Month: July 2018

Client relationshipsClinical legal educationCollaborationEmotional intelligenceInterviews

Review of Alan Alda’s If I Understood You

ralph_anneThanks to Anne Ralph, Clinical Professor of Law at the Ohio State University, Michael E. Moritz College of Law, for this guest post reviewing Alan Alda’s new book on listening, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? 

Any lawyer who’s misunderstood (or been misunderstood by) a client, opposing counsel, or judge knows that failed communication can thwart even the best legal knowledge and skills. In If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?: My Adventures in the Art and Science of Relating and Communicating, Alan Alda makes the case for an intentional focus on effective communication by highlighting the very real costs of failed communication: “[D]isengagement from the person we hope will understand us” [xvi]. This disengagement can “stand in the way of all kinds of happiness and success” [xvi], including, I think Alda would agree, success in the practice of law.

In Alda’s book, lawyers will find useful insights related to listening. Granted, most of Alda’s case studies and anecdotes center on how scientists communicate their knowledge—which makes sense given that Alda hosted the TV series Scientific American Frontiers for eleven years and founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. But Alda’s friendly writing voice and skill at sharing complex concepts in simple, memorable terms make the book valuable for anyone interested in improving their communication skills.

The book maps Alda’s own personal journey to improve his communication. Alda describes his communication “blunders” when he began hosting Scientific American Frontiers: He assumed he knew more than he actually did, which offended a scientist he was interviewing; he repeatedly ignored the scientist’s obvious body language showing discomfort; and finally, as he barreled along through an interview, he asked a set script of questions instead of questions that grew out of what the scientist was sharing. In short, Alda writes, “I wasn’t really listening to him” [6]. In this list of blunders, lawyers might recognize their own experiences with awkward client interviews, ineffective depositions, or unsuccessful negotiations with opposing counsel.

Alda, a prolific actor and director whose deep insights into human nature are apparent on every page, was disappointed with himself for being so disconnected in the interview. Alda’s acting experience, including his improv training, had taught him to connect to other actors in a deep and immediate sense, creating spontaneous responses between people. As a result, he had expected himself to be naturally better at listening and reacting to his interview partner.

Thus began his quest to better understand the science of communicating–or, as Alda puts it, borrowing a term from director Mike Nichols: “relating.” Relating, as Alda defines it, means “observing” another person with such awareness that “everything about them affect[s] you: not just their words, but also their tone of voice, their body language, even subtle things like where they’re standing in the room or how they occupy a chair” [10].

When Alda consciously used his improv training in his conversations with scientists, he found his way to “responsive listening,” the key first step in relating and a concept that roughly translates to being open to being changed by the other person in the conversation.

The willingness to be changed required him to use both his natural curiosity and an awareness of his own ignorance. It turned out that conversations were hampered when Alda made assumptions about the scientists’ work based on his own limited knowledge—those assumptions led him to ask limiting questions, which reduced the value of the information the scientists provided. But when Alda engaged in the kind of responsive listening that his improv work prepared him to do, the effect was contagious, leading the scientists to become more responsive as well. Alda described it as being “drawn into a kind of dance”[12]: Responsive listening made conversations dynamic because both participants in the conversation were constantly attuned to each other, instead of just waiting for each other to finish talking.

Naturally, Alda wondered if he had stumbled onto something big: would improv training help scientists better communicate complex concepts to the non-scientist world?

The answer is yes, as the rest of the book chronicles. Alda explores how people can develop their skill in relating, leading to better communication. As it turns out, both scientific studies of communication and his personal work with improv and acting bear out the idea that responsive listening is an essential building block in communicating anything to an audience.

For instance, Alda describes taking engineering students through of a series of improv exercises, which teach an ultimate lesson: “The person who’s communicating something is responsible for how well the other person follows him” [30]. In other words, true communication is inseparable from responsive listening and observing: “Communication doesn’t take place because you tell somebody something. It takes place when you observe them closely and track their ability to follow you” [17]. After these exercises, every engineering student’s delivery of a scientific talk improved. Again, Alda uses scientists and doctors in his stories, but the lessons can apply equally well to lawyers and clients or to lawyers and their other audiences.

For lawyers who want to better engage in responsive listening, this true connection that fosters communication, Alda identifies two key capacities:

  • empathy (which Alda describes as an emotional understanding of what the other person is feeling) and
  • Theory of Mind (which he describes as a rational understanding of what another person is thinking).

Both these capacities can be learned, and the book describes how teaching these skills to doctors leads to better outcomes for patients—and, interestingly, even to lower rates of medical malpractice lawsuits.

Because not everyone has access to the improv training or Theory-of-Mind courses the book describes, this blog’s readers might find Alda’s personal experiments at improving his empathy and theory of mind interesting and compelling. Alda participated in some small studies that aimed to increase empathy through practices he incorporated into his everyday life. For instance, he practiced reading the faces of people he encountered every day—from family members to passers-by on the street to cab drivers—trying to observe what they were feeling. He also practiced silently naming the emotions he observed. The results of these small studies suggest that these interventions have the intended effect of increasing empathy, and Alda invites readers to try these themselves. (In addition to describing how these exercises can improve one’s capacity for responsive listening, Alda also covers the role that increased empathy and awareness of Theory of Mind play in effective writing and in making a message memorable.)

I encourage lawyers to read the book—its friendly tone and use of stories makes the content memorable and accessible. Until you do read the book, consider the following as big takeaways for lawyers’ listening:

Listening is an essential part, a necessary precondition, of communicating well. Effective listening requires close attention to another person, thoughtful observation not only of words but of body language, withholding jumping to conclusions, and curiosity.

Thanks again to OSU’s Anne Ralph. She also writes about narrative as it is shaped (distorted?) by the rules of civil procedure. See more of Anne’s legal scholarship here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=1669761

 

 

Law schoolLaw school prepLegal educationPrelaw

Note-taking advice for law students

It’s that time of late summer when law-school boot camps and pre-orientation prep sessions start happening. I’ll be speaking about legal writing next week and note-taking skills the week after that.

For the note-taking session, I put out a call for help and got some really good responses. Here’s the call for help:

The responses covered lots of good points about note-taking. I’m re-organizing them here into a sort of chronological timeline: getting ready for class, listening in class, and reviewing after class. (Apologies for the repetition of the “parent tweet” asking for help; due to non-existent HTML skills, I can’t get rid of it despite checking the box to do so.)

Before the semester, decide on paper, highlighters, and other equipment.

Effective note-taking has elements of creativity to it, in how you capture the content of what you hear. You may want lined paper, plain paper, or paper organized for a certain note-taking strategy. Someone told me a story about their brilliant law-school classmate who took all her notes on mathematical graphing paper. The point is to prepare in advance with helpful equipment such as paper and pens that will help:

No one really talked about taking notes by laptop, which is a debate too large for this humble post. Extrapolating from the comments above, if you’re going to take notes on a laptop I would advise experimenting with apps that give you flexibility for formatting the page, using color, and otherwise doing more than just writing or typing.

Gain context before class.

The difficulty in listening to learn is that a learner, by definition, lacks the framework of an expert. (It’s sometimes called a schema.) Learners can help themselves build a rudimentary schema before class by preparing generally and specifically.

For general preparation, I was always taught to study the textbook’s table of contents. And there’s always the syllabus!

  1. Beyond the textbook and syllabus, the specific assigned reading itself may provide a framework for understanding what’s about to happen in class. This suggestion from Alex Klein shows the benefit of reading actively before class, rather than reading passively and waiting for class to clear everything up. (Hint: that’s wishful thinking in many cases.)

Listen carefully by focusing on key terms, on classmates’ contributions, and on what the professor says in expressing an opinion.

Is more always better—as in more notes, more accurately reproducing exactly what happened in the class session? #PracticeTuesday co-founder Rachel Gurvich shared a lesson learned from her law-school days:

A complete transcription is difficult and likely detracts from deeper learning while listening. But the difficulty—especially for new 1L students—is knowing what should and should not be transcribed. At first, it may be better to err on the side of transcription:

More experience in the law-school classroom should bring more discretion at what matters most. Experienced note-takers learn to recognize different categories of content as it comes out in class, such as factual distinctions and policy rationales:

Another note-taking skill in the law-school classroom is paying attention to the various perspectives offered, not just by the professor playing different sides of an issue but by classmates:

My own special twist on note-taking was to add a feature I called “professor says.” As I processed what the professor stated and asked, sometimes it would become apparent the professor was stepping out of a neutral role and taking a position on the topic. When he or she did that, I would label that moment in my notes with “Professor Says: ___” Keeping track of those moments helped me to match them up with my notes so I could be mindful of them while studying later. Here’s my guest blog post for The Girl’s Guide to Law School that expands on the “professor says” method.

Use visuals to indicate relationships and other ideas.

One less-than-effective way to take notes is uniformly and robotically writing out text from left to right on every page. A better approach is to practice active, flexible, graphical note-taking techniques:

Review and organize notes after class to prepare for outlining and final-exam prep.

Effective note-taking does not end the moment class ends. Putting those notes in a box until it’s time to study for finals is not the best advice. Rather, the advice is to use those notes sooner rather than later to review and consolidate growing knowledge:

These crowd-sourced suggestions struck me as a good starting place for 0Ls about to become 1Ls. Please feel free to share more note-taking techniques here in the comments or on social media at @ListenLikeaLwyr.

DiversityGenderInclusionNon-verbal communicationResilience

‘Nanette’ is good

What’s the difference between a joke and a story? Hannah Gadsby teaches the difference in her new stand-up special Nanette. She brings up a lot of stuff going on in current political discussions in a funny, painful, compelling performance. You will get more out of it by listening not just to the “content” she’s written and delivered—and believe it or not, she has a funny joke early on about the idea of “content” itself. You’ve also got to watch Gadsby’s non-verbal signals, the wry smiles and fleeting, then burning, eye contact as she builds to her point.

One theme running through the show is Gadsby’s stated intent to leave stand-up comedy. She unrolls the reasoning a bit at a time, moving toward her central thesis: she’s got to tell her story, and comedy doesn’t let her do that.

Why not?

What better way to tell one’s story than with humor—specifically, with jokes? They make people laugh; they make people think.

Self-deprecating jokes are causing more hurt and Gadsby states her intent not to use them anymore:

“You do understand what self -deprecation means from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation.”

That’s one of many lessons about listening tucked up in her performance. If you hear someone using self-deprecating humor, listen more closely. Listen with empathy. Why are they doing that?

But beyond the content of the joke, Gadsby says, it’s the joke itself that is the problem. A joke has a two-part structure: First, the tension. Then, the punch line that relieves tension.

That structure is missing the third part, the rest of the story. Sometimes the rest of the story is satisfying, like when she came out to her mother (producing much joke material) and later developed a great relationship with her (happy but not at all funny). And sometimes the rest of the story is really painful, such that a comedian must ignore and suppress it to get anything joke-worthy at all.

So listening for more than a joke is one thing to take away from Nanette. Listening for a joke is a way to squeeze pleasure for yourself as a listener. Some audience members seem to get even more pleasure out of judging the jokes and offering “feedback” and “opinions” to Gadsby after her shows.

But listening for a story uses your listening to help the other person share and connect. How exactly to show you, as a listener, want the story not the joke seems like it must be drawn from intuition and empathy. If your listening skills suggest that all you want or all you can handle is a joke, you’ll never get the full story.

Asking questions certainly seems like a good start. Gadsby talks a lot about the unsolicited feedback she receives, but nowhere in the performance does she recount anyone asking her a question. In a way, the whole performance constitutes an exclamation by someone who has never been asked an open question, but only placed without her consent into certain boxes and stereotypes.

I’m still processing everything I took away from Nanette, and now I get it why someone said they were going to watch the show several more times. It’s not a spoiler to share the denouement, a clip of Gadsby on a sofa with her teapot and teacup and two dogs. After the work that went into Nanette, she deserves a moment to recharge.


Here are some other reviews of Nanette that may be of interest:

https://www.npr.org/sections/monkeysee/2018/07/02/625298708/hannah-gadsbys-nanette-is-a-scorching-piece-on-comedy-and-trauma

Hannah Gadsby on the Real ‘Nanette’ and Whether She’s Really Quitting Comedy After Her Netflix Special

https://www.vox.com/culture/2018/7/5/17527478/hannah-gadsby-nanette-comedy