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DTCI: Perception and psychology shape interactions

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DTCI-Tyra-Kevin.jpgMy friend, colleague, sometime-adversary and fellow DTCI board member, Phil Kalamaros, recently wrote a thought-provoking column regarding civility (Indiana Lawyer, May 8, 2013). As I understood Phil’s point, as much as “civility” is a worthy goal, the more important goal is for all of us to avoid the kinds of egregious behaviors that may provoke an “uncivil” response.

I’d like to take Phil’s column a step further and consider how perception and psychology shape interactions in general, and interactions among adverse lawyers in particular. An op-ed piece in the New York Times by Harvard psychology professor Daniel Gilbert, “He Who Cast the First Stone Probably Didn’t” (nytimes.com, July 24, 2006), is very enlightening in this regard.

Gilbert explained two principles of human interaction leading to conflict. First, people tend to focus on the consequences of another person’s negative behavior, but when they themselves behave badly, they focus only on their reasons for behaving that way. That is “[f]irst, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions, but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others.”

As a result, it is human nature for a person to disregard why the other person engaged in certain behavior, and only consider the negative effect of that behavior. Meanwhile, that same person will focus more on why he engaged in certain behavior (typically along the lines of “Well, he started it!”) more than the effect his behavior will have on others.

Gilbert described a study in which volunteers played the roles of world leaders debating whether to initiate a nuclear strike. When later shown transcripts of his own statements, the participant naturally remembered what had led him to say them, but when shown transcripts of the other person’s statements, the participant naturally remembered how he himself responded to them.

Gilbert’s second principle was that the retaliating person tends to escalate the retaliation while believing the retaliation is proportionate to the provocation.

A study demonstrating this second principle hooked up pairs of volunteers to a machine that allowed each of them to exert pressure on the other volunteer’s fingers. The researcher began by exerting pressure on the first volunteer’s finger, then asked the first volunteer to exert the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer. The researcher then asked the second volunteer to exert on the first volunteer’s finger the same amount of pressure he had just experienced.

Although each volunteer made a good-faith effort to apply equal pressure, the pressure each volunteer exerted was consistently 40 percent greater than the pressure the volunteer had just experienced. Gilbert described this as “a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we have received.”

He concludes that “[t]his leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.”

So how can we apply these lessons to how we interact with others, and how we might live up to our obligation to be civil lawyers?

Under the professor’s analysis, we have to admit that civility is a matter of swimming upstream against human nature. It requires an understanding of our own natures as well as that of others. Simply resolving to be “civil” is not enough if we do not recognize these “neurological quirks.”

I therefore suggest that whenever any of us encounters behavior by an opponent we find upsetting and even offensive, we should attempt to do two things that perhaps do not come naturally.

First, take a minute to try to understand why your opponent engaged in this behavior. Was there some provocation or some other explanation (whether it truly justifies the behavior) that puts the behavior in a more reasonable perspective, and therefore perhaps less offensive? Certainly, the end result of your analysis may be that there is no justification at all, and your opponent is simply a jerk. But you may be surprised at the number of instances in which the behavior does not seem so bad after you engaged in this exercise.

Second, take another minute to consider the effect and proportionality of your response to your opponent’s behavior, and indeed whether you should respond at all. Just as you may still conclude from the first analysis that your opponent’s behavior was that of an inexcusable jerk, it is also possible you may conclude in this analysis that your opponent’s behavior was so outrageous that it requires a pointed response, especially if your opponent’s behavior prejudices your case. But, again, you may be surprised at the number of instances in which you consciously temper your response and thereby advance the cause of civility.•

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Kevin C. Tyra is a director of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana and the principal of The Tyra Law Firm P.C. in Indianapolis. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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  1. A traditional parade of attorneys? Really Evansville? Y'all need to get out more. When is the traditional parade of notaries? Nurses? Sanitation workers? Pole dancers? I gotta wonder, do throngs of admiring citizens gather to laud these marching servants of the constitution? "Show us your billing records!!!" Hoping some video gets posted. Ours is not a narcissistic profession by any chance, is it? Nah .....

  2. My previous comment not an aside at court. I agree with smith. Good call. Just thought posting here a bit on the if it bleeds it leads side. Most attorneys need to think of last lines of story above.

  3. Hello everyone I'm Gina and I'm here for the exact same thing you are. I have the wonderful joy of waking up every morning to my heart being pulled out and sheer terror of what DCS is going to Throw at me and my family today.Let me start from the !bebeginning.My daughter lost all rights to her 3beautiful children due to Severe mental issues she no longer lives in our state and has cut all ties.DCS led her to belive that once she done signed over her right the babies would be with their family. We have faught screamed begged and anything else we could possibly due I hired a lawyer five grand down the drain.You know all I want is my babies home.I've done everything they have even asked me to do.Now their saying I can't see my grandchildren cause I'M on a prescription for paipain.I have a very rare blood disease it causes cellulitis a form of blood poisoning to stay dormant in my tissues and nervous system it also causes a ,blood clotting disorder.even with the two blood thinners I'm on I still Continue to develop them them also.DCS knows about my illness and still they refuse to let me see my grandchildren. I Love and miss them so much Please can anyone help Us my grandchildren and I they should be worrying about what toy there going to play with but instead there worrying about if there ever coming home again.THANK YOU DCS FOR ALL YOU'VE DONE. ( And if anyone at all has any ideals or knows who can help. Please contact (765)960~5096.only serious callers

  4. He must be a Rethuglican, for if from the other side of the aisle such acts would be merely personal and thus not something that attaches to his professional life. AND ... gotta love this ... oh, and on top of talking dirty on the phone, he also, as an aside, guess we should mention, might be important, not sure, but .... "In addition to these allegations, Keaton was accused of failing to file an appeal after he collected advance payment from a client seeking to challenge a ruling that the client repay benefits because of unreported income." rimshot

  5. I am not a fan of some of the 8.4 discipline we have seen for private conduct-- but this was so egregious and abusive and had so many points of bad conduct relates to the law and the lawyer's status as a lawyer that it is clearly a proper and just disbarment. A truly despicable account of bad acts showing unfit character to practice law. I applaud the outcome.

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