“Develop-in-place” for listening

This post is for people who don’t mind reading a bit of jargon from the world of training and professional development. It’s all about how we define effective listening and how lawyers can develop it on the job, with some implications for legal education as well.

The term “competency” is a term of art in educational and professional parlance. I like this definition: “measurable or observable knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors [that are] critical to successful job performance.” 

Listening is very difficult to observe and to measure. Listening is hard even to define. Professor Neil Hamilton recognized these difficulties in his foundational law-review article on listening, Effectiveness Requires Listening: How to Assess and Improve Listening Skills:

One challenge in integrating a focus on improving listening

skills into the traditional law school curriculum, particularly the required

curriculum, is that it can be difficult to ascertain what “listening

skills” are. A failure to break down competence in a skill into component

parts can create confusion both for teachers, who need clear objectives

and assessment tools, and students, who need clear direction, thus

making it more difficult to integrate the skills into a curriculum.

Listening has received a variety of definitions from communication scholars, culminating in this from the International Listening Association: “the process of receiving, constructing meaning from and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages”

This definition underscores the problem with measuring listening. How do you measure whether a person is “receiving” messages, much less “constructing meaning” from them? Responding is much easier to observe and assess. (Yet another reason “active listening” gets so much love; you really can know it when you see it because by definition it involves an observable behavior.)

But just because measuring listening—all its aspects—is difficult doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. An example worth studying comes from the Microsoft in Education program, which has undertaken the task of stating a broad range of Education Competencies for Teachers and School Leaders, including Listening Competences. (Also here are some on interpersonal skills.) The rest of this post focuses on these particular “Listening Competencies” and what lawyers might draw from some of their substance as well as the framework used to present them.

Tiers of listening from basic to expert

The Listening Competencies document begins with a rubric classifying listening skills into four tiers:

  • basic
  • intermediate
  • advanced
  • expert

An example of a basic listening skill is being attentive, and an expert listening skill is “making solid eye contact, intuitively absorbing the gist of the message.” A basic listening skill is being considerate of the opinions of others, and an expert skill is being able to accurately restate the opinions of others even when you disagree with them.

So this type of rubric is far from revolutionary but harder than it looks to develop. In the legal field, what do we consider basic and expert listening, and gradations of intermediate and advanced listening in between? The educators’ competencies do not adequately speak to the complex and contested situations lawyers find themselves dealing with; they would need to be developed and tailored significantly to describe the skills required by lawyers functioning in the real world and law students doing real-world experiential work.

There is a growing body of work in the area of articulating lawyering competencies, intensified by many factors such as the push for law schools to produce practice-ready graduates. The new book Building on Best Practices: Transforming Legal Education in a Changing World by Lisa Bliss et al. is an example of a very recent contribution. Listen Like a Lawyer will keep exploring the research, as well as talking to a variety of lawyers and law professors in order to revisit this question over the summer.

Develop-in-place assignments

In addition to the skill tiers, the Listening Competencies document also raised the idea of “part-time develop-in-place assignments.” This was not a term I had heard before, but the idea of a “develop-in-place assignment” seemed intriguing. Lawyers may prefer training opportunities that are more customized and active, with less loss of productivity than something like attending an all-day CLE.

So what does “develop-in-place” mean? From context, we know it is more than remedial training. For remedial needs, the Listening Competencies document has a separate section for “self-development remedies.” They include gems such as “keep your mouth closed” and “eliminate . . . . pencil drumming.” (There are more difficult items on the remediation list as well, such as “[l]isten to those who waste a lot of time, but try to help them.” How is that remedial?)

After the remedial section, the Listening Competencies document goes on to list ideas for “develop-in-place assignments.” The common thread is practical, hand-on training opportunities. They exist somewhere in between remedial and highly advanced. A few examples in the list include finding and learning from an expert; going to campus as a recruiter; and becoming someone’s mentor. The list also suggested making peace with an enemy or other person “you have disappointed, had trouble with, or don’t get along with.” The list also suggested going on a trip to a foreign country. (Yes, that would be a pretty awesome way to develop competencies! Sign me up for that one, please.)

The term “develop-in-place” appears not to be widely used beyond the Microsoft in Education competencies, but its basic meaning is confirmed by some excellent training materials from the Korn/Ferry training organization:

Develop-in-Place Assignments are job tasks that require application of certain competencies. Research shows that 70% of development happens on the job, and jobs differ in development power and in the competencies they address. You can’t always change jobs for development reasons alone, but there is almost always a develop-in-place assignment that you can select in your current job to address your development need.

This definition should appeal to lawyers in that it’s about doing an actual job task that also happens to develop skills or competencies—in other words, learning by doing. The idea that “there is almost always a develop-in-place assignment . . . in your current job” may ring true for many practicing lawyers. For example, new lawyers doing a lot of writing and research may seek out pro bono opportunities to work with clients more personally. (This isn’t a simple matter, and pro-bono work should be more than an opportunistic skill grab. But done correctly, it is a way to serve clients and the public and apply lawyering competencies.) Similarly, lawyers who work on a lot of individual, fact-intensive matters may seek time to write an article taking a broader perspective.

Expert lawyering requires so many different competencies, with listening being just one aspect of a broad picture combining intellectual, interpersonal, more broadly social, and practical skill sets. Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck may have the definitive set in their list of 26 lawyering effectiveness factors. Given this eclectic mix and the value of learning by doing, this concept of “develop-in-place assignments” seems like a pretty good idea for professional development.

Please share your thoughts on listening competencies for lawyers, and ways that lawyers could use “develop-in-place” assignments to practice and improve their listening skills.

2 thoughts on ““Develop-in-place” for listening

  1. Hi, Jennifer,

    Have you seen this from the Journal of Dispute Resolution, “What Do Clients Want from Their Lawyers”?

    Second, in the 1993 Philadelphia movie, Andrew Beckett (played by Tom Hanks) explained what he loved about the law, “It’s that every now and again – not often, but occasionally – you get to be a part of justice being done. That really is quite a thrill when that happens.”

    I think listening is similar. Sometimes it allows the speaker to discover something true, because the listener encouraged and helped them to talk just beyond their comfort zone.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment and the link, Marc! I look forward to reading the article. Best wishes, Jennifer

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