client. As a result, good lawyers are constantly asking questions such as:

1. Our job requires us to think negatively.

  • “Who’s at fault?”
  • “What’s wrong with this (document, contract, assertion, )?”
  • “What could go wrong?”
  • “Are there any exceptions to the main points?”
  • “Is there a reason that I should not believe you?”
  • “What’s your hidden agenda?”

We know from recent advances in neuroscience that negative thoughts lead to negative emotions, and negative emotions themselves have physical and psychological consequences. A steady diet of negative thinking can lead to depression or at least depressive thinking, social isolation, cynicism, detachment or reduced enjoyment of life. Again, it doesn’t have to turn out this way, but those of us who have a steady diet of negative thinking are at great risk of suffering these consequences compared to our more positive peers.

…to be a really good lawyer, this type of thinking is essential in order to protect your clients.

But the most important point here is that the steady diet of negative thoughts and the negative emotions they breed can amplify or at least potentiate many of the negative consequences of change that the average member of the general public faces. In short, being a lawyer – being a good lawyer – can put you at greater risk of suffering the normal consequences of continuous change.

2. Given the kind of negative thinking involved in

the practice of law, the profession attracts individuals who have certain personality traits that “fit” such a negative environment better than typical members of the general public. For example, my own personality research shows that the typical lawyer scores far higher than the general public on a trait called “skepticism.” This means that in addition to negativity being a requirement of the job, it’s also baked into the mind-set of the people doing the job.

Lawyers also have elevated needs for autonomy and control, and in a time of accelerated change, most people feel less in control. So for a person with a high need for control, a continuously changing environment can be even more stressful.

Lawyers are also low in a trait called “sociability.” They are not very comfortable with initiating intimate social relationships. By contrast, we know that people who are comfortable building authentic, emotionally open connections with other human beings tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction, have healthier immune systems, live longer and report better relationship satisfaction. Most lawyers don’t benefit from these payoffs. In fact, low-sociability lawyers may feel isolated at the very moment when human connection would be the most useful to them.

And lawyers are very low in psychological resilience.

Lawyers, according to my data, consistently score in the bottom half of this trait. They tend to be easily wounded by criticism or rejection; are fairly thin-skinned; and don’t bounce back from such setbacks easily.

All of these personality traits make coping with change more challenging.

3. Finally, lawyers are not psychologically minded.

As a result, they are generally less equipped to cope with the kinds of negative psychological outcomes that I’ve been describing, compared to members of the general public.

These dynamics may be especially problematic for millennials. The research suggests that a large proportion of this age cohort has a higher need than prior generations for positivity, feedback, emotional support, etc., and yet they practice a profession that under supplies these very things.

Luckily, all is not lost – over the past decade, science has shown that psychological resilience and mental toughness skills can be very effectively taught. Specifically, these skills are a series of cognitive strategies that help the individual reframe how s/he thinks about adversities that s/he may have experienced. When you change your thoughts, you change your emotional state. Thus, the right cognitive strategy, once adopted and rehearsed, can both undo the damage of past negative thinking as well as insulate an individual against the same cycle in the future.

These dynamics may be especially problematic for millennials.

The US Army has been teaching these skills and strategies to all its soldiers and their spouses over the past four years. Early reports and analyses of the effect that this training is having show some amazing results – reductions in suicides, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as reports of increases in well-being, life satisfaction and relationship  satisfaction.

Because the science behind this set of skills is so powerful and promising, I have personally become immersed in this literature and have made it a centerpiece of the work I do with law firms. Here are some of the skills and techniques that have been shown to build one’s resilience skills. All of these work best when the individual mentally or actually rehearses them in order to build new, positive neural pathways in their brain. Each intervention is based on hard science as reported in authoritative peer-reviewed scientific journals:

  • Balancing negative thinking with a larger dose of positive thoughts and emotions, aiming for a positivity:negativity ratio of somewhere between 3:1 to 5:1
  • Specifically, a more optimistic style of explaining adverse events – everyone has an inner soundtrack, an ongoing voice in your head that comments on the events of your When one of life’s bumps is encountered, those whose inner voice goes down a pessimistic path, seeing the “glass half empty,” tend to suffer more depressive thinking and tend to be lower in resilience, while those who tilt towards a more optimistic (in a very pragmatic and realistic sense of that word) mind-set tend to be more resilient
  • Increasing the level of meaning and purpose that one has in their work
  • Increasing the level of ongoing social connection – people with deep social networks of authentic connections tend to be well-insulated against adversity, and when it does affect them, they recover more quickly
  • Focusing on leveraging one’s strengths instead of focusing on just fixing one’s deficiencies
  • Setting clear, actionable goals that are meaningful
  • Employing flexible and accurate thinking in the event of an adverse event
  • Eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise and getting seven to nine hours of sleep a night
  • Other interventions such as laughter, spirituality, compassion, gratitude and mindfulness practices

Meet the author


Dr. Larry RichardDr. Larry Richard 
is recognized as the leading expert on the psychology of lawyer behavior. He has advised the majority of the Am Law 200 law firms on leadership, management and related issues such as teams, change management, repairing dysfunctional behavior, and other aspects of strategic talent management.

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