Judged by our listening

Effective listening is just one of many components of being effective, overall, as a communicator and as a professional. By being effective listeners, lawyers can improve how people perceive their overall communication effectiveness. Professor Neil Hamilton’s excellent law review article Effectiveness Requires Listening: How to Assess and Improve Listening Skills delves into some ideas on how this is so.

Professor Hamilton begins by noting the “exceptional opportunity” available to lawyers and law students who enhance their listening skills. Effective listening can assist students with academic performance and practicing lawyers with client relationships. Analytically, effective listening enhances problem solving and deepens understanding of a situation. Beyond that, it builds trust. So listening is a win-win-win: competitively, analytically, and relationally.

Next Hamilton quotes a study linking listening to overall effectiveness–not just in communication, but period: “[P]eople whom others perceive as the most effective individuals have strong listening skills” (citing Kerry Patterson et al., Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High (2002)). Patterson’s work revealed that managers judged as effective were able to encourage others to talk about high-stakes topics and to get all the issues out in the open. Part of their effectiveness was a product of  listening to various points of view before jumping into the fray.

This particularly passage in Hamilton’s article called to mind, for me, the work of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, most recently collected in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York Times review here). Kahneman, along with Amos Tversky, found that people apply a wide variety of “cognitive heuristics”—in other words, psychological shortcuts—to guide their decision-making.

These heuristics play a particularly large role in making tough decisions involving many complex factors. For example, a lawyer might be afraid to put a client on the stand when that client has an admissible prior conviction because, the lawyer would justifiably think, the jury might substitute its overall complex decision about the facts of the case for the easier decision about whether the client was a worthy person, in light of the prior conviction.

So in the context of listening, what if people use listening as a heuristic for their judgments about someone’s effectiveness as a communicator? What if people use listening as a heuristic for judgments about someone’s effectiveness, period? Both could be true.

A speaker can observe a listener’s behavior and from the outward behavior form a judgment about that person’s listening. The judgment could be wrong; a distracted-looking person might actually be a better listener than someone who sits still but is really thinking about what to say next. Yet the outward behavior sends a message that nonetheless triggers a cascade of thoughts and judgments in the speaker’s mind.

Lawyers wishing to make a good impression with clients, judges, and others should keep this possibility in mind. By showing themselves to be good listeners, lawyers can likely ratchet up others’ beliefs about their overall effectiveness. Conversely, by appearing to be poor listeners, lawyers might be compromising more than they think. (Thus a lawyer’s slip in listening to a client might call for an immediate apology to try to counteract the client’s unfavorable judgment, which would likely be forming as quickly as a summer pop-up storm in Atlanta.)

There is something about listening that, I believe, makes it a particularly likely candidate to serve as a cognitive heuristic for effective communication. Speaking is the other significant component of interpersonal communication. (Let’s set aside writing for now.) Public speaking is notoriously difficult and intimidating. So even if a lawyer begins a presentation on a tentative note, the audience’s own experience might soften any judgment about the lawyer’s overall effectiveness. You may have heard someone described along these lines: “He’s not a great public speaker, but he does a good job.”

But listening is different. I have never heard someone say, “She’s a lousy listener, but overall she does a nice job.” Not being listened to provokes frustration if not anger. This would seem especially true for audiences with high expectations of being listened to, such as clients and judges.

And listening seems pretty to evaluate, therefore making it a good candidate for the cognitive heuristic called the “substitution effect,” or “attribute substitution.” Even if a client feels at a loss to evaluate a lawyer’s holistic legal acumen, that client can substitute an easier decision: does the client feel that the lawyer effectively listened?

Thus listening would seem to have all the ingredients of a heuristic in the making, especially for lawyers. This observation brings us back full circle to Hamilton’s article exhorting the value of effective listening: “[P]eople whom others perceive as the most effective individuals have strong listening skills.”

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