Resolve to do more than “active listening”

Lawyers are not stupid. They know that listening is important to their professional success. In fact, when a recent study asked about 100 U.S. and Finnish lawyers to assess their own “listening competence,” they answered realistically, ranking themselves average to good. They supported these rankings with qualitative answers so closely linked to their work as lawyers that the authors of the study concluded they were really answering a different question focused on their “professional listening competence.” The study is Professional Listening Competence: Promoting Well-Being at Work in the Legal Context by Sanna Ala-Kortesmaa and Pekka Isotalus, published in the International Journal of Listening.

The study by Ala-Kortesmaa and Isotalus is quite interesting and will be addressed in a longer post later in 2015. For now, here at the end of 2014, it offers a gem to take away as a potential New Year’s Resolution:

Active listening is the wrong answer. Or at least it’s not always the right answer.

Listening competence requires a broad range of skills from cognitive strengths such as memory to emotional (“affective”) strengths such as being able to focus on the conversation partner. And listening competence requires the listener to adjust behavior to the situation, using a variety of approaches.

People—including lawyers—generally do understand that they need to adjust their listening to the situation. The problem is the widespread belief that the way to do this is by active listening.

Active listening is focused on other conversation partners, with the goals of “adopting the emotions of others or interpreting their thoughts and meanings.” (This language is from the Ala-Kortesmaa article; the original source of this critique is by John Stewart and Milt Thomas, summarized here.)

What is often more effective is “dialogic listening.” Dialogic listening focuses on the shared aspect of the conversation. It explores what the other person is saying, not to crawl inside that person’s mind or try to paraphrase meaning but rather to create shared understanding. It’s more open-ended. It tends to be less manipulative. According to the original source on dialogic listening, Stewart and Thomas, the practice of dialogic listening means encouraging conversation partners to say more, using metaphors to reach new understandings, asking the conversation partner to paraphrase (rather than paraphrasing for them), and exploring the context behind the conversation partner’s statements.

One difficulty for attorneys that Ala-Kortesmaa and Isotalus point out is to find out if their conversation partner is communicating dialogically. This is the idea of the dual role of listening. The article implies what most attorneys will have experienced: sometimes they have to communicate with people who aren’t communicating in anything close to good faith. Or, it’s hard to communicate openly and non-manipulatively with someone who is trying to manipulatively guide the conversation toward his or her own goal. (Stewart and Thomas admit that dialogic listening itself can seem manipulative. So that goes back to the idea that however one labels communication, if it’s not good-faith communication then the labels really don’t matter.)

Throughout my time blogging here at Listen Like a Lawyer, I’ve been wanting to take a hard look at active listening. It is such a popular listening concept, yet there seems to be a subtle kind of domination in restating someone’s thoughts, either in the same words (now they are my words) or different words (let me fix that and put the right words on it). This topic needs further exploration because clearly active listening is a technique every lawyer does need, and great communicators can do active listening in good faith, without manipulation or domination.

But this insight from the Professional Listening Competence study seems like a great way to end the year. Active listening is not the formulaic answer to being a good listener. No single formula is the answer to being a good listener. Dialogic listening is worth learning more about, especially with client conversations, because it’s not about forcing meaning or extracting meaning but sharing meaning.

This New Year’s Eve post is inspired by Matt Homann’s “Looking for a Resolution?” post on the [non]billable hour

2 thoughts on “Resolve to do more than “active listening”

  1. Jennifer,
    Congratulations on your outstanding, scholarly, and readable blog–a major contribution to the field of law and communication.
    Your pursuit of best practices and best terms (active listening/dialogic listening) is thought provoking.

    As a coach of professional service providers, the term I find is received best is “persuasive listening”, defined as the strategic use of listening to enhance client relationships and results. This definition motivates the professional and puts the responsibility for understanding client information and needs in her court. Glad to add to the mix of terms and the intent behind them.

    I look forward to Listen Like a Lawyer 2015!
    Thanks Jennifer.

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