Month: January 2018

Legal communication

Suppressive listening: Book review of Darktown

Darktown by Thomas Mullen is the first book I’ve read this year, and I do recommend it. It’s a police-procedural suspense book set in Atlanta in 1948, the year the Atlanta Police Department opened a police precinct with the APD’s first Black officers. The APD, somewhat cleansed of its KKK elements (although not really), was a hostile, undermining, patchily corrupt group of colleagues who did not welcome these new officers in the least. Here’s a snippet from the New York Times’s review:

One incendiary image ignites the next in this highly combustible procedural, set in the city’s rigidly segregated black neighborhoods during the pre-civil-rights era and written with a ferocious passion that’ll knock the wind out of you.

One of the minor characters is a U.S. Congressman with a reputation for being an ally to the civil-rights cause. Protagonist Officer Boggs is investigating a murder victim’s possible connections to this Congressman. In pursuing a meandering and suspenseful path to the answer, Boggs comes to speak with a civil-rights activist who knew both the victim and the Congressman, described as such:

“We have written him a few letters, asking for better funding for Negro schools, in Atlanta and in the country. But I’m not holding my breath. Sometimes it’s the ones who claim they’re progressive who are the worst, because they act like they are the very boundary between the possible and the impossible, and they never let you cross them. Know what I mean?”

The story speeds past this tiny moment, but it gave me pause. It’s a kind of listening I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. One way to describe it is “suppressive listening.”

It’s the kind of listening that lends an empathetic ear. The listener does it all by the book, providing a comfortable setting and full focus, giving the speaker a chance to really be heard. It feels good to say what happened or what is needed, and not be judged or face retribution. There’s value in that kind of listening.

And then, the response: “I’m willing to take this up further. Here’s how I see it playing out.”  “This is important, but we are playing a long game and this may not be the time.” “Do you really want to do that?”

It’s phrased with empathy, and the listener may in fact experience empathy: “I want this whole system to change too—I wish we could tear it down. But I don’t want to make things worse right now either.”

The result of suppressive listening is that advocacy is suppressed. Complaints are suppressed. Listening provides an outlet for whoever is in need, but the listener also acts as a gatekeeper wielding (and preserving) power and discretion. Some ideas are never shared; some needs are never known. Some secrets are kept. Some become “open secrets.”

One message of Darktown is that mysteries may be neatly solved, but power does not let go, and institutions hold on to it by whatever means necessary. The white power structure of the 1940s responded to Black Americans’ attempts to vote—as well as simply to be seen in uniform marching as a U.S. veteran—with violence. There are some moments of connection in the book, but they are forged by action and by shared risk, not by talk alone, nor by listening. The conversations that restore and replenish are not the ones from activist to congressman or from black cop to white ally. A moment of quiet listening is shared between a mother and her adult son, telling him she sees his struggle and knows he is making a difference. She doesn’t hold the keys to what is possible, only what her son needs in that moment.

Law schoolLegal communicationLegal education

Tending your garden

Today my Emory Law colleague Ben Chapman and I launched the fourth iteration of our class, Advanced Legal Writing: Blogging and Social Media for Lawyers. This is a “cool class” (according to an upcoming issue of the Emory magazine) where students explore and practice the genre of legal blogging. Their final exam is to select a legal-blogging niche and then develop a WordPress blog with several thousand words of analytical and expressive content. In preparing my opening remarks for this year’s class, I was reflecting on this blog and what it has meant for me professionally and personally.

I launched Listen Like a Lawyer almost five years ago. (Here’s my first post.) My reason for picking listening as a niche was (1) there are already lots of great blogs about my original area of expertise, legal writing; and (2) listening is a hidden and under-appreciated part of being an effective (legal) professional and person.

The niche is admittedly challenging because it has many audiences:

  • law students who listen to lectures in big classes, then go out and try to work with supervisors and colleagues in externships and activities
  • new lawyers who may be assessed mostly on their technical lawyering skills such as taking depositions
  • mid-level and senior lawyers who need to manage teams, lead their organizations and the legal industry, and network effectively to bring in business
  • in-house counsel who routinely work with GCs and business teams, closing the distance between the business and legal mindsets
  • law professors who teach and write about communication and rhetoric
  • legal professionals such as paralegals and administrative assistants who, like all professionals, work more effectively with strong listening skills and who may face particular issues with hierarchical listening (or non-listening)
  • legal-marketing professionals who often demonstrate superior listening skills to anyone listed above but may also face hierarchies that may distort or block their contributions
  • legal innovators who advocate “disruption” and unbundling and other stuff like that—which ideally will include lots of listening at the design stage and will preserve some role for listening of “the efficient delivery of legal services”
  • professionals and future professionals in all fields who hope to listen to their own inner voices (when healthy to do so) and connect with others

It is quite a challenge to reach these diverse audiences. Luckily I am a law professor who is writing for many reasons, none of which includes delivering a hyper-targeted message to a single audience for marketing purposes. My goals are learning, sharing knowledge, developing knowledge, prompting conversation, promoting better lawyer-client relations, and encouraging more effective collaborative relationships in the legal industry. One lesson to students is to avoid clichés like the plague, but doesn’t this seem like a WIN-WIN-WIN?

I’ve been thinking about the blog a lot as its five-year anniversary approaches in summer 2018. Late last year, I was considering bequeathing it to a new editor or even retiring it. Some reflections over the holidays have convinced me I’m not ready to do that. It’s like my garden, and I enjoy tending it.

That metaphor is a great way to TL; DR the ideas from my scholarly article on legal blogging several years ago:

Traditional legal writing on behalf of clients is like growing a bonsai tree. There is artistry, history, culture, and technical craftsmanship. All of that means there are also a lot of rules. And it’s a creation on a pretty small scale; only a few people may ever see it.

Legal blogging, by contrast, is like a wildflower garden or cultivated rainforest. It’s a different kind of cultivation—which may look totally out of control but actually can achieve some unexpected and serendipitous results. Still, you have to work at it and shape it, or the wrong things will grow (or it will die).

Writing this blog really has led to some serendipitous results, and there is still a lot to say. The current political climate has led to initiatives like #ListenFirst. Through the International Listening Association I have met listening scholars such as Graham Bodie and Debra Worthington, who just published a giant tome on listening research. There is a growing body of legal scholarship on interruptions at oral argument and even what vocal pitch can tell us about the justices’ individual votes. Along those lines, technology is opening new possibilities such as wearable devices that record and quantify the interactions between colleagues. But at the most fundamental level, listening is a way to connect with people, which will always mean something.

So, this year I will continue to write about stuff like communication dynamics at work, specific listening techniques, listening and building community, listening for law-school performance, and listening as part of the legal-writing process. I will invite guest posts if and when I feel like it, and write basically anything I feel like writing about. I will try to stand back every once in a while and enjoy just looking at the result of my labor. And that, for any Law 851 students who may still be reading, is a pretty cool thing about legal blogging.

Someone else thought of the gardening metaphor too, in terms of blogging for business development. I like what they have to say about developing quality content over time rather than going for short-term fixes.

 

Client relationshipsEmotional intelligencein-house counselMentoringPeople skills

Lawyer as anxiety filter?

In-house lawyer @J_Dot_J has described it most directly:

A law student once shared a related concept to describe his coping mechanism, especially during finals:

“Some people are stress emitters. Some are stress receivers. I’ve learned I’m a stress receiver, and I have to stay away from the emitters.”

The common theme is anxiety. It comes from somewhere, and it goes somewhere. Is there any pattern to the movement of anxiety, and any way to manage it?

One possible answer to this question is “Bowen theory,” which is a theory of family systems that has been extended to the workplace as well. “Are organizations emotional systems also? It appears to be the case. Theoretically, all that is necessary to create an emotional system is spending time together.” This quote is from Roberta Gilbert’s The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory, which provides the basis for the following summary:

According to Bowen theory, the family—or workplace—unit is the key unit of analysis, rather than the individual. This unit is really a system of interconnected people, and it has two characteristics:

  1. Whatever affects one affects each one in the system. That is, anxiety moves easily from person to person in the group.
  2. [System] members trade “self” into the family relationship in a “fusion” of selves.

You may stop here and say that your team at work does not have these characteristics. If you’re correct, then you don’t have a true workplace unit and Bowen theory isn’t going to be helpful.

But it may be worth asking in a different way: Does anxiety move within your workplace? According to Gilbert, “where the anxiety travels defines the limits of the emotional system.” And does your workplace stake a claim on the workers in the system to “donate” some portion of their selves for work? Does the workplace send a message to “be like us” or “think as we think”? According to Gilbert, an emotional system is made up of these donations of self so that the donates parts become available “more for the family than for then individual.” In this way, members of a unit lose self into the larger unit. More togetherness means more loss of self, and quicker transmission of anxiety.

(When reading about this loss of self and its connection to “groupthink,” I was immediately reminded of compliance challenges and the work of my friend, compliance attorney Scott Killingsworth, on how organizational culture is transmitted and replicated.)

Individuals in a system are healthier and more resilient to the anxiety passed around in the group if they retain some core “differentiated self.”  The concept of the self has two components: a “pseudo self” which is the part that is tossed about by the anxiety of the group and conforms to the needs of the group, and the “basic [or solid] self” which is the part that fights for individuality and stands up for beliefs and convictions. The solid self is the differentiated self. The more the pseudo-self dominates the solid self, the more anxiety that member will feel and will contribute to the system.

Here, if you’re congratulating yourself on being an amazing differentiated person who feels absolutely no influence from your workplace, you may want to double-check yourself for some sort of emotional Dunning-Kruger effect. Gilbert states that if you looked at differentiated selves on a scale of 0 to 100, most of the population hovers around about a 30 and 50+ would be extremely unusual. But this is just an estimate; Gilbert notes that it’s impossible to measure differentiation in one segment of time. The conditions of any given moment are too arbitrary, and you can raise the functioning level of an undifferentiated person by giving them a compliment, and you can lower their functioning by criticizing them.

Within any unit, members of that unit deal with anxiety in four automatic and familiar patterns:

  • Making a triangle among three people, where one is the “problem” (such as a child, or a recalcitrant employee, or an attorney viewed as a roadblock)
  • Creating conflict by refusing to give in on major issues, expending significant energy
  • Seeking distance by slowing down or stopping communication, while still remaining emotionally defined by the problem
  • Overfunctioning / underfunctioning, in which one partner becomes more dominant and the other more passive.

These methods of dealing with anxiety are not a problem unless they become habitual and repetitive “where no one knows how to get out of it.”

There aren’t many references to Bowen theory in traditional legal literature. After reading enough to write this overview, I think it deserves more study, particularly as the legal industry becomes more focused on systems and processes. The law deals with unpredictable, complex problems; designing a system for helping clients with their problems will be much easier if the system of legal professionals is internally efficient and not clogged with stress and disrupted by attrition.

In future posts, I will explore some more ideas from Bowen theory and how they may apply in legal teams. Please comment if this overview prompted thoughts or questions.