Lawyers like to think we are excellent listeners. We do it all the time; it’s at the core of our profession. As with any skill, good listening requires ongoing practice and development. But before you say you’re a good listener, determining this is not up to you, it’s up to the recipient of your listening.
I’ll illustrate this with an example: At a professional event not too long ago I was having a conversation with a group of attorneys. The talk turned to college sports and I mentioned I’m from Kentucky. One of the attorneys said to me,
“Huh, you don’t sound like you’re from Kentucky. Where in Kentucky are you from?”
I answered the question and politely moved on with the conversation. What I wanted to say was:
“Really?! How do you know what someone from Kentucky sounds like? How is that relevant to what I’m saying? ”
Yes, it was a casual conversation and maybe the attorney would not have said it to me had we been in a courtroom or meeting but she would have thought it. And it definitely affected how she listened to me going forward. It also distracted me as I couldn’t help but wonder what assumptions she was making about me because I’m from Kentucky and whether her perception of my competency had diminished. All it all, it diminished the authenticity of our communication.
All of my life, I have been judged based on where I am from. You cannot see my ethnicity on my skin, but you can hear it. I carry it on my tongue, and I can no more get rid of it than anyone can change their skin color.
The only way a person can open their mind and their heart is by opening their eyes and seeing that these differences make us stronger and that we are not as different as we might imagine. Only by serving others do we serve ourselves. Only by realizing the beauty of those different from ourselves are we able to realize our own beauty.
-Author Silas House, speech at Berea College (2013)
Truth be told, I’m not “from Kentucky” because I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My family moved to rural, southeastern Kentucky when I was 14 and it’s my home.
I never thought I had a Kentucky (or other) accent until a few years ago when I moved to Ohio. People would cut me off mid-sentence to remark on it and how cute it was that I said, “y’all.”
Regardless of whether people are actually biased listeners, pointing out that someone has an accent basically says that the speaker is different and this difference matters. It certainly made me self-conscious of how I spoke and what I said. People have a natural affinity for others like themselves, and pointing out a difference reflects an implicit bias.
Like it or not, we all have subconscious stereotypes that affect our unconscious beliefs and perceptions. Denying this only perpetuates the bias. Instead, by acknowledging that we make assumptions, we can challenge and start to change them. This is especially important for lawyers as effective communication is a basic tenet of our profession. While the type of communication may vary, one overarching fundamental legal skill is the ability to effectively assess and respond to the perspective of the recipient of the communication. This requires inclusive listening.
Inclusive listening makes other people feel valued and understood. When listening to others most of us tend to assume we understand and we reach conclusions based on our point of view and our implicit biases. Inclusive listening doesn’t make assumptions. It requires one to actively engage in critical thinking: notice and question our assumptions, and recognize that assumptions are not truths.
This is not easy to do. I know because writing this post made me quite aware of my habits as a listener. This past week I’ve made it a point to recognize that I have unconscious biases and started to challenge my assumptions (ex: don’t negatively categorize everyone under the age of 30 as a “millennial.”). I’ve made sure my non-verbal cues show respect for the speaker and I’ve worked on better engaging as a listener by affirming the speaker’s contributions and asking clarifying questions.
Consciously engaging in inclusive listening has helped me realize that I’ve expected (maybe even demanded) it from others but wasn’t doing such a great job myself. For so long I’ve been on the other side and this helped me switch my point of view. If I want to be listened to, I’ve got to be an inclusive listener. On a broader level, for lawyers to be truly effective communicators, they must fully understand all aspects of a situation. The only way to gain this understanding is through inclusive and engaged listening.