Profile of a great listener—and what lawyers can learn

“Listening well is a gift.” Malcolm Gladwell explores the gift—and curse—of listening in this BBC profile of Vietnam consultant Konrad Kellen. The profile has some fascinating and sad insights into 20th-century politics and war. But the main point is to explore Konrad Kellen’s abiding gift as a listener. Although Kellen’s work was in public policy, his listening gift has something to teach lawyers as well: he listened without a biased ear, and he listened to all the relevant information in forming his analysis.

Setting biases aside, or at least trying to

Kellen was effective as a listener primarily because he could set aside his biases. Gladwell describes Kellen’s rare ability to really understand field interviews with North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War. He didn’t filter the information through a bias of predicting U.S. victory, as did other policymakers who ultimately carried the day.  This prevailing bias not only clouded policymakers’ understanding of the data but also blocked them from accepting what Kellen learned from really listening to the North Vietnamese.

Listening without bias is really crucial for good lawyering. Lawyers’ bias can interfere in many forms, from bias in favor of the client, to bias in favor of the status quo, to bias in favor of personal benefit or avoiding embarrassment or risk. Truly effective listening requires accurate and objective interpretation of the message being heard. In this way, effective listening is difficult to distinguish from critical thought itself.

Listening deeply and thoroughly

Related to Kellen’s lack of bias was his ability to listen to all of the information and then synthesize it. He didn’t stop listening when he heard what supported the prevailing view, as Gladwell describes his work with extensive North Vietnamese interview transcripts. And Kellen was able to interpret seemingly conflicting statements together in a way that produced a deep understanding of the subjects’ real mindset toward the war.

Likewise, lawyers certainly should listen comprehensively, recognizing the relationships among discrete bits of data within the message. The press for efficiency and the lure of confirmation bias both can interfere with effective listening. Although lawyers must work efficiently, effective listening also means listening thoroughly and persistently, at least well enough and long enough to be able to hear conflicting information when it exists.

The curse of effective listening?

Gladwell ultimately suggests that Kellen’s effective listening was something of a curse. Gladwell points out the “great irony” that “[t]he better listener you are, the less people want to listen to you.”

This idea of listening as a curse seems less applicable to lawyers. Of course, knowing something that others can’t or won’t appreciate—whether gleaned through listening or otherwise—is difficult. Most lawyers will probably face that situation during their careers.

But as a sweeping statement, it does not seem to ring true that lawyers who listen well are less likely to be listened to. Indeed, just the opposite seems more likely in the small-group dynamics common in law practice. By deeply listening to the messages that clients, judges, mediators, opposing parties, witnesses, and others provide, lawyers can make themselves far more effective when they do speak up for their clients.

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