Listening flow

Watching the NBA finals—and seeing Stephen Curry score 38 points in Game 4—makes this a good time to talk about “flow.” Flow is “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” Curry echoed these words in analyzing game 4: “I think we just got back to enjoying the process . . . .”

Flow comes up in an older basketball story from Bill Russell, recounted by business author Jeff Walker:

He described a playoff game where, for five minutes, the court “opened up” to him: somehow he knew where every player was (including those who were behind his back) and exactly what moves he needed to make. Even more mysterious, all of Russell’s teammates felt exactly the same. They scored more points during those five minutes than ever before. Leaving the court in victory, they turned to one another and said, “We have to figure out how to do that again!”

Psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been writing about flow since the 1970s and founded the field of “flow research.” (Here’s his TED Talk.) In a chapter on “The Concept of Flow” co-written with Jeanne Nakamura, he itemized the characteristics of being in flow:

  • Intense and focused concentration on what one is doing in the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • Loss of reflective self-consciousness (i.e., loss of awareness of oneself as a social actor)
  • A sense that one can control one’s actions; that is, a sense that one can in principle deal with the situation because one knows how to respond to whatever happens next
  • Distortion of temporal experience (typically, a sense that time has passed faster than normal)
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process

The conditions for achieving this state include having a clear goal, immediate feedback, and a good match between the person’s skill level and the difficulty of the task. Flow is most associated with creative activities and sports (thus the connection to basketball). Flow is not so much associated with passive activities. As the studies point out, watching TV is not the same thing as achieving flow.

What about practicing law? Much has been written about lawyers’ achieving flow as part of career satisfaction, such as here and here and here. And in particular, what about lawyering and listening? Listening is a “receptive” communication channel along with reading, unlike the productive channels of writing and talking. (I take it as a given we all know lawyers who enter some kind of personal “zone” when they are talking.)

The most direct approach to listening and flow is to look at listening as part of a larger project with a goal. For example, taking a deposition. A deposition is an intense listening experience aimed at producing something very specific, namely a useful written record to use in the litigation. While working toward that goal during the deposition experience, lawyers may find it comes pretty naturally to focus and enter a flow state on what the witness is saying and what questions to ask. The adrenaline certainly helps. And if a real-time digital transcript is available, that’s instant feedback as well. On the other hand, achieving flow supposedly means getting past worry and fear of failure. I’m not sure most lawyers taking depositions would say they completely let go of fear and worry in the experience.

Also the idea of flow is that you lose the awareness of yourself as a social actor. But contentious depositions mean maintaining several layers of social awareness—not just the question being asked, but also the potential leverage for various motions and other interventions if the lawyers and witnesses do not cooperate. So it does seem possible for a lawyer taking a deposition to experience aspects of flow such as intense focus and distorted perception of time, I’m not sure many would claim they truly felt flow in a situation like this. Thoughts and feedback are certainly welcome in the comments here as well as on social media (Twitter: @ListenLikeaLwyr).

What about listening when there is not necessarily a clear external goal such as making the record? The best conversationalists seem to be motivated by the goal of just focusing on the other person—having a conversation because the other person is just so interesting. One of the scholarly models of listening has a final step of “staying connected and motivated.” (This is the Worthington/Fitch-Hauser model.) Great conversationalists seem to be intensely focusing on the conversation, easily able to contribute without effort, and intrinsically rewarded by the experience of having it. And whether or not they are actually experiencing flow, they create the perception of flow for the other person in the conversation.

Beyond listening for a project (such as making a record) and listening one-on-one, collaborating with others in a group has at least the possibility of some sort of flow. Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura refer to “shared flow.” Business author Jeff Walker (who recounted the Bill Russell story above) calls it a “collective flow state.” Not a lot has been written about this idea of shared or collective flow; Csikszentmihalyi and Nakamura suggest it needs more academic study.

Some articles on lawyering and legal education do raise the possibility of creating flow within collaborative groups of lawyers and law students. Csikszentmihalyi’s flow concept is cited in this article on the experience of team lawyering doing clinical work for Haitian refugees with HIV-positive status, by Albany Law School’s Raymond Brescia:

The team nature of the effort, and the affirming trust members of the team gave one another, meant that as we developed different strengths and skills, we were able to achieve benchmark milestones, receiving constant feedback along the way which gave us information that allowed us to develop our expertise.

Likewise Stephen Krieger and Serge Martinez describe the experience of flow in their article A Tale of Election Day 2008: Teaching Storytelling through Repeated Experiences, 16 Legal Writing 116 (2010). These professors led a team of students in advocating for individuals seeking to vote on November 4, 2008, and they noticed a marked and somewhat unexpected improvement in these students’ storytelling skills through the course of that single day. They concluded that flow conditions were a partial cause:

Apparently—and without any conscious intent on our part— the surroundings on that date contributed to the experience of flow. There was easy access to information; Steve, an Election Law expert, was present. There was stimulation from other students and attorneys handling similar cases. And there was an overall sense of community of purpose. As Dan implied, it felt like a neighborhood law office, not like a classroom.

These articles may actually be suggesting individual flow experienced by the students and professors in a group setting, rather than shared flow within a group performing together (such as an NBA team). When the team functions as a unit with interdependent parts—when each team member knows when to speak and when to sit back, when the lead lawyer looks down the table to ask a question only to receive the answer on a post-it already en route—that’s shared flow.

Please share your thoughts on individual and shared flow, and the experience of listening as part of flow.

In a later post, I will explore some counter-points to flow such as this post from Cal Newport suggesting that seeking flow is not the same as engaging in deliberate practice. I’ve often thought that for legal writers, seeking a feeling of flow may not produce high-quality work, especially for very new legal writers. The article about the Election Day clinic appeared to be describing an upper-level clinic where students had a base of knowledge to deploy that day. I want to think more about how this point could apply to communication and listening.

In the meantime, here’s a link to an ABA Journal article on flow for lawyers, by Steven Keeva, a prolific and kind ABA writer who was gone too soon:








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