Good communication is at the foundation of virtually every relationship. For lawyers, the ability to communicate well is a skill that influences the outcome of just about everything that takes place during a typical day.
Delegating tasks to co-workers, persuading a judge or jury, working with opposing counsel, understanding a client’s objectives – the success of each of these is grounded in the exercise of solid communication skills.
One key aspect of good communication is attentive, focused listening.
If we’re honest, listening is an aspect of communication that can be particularly difficult for us as lawyers. Maybe it’s traceable to law school (e.g., “I’d better have something at least marginally intelligent to say when she calls on me?”) or it’s just inseparable from the nature of a lot of the confrontational stuff we sometimes do, but how many times do we find ourselves formulating a response to someone before they’ve even finished what they’re trying to tell us? Sometimes we even jump in midstream, interrupting. Both of those things are flaws that I find myself constantly trying to avoid.
While there is no shortage of advice that vaguely reminds us to “be a better listener”, there really aren’t many specific, tactical suggestions offered in order to achieve that goal. Let me suggest one that I often use myself, a practice that’s pretty popular here at Rocket Matter. If you hung out at our office for a few days, you’d hear it used at least a handful of times. You might even hear it (and after reading this, recognize it), while speaking with one of our support folks.
A few specific suggestions for better listening:
1. Stay quiet. Basic, but essential. Let the other person (your client, your partner, your paralegal) finish their point without interruption.
2. Refrain from “thinking ahead” while someone is speaking to you. By focusing solely on exactly what the speaker is saying, to the exclusion of everything else, you will be less likely to miss anything – including important nuances or implications. Also, by consciously keeping this focus, you’ll be far less likely to fall into the trap of: (a) starting to formulating a response (which often takes the form of an objection or counterpoint) while they’re still communicating with you; or, worse yet (b) just cutting them off completely.
3. Wait for the speaker to explicitly note they’re finished making their point, or ask if they’re finished. Sometimes people need to pause for a second after they speak to think about what they said, gather their thoughts, and make sure they expressed it in a complete way. Things don’t always come out perfectly the first time, and that’s especially true with clients who aren’t used to speaking with lawyers. Sometimes these clients perceive speaking with you as speaking with an authority figure. As such, they can be nervous, shy, self-conscious, and so forth. Be certain that the speaker is finished making their point, and they’re happy with the way they’ve made it, before you start responding.
4. Explain the speaker’s point back to the speaker. One of the best ways to measure whether you really know something or not is whether you can comfortably teach it to someone else. In order to make certain you’ve heard what someone has said, and that you completely understand it, politely ask the speaker: “can I explain that back to you to make sure I got it?” And then take a stab at explaining everything back, preferably in your own words, so that you can show you’re not just memorizing something and shooting it back; rather, you’re evidencing complete understanding by taking their message and putting it in your own voice.
In addition to confirming understanding, there’s often a bonus to this step: from the speaker’s perspective, there can be a little boost of perceived respect. Whether the listener agrees or not with what the speaker is communicating, the simple act of evidencing complete receipt of the speaker’s point or perspective can be an implied statement of respect and consideration.
I was surprised how effective these simple little rules can be. The steps are particularly useful when you’re dealing with subject matter that’s highly complex, emotionally charged, or contentious – precisely the type of stuff lawyers deal with constantly.