Intimidation: how to deal with it and how to deal it.
May 7, 2010 11:21 AM   Subscribe

I need to deal with intimidation and be intimidating myself. I am, alas, of an accommodating nature. How do I do that?

(Anonymous because really, would you cop to being a chump like me? I thought not.)

I'm an attorney. I'm out of a job right now (thank you very much, economy), but I recently represented someone in an eviction lawsuit. We agreed to a settlement, but opposing counsel scared the shit out of me every time we talked on the phone, up to the point where I had to spend a good twenty minutes psyching myself up just to talk with the asshole.

Being able to deal with people like that and being a person like that myself are absolutely irreplacable in my profession. However, I can't do that now, and I don't know how to do so.

I need to be able to talk to people, whether over the telephone or in real life, and scare them into doing what I want them to do (if they're weaker) or into dealing with me as an equal (if they're equal or stronger).

How do I do that? How does a mouse like me learn how to deal with intimidation and be intimidating?

I know I'm being a jerk here. But in my world, you must be able to be a jerk or you won't survive--you'll get completely eaten by the jerks. The last guy I was up against was a name partner of the firm, and I'm just some stupid, worthless, unemployed fuckwad who volunteers to represent people too dumb to pay their rent, answer their lawyer's phone calls, or be consistent in their stories from one day to the next. I'm not only the attorney; I'm also acting as the social worker, messenger, investigator, paralegal, and secretary. I'm kinda up against a wall here.

If you're going to recommend local resources, I'm in the SF Bay Area. Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
You absolutely do not need to be a jerk. You do need to be mentally tough and not get intimidated. You need to take tough principled stances and not back down from them easily. Toughness is not the same as being a jerk.
posted by caddis at 11:26 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Slow the conversation down. Most intimidation works on the precept that you have to decide NOW GODDAMMIT RIGHT THIS MINUTE DON'T STOP TO THINK TELL ME YES RIGHT NOW. So pause before you talk. Align your sentence in your brain. If the other person takes that opportunity to start talking again, interrupt. "Excuse me, but I was about to respond to your question. Are you actually looking for a conversation here, or are you just going to keep yammering at me?" Put them on the defensive, and make them wait.
posted by Etrigan at 11:32 AM on May 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

You need to be assertive, not intimidating. Assertiveness training started as part of women's liberation, but classes are now available to all.
posted by Carol Anne at 11:37 AM on May 7, 2010

I am a lawyer too and I strongly second caddis. You are as good as any other attorney, and better than any who live via domination tactics.

I'd suggest you take some workshops on negotiation. Meanwhile,here are a few key suggestions I'd add to caddis'. 1) Know your own bottom line, i.e. the least you will settle for, and never reveal it to the opposite party. 2) Make time your friend. I.e., make sure you can terminate a call or walk away from a meeting so the other party has to reflect and get back to you. This means not delaying settlement discussions until late in the game. 3) Document everything. Always be courteous in your documentation. 4) If you are facing a jerk and have a record of pleasant and professional behavior, take it to the court. Believe me, attorneys who display professionalism tend to do a lot better in court.

You also sound very overloaded right now. Can you find/afford some support staff? You also may need to "fire" a client or two.
posted by bearwife at 11:39 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

How does a mouse like me learn how to deal with intimidation and be intimidating?

Totally serious answer: by making yourself into something other than a mouse. Becoming physically strong will teach you to be mentally strong. Start lifting heavy weights and you will find yourself more confident and less easily intimidated. When you're talking to someone that you know you could break in half, or at least pick up off the floor and put over your head, the intimidation equation changes. I recommend you start here.
posted by ludwig_van at 11:40 AM on May 7, 2010

If you can find a way to deal with bullying fuckheads without resorting to being one yourself, THEN you will have won. I've had one too many relationships with emotionally and verbally abusive people and what has helped me most has been reading those insipidly written but useful tomes on emotional abuse. Peruse Amazon and find a few that look interesting. Abusers use consistent tactics and you're much more able to defend yourself when you can spot the tactics and understand why they work on you.

Assertion and confidence...a "no fear" policy is a good idea, but beoming morally corrupt is not. Read The Art of War.
posted by madred at 11:40 AM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Andrew Vachss recommends The Confidence Course. Pretty sure nobody'd accuse Vachss of being a mouse.

Also, if you can't deal with opposing counsel on the phone, then don't answer their calls. Do everything through written correspondence, emails, or court pleadings.
posted by halfguard at 11:52 AM on May 7, 2010

...volunteers to represent people too dumb to pay their rent, answer their lawyer's phone calls, or be consistent in their stories from one day to the next.

You're a hero. Their hero. Act like one.
posted by amtho at 11:56 AM on May 7, 2010 [4 favorites]

Practically, you need scripts. Part of Assertiveness Training is developing scripts that your brain can turn to in order to counter particular circumstances that have made you feel weak. You are actually now in a good place to start developing scripts seeing as how you have time on your hands. Reflect upon your experience with AssholeJerk from the other lawfirm you dealt with. Think back. Identify some key moments throughout your experience with him that made you feel particularly bullied, anxious or weak. What did he say? How did he say it? How did you respond?

Now that you have identified this...write down how you WOULD HAVE responded if you considered yourself to be assertive. What would have been an assertive (yet professional) response. Write it down, word for word and imagine how he might have responded and create a "script" for how the ideal situation would have been (try to keep it real). You might also steal some of his phraseology or behavior that particularly intimidated you and put your own twist on it or incorporate it into your own scripts.

Brainstorm similar situations that might occur in your professional future and do the same thing. Have some default scripts memorized for situations that occur regularly in your industry that your brain can turn to in a pinch. The idea is that these scripts will replace your tendency toward doormatism.

Obviously real life is dynamic and these scripts are only a starting point - in real life situations you will need to improvise and you can't possibly predict other peoples responses..but the assertive phrases and thought processes that you laid out in the scripts will give your brain some nice stuff to grab onto and repurpose on the fly. It like creating a repertoire of verbal jujitsu moves that you can use in various situations.
posted by jnnla at 11:57 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

A friend of mine has a behavior he calls the Nice-Guy Full-Court Press. It basically consists of all of the stuff you've always heard about negotiating: listen to the other side's request beyond the emotion, show them that you've heard what they're asking for, all that. And the whole time, you're jovial, and friendly, and understanding while just Not Letting Up on what you're after. It's disarming and doesn't turn you anything your conscience won't want to deal with.
posted by Blau at 11:58 AM on May 7, 2010 [5 favorites]

First, get out of litigation. It is the domain of total assholes. (Yes, and some of them are great to their families, et c, et c. I know, I'm not doing lawyer jokes, but it is cut throat.) The reason so many new lawyers wind up in litigation is because so many get out of it as soon as possible. Even something like real estate law, or finance, is better, more about negotiation, which requires mutual respect. Litigation is all bull shit. Seeming to know rather than really knowing, adn that crap even works on some judges.

Second, the way to beat the assholes is to know you stuff better than they do. There are bull shit artist that won't back down, but if you know you are right - really, really know it, though you recognize the uncertainty of the process - you won't be intimidated, even if you don't always win.

There are lots of fields where you don't have to become an asshole. There are, even in law. So I don't think you are looking at this right. Find a field that can feed your passion, learn it backwards and forward and sideways, and become an expert. Then if someone trys to f with you, just let them. You won't be fucking them back, you won't be selling yourself for victory, you will be taking care of your client.
posted by Some1 at 11:58 AM on May 7, 2010

I don't have any advice about this in a legal context specifically (my wife might be able to suggest something along those lines), but I have observed in life that you need to act in different ways to get the desired responses out of different people. For example, I tend to be pretty low-key. I have an old friend who simply will not process that he's pissed me off unless I act visibly pissed off. Key word here is "act."

You adopt a persona, play a part. It's not you being an asshole, and it's not you receiving the brunt of the other asshole's bluster, it's a character who happens to be very similar to you.
posted by adamrice at 12:07 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here are a couple of sneaky tricks I use for being more intimidating than I am. I don't know whether they would work on seasoned professional arguers, but you could try them out.

1. Don't get into an argument. State your position. When the other person tries to argue, you either repeat your original sentence, or you say "I'm not interested in getting into an argument on this".

2. Silence, or some minimal response that invites them to carry on talking. Them: "Please will you XYZ by tomorrow". You: "XYZ? ... ... ". Leave an uncomfortable silence. Hopefully at this point they start backing down a little, or providing more information that is useful to you, or at least giving you more time to think what to do next.

3. Pretend that you are awesome. You don't have to BE awesome. Just for the duration of the phone call, make it into an acting job and pretend you are.

4. Look out for opportunities to play Judo, that is, using their own strength against them.

5. If there's anything they say that you can possibly agree with, do so very loudly and fulsomely.
posted by emilyw at 12:19 PM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Several good points above. IANAL, but I have dealt with people who try to use this kind of intimidation in a professional environment.

One thing you want to keep in mind is that this is business, not personal. In looking at your tags and the wording of your post, I get the impression that some of this intimidation was more personal than related to the legal facts of the case. When someone tries to intimidate you in this context, they are trying to inject emotion into what is really a factual dispute. They are also going to try to bring in a whole bunch of immaterial junk that has nothing to do with the case at hand to distract you. They may be covering up a weakness in their own case. They may have been using this kind of intimidation their whole career to convince people they are more qualified than they really are. If you see through the intimidation tactics, many times you will realize that there is no substance.

The trick to dealing with someone who wants to bully you in a professional context is to realize that, when it comes down to it, that it's not about you or them; it's about the facts. As Some1 said, know your facts. If your client is in the right and you know your facts and the law, you can and will win the case. Mr. Named Partner will try to convince you that his title, his years of experience, his pay check, and his arbitrary time lines matter, but that's all immaterial. They don't change the law or the facts of the case. When Mr. Named Partner tries to raise them, bring him back to the facts.

Second, as emilyw said, don't get into an argument. The bully will try to inject emotion into the conversation. Don't take the bait. This is business and it's strictly about the facts.

At the risk of making too many presumptions, I'm also going to bet that rival lawyers probably make a few implied threats that they neither have the intention or ability to carry out. This is especially true when it comes to debt collection cases. Again they are trying to inject emotion into the case and get you scared. Again, knowing the laws will allow you to recognize and call their bluff.

I can't repeat it enough, it's not about you or them; it's about the facts and the law.
posted by chrisulonic at 1:26 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mostly, you have to not back down and show an opponent that trying to walk over you can be costly.

There's a lot of ways to do this, but if you don't want to be counterthreatening and yelling, I find a good way to do this is to treat the opponent like a child. If someone's going on and on and being histrionic, tune them out after the first few sentences, then when they stop pause for a bit and then say, "So what you're saying is, ___. Based on that..." Use a "calm adult" kind of tone.

"___" is going to be a combination of what you want them to say and some of what they actually said. Maybe they'll accept it, but most likely it'll piss them off, and they'll go on and on again. Just do the same thing. Maybe even set the phone down while they rant. Keep in mind that you're using much less energy than them, and they're just going to wear themselves down.

Here and there, slip in a jab that's going to upset them. If you don't see any opportunities to do so, that's fine. As long as you're staying cool, and he's wasting his breath.
posted by ignignokt at 2:28 PM on May 7, 2010

Oh, related to what emilyw said, I've gotten the better of stronger and faster opponents in actual judo a few times by simply maintaining my position and letting my opponent attack, attack, attack from an ineffective position, then finally attacking once they're tired.
posted by ignignokt at 2:30 PM on May 7, 2010

Oh, and if possible, in meetings in real life, try to adopt an amused and "examining a weird bug" kind of look when your opponent is in his deepest froth. View him as pathetic because, in this situation, he actually is. People that try to intimidate someone are generally the most encouraged when their target looks away and the most put off when the target moves closer to look at them.
posted by ignignokt at 2:37 PM on May 7, 2010

It might help to realize WHY you're a mouse. What are the roots of your meek demeanor?

For me, it was having an overbearing father. I was basically trained as a young child to be easily intimidated. Once I realized that, everything changed. Now when someone tries to intimidate me, I see my father's face, and I'm able to come back at them with complete confidence and calm (which, ironically, overbearing people seem to find very intimidating).

I also agree with ludwig_van that making yourself physically stronger will make you feel more assertive.
posted by coolguymichael at 4:03 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

As someone who's dealt with his fair share of pushy kids, coworkers (I'm a teacher), and ex-girlfriends, the key for me has been realizing when someone is trying to get me to fight a battle on my turf that belongs on their turf, and calling them out on it, flipping the situation, or avoiding it, just like emilyw said in her #1.

To sort of expound upon what she said, by indulging someone in a discussion about the reasoning behind your position, you're sending the message that your position is up for debate. Don't fall for it. If someone asks you to do something you don't have to do, a simple, "That's not going to happen." should be sufficient.

I encounter this behavior somewhat frequently in malls or grocery stores, where someone from a bank or phone company will walk up to me and try to engage me in a discussion about my current provider, and then keep hitting me with "whys" when I tell them I'm not going to switch. It's a salesmanship technique that works by putting people in a defensive position when it's the salespeople who should be explaining why they're entitled to unsolicited conversations with strangers about their personal business.

Most of the abrasive people I've had to deal with have had this same messed up sense of entitlement. and the way out has been to simply draw the line. With kids who "why" me to death, I'll flat out tell them that they're not entitled to an explanation. With adults, I'd phrase it like I did above, as a statement of fact about what is or isn't going to happen, not as a statement about what you do or don't want to do.
posted by alphanerd at 4:45 PM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Negotiation is a big part of my job and I deal with jerks like you describe all too often. If you have some self confidence their behavior is actually a negative for them. My goal is to get the best deal for my side. We will concede on things that don't matter to us, at a pace designed to get us to the spot we need. When mr. blowhard comes along, we concede nothing without making them go through pain; it is the only way to get the concessions you need from them. They get zero benefit of the doubt. When they yell, I hang up or leave the room. Someone upthread said treat them like the children they model. True. "I am sorry this discussion is over for today. When you can discuss the proposals without screaming we will resume the negotiations. Good bye." Remember, they want something as much as you do, perhaps even more so. They bluster to obfuscate and intimidate. No one need be intimidated, and to the contrary of the folks who advocate hitting the gym to build self confidence, that is not the answer. In a legal negotiation who do you think would win, some half wit leviathan using all manner of intimidation or Ruth Bader Ginzburg? I would not want to be on the opposite side of the table from her, all 99 lbs of her. There is a place for anger, but don't actually ever lose your cool. When the other side has stepped over the line, it's ok to show measured anger and let them know. If they were unethical, and they purport to be ethical, then call them on it.

Someone said know your stuff and make a plan. This is the key to any successful negotiation. You have to map out what you want, what you need, what you will walk away from. You also have to map out what you think the other side wants, needs, and will walk from. Then come up with value arguments for your positions, how your minor concession is valuable to them etc. Know what is reasonable in other deals; this is often a huge issue. When you are better prepared you have the advantage. When the other side plays brinksmanship and you have information you are in a better position to know when they are bluffing. More often than not if what they are calling for seems unreasonable it probably is and then call their bluff. When they are greedy call their bluff. When you are greedy, not so much. Every situation is unique but the bottom line is confidence in yourself and the best ways to get that are through superior information and experience, and arguably experience is just one form of superior information. If you make a mistake and concede something you should not have, don't be embarrassed to take it back. This hurts, but it is one area in which an intimidating opponent can exploit you especially if you are inexperienced. Be honest. "I made a mistake when I conceded that point. I did not realize its value but after talking to our VP I realize that we just can not make that concession. Sorry." Expect some fireworks. When you expect them they are less annoying. Stick with logic, use your opponent's emotion against them, don't let it fluster you. Use the clock in your favor. If you need quick resolution, then put in huge effort up front to get all major points negotiated early. If they need quick resolution, drag your feet on their key issues to gain bargaining power as the clock runs, but don't be a jerk about it.

The best book on negotiating is Herb Cohen's "You Can Negotiate Anything." "Getting to Yes" is a nice book of philosophy and the optimum negotiation technique for people who are negotiating a long term deal. In a one time deal, everyone walks away with no further relationship, things are usually a bit less touchy feely, but be mindful of whether you may meet again or not. Don't poison future deals. This book will give you the confidence to deal with the intimidating jerks.
posted by caddis at 7:29 PM on May 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

If your personality isn't the type that can "scare people into doing what you want them to do," I'm convinced there's no way to fake it. That is not a bad thing. You don't need to be a jerk to be a successful lawyer. In fact, many jerk lawyers burn bridges and create bad reputations with judges and other law firms. You can go far being your nice self.
It's hard. I struggle with the same thing every day, especially when I see the jerks intimidating others and winning. But that is not how I operate and I know it won't work for me. The secret is to understand that you can counter a jerk with polite assertiveness. Just know what matters in your case and don't give that up. Everything else is just talk. Let them "win" that phone conversation...who cares? When opposing counsel goes on about how crappy your case is, just listen. Sometimes it's even funny to hear how ridiculous they are. Sometimes they let something slip about their case in their over-confidence.
If you know you have a good case or argument, it's also really fun to act a little naive and let the jerks think they've won. Then they are very surprised when you get to court. Remember, they count on intimidating others into giving up and will assume they're done the same with you. All of this will get easier with more experience.
In short, let the jerk be a jerk. Jerks don't always win. You don't have to be the jerk.
posted by janerica at 12:16 AM on May 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thanks for your insights. Responses in order:

@caddis: Thanks, but I'm afraid I'm not quite at that level yet. I
know that's what I need to do, but I have no idea how I'd actually
begin to do it.

@Carol Anne: I'm signed up for a series of assertiveness-training
courses starting next week. I'm not optimistic, though, as such
training seems to be aimed at making people into Nice Guys who Make
Their Point. I'm not interested in that--I want to be a Guy who Gets
His Way. You'll notice that I didn't mention "Nice" anywhere in that
last phrase, and that was by design. My clients and I can't afford to
care whether I'm being Nice. My (and my clients') enemy is my enemy,
and they only deserve the barest veneer of civility from me.

@bearwife, Esq.: Kindly read my original post--I am unemployed. The
last two cases I took were pro bono eviction defense cases, and while
I learned a lot from them, the most prominent thing I learned is that
I need to be a hell of a lot harder if I want to practice this
profession in any meaningful way. Also re. your point 2), the cases
I've handled myself have been pro bono and through a volunteer
program. That means that it's already late in the game when I
get the case, and extremely late when I know enough to do anything
about it. The timeline in unlawful detainer cases in California is
absolutely brutal, especially if your clients are stupid, like mine
are. I want to hang out a shingle that says "You Must Be At Least This
Smart To Be Representable," with a line somewhere around an IQ of 100.

@ludwig_van: I should try. I've played with weight training in the
past, but I've never gotten to the point where I'd describe my
appearance as "imposing." I worry that it simply isn't in me to be so.

@madred: Maybe, but I'd settle for being able to get what I want, and
damn all concepts of "niceness." My father was abusive, and I long for
the day when I'm secure enough that I can shout into his face the
so clearly deserves. I've gotten to the point where the moral victory
doesn't move me at all--only the actual victory does.

@halfguard, Esq.: Damn. I gotta take the recommendation of a fellow
attorney with an Eyepatch
of Power
. But as to the written-only proviso, you are aware of how
technophobic most senior lawyers are? These guys read their email
twice a day at most, and on my timescale, that simply doesn't work

@amtho: No. Heroes get the job done. In my case, the facts are bad
enough that there's a serious question that I'd be able to get the job
done. If my clients in these cases paid the rent on time, I'd be able
to, but by definition they didn't. So I'm not so much a proper hero as
an ersatz hero with his pants down and his tiny dick flopping around
in the air.

@jnnla, @Blau: I should do that--go through the situations I was in
and write scripts for how I would have handled them if I had a quarter
of a clue, and do so while keeping "nice but persistent" in mind.

@Some1: I'd love to get out of litigation, but the fact is that there
are a lot of jobs in litigation, and I don't even have one of them.
Beggars can't be choosers, and I'm firmly in the former camp. Really,
my ideal job is one where I sit in an office and either answer weird
questions or work with others on solving hard problems all day.

@adamrice: Another good insight. The problem is that I'm deathly
afraid that I'll push too hard and completely alienate someone.

@emilyw: I understand the value of your Nos. 2 and 3, but telling a
lawyer "don't argue" is like telling a farmer "don't plant" or telling
a constructor "don't build things." My profession is defined by
argument, as farming is by planting and construction by building, and
anyone who says I should avoid arguing is advising me not to practice
law in any meaningful sense of the word. I'm a very, very stupid and
ineffectual facsimile of a man--otherwise I wouldn't have posted
this--but it's everyone's privilege to point out the truth.

@chrisulonic: The problem is that the facts weren't all on my side,
and he was able to marshal far more resources than I could in
order to prove them. I'm starting to think that the real solution here
is to be even stricter about screening these cases, and only take ones
where I have the facts and time to win outright. I've rolled
over and played dead twice for simple lack of other options--next time
I want to put the screws to the bastards.

@ignignokt: Yeah, the problem is that I haven't been able to make it
expensive enough to roll over me as I said above. The idea of talking
to them as if they were children is a good one, but I've got a
similarly bad record persuading actual children.

@coolguymichael: It's the exact same reason for me. See my response to
madred above.

@alphanerd, paragraph 3: Are those bank and phone company guys waving
reams of discovery requests and subpoenas at you at the time? That
changes the power balance slightly, I find.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 6:51 AM on May 8, 2010

I am a lawyer, and have dealt with my share of assholes in this profession. A few thoughts:

(1) By being proactive in your dealings with these intimidating assholes, you steal a lot of their thunder. In one of my earliest civil cases, my adversary was represented by a huge, AmLaw 100 law firm. I started the litigation by sending them a lot of correspondence and calling the opposing counsel frequently. I am a nice guy, but I made it clear by my proactive stance that I was not intimidated by them. Later in the litigation, they brought a more important partner into the case, but his efforts to intimidate me (he was fond of belligerent language, "we're going to kill you," etc.) were completely ineffective because I had been so proactive and had made it clear that their status as a huge, ostensibly scary law firm didn't scare me in the slightest. I treated them as equal peers, and ultimately they treated me the same way. If you're slow to return phone calls, timid in your conversations with them, or cede them any ground in terms of status, you're letting them win.

(2) You must demand strict adherence to procedural rules and the letter of the law. In dealings among attorneys who treat each other as peers, a lot of courtesies are exchanged in terms of agreeing to extensions on discovery, waiving service my mail (rather than fax and e-mail), making stipulations, etc. But in your representation of the powerless, you have few weapons at your disposal other than the rules and the law. Do not grant the opposing side any extensions. Insist on strict adherence to formalities. I once won a huge battle --- in the middle of a hotly contested trial --- by making a big issue of an improperly formatted certificate of service. And the judge ruled in my favor, excluding evidence that would have been devastating to my client's case! It was such a shock to opposing counsel that one of them stormed out of the courtroom in a rage. That procedural slip-up on their part was the sort of thing that would have been routinely allowed to slide between many attorneys, but I was not willing to grant my opponent anything in that case. My client was powerless in that situation, and stood to lose a whole lot, and it was insistence on procedures that won that battle.

(3) Don't expect this fear to last, even though you think it's not in your nature to deal with intimidating assholes like this. My personality is much like yours. This may be hard to believe, but once you get established in the legal profession, things that seem scary or impossible will ultimately become second nature to you. These early experiences of being scared shitless by opposing counsel are important learning experiences ... and you need to trust that you will grow into an attorney who is entirely comfortable with things that scare you now.
posted by jayder at 10:03 AM on May 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

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