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Crushing Conflict: A Legal Ops Guide to Managing Combative Conversations

Legal Ops and Conflict Resolution

In most careers, conflict is a sign that something’s gone wrong. In legal operations, it’s often an indicator that you’re on the right track.

Advocating for change is at the core of the job, after all. And no matter how clear the case or simple the switch, change always sparks a certain degree of resistance.

So although you may never see it listed as a CLOC core competency, the ability to artfully navigate potentially combative conversations is essential to success as a legal ops professional.

The good news is it’s an ability you can learn—even if you might ordinarily classify yourself as conflict-averse. And I think one of the most promising frameworks to study is one that’s been tested in arenas as personal as marriage counseling and as public as foreign policy.

Maybe you’ve already heard the name. It’s called Nonviolent Communication (NVC).

Below I’ll explore its basic tenets and potential legal ops applications through the lens of a conflict you’ll likely recognize: Outside counsel submitting invoices with insufficient narrative detail.

Share Observations (Not Judgments)

The first step toward resolving conflict is building a shared reality. Until the two sides agree on the fundamental facts of the situation, there will be no common ground on which understanding can grow.

What’s notable about the NVC model is its emphasis on specificity and neutrality. The goal at this stage is to highlight concrete actions and behaviors without assuming intent or assigning blame. And it’s a conscious attempt to counter a feature of human psychology.

Most people arrive at combative conversations by instinctively assuming a defensive posture. They expect to hear their beliefs challenged or actions blamed at the outset. So rather than actively listening to what the other party is saying, most are merely waiting for their turn to unleash a counterargument.

Removing judgment from the equation disrupts this counterproductive pattern and sends the conversation down a different path. Defensive postures relax into open stances and the two parties actually have a chance to absorb what the other person is expressing.

In the context of our outside counsel billing conflict, a healthy dialogue for legal ops conflict resolution might start something like this:

“I was hoping we could discuss a trend you’ve likely noticed related to our billing guidelines. We rejected the last three invoices submitted by your firm as a result of insufficient narrative detail.”

The actions are presented neutrally and attributed fairly. The violation type and frequency are defined narrowly. The wording is neither combative nor controversial.

It may not feel like a revolutionary statement, but it does the vital work of lowering the temperature in the room and leaving the door open to productive possibilities.

Name Feelings (Not Causes)

Feelings don’t suddenly vanish the moment you start a business meeting. They’re actually an essential ingredient for building the human connection required to develop mutually satisfying solutions. They do, however, need to be expressed in a particular way to keep the dialogue constructive.

Once again, the NVC model encourages us to focus on what we know (our own feelings) rather than what we can only assume (the role of others). It’s about sharing personal experiences, not plausible explanations.

Because when the other party realizes you’re not interested in blaming (or even mentioning) external factors, they’ll feel safe to lower their defenses and learn more about how the situation personally impacts you.

In the context of our outside counsel billing conflict, a useful exchange might look something like this:

“When I come across an invoice with insufficient narrative detail, I feel frustrated knowing that I’ll have to reject it and create a delay for both sides. I even feel a little guilty about giving time to small administrative details when we could be focused on more strategic topics. But I ultimately feel worried about not having enough context to make smart decisions.”

It sticks to “I language,” steering clear of anything that could be interpreted as criticism of another. It sheds light on the personal impact of the procedural issue. It invites empathy with a vulnerable expression of conflicting emotions.

(Note: The strength of the connection between the two sides will grow in direct proportion to the specificity of feelings shared. So if you want to expand your emotional vocabulary, here’s a great NVC resource to reference.)

Identify Needs (Not Strategies)

If the feelings you identify cannot be attributed to the actions of others, then what are they connected to? NVC practitioners teach that feelings are products of our own (met or unmet) needs.

The commitment to compartmentalization continues at this stage. We’re encouraged to separate the people from the problem and only attempt to identify the specific needs at the root of a feeling. (See also: This NVC resource cataloging universal human needs.)

There’s an added challenge here, however. Our logical brains will naturally try to attach a plan of action onto the back of any need we introduce. Who wants to raise a problem without a recommended solution?

The trouble is those recommended solutions often imply a role, timeline, or action that the other party can’t help but respond to. They’re also, by definition, preconceived. And that not only ignores the value of the other party’s observations, feelings, and needs, it also closes the door to more creative solutions you could have discovered with a more collaborative spirit.

In the context of our outside counsel billing conflict, a more advisable approach might look something like:

“I think my frustration stems from two things. It’s been a bit chaotic for our department since we had to freeze our hiring plans, and I really need basic tasks like invoicing to go right the first time if I’m ever gonna get to the more complex work. I also know we’re under added scrutiny from Finance, so I really need to have the full story when defending our resourcing strategy.”

Addressing an insurmountable to-do list and strengthening your hand ahead of a high-stakes conversation are two relatable needs—especially to an attorney! And by narrowing the discussion to only those topics, you could foster the shared understanding required to inspire genuine participation in the final phase of the NVC process and work towards legal ops conflict resolution.

Make Requests (Not Demands)

It’s finally time to shift from understanding the conflict to shaping the resolution. But success at this stage comes only through commitment to the previous three. Neutral observations, authentic feelings, and universal needs combine to reveal the most relevant and sustainable solutions.

In the NVC model, solutions arise from the making and accepting of requests. And these carefully constructed statements must meet four basic criteria:

  • Clearly defined
  • Succinctly stated
  • Reasonably scaled
  • Positively framed

The first two ensure your request is understood. The third ensures it’s doable. The fourth ensures the focus remains on what you want to achieve rather than what you hope to avoid.

Even more importantly, according to NVC practitioners, you must express your request with a willingness to hear “no.” If you can’t accept a “no”, then what you’re stating more closely resembles a threat or demand. And if the receiver of your request feels compelled to say “yes” out of obligation, guilt, or fear, then you won’t resolve the root conflict.

All equitable and effective resolutions contain an element of choice. They also reflect the needs of both sides. And they may very well require multiple rounds of modified requests. That’s normal! But the goodwill and understanding cultivated up to this point will give you the greatest chance at coming through the uncertainty together.

In the context of our outside counsel billing conflict, an appropriate request might look something like:

“Would you be willing to join a 30-minute workshop later this month where your team can share any questions or concerns regarding our billing guidelines? That way we could clear up any confusion now and see more invoices approved on the first try in the future.”

The request centers on a positive action rather than an undesirable behavior. The required effort and implied urgency both sound reasonable. The perceived feelings and needs of the law firm are also built into the request — while remaining open to perspectives not yet expressed.

It may not be the phrase that brings a swift and final agreement, but it certainly is an opening request capable of advancing the conflict beyond the current stalemate.

Legal Ops Conflict Resolution Through Reciprocity

The four-sided framework outlined above is only half of the NVC equation. Because although you can and should lead by example when expressing your observations, feelings, needs, and requests, you also need to open space for the other side to do the same.

In the language of NVC, it’s about balancing honest expression and empathetic listening. And if those responsibilities are embraced in equal measure, you’ll create the ideal conditions for effective, creative, and surprising resolutions to grow.

Keep Learning

If outside counsel billing guidelines happen to be your current source of conflict, I actually recorded an in-depth workshop on that exact topic.

If you want to learn more about NVC principles you can incorporate into any combative conversation, check out these resources from BayNVC, Positive Psychology, and First Round Review.

Sinead Kenny

Director, Customer Insights at Brightflag

Sinead holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Law and Accounting from the University of Limerick, and previously worked as a Solicitor with Matheson LLP.