What is listening? Q&A with Jennie Grau

One of the best things about writing this blog has been the opportunity to talk with and meet (in person, by phone, or by e-mail) a variety of communication experts. One of them is Jennie Grau, President of Grau Interpersonal Communications. Jennie has spent her career training, coaching, writing, and speaking, on the subject of listening. She is a Certified Listening Professional (CLP) of the International Listening Association. Although not an attorney, she is surrounded by attorneys in her family life. In her professional work, she has done a variety of trainings with lawyers and other legal professionals. Listen Like a Lawyer is grateful to Jennie Grau for responding to this Q&A.

What would you say are the classic concepts in listening?

Listening is thought of and explored from many perspectives. Musicians talk about listening in terms of entertainment, emotions, and aesthetics. Listening to music is a form of appreciative listening. While it may not seem pertinent to lawyers, there is a music of the voice which through tone, pace, pause, and quality communicates the emotional undercurrent of human interaction.

In legal contexts and in law school, listening is often thought of as a tool to support critical thinking and analysis. The focus is on critical listening, or reply style listening, to better advocate for a position.

Empathic listening, often associated with medical and therapeutic contexts, is equally important for dispute resolution. Empathic listening involves being able to understand and articulate another person’s perspective. If you can see the world through someone else’s eyes, you are better able to uncover viable solutions which result in more successful negotiations. In addition to dispute resolution, empathic listening is key to building rapport, loyalty, and trust, the foundations of good relationships with both clients and colleagues.

Mindfulness is another form of listening. It involves listening to oneself. Mindfulness can be thought of as the ability to still one’s own thoughts. It expands one’s awareness and ability to concentrate. The aggressive Type-A business personality may not intuitively embrace the idea of listening to self. The need to quiet the noise in our heads, to fully focus, to relinquish the speaker role, is essential for full understanding. Mindfulness is appreciated by the business community when it is recognized as a tool to accomplish their goals.

What package of listening skills do lawyers need?

Stephen R. Covey observed that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” In fact, one of the skills of advocacy is “listening to reply.” Listening to reply is important because lawyers have to give advice, set an agenda, evaluate, and at times rebut.

But there is a complementary other half of that famous statement—the listening to understand. That second set of skills, inquiry, comprehending, supporting and uniting, is important because the courtroom is not the only legal context where listening happens. In these additional contexts understanding the other party is a powerful skill.

Think about who is encouraged to go to law school. If you are good at debate and rhetoric, people say, “You should be a lawyer!” But if you are a brilliant listener and can understand the human condition, no one says that. They say, “You should be a social worker or psychologist or go into business.”

Among this second set of skills, lawyers need the skill of inquiry. That’s different from interrogation. Inquiry sustains rapport during an interaction while uncovering new information. Lawyers also need skills that demonstrate comprehension such as paraphrasing what was said and sometimes what is not said overtly but implied such as the feelings, needs, and interests of the speaker.

Lawyers also need the skill of unifying parties’ discrepant interests. For example, in a gritty and messy divorce, lawyers benefit from the skill of keeping people at the table and working through the issues. In dealing with family conflict, the lawyer may need to listen through years of emotions and relationship issues. In listening to what lies below the objective statement, the lawyer can recognize possible solutions by understanding what is important to each party.

Why is it important to develop those deeper listening skills?

 Because there are so many benefits, for both tasks and relationships, when you listen deeply. Real listening means getting to a shared understanding between speaker and listener. Without that, we lose vast amounts of data that could help solve problems and resolve conflicts. Deep listening is worth the effort.

How do you know if you are good or bad at listening?

The short answer is you ask key people in your life for feedback: your colleagues, your family, and your friends. Our own perception of our listening skills is usually inaccurate. Ask questions like:

  • Do I focus on you and what you are saying when you want my attention?
  • Do I seem to understand what you mean rather than what I would mean if I had said the same thing?
  • Do I remember what you tell me?
  • Do you feel like I really listen to you?

Most people’s listening is unskilled. We rarely teach this in schools, and we are blind to the fact we are unskilled. Prior to my seminars, I ask people to rate how skillful they are as listeners. On average I get a rating of 80%. After the seminar I ask again. They laugh and tell me they did not know how much they did not know.

What is your advice for lawyers and other legal professionals?

Assume there is more than you are getting

When you are listening begin with the assumption that what you understand may not be accurate or complete. Create opportunities to explore a conversation more fully: “What did you mean?” “Tell me more.” “How does that work?” The beginning of listening is recognizing how likely you are to have misunderstood what the other person meant.

Appreciate the power of the pause

It may seem like a speaker is finished. They may use downward inflection in their speech and break eye contact but still have more to say. A listener can use the pause: count to ten and do a full inhale and exhale before going on or even asking a follow up. You will be surprised to discover how often more will come. This is particularly true when you are listening to someone speaking in a language other than their first language.

Try “the five why’s

This means asking “why” five times. This practice comes from the world of engineering. The theory is that the first time someone answers a question about “why,” their answer is probably superficial. Going beyond the first answer allows the speaker to find the root cause and gives them more time to connect ideas that they had not connected before. This technique is especially effective if you don’t use the word “why” which can cause people to feel defensive. Instead ask a “why question” saying “How come?” “What caused that?” or “What lead to that?”

What else?

Use this technique when you believe everything has been said and you are effectively done with the discussion. Questions such as “Is there anything else?” and “What else should we be talking about?” often elicit new information. It is shocking how often people will add new and often critical content at this time. There is a parallel in the medical field, “the door knob moment” when the doctor is about to leave the exam room and the patient shares new and important health information.

Build the listening container with your non-verbal presence

The way listeners use their face, eyes, body, posture, gesture and voice create a context for interaction. Your non-verbal presence can put people at ease or make them more guarded. People often enter a lawyer’s office with anxiety. They may not be happy to be there. They may be worried about the cost or the outcome. Many people are uncomfortable with conflict. It’s an unfamiliar setting and alien experience. In this context, listening is extremely important for building trust with new clients and ensuring existing clients follow your advice. It is a way for you to develop respect.

This Q&A has been condensed and edited for brevity.

Listen Like a Lawyer is currently working with Jennie Grau and several other lawyers/mediators/Certified Listening Professionals on a possible CLE session in Tucson, Arizona, in March 2016. More information will be forthcoming on the blog when details are more certain. 

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