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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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