Listening and e-mail

A recent critique of “digital dualism” got me thinking about lawyers, listening, and e-mail. Digital dualism refers to the mindset that online digital life is something different—and the frequent implication is: something less—than authentic “real life.”
Thanks to F. Delventhal

This blog may at times veer to close to digital dualism, as in this early post. It is pretty easy to think that listening to a real conversation is a rich, informative experience, whereas e-mail is a weak, underwhelming medium. To use a visual metaphor from photography, listening in real life is like viewing the rich hues and shades of a photograph taken the old-fashioned way, on real film. An e-mail conversation is like digital photography: easy to use but less subtle in shades and gradations; and subject to digital distortion, conveying only what the limitations of pixels and memory allow.

Lawyers’ responses to this idea would seem to fall along the same lines as non-lawyers’ responses. Some embrace the dualism and the preference for “real life,” arguing that the law profession has become too reliant on digital forms and too hopeful about their promise for the future. In the listening context, lawyers perhaps could do better by themselves and their clients by replacing some e-mail exchanges with real-life conversations.

Some lawyers would go the opposite direction with a pragmatic response: Who cares? Even if e-mail is different or even definitively less than real-life listening, there’s no way a modern law practice could exist on real-time listening alone.

The hope is that many lawyers would seek the benefits of both. They would reconcile the dualism debate by concluding that online and offline communication forms complement and enrich each other. The most effective lawyers strategically inhabit both worlds, picking and choosing their method of communication depending on what is necessary and appropriate. (This reconciliation is suggested in Nathan Jurgenson’s post on digital dualism linked above. As he writes: “our reality is both technological and organic, both digital and physical, all at once.”)

Developing that point, here are some thought on how real-life listening techniques can be useful for handling e-mail:

1. Listen to the tone of an e-mail.

Much has been written about tone in e-mail. It’s hard to control when you’re writing an e-mail. But what about “hearing” the tone of an e-mail?

Listening to the tone of an e-mail can be valuable in a variety of ways. The e-mail’s tone can tell you about how the sender is positioning his client.

The e-mail’s tone can also guide you in handling further communications in a satisfying and/or strategic way. For example, to acknowledge that you understood the e-mail’s intended tone, you can use “active listening” techniques. Active listening generally involves listening to and processing the speaker’s message, then paraphrasing it back so as to demonstrate understanding and initiate further conversation. (Professor Neil Hamilton has a helpful overview of active listening and some pitfalls for lawyers here.)

For example, active listening could help with managing a hostile-sounding e-mail like this one:

 “We have been asking for a new set of draft agreements for more than two weeks. We have received no response from you or anyone on your team throughout this time despite repeated requests. This delay in receiving a new set of drafts is unacceptable.”

Using active listening techniques, a response e-mail could acknowledge and reflect back the sender’s disappointment—while also not admitting an actual significant “delay”:

“We are sorry that you are disappointed in the timing of the drafts.”

By using the active-listening technique in e-mail, a lawyer can demonstrate attention to the matter and good will in continuing to communicate. The lawyer’s e-mail “listening” can also show an understanding of the gamesmanship inherent in some e-mail exchanges, while still moving forward with the matter immediately at hand.

2.  Listen to what is not said in an e-mail.

Peter Drucker asserted that “[t]he most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.” This is true in e-mail and in real-life conversations.

Thus, searching an e-mail for important gaps can be an extremely important communication tool. Discovering what hasn’t been said allows further conversation to close up gaps and finalize details.

Discovering what hasn’t been said can also be part of an effective lawyering strategy. Understanding what the e-mail sender left out of the message can give a lawyer ideas about strategic next steps.

3. Listen to e-mail silences.

When an e-mail trail goes quiet, that silence may or may not be significant. Acknowledging a significant silence can be a form of listening with empathy:

“After our many exchanges last week on the status of the new draft agreements, I was surprised not to hear from you since my last e-mail on Friday at 2:26 p.m. I hope everything is all right with you and your team.”

Acknowledging a silence can also be somewhat equivalent to nonverbal communication in a real-life conversation, signaling your engagement with and continuing interest in communicating.

So to return for a moment to the idea of digital dualism, it seems the best (and really only) approach is to embrace both forms of communication–both online and offline. Both are necessary to law practice. Both have strengths and weaknesses. Great lawyers use both to get their message across and to listen as well.

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