I recently listened to an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast about “non-complementary behavior”. I didn’t know what complementary and non-complementary behavior were, but it turns out I had a great deal of experience with both. The idea behind non-complementary behavior is that in interpersonal communications and relationships, people tend to mirror back the attitude and demeanor that is projected towards them. In short, if I treat someone with hostility, that person will probably treat me with hostility also. If I treat that someone warmly, that person will likely treat me warmly in turn.

It turns out that it goes further than that. Sometimes, a person can meet hostility with warmth and change the entire trajectory of a relationship from one of negativity to positivity. This is called “non-complementary” behavior. This is a powerful tool for defusing tense situations or building positive relationships with people. It is difficult to execute because it goes against a person’s natural tendency to mirror behavior in a complementary way, and yet it is a relatively easily learned skill with training and education.

This got me thinking back to my days before I became an administrator, when I was representing clients full-time. How many of my clients showed an immediate distrust and low-level hostility (or even a not-so-low-level hostility) for me? I’m proud to say that most did not, but some did. Some had previous bad experiences with public defenders and were wary of dealing with one again. How many more thought hostile thoughts but weren’t giving voice to them?

In each of these encounters, meeting a client for the first time and not getting immediate trust or gratitude from the person, I had a choice. I could engage with the person in a complementary way, in which I would likely talk down to the person, question his or her judgment, maybe raise my voice, and tell the client that he or she should simply believe me and trust me because I’m a lawyer. This is the more natural and likely reaction, but science and common sense say that this approach would likely lead to more hostility and distrust.

The other alternative was to exhibit non-complementary behavior, meeting the person’s distrust and hostility with understanding, kindness, and empathy. The result, according to the same science and common sense, would be that the client would change his or her attitude and mirror my own attitude back to me. Maybe it wouldn’t happen immediately, but I would at least avoid the feedback cycle of meeting hostility with hostility, condescension with condescension, obstinacy with obstinacy in a self-reinforcing cycle, and start building the trust and respect that are the hallmarks of client-centered representation.

I think I did OK, and yet, I have to confess I probably took the first approach more often than was optimal. The optimal rate being never. This was before I had a name for “client-centeredness” and much longer before I had a name for “noncomplementary behavior”. When I learned about client-centeredness, it was an a-ha moment or maybe more of an I-should-have-known-all-along moment. What I learned through hard experience I could have learned by simply talking to the right person or reading the right article years earlier. When you give a concept a name, it is easier to consistently follow the course of behavior

Now I have a new I-should-have-known-all-along moment, with the concept non-complementary behavior. I think this has obvious connections to client-centeredness. A client-centered public defender will try to gain the trust of a skeptical client. How will the client-centered public defender establish a positive relationship when the client opens with hostility? By displaying noncomplementary behavior, doing so deliberately while thinking explicitly about both the process and the results. Noncomplementary behavior, then, is an important tool in the toolbox of a client-centered public defender.

Between the attorney and the client, it is the attorney who is supposed to be trained to deal with the client. The client is not trained to deal with the attorney. That is why attorneys always need to meet the clients where they are and accept them as they come. It is unreasonable to expect the opposite. The concept of noncomplementary behavior, employed as early in the relationship as possible, is a good tool to accomplish that.

I think having a name for a concept, even one you previously grasped subconsciously or intuitively, is very powerful. It brings the concept out of the subconscious and into the conscious, which lets us act deliberately and to purposely cultivate the skills associated with the concept. It allows us to stop and think when a client is not immediately receptive to us, “This is natural. My job is to be noncomplementary and not reflect the client’s hostility back to him.”