Month: October 2014

Client developmentLegal communicationPeople skills

Listening on TV: What Sitcom Clips Can Teach Lawyers

Thanks to unnamedTami K. Lefko for this fun and informative guest post.

I often use clips from television shows and movies in class, and there are a few related to active listening that I especially like. Here are three of my favorites, from three popular sitcoms:

1. Everybody Loves Raymond, “Father Knows Least”

This early episode of Everybody Loves Raymond largely focused on active listening. In the first part of the episode (“Part I” below), Debra forced Ray to attend a parenting class with her after their daughter Ally began misbehaving. Ray did not take the class seriously and did poorly when he was asked to role play with the instructor and demonstrate how he listens to their daughter.

(Part I – Ray demonstrates ineffective listening skills in parenting class)

But later in the episode (“Part 2”), he has a little more success using active listening techniques with his own parents. The most relevant part begins about 50 seconds into the “Part 2” clip and continues for about two minutes.

(Part II – Ray does better with his own parents)

One tangential aspect of this episode that I find interesting is that it also illustrates (and debunks) a common misperception about skills like writing and listening: that they can’t be taught. Those of us who teach legal writing and related skills have probably all heard, at one time or another, the objection that these skills cannot be taught: either you are a talented writer (or good listener) or not. In this episode, Ray initially objects to attending the parenting class. He agrees to attend, however, when he catches himself saying that his parents never took a class and they did a fine job — not exactly how he usually describes their parenting. Similarly, his parents tease him about taking a parenting class, but the techniques he learned in class are shown to work well to diffuse one of their arguments.

Credit: Season 2, Episode 2/Original Airdate: September 29, 1997

2. The Big Bang Theory, “The Extract Obliteration”

For a more recent example, I like this one from The Big Bang Theory. In the clip below, Sheldon and Leonard realize they are talking past each other rather than having a real conversation, so they try using a chess timer to give each other a chance to speak in turn.

The brief non-conversation that prompted Leonard to suggest using the chess timer is included in this longer clip, but it is of lesser quality than the clip above:

Although the use of the chess timer is played for laughs here, a chess timer or something similar could be used effectively in class for listening practice. Clients often complain that their lawyers do not truly listen to them, and law students can also find it difficult to listen, uninterrupted, to another’s story. Using a chess timer or similar device could make students aware if they tend to interrupt or pressure a speaker rather than listening patiently.

Credit: Season 6, Episode 6/Original Airdate: November 1, 2012

3. The Office, “The Whale”

In the episode linked below, Pam tries to teach Dwight how to appear interested in what other people have to say so that he can sell to female clients more effectively, without much success.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qg8PIK74KO4

Credit: Season 9, Episode 7/Original Airdate: November 15, 2012

All three of these episodes can be viewed in their entirety on Amazon Instant Video and similar services. If you have any favorites of your own on the listening topic, please mention them in the comments! I’d love to expand my repertoire of listening videos that are both entertaining and informative.

AdvocacyLaw practiceLegal skillsLitigation

Listening at Trial

United States District Judge Mark Bennett (N.D. Iowa) has published a great article on the “Eight Traits of Great Trial Lawyers: A Federal Judge’s View on How to Shed the Moniker ‘I Am a Litigator.'”

Studying the entire article would be an excellent use of time for any litigator trial lawyer. Judge Bennett’s coverage of being a great listener — Roman numeral VII in the article — is centered around a pretty strong criticism: “In my view, listening skills are incredibly underdeveloped in most lawyers I have observed in the courtroom.”

Judge Bennett outlines how listening is essential to core competencies of a trial lawyer such as understanding the other side’s case, being responsive to the judge hearing the case, and effectively examining friendly and hostile witnesses. It’s particularly helpful that he gives a specific example — in transcript form — of how a good lawyer can listen effectively at trial. Judge Bennett further points out that listening is rather helpful to building trust with clients, an important skill for any type of lawyer.

Hat tip to the Legal Skills Prof Blog, which shared this article earlier in the week.

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Review of Stone and Heen’s Thanks for the Feedback

Doug Stone and Sheila Heen co-wrote what is now a business classic, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (2010). Their new book explores the challenges of one of the most difficult kinds of conversation — feedback. The title and subtitle of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (2014) signal their thesis: in these conversations, “the key player is not the giver, but the receiver.” 

Lawyers may benefit particularly from this book’s wisdom, given situations in law practice involving the lack of feedback, poorly delivered feedback, and the dire consequences of certain feedback. One difficulty was summed up by Dennis Kennedy’s advice for new lawyers in the ABA’s Law Practice Today:

Many attorneys will say nothing about your work and continue to give you more and more work. To you, this can be frustrating. In their minds, they have given you the highest form of feedback. “If I didn’t like the work, I wouldn’t give them more.” They don’t realize that most of us need to hear the words.

And likewise, Kennedy points out, some generic feedback may hide quite negative thoughts:

A hearty “great job” and no specific comments may disguise the fact someone can’t believe what a poor job you did and just wants to get you moved on to someone else.

So, for the feedback receiver, the first key to getting more out of feedback is recognizing it is everywhere; Stone and Heen define it to include “any information you get about yourself.” And since feedback is everywhere, we can guarantee that not every source of feedback will be skilled or thoughtful. People who want to be more effective can do so by focusing on the part of the feedback transaction they can control: how they receive it and what they do with it. I love this point for lawyers.

Several frameworks can help feedback receivers to do more with what they are receiving. The first is to understand the types of feedback:

  • appreciation: knowing that others are noticing what you’re doing, and grateful for it
  • coaching: understanding direction to grow and change in an area of skill or in a relationship
  • evaluation: being rated or ranked, perhaps comparatively, and learning about future decisions based on rank

Some of the problems with feedback arise when the receiver just wants appreciation but receives detailed coaching, or wants a clear evaluation but receives vague appreciation (and so on). That’s what Dennis Kennedy was talking about with the “hearty great job” that disguises real dissatisfaction. I have also seen a confusion with coaching and evaluation, when an attorney receives a draft motion and marks it up extensively. For some attorneys, they aren’t criticizing the drafter but just using the first draft as a tool to recognize what they really want to do. This is coaching. But for other attorneys, having to mark up anything carries with an implicit judgment/evaluation of the drafter’s skills. Understanding the differences in types of feedback and clarifying expectations in a feedback situation can make conversations more productive.

The second important framework Stone and Heen outline is three categories of “triggers” — as in emotional triggers — that block feedback:

  • Truth triggers arise when the feedback receiver thinks “that’s wrong”; “that’s not helpful”; or “that’s not me.”
  • Relationship triggers arise when the feedback receiver feels unappreciated, does not respect the feedback giver, or blames the giver.
  • Identity triggers arise when the feedback receiver takes the feedback personally, feels helpless, and starts to question everything.

And with these frameworks in mind, Stone and Heen then suggest various process-based approaches for effectively receiving feedback. There is really too much good material to describe here even at a very high level.

One point important point is the “mindset” work led by Carol Dweck at Stanford. If you believe people’s skills are fundamentally fixed and feedback merely reveals what their skills are, then you have a fixed mindset. If you believe people can develop their skills over time and feedback can help with that, you have a growth mindset. This is an incredibly important distinction for professional growth, such that the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession has an entire “GRIT Project” devoted to this concept. Professor William Henderson also wrote a great article about whether great lawyers are born or made. (For in-depth articles focusing on legal education, see articles by Sarah Adams-Schoen and Carrie Sperling. These are just two examples of a lot of great work in this area.)

At times Stone and Heen’s book focuses on listening specifically:

Advice about listening is white noise. It’s so common and so boring that we no longer even hearing. But if you’re drifting off, this would be a good time to wake up. Listening may be the most challenging skill involved in receiving feedback, but it also has the biggest payoff.

Part of the challenge with listening is the competing “inner voice” that drowns out external information. Stone and Heen advise listening for specific information and cultivating a sense of curiosity that can help to tamp down some of the inner voice’s resistance.

Another challenge with listening is the difficulty of doing it really well. Stone and Heen point out that great listeners are able to recognize not just what is being said substantively but also what is happening with the process of the conversation. Here’s one of their examples of managing process within a team:

Okay, we’re deadlocked. We both need to agree on this, and we don’t. Your solution is that I should give in. As a process, that doesn’t feel fair to me. On the other hand, I don’t know how to break this deadlock, so we’ve got to figure it out. What’s a fair and efficient way to decide when we don’t agree?

There is a whole lot more really valuable information in Thanks for the Feedback. Much of it is general information useful for any professional or personal setting. But among their many gigs, Stone and Heen teach negotiations at Harvard Law School; thus, they include several good law-related examples in the book. For anyone who gives or gets feedback, I really recommend this book.

Client developmentPeople skills

Empathy and communications with clients, spouses, and partners

This week has seen several great posts on major issues for lawyers involving listening.

The first one was Jordan Furlong’s post “Don’t Think Like a Lawyer.” He argues that thinking like a lawyer is “easy and fun,” and also a dangerous replacement for thinking like a person. He argues that feeling like a client is totally lacking from legal education, and law students should be required to visit lawyers’ offices and experience what clients experience. “Legal education is a powerful drug; but if you’re not careful, it can drown out your instincts, stifle your emotions, and numb your heart.” To be great, lawyers must be more than “tacticians”; they must be “instinctive, heartfelt, caring, and real.”

These themes were addressed as well in Mark Perlmutter’s post on “6 Things We Learned in Law School that Shouldn’t Be Tried at Home” on Trebuchet Legal. Perlmutter recalls his shift from lawyer to counselor including his own experience in counseling: “I’ve come to realize how much my lawyer competencies had helped to make me an utterly incompetent husband.” Perlmutter explains some good therapy concepts boiled down to the idea that responding with opposition is not effective. Paraphrasing and building on the conversation may work a lot better. (That sounds a lot like active listening.)

These effect of these posts was encouraging for the project here at Listen Like a Lawyer. Upcoming content will explore some brass-tacks listening topics such as listening at deposition and listening at trial. If you’re a hard-core litigator and want to share some thoughts on listening, please let me know. On that note, here’s a nice article on listening at trial.

But this blog will continue to explore the soft skill of listening on its own terms — including its essential role in empathy, relationships, and human connections.