Month: August 2015

Law schoolLegal educationPeople skills

Back to school means “what’s your learning style?”

The idea that each learner has an ideal learning style—that is, a style such as visual or aural or kinesthetic, in which they learn most effectively—remains unproven. Yet it appears to be wildly popular and naturally appealing to both teachers and students. The new school year seems like a hot zone for this idea to proliferate anew.

Before delving into the research on learning styles, let’s preempt some backlash. Of course different students have different strengths and weaknesses, and of course different students have different preferences and habits for studying and learning. That’s not the problem.

What remains unproven is that a given person learns “best” in a particular learning style that is different from the way another person (with a different learning style) learns the same materialHere’s UVa education professor Daniel Willingham summarizing his critique of learning styles as a theory. Here’s another article by two psychology professors summing up the studies finding no support for learning styles, including one that tested medical students.  A frequently cited 2008 study by four education professors concluded  “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.” 

Learning styles are so appealing and so omnipresent from preschool to graduate school that it can be hard to accept they are some sort of “myth.” A helpful illustration comes from neuroscientist Christian Jarnett in Wired Magazine:

[A]lthough each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.

Similarly, studying sculpture is not done best by reading long texts describing said sculpture, as pointed out this helpful and balanced piece from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching.

Christian Jarnett goes on to argue that adhering to learning styles as a teaching method is not just a benign misconception but actively harmful. It encourages teachers and learners to direct their teaching toward existing areas of strength, given that “style” may function as a proxy for existing ability and preference. Dan Willingham would also say that mixing teaching styles in the interest of meeting different learning styles in a group may also be harmful, or at least not as beneficial as believed, if doing so works to the detriment of teaching the particular subject matter in the most appropriate way.

This is where listening comes in. When people are surveyed to try to determine their dominant learning style (or preference), listening—i.e. auditory learning—does not tend to rank as a top choice. Legal educator M.H. Sam Jacobson suggested a ranking for law students as learners: most law students report being verbal learners (learning by reading), followed by the next-most populous group of visual learners, followed by oral learners (learning by talking) and only then by auditory learners who learn by listening.

And because auditory learning is relatively unpopular, teaching to preferred learning styles could effectively hurt students’ listening skills even more. Under this theory, if a law student feels most comfortable as a visual or verbal learner, should that student thus learn to represent clients by looking at photographs of clients and reading scripts of interviews with clients? Clinics and externships offer incredible opportunities to interview clients, to take notes, to negotiate, to go to court—to do a lot of things that don’t neatly fit into the most popular categories.

It seems unlikely that an idea about learning styles would dissuade someone from clinic work. What I’m more concerned about is the way learning styles might subtly affect law students’ habits and beliefs: A law student might gain the notion he or she learns particularly well by reading and visuals, more so than by listening, and thus steer her way of thinking and studying towards words and images and away from talking and listening. Or struggle with taking notes in class or interviewing a client, and conclude that part of the reason is a learning style other than auditory.

Law students need to develop all modalities to be effective practitioners. . . . [R]egardless of whether one self-identifies as a visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or tactile learner, lawyers regularly use each of those modalities in practice. They process information by reading and synthesizing legal authority and documents obtained during discovery, for example, and act on oral directives from clients, judges, and colleagues.

This is from an excellent, in-depth, and critical yet constructive exploration of learning styles in legal education, Aïda Alaka’s article Learning Styles: What Difference Do the Differences Make?, 5 Charleston L. Rev. 133 (2011). Alaka carefully explores other frameworks for learning styles besides the “visual-aural-kinesthetic” model which is the main focus of this post. She ultimately concludes with the pragmatic notion that teaching material in a variety of ways beyond (1) assigning cases and (2) employing the Socratic method is certainly a good thing. (Hear, hear!)

She also suggests that while listening should not be neglected, reading will remain the most critical skill:

[R]ecent empirical studies suggest that developing law students’ critical reading skills and literacy are paramount to successful law school performance. Regardless of desire or preference, law students should understand that learning through reading is, and is likely to remain, the principle method by which they will absorb new information in law school and beyond.

In reading for this post, I came across a completely different type model formulated by educator Ken Bain in his book What the Best College Students Do:

  • Surface learners “do as little as possible to get by”
  • Strategic learners “aim for top grades rather than true understanding”
  • Deep learners “leave college with a real, rich education”

Just on its face, this framework bears parallels to listening. Surface listeners may just take in the key points and miss information as well as subtle cues. Strategic listeners may deploy active listening and other techniques, but miss opportunities to follow up and dig because they seize conversational cues to begin talking again. Deep listeners make the most of precious face time spent with conversation partners, leaving the conversation with a “real, rich” sense of learning information and building relationships through their communication skills including listening.

I look forward to reading more about this framework and exploring how learners who may fit into each of these categories can enrich the way they learn, and especially the way they listen.

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Blogger’s note: People I greatly respect have written about and at times touted the benefits of teaching to individual learning styles. In fact I myself gave a 2006 presentation about using visual tools to teach legal writing, which I based partly on the idea of visual learners as a significant component of the law-student population. My post here does not in any way change my admiration for the scholars and educators who have studied learning theories including as learning styles in the quest to improve their teaching and their students’ learning.

Emotional intelligenceLegal communicationLegal writing

Lucky listening object?

This summer I had the pleasure of reading Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by a longtime copy editor at the New Yorker, Mary Norris. This book is a pleasure, something you can tell just by the epigram:

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Later on, Norris expounds at length upon the editor’s pencil—not in a Platonic sense, but in the sense of the actual pencils and pencil sharpeners she uses for her tasks. Her favorite is the Blackwing, a premium and pedigreed pencil that promises “half the pressure, twice the speed.” (The smooth writing experience will appeal to certain pen fanatics as well.)

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On Norris’s recommendation, I ordered a box of Blackwings, specifically the Palomino Blackwing 602 model. They really are pretty awesome, from the silky flow onto the paper to what Norris describes as the chiclet-shaped eraser. Her loving and detailed description of trial and error before finding the Blackwings also imbued them with a special sense of purpose. As a legal writing professor, I began to think about whether law students would benefit from having some sort of totemic editor’s tool. This does seem appropriate, since lawyers should be editors as much as writers.

And as with many of may daily activities (see Orangetheory post from last week), I wondered whether this idea of a special writer’s tool could apply to the complementary skill of listening. What could lawyers and legal professionals use as an expert tool of the trade, giving their listening a special sense of purpose? The ideal tool would be subjectively powerful for the individual using it and carry some historical or contextual significance as well to help the individual perform the task in the aspirational spirit of the profession. (The Blackwing website promotes a myth like this through the pencil’s history: discontinued in the 1990s and then brought back in the 2010 after some were paying up to $40 per pencil for remaining stock.)

But listening is a receptive communication channel, in contrast to writing and speaking. What does the idea of a special tool even mean for receiving information rather than making it?

The first thing that came to mind is the art of taking notes. It’s not listening exactly, but it’s an artifact of listening. When I asked academic-support expert Moji Olaniyan how she works with students on their listening, she said the first thing she looks at is their notes, and they way they take notes. (More specifically, Moji Olaniyan is Dean Olaniyan, the Academic Dean for Academic Enhancement at the University of Wisconsin.)

One revered method for taking notes is the Cornell method, described by Lisa Needham in an updated Lawyerist post just this week. The note-taking method itself does not demand any particular purchase since any paper can be used with a few lines drawn to create a left margin and summary at the bottom. However, the Levenger notebooks are one way to spend on this method if desired. For practicing lawyers, of course note-taking does not go away after law school, although it changes form. Lisa’s post offered some interesting glimpses into what note-taking looks like in law practice.

Note-taking can also go multimedia such as with a Livescribe pen that records while you write. This pen may not make listening feel sacred and special the same way the Blackwing works for Mary Norris. Rather I suspect it would make one feel a tiny bit like an engineer (or spy?), which could be good in a different way—assuming it’s legal and culturally acceptable to record audio wherever you may use it.

But note-taking is just a proxy for listening, and only in situations where note-taking is socially acceptable.

What about the listening act itself—the experience of taking in the information, and the speaker’s perception of being listened to? In social situations, people may grasp a glass of wine or a Coke, a reminder in the hand of social cues to follow. Grasping a warm cup (including but not limited to a cup of coffee) may help with social interactions, scientific research has suggested.

On the other hand, have you ever been in a conversation where it seems to be going pretty well and then you see the other person’s eyes dart sideways, as if looking down at a phone—even if they’re not actually doing so? They may be drawn to another “talismanic,” “fetishistic” and “fanatical” object: the “amulet” of the smartphone.

Law school

Law-school roundup (fall-semester edition)

FullSizeRenderAs 2Ls and 3Ls return to the classroom and new law students start their journey, this is a good time to recap some of Listen Like a Lawyer’s posts especially for law students. These are in order below from before law school to 1L and beyond. You can also see posts in reverse chronological order by searching the blog category “law school.”

Please share ideas for additional posts related to listening in law school. And good luck to law students (and law professors) starting a new school year now.

Law-school prep for listening skills

Listening 101 for law students 

The note-taking method that worked for me (link to guest post on The Girls’ Guide to Law School)

An app for legal reading and legal writing

Listening checkup for 1Ls (halfway through first semester)

What are the core professional qualities of lawyers? 

Guest post on externships

Oral argument

“Listening” to the legal job market 

Interview skills and listening

Callback interviewing

Observing the courtroom

Last but not least: Graduation reflection

And one more:  What it sounded like at the bar exam

Client developmentCollaborationEmotional intelligenceLaw firm marketingPeople skills

Listening until it hurts

Recently I tried a workout at Orangetheory. This is a relatively new exercise franchise offering intense one-hour workouts with running, rowing, lifting, and uncountable numbers of crunches. Everyone wears a heart monitor, and throughout the workout you can check out the monitor to see just how hard you and your heart are working—as well as everybody else in the class.

I was nervous to try a new workout, but every time I glanced up there, my score was green. Green is good, right? It’s aerobic, and aerobic is good, right?

Actually no.

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To score points in the Orangetheory workout, you have to go beyond green. You have to get into the “orange zone” (thus the franchise name, I suppose) or even the red zone. That means not walking, not jogging, not running at a steady clip. That means sprinting, and panting, and gasping for breath.

You get lots of points for orange and red. Not so much for green.

At the end of the workout, the guy next to me had scored 24 points and I got 6. He crushed me even though he appeared to be near exhaustion the entire time. He crushed me because he appeared to be near exhaustion the entire time.

As I pondered this failure, I wondered whether the lesson might to listening as well.

It seems likely that many of us are sailing comfortably along with our listening and other communication skills. Of course we’re putting out effort. We make eye contact. We use active-listening techniques to paraphrase back important nuggets of the conversation and move it forward. We take notes unobtrusively and follow up with e-mail confirmations.

We’re in the green zone of listening.

What would it look like to move into the orange or even red zone?

Listening is a receptive communication channel (like reading, and in contrast to writing and speaking). To design an Orangetheory program for listening, we would need to raise the intensity level quite a bit. It’s not about trying a little harder on one or two points all the time. It’s taking a short amount of time to listen, radically.

But how would we know that someone was working in the high-intensity range of this receptive skill?

Maybe by measuring the proportion of time spent talking to listening. There is a natural give and take in conversations, but if you’re talking and listening comfortably—for you, subjectively—you may be malingering in the green zone. (See Mark Goulston on “How to Know If You Talk Too Much.”)

Some have suggested an 80-20 rule of focusing on the other person. Steve Yastrow, who writes about improvisation techniques for marketing, says to keep the focus 95 percent about the other person. That is red zone material. That’s hard.

Maybe the mindfulness of the listener to what the speaker is saying. There’s no “brain monitor” for focus—at least no affordable one—but theoretically if the listener’s mind is filled with what to say next and what to eat for dinner, that may not even be in the green zone of listening. It could be the dreaded blue zone, which is literally the zone of pointlessness in Orangetheory because you score no points.

Red-zone listening takes in information in a powerful and efficient way. At the front end of the listening process, focus and memory are as crucial as body strength and VO² max are to powerful workouts.

Maybe one key metric would be whether—and to what extent—the listener feels he or she is actually being listened to.

One reality of exercise and mental processes is that they work only to exhaustion. Attention is a muscle that can be depleted. The body and mind together can be depleted. (Read anything by Daniel Kahneman’s work, or anything about his work. In a study of parole decisions, judges made harsher decisions when they were hungry and tired after hearing several cases.)

But the concept behind any program like Orangetheory is to build capacity by stressing the body. The stress has to be appropriate, but what is appropriate has changed. (See this article from the New York Times on a 12- minute workout that helped veteran runners shave time off their 5Ks simply by a few 10-second spurts of going all out.)

Georgia attorney and magistrate judge Phill Bettis told me about a church mission to West Virginia where he met and talked with a retired coal miner. Phil and I were discussing emotional intelligence and empathy, and how they relate to listening. This was a vivid memory for Phil because he wasn’t sure at first how to find common ground with someone whose life experience had been so very different from his. Phil’s experience might be viewed as one type of “red-zone listening.”

So is listening to someone in grief, or a life crisis. An attorney recently wrote on the Texas Bar Blog about his experience with depression, and how other attorneys may serve as a “patient friend.” No one seeks a conversation like this out in order to hone their own skills, of course. (Actually some people run from them, although those will admit doing so are rare in their honesty.)

Being in such a conversation creates a moment to leave the green zone (the comfort zone) behind. Really listening at such a moment—which regardless of your legal training and expertise may actually be the only way to help—makes all the other efforts pay off, and far beyond what can be quantified in zones a scoreboard.

Here is a related post imagining “Tabata” training for listening.

Photo credit: Courtesy E’Lisa Campbell/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Client developmentCollaborationEmotional intelligenceGenderLeadership

Why it’s so hard to be understood

Among Listen Like a Lawyer’s summer reading is Heidi Grant Halvorson’s No One Understands You and What To Do About It (Harvard Business Review Press 2015). Halvorson is a professor at Columbia Business School; here she is interviewed by CBS News about the book.

51nTzV8T70L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The book’s focus is on understanding how others perceive you, so that you may better manage how you are perceived. It’s not focused on the legal industry, but it discusses psychological dynamics that certainly apply in law offices as well as any organization. For lawyers, law students, and legal professionals, I would say this book is most useful for the following goals:

  • exploring the dynamics of interviewing process
  • delving beyond the surface in what is happening at work, particularly in work teams and with organizational clients
  • improving how one is perceived by a supervisor or work team
  • lightly exploring broader “psychology of leadership” concepts in the business world

Across situations, cognitive biases on all sides create distortions and disconnects in how someone thinks they are perceived and a perceiver’s actual impression. For the person communicating a message, the “transparency illusion” creates the overly optimistic expectation that others do in fact understand our intention. This illusion comes about in part from overconfidence about how clearly we communicate:

Your emotions are less obvious than you realize, and your face is less expressive too. Studies show that while very strong, basic emotionssurprise, fear, disgust, and angerare fairly easy to read, the more subtle emotions we experience on a daily basis are not.

On the receiving end, the well-known confirmation bias leads people to interpret information as confirming what they already think. These types of biases are semi-automatic and hard to combat, although more effortful, careful thinking in the “correction phase” can correct for distortions. (This is what Daniel Kahneman calls System 2.)

After laying this groundwork, Halvorson spends most of the book talking about the “lenses” that affect first impressions, before any intentional “corrections” can take place. The three key lenses are:

  • the trust lens

Trust is based on two factors—warmth and competencethat may sometimes be at odds with each other. More on that in a moment.

  • the power lens

To get the attention of a powerful person, it’s all about showing your “instrumentality.” As Halvorson writes, “It’s not about being niceit’s about being useful.”

  • the ego lens

The ego plays games with perception so that the perceiver comes out on top. Understanding ego dynamics can help a person avoid being seen as an ego threat. The least manipulative-sounding of these is focusing on how the speaker and perceiver are members of the same group (such as alums of the same school or members of the same profession).

These lenses are at work in difficult situations that lawyers and legal professionals face every day. A few that come to mind: clients who resist signing settlements that are strongly in their favor; supervising lawyers who want to control conversations with clients; legal professionals who gain a reputation—either for good or poor work—that seems difficult if not impossible to alter.

All of these lenses could help with the goal of listening, in that knowing about them can help a listener understand better what the other person is saying and why. Developing trust by cultivating warmth was where listening came into play explicitly. Some warmth tactics seem obvious: make eye contact, smile, and focus. But Halvorson cites studies that “people generally have no idea when they are not doing these things.” One practical theme of the book is just to ask friends and family about how you come across: do you make eye contact? How do they perceive you?

A potential difficulty for lawyers is the conflict—or at least perceived conflict—between what it takes to show warmth versus competence:

When people are trying to appear warm, they are agreeable, engage in flattery, make kind gestures, and encourage others to talk (i.e. they are good listeners). But when they want to appear competent, they do the opposite–speaking rather than listening, focusing the conversation on their own accomplishments and abilities, and challenging the opinions of others as a demonstration of their own expertise. In fact, both consciously and unconsciously, people tend to use this knowledge and play down their competence (i.e., play dumb) to appear warm, and vice versa.

 

Halvorson notes this conflict is a particular conundrum for “nontraditional women” who may experience particularly virulent sexism for perceived failure to adhere to stereotypes about women. This is an example where she nods to the deep and troubling excesses of cognitive biases, but this book is not the place to look for introspection or sensitive exploration of stereotypes and what to do about them.

Rather, it’s a pragmatic toolkit for the person who wants others to “get” them. For trying to resolve the warmth/competence conflict, Halvorson suggests the “moral” aspects of warmth do not conflict with competence. These aspects include being “courageous, fair, principled, responsible, honest, and loyal.” She notes that in a brief interview, it is a lot easier to show your sense of humor than that you are principled. But overall, perceived—and actual—trust is built by “being someone the perceiver can always count on to do the right thing.”

Halvorson also has chapters for difficult interactions such as those with “vigilant risk-mitigators” and “aloof, avoidant perceivers.” She closes with a relatively short treatment  seeing others more clearly (e.g., “take more time” and “consider evidence for and against” a hypothesis) and even seeing yourself more clearly. A common thread throughout the book is to ask friends, family and (if you dare) colleagues how you come across. If people consistently perceive you in ways you don’t intend, then reading, re-reading, and working on the ideas in this book may be in order.