Coaching listening

One way to become a better listener is to work with a coach. Just Google “listening coach” and you may be surprised by how many resources there are.

One coach who reached out to me is Laurie Schloff, Senior Coaching Partner with the Speech Improvement Company. She has worked with professionals including attorneys for more than 25 years, and (not surprisingly) believes that communication competence is essential to attorneys’ professional success. In one-on-one work, she uses this coaching framework:

  1. Assessing goals and developing a plan
  2. Individual or group sessions devoted to communication techniques and practice
  3. Application of skills in business situations, for example, running an important meeting or coaching a new associate
  4. Assessment of progress and future goals

Laurie provides various types of feedback, including her own personal feedback and video feedback. She also encourages attorneys to seek feedback from peers and to reflect and learn how to become their own coach (the concept of self-coaching).

Laurie coaches on all of the communication skills, but has some specific methods for helping attorneys improve their listening. She promotes the idea of “persuasive listening.” According to Laurie, persuasive listening means “conscious use of listening skills as a tool to build positive rapport, engagement and influence with others in your ‘communication world.’”

She encourages attorneys to think about listening in terms of the acronym “E.A.R.”:

  • Engage
  • Attend
  • Respond

For engaging, attorneys can do something they may feel very competent at, which is asking questions:

Attorneys can become stronger listeners by asking different types of questions depending on the situation. Laurie identified three particular types of questions to consider: “open,” “structured,” and “short reply.” An example of an open question is, What are your thoughts about the training lawyers receive in listening skills?” An example of a structured question is, “What are some ways legal training could include listening skills practice?” An example of a short-reply question is, “Do you think lawyers are good listeners in general?”

For attending, the key issue is attention:

Attorneys can demonstrate attention to clients and colleagues by controlling distractions and multitasking. Employing positive behaviors are easy ways to convey attention, including occasional head nods and encouragers such as “uh huh” or “mhm.”  Laurie pointed out that verbal encouragers are especially necessary during phone conferences. In person, even when taking notes, attention should be on the client’s face as much as possible.

And for responding, again Laurie encourages attorneys to think of different types of responses:

The attorney may be responding to Information, for example by paraphrasing or summarizing before offering a fresh perspective: “So you’re looking to settle this by November.” The attorney may be responding to feeling. This means identifying the undercurrent of emotion if appropriate: “I sense a lot of stress around this last minute change in deadline.” The attorney may be responding to a goal. By this, Laurie means moving the client or colleague in a positive direction: “So you’d ideally like to look at possibilities for a national seminar in 2015.”

Laurie intertwines her coaching with hypothetical examples and anecdotes from her experience. On the value of listening, she shared a few words of wisdom from some of her contacts in the legal world:

  • Esther Dezube, a private practice attorney who specializes in personal injury:  “I listen to what is said and how it is said, starting from when the client walks in the door. If you don’t listen, you won’t be an effective trial lawyer.”
  • Tony Garcia Rivas, senior patent attorney at Ironwood Pharmaceuticals: “Attorneys may assume they know the problem and tune out. When I’m talking, I’m not learning.”

Cognitive diversity and listening skills

This article, “How Cognitive Diversity Affects Your Work” from the ABA Law Practice Today is one of the best things I have read in quite some time about how lawyers and clients interact. The author, Anne Collier, explores a hypothetical legal team’s relationship with its client, where the CEO and general counsel have different cognitive styles and the lawyers on the legal team have different cognitive styles as well — not to mention the huge differences among the CEO and one of the lawyers on the team. These differences emerge from different approaches to the “paradox of structure” in solving problems: “The paradox of structure is the seemingly incongruous fact that structure both enables and limits one’s ability to solve a problem.” A group of professionals can all be operating at a very high level but still have different preferences for structure and innovation. Their differing preferences can lead to clashes in cognitive style. 

The article focuses on some (fascinating) metrics for problem-solving styles and never uses the word “listening.” Yet listening is part of the “bridging” and “coping” strategies it recommends for handling clashes of cognitive styles. My favorite line in the article, other than the one about the paradox of structure, is this example of a nonverbal bridging strategy: “Oscar agrees to give Madison ‘the look’ in meetings when she needs to be more concrete.”

Have you investigated your own cognitive style, or gotten informal or formal feedback on it? How do you use listening skills — including nonverbal signals — to perceive and anticipate problems stemming from cognitive diversity?

Listening to internal and external clients

A friend recently sent me a nice compliment about the blog. She works in sales and marketing (not within the legal industry) and said she’s finding the listening skills discussed here very useful for communicating with both “internal and external customers.”

Courtesy Flickr/Elliott Brown
Courtesy Flickr/Elliott Brown

The focus on “internal and external customers” (or clients) caught my particular attention. Of course lawyers are going to want to listen intently to their external clients. One way to keep a client is to listen; conversely, a great way to lose a client — especially a senior business executive — is not to listen, such as by checking your smart phone during a meeting.

For lawyers, the idea of internal clients may be more subtle but still should be a given, especially for in-house lawyers and anyone who works in a place where client-service teams are chosen partly based on who the senior team leaders want to work with. Here’s a good post by Timothy Corcoran on better understanding your internal client. And here’s a good post with advice to associates on impressing partners — such as by treating them as an internal client.

But is effective listening different for lawyers’ internal and external clients, or should it be? Apart from what listening practices are most effective, as a descriptive matter might lawyers subconsciously listen differently in internal and external situations?

Active listening provides a focal point for exploring this question. Active listening has been defined by law professor John Barkai as “the lawyer’s verbal response that reflects back to the client, in different words, what the client has just said.”

Barkai suggests that we can evaluate active listening on at least three metrics:

  • accuracy: did the lawyer understand the speaker’s informational content and emotions?
  • intensity: did the lawyer understand the intensity of the speaker’s emotions?
  • form: did the lawyer respond with clean, simple paraphrasing — or did the lawyer use what Barkai views as potentially patronizing and unhelpful introductory phrases such as “I understand” and “What I’m hearing you say is . . .”? 

So with these metrics in mind, we can reflect on whether lawyers listen with different degrees of accuracy, attunement, and form when they are dealing with external versus internal clients. Here are two brief hypothetical case studies:

Lawyer #1 believes in the importance of listening and attempts to be a particularly strong listener with external clients. He focuses on their information and their content, and he accurately perceives the strength of their feelings. But he wants to show them how carefully he listens, and thus habitually and intentionally uses phrases such as “I understand” and “As I see it.”  Sometimes these phrases lead clients to feel a bit patronized, and as a result they may hold back. 

Lawyer #2 is at a stage of her career where she wants to show her technical lawyering skills to senior lawyers. She listens with a strong focus on the information they are sharing, and she concisely reiterates information and tasks to ensure everyone is on the same page. She is not quite as accurate at judging the emotional state of senior lawyers. Sometimes Lawyer #2 asks task-related follow-up questions too quickly. Slowing down the conversation by reiterating general instructions could allow her to glean more global, contextual information about how the senior lawyer feels about the representation and wants to approach it.

Ultimately, whatever the context, effective listening demonstrates strength at each step of the listening process — roughly attention, perception, memory, understanding, analysis, and response. (This outline is drawn very generally from listening frameworks such as Brownell’s HURIER model and Worthington and Fitch-Hauser’s MATERRS model.)

Also regardless of context, effective listeners are “uniform” in their ability to choose and tailor their approach for the particular situation. The best communicators will take the internal/external factor into account — of course. But that’s just one of many other factors such as the length of the relationship; the other person’s stress level; the complexity of the content; the time of day; and the other person’s preferred style of communication such as informal or formal, just to brainstorm a few.

In this sense listening is just like all the other communication tasks a lawyer performs: there is a very broad common framework for effectively performing each task, and the most effective listeners/speakers/writers tailor their approach within the framework to meet the needs of the client — whether internal or external.

*Thanks to Lou Spelios for comments on an earlier version of this post.

Summer reading

Listen Like a Lawyer now has two candidates for a (hypothetical) Very Challenging Book Club: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, previously discussed here; and Zia Haider Rahman‘s In the Light of What We Know (2014). I chose Rahman’s novel for a reading challenge this summer and have not been disappointed — although I’m not quite finished with it.

The main characters are a former lawyer and a soon-to-be-former investment banker who is looking like the fall guy, perhaps deservedly, for his firm’s involvement with bad derivatives trading. This is a gross oversimplification, but as the New York Times book review stated, the book is so big in length and scope that it defies summary. The rewards, however, are great, such as this passage — and here we finally come to the topic of listening.

It’s page 268. The narrator has just told his father, an Oxford-educated Princeton physicist, about the narrator’s likely fall from grace in investment banking:

When I got to telling him that I thought the firm was about to let me go and would possibly even try to hang me out to dry, my father did not make reassuring sounds, did not contradict me with the groundless optimism of someone reassuring himself as much as another–that was never his way. He simply listened. (Some years ago, he explained to me his belief that that kind of hollow consolation was disrespectful because it presumed that the person being consoled wouldn’t see or care about the absence of reason. The thing to first and foremost, he believed, was not to talk but to listen, and listening, like anything difficult, is easier said than done.) I talked for some time, finding more and more details to tell him. Even things I hadn’t consciously thought much about I brought up, understanding then how much they had actually been weighing on my mind.

The scene goes on to weave in a few more listening lessons, such as the father’s perception of what has not been said — namely anything about the narrator’s wife. “My omission must have been as obvious to him as it now was to me.”

At a turning point in the conversation, the father also moves his chair to sit at a right angle to the narrator: “It was how my mother liked to sit. There was something less confrontational this way, she’d said. This way you see the person’s good side.”

So this scene occurs about halfway through the book. I have more than 200 pages to go, in which some kind of big betrayal is apparently going to be revealed, along with a disenchanting look (already foreshadowed) at NGO activities in Afghanistan.

At times I have been tempted to take a break from this book. It is amazing, but it is also taxing my focus and persistence. And now I can say it was a success because it produced a blog post. Yet something I read in the Chronicle of Higher Education is motivating me to persevere. Erik Shonstrom is a rhetoric professor grappling with the idea that reading ambitious novels teaches critical thinking. His essay is great for any readers of this blog who may be encouraging their children to read by telling the children how good it is for their brains, something like an intellectual green smoothie. Shonstrom says yes, fine, tell yourself that big novels help with critical thinking, but that’s actually not the payoff:

The payoff for me — and what I secretly hope for my students — is something else. Yes, I want them to develop critical faculties for decoding the world, but what I’m really after in teaching the novel is the insight to develop meaning through their experiences. I want them to notice what they notice, both in the word and — more important — within themselves. Reading novels, I believe, acutely calibrates these internal receptors. Readers are able to hear the voice in their head more clearly. . . . When reading a long novel, we start to pay attention to that running line of commentary in our heads because we’re hopelessly bored. For me, the situation is similar to long hikes in the mountains. There’s no structure or “entertainment,” and we’re left with nothing but our own thoughts, which get amplified by the lack of distraction.

So I will finish In the Light of What We Know. There probably won’t be another lesson in listening dynamics, but there is sure to be more on mathematics, physics, cognitive science, South Asian history, and international relations, not to mention some painful romantic breakups. If analysis and contemplation stand in opposition to one another as Shonstrom writes (quoting Sven Birkerts in The American Scholar) then we can ask another question: where does listening stand, closer to analysis or closer to contemplation? For this we could fall back on our legal education: It depends.

Listening 101 for law students

New law students file into their first law school class, take a seat, and mentally prepare themselves. The reading has been long and difficult. Now it’s time for class, where everyone can sit back and soak in the professor’s brilliance while all the confusion is clarified.

Uh, no.

The first reading assignments in law school are certainly difficult. The first listening experiences — i.e. what happens during the first few classes — are often at least as hard.

Courtesy Flickr/Stuart Six
Courtesy Flickr/Stuart Six

The actual, real solution to this problem is not what students want to hear: Over time, you will become a better listener. The jargon from learning theory is that you need to build cognitive schemas (i.e. mental frameworks) for understanding the details of law school. (An earlier post touches on this point.)

The good news is that even if your cognitive schemas are as unfinished as the Empire’s Second Death Star, there are steps that can help with more effective listening.

1. Prime yourself to hear the key concepts.

Try to get a sense of the basic concepts and vocabulary of the day, before class. Using the resources that work best for you, make a note of the key concepts you expect to hear the professor talk about. By anticipating the key vocabulary of the day, you will be able to listen better when the professor talks about it. Essentially, you are “priming” yourself to listen to what is important and to learn.

Obviously, the assigned reading is the most important source to consult. But keep in mind that the reading will often be extremely detailed or may illustrate the opposite of what the professor ends up emphasizing. Thus you may want to consult a study guide alongside the reading. The casebook’s table of contents is also an invaluable guide to key words and the course’s overall structure.

(Priming works in other ways you may want to think about as well. If your classmate always complains “Professor X really hides the ball,” then that comment may prime your brain to think class will be confusing. Or it may help you calm down and listen by accepting you’re not the only one who feels confused.)

2. Think about how you are going to take notes.

A lot of people were talking this summer about how taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptops. You should weigh the pros and cons and decide for yourself. Criteria you might want to consider include:

  • What helps you focus on class?
  • What helps you recognize and write down important terms and concepts?
  • How do you show relationships among ideas?
  • What helps you differentiate what the professor says as a definitive statement versus a proposition to examine and perhaps destroy?
  • How will you record the main point of Socratic dialogue between the professor and the student?
  • What worked best for you in previous situations where you needed a mix of detailed and highly conceptual notes?
  • (This one is speculative for 1Ls who have never taken an exam, but still important to think about.) What will help you later when you need to review and consolidate the ideas of the class in studying for the final exam?

The notes themselves ultimately are the key evidence of that student’s listening, according to Moji Olaniyan, the Assistant Dean for the Academic Enhancement Program at the University of Wisconsin. Dean Olaniyan said that when she works with a law student on listening issues, the notes are the place she starts.

It bears noting here, law students should take advantage of offerings from academic support and enhancement programs. And seek personalized advice and help from academic support experts sooner rather than later if you have a concern about reading, listening, or other academic functions.

3. Consider a time-tested note-taking technique.

You don’t have to go to Cornell to use “the Cornell method” for taking notes. Lawyerist, a legal blog, recommended this method for lawyers. 

It has a lot to recommend it for law students as well:

  • It encourages organizing your notes by broad topics and important questions.
  • It creates a place for recording details.
  • It requires a summary for consolidating your knowledge after a listening event.

Whatever note-taking platform and technique you use, these three goals — (1) broad topics; (2) details; (3) summary — are an excellent way to think about how to take notes  in a law-school classroom.

Once you get comfortable with basic note-taking in the law school classroom, consider supplementing with more nuanced approaches. One example is what I call the #ProfessorSays method, which means marking particular points the professor went out of the way to emphasize by labeling them “Professor Says: . . . ” or something similar. Then you can go back to the notes and refresh your memory on what the professor really focused on.

4. Consolidate your knowledge.

After class, take a few minutes to reflect on “what just happened?”  Write down the main points you heard. Write down questions and words to look up. Can you think of hypothetical fact patterns that relate to what was just discussed? Return to the reading and highlight any key passages discussed, if it wasn’t already highlighted.  A more organized approach is the “minute paper” method.

Keep in mind also that writing more notes and summaries after class could be a form of busy work you assign to yourself. The entire purpose of this step is to help your brain learn. If you feel like you’re writing and writing but not sure what exactly what all that writing is doing, try something different. Perhaps explain to a study partner — out loud, and without looking at your notes — “what just happened.” (Listen to yourself: can you actually explain it, or at least explain what it is you need to explain?)

However you do it, try after each class to consolidate what you just learned. Even knowing what you are still confused about is a valuable form of knowledge.

5. Compare notes.

Many students find study groups invaluable; others, not so much. They have benefits but aren’t a panacea, as this pragmatic post from Lee Burgess at Law School Toolbox points out. If you are a more social learner, consider literally comparing notes with a classmate. Ultimately, your listening, reflected in your knowledge and your note-taking, should help you learn and prepare for exams. But looking at how someone else does it may help you to adjust your own method to what best suits your needs.

6. Don’t forget other kinds of listening.

Sitting in a law school classroom, taking in the professor’s brilliance and making your own brilliant inner model of the law is, at its best, really great.

But that’s not what lawyers do every day. They work in small groups or one-on-one with people. They interview clients and negotiate with other parties and depose hostile witnesses. They listen to emotional situations and get lied to and hear their own inner voices reacting to whatever they are hearing from the people around them.

As a brand-new law student, you may or may not have the opportunity to model this kind of listening. If you do, count yourself lucky. If you do not, keep in mind that even the most powerful, effective, excellent listening in the 1L classroom is not in itself sufficient to make a great lawyer. Highly analytical listening is just one skill that lawyers need. Many incoming law students will find this thought consoling.

Thanks to Professor Anne Ralph of Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law for prompting this post. 

“Listening” to the legal job market

“Listening” on social media is not really listening (which requires spoken or nonverbal input) — but it’s an essential skill for lawyers and law students nonetheless.

Practicing lawyers can use social media to understand more about their clients and competition, as legal marketing and social media expert Nancy Myrland discusses here. Listening to social media is valuable to legal scholars as well; Professor Randy Picker of the University of Chicago uses Twitter in part as a “listening medium” and “curated news feed” on topics of interest. Along with several practicing lawyers, Picker describes his experiences with social media in this informative panel discussion on “Social Media and Your Law Practice,” sponsored by the ABA Antitrust Division.

4607149956_f981d9d3ec_o
Courtesy Flickr/bspusf

And law students seeking jobs can listen on social media for a variety of reasons:

  • to better understand a practice area
  • to prepare for interviews by learning about potential employers
  • to explore opportunities for contributing to a potential employer’s social-media presence

Listening to the hot topics and background language in a practice area

Listening to social media can build your knowledge base about the field you’re interested in. For anyone — job seeker or not — social media is a fantastic resource for identifying emerging and recurring legal issues. Emory Law School 3L Anna Saraie uses law firm blogs to learn more about the area she hopes to practice in, labor and employment: “I have bookmarked several blogs run by firms that specialize in labor and employment. The information on these blogs came in handy especially during my interviews because it allowed me to engage in interesting conversations about current issues in the field.”

Social media provides a window not just into “hot topics,” but on a subtler level, into the way experts think and talk in a particular field. The kind of vocabulary and conversational patterns you use in a law school classroom are sometimes not the same as the vocabulary and conversational patterns in a lawyer’s day-to-day life. While social media is not a replacement for real conversation (at least we hope not), it can provide helpful background in hot topics, baseline knowledge, and the specialized vocabulary in a field of law.

Preparing for interviews and networking

Social media can also educate about individual firms. A law student interested in a real-estate firm, for example, could learn more about whether the firm generally represents developers or lenders. A student interested in patent law could understand whether the firm’s practice leans toward a scientific or engineering specialty.

Recent Virginia Law graduate Michelle Carmon used social media extensively in her job search, including studying law offices’ blog comments and retweets. Carmon also used LinkedIn to search for personal connections: “When an interviewer has a public LinkedIn profile, it can provide valuable information that you can use to help establish a connection during the interview. It’s helpful to know in advance if you and an interviewer went to the same college or share an interest in a particular practice area.”

Some of this advice may sound obvious, but it also addresses perennial complaints by employers about receiving overly general and uninformed cover letters, or networking requests indicating a lack of preparation.

Listen for what they’re not saying

If you are trying to listen to what a firm is saying on social media but hearing only crickets, you may have an opportunity right there: If you are interested in working for a firm or lawyer who has no social media presence, your own social media skills could be an asset to that employer.

Legal job applicants with a careful, skillful social media presence may distinguish themselves in the job hunt, as Happy Go Legal points out. New lawyers can contribute content as well as broader policies for maintaining an ethical, effective social media presence. “Lawyers unfamiliar with the tools should enlist new associates fresh out of law school to provide practical tutorials—they’ve always swum in this sea, and naturally have a different mindset,” writes Jared Correia in the ABA’s Law Practice magazine.

Carefully craft your own social media presence

Whether you hope to help a lawyer with maintaining social media or simply want a job practicing law, it is important to have an effective social media presence in your own right. This means actually having a “presence.” At this point, we (the legal industry) should be past the era of trying to shut down all signs of social media life. For example with so many lawyers and law firms on LinkedIn, signing up is a “no brainer.” (This quote is from Kevin O’Keefe, one of the web’s biggest proponents of — well, just read his blog title: Real Lawyers Have Blogs.)

Using social media is valuable, but should be just one part of a mix of job-seeking efforts. Effectively listening to social media could lead to opportunities in real life — where a different kind of effective listening can make all the difference.

Not thinking like a lawyer

I went to meet the listening professors (Debra Worthington and Margaret Fitch-Hauser) expecting deep theory. And they did give some, using words like “psychometric” and reflecting on the history of the listening field.

Debra Worthington, Jennifer Romig, and Margaret Fitch-Hauser
Debra Worthington, Jennifer Romig, and Margaret Fitch-Hauser

But their practical work in trial consulting was where our experiences and vocabularies overlapped a lot more, and where our most interesting conversations took place. Professor Worthington worked for 15 years in courtroom communications before she delved more deeply into listening theory and research. Professor Fitch-Hauser, now celebrating her retirement from Auburn, also works as a consultant and is the person who drew Worthington into the listening field. Their work together culminated in the listening textbook Listening: Processes, Functions and Competency.

The combination of their theoretical strength with their practical experience in the legal field made me doubly grateful for the opportunity to meet and talk with them over a long lunch in Auburn.

Worthington recounted her work with a difficult witness whose arrogance had damaged his case, both on the substance and his refusal to heed his lawyers’ guidance on demeanor. Worthington studied his testimony to understand his view of the case. She talked with him to find out what “really made him tick.” And then she used his underlying motivation to explain the case to him in a different way, and to motivate him to adopt good witness practices not because his lawyers told him too but for his own reasons as well.

As I thought about this anecdote, I became even more intrigued with the role trial consultants may play as listeners. For example, intuition may affect one’s listening. A lawyer’s intuition on dealing with a horrible witness may overlap — but not completely — with a trial consultant’s own intuition. And thus the lawyer and trial consultant would bring complementary methods to the table not just in generating themes and telling the story, but in listening to the people who in turn will be listened to by the jury.

Along these lines, Worthington shared that at an early juncture in her career, after she had already been working in legal communications, she considered whether to continue with graduate education or go to law school. Her mentor advised the former. “Debra,” he said, “your greatest strength is that you don’t think like a lawyer.”

Fitch-Hauser echoed the value of stepping outside the lawyer’s perspective: “It is crucial for attorneys not to expect the client to think as they think, and to make adjustments, and to not expect the jury to think as they think. They need to adjust their strategy and the way they tell their story to meet the jury’s needs.”

Both Worthington and Fitch-Hauser have been interested in questions about how listening intersects with personality, and how listening can be measured. One question I wanted to ask both of them relates to measurement and self-assessment: “How can an attorney know if he or she is a bad listener?”

Fitch-Hauser jumped to take this question:

There are some things anyone — attorney, or any other profession — can do, if they are willing to be objective. Ask yourself: When someone asks a question, do you always know the answer before the answer is given? If your own answer is yes, you may be listening to yourself rather than the other person. This is “selective listening,” which by one definition means “listening for the information that reinforces your own attitudes, ideas, and feelings.”

Worthington added the terms “assimiliation” and “constrasting” to the discussion at this point. Assimilation means taking in information that fits your pre-existing beliefs. Essentially, if you believe someone is similar to you, then you may perceive information from that person as closer to your existing beliefs than it really is. And the opposite is contrasting. If you go into a situation thinking someone has different beliefs, you may tend to perceive that person’s information as more different from your own beliefs than it really is. (Assimilation and contrasting seem generally related to the cognitive phenomenon of confirmation bias. Some general thoughts on listening and various cognitive biases including confirmation bias have been explored on Listen Like a Lawyer here and here and here.)

Fitch-Hauser embodies thoughtful listening in her own conversational style, and reinforced that with some advice: “Don’t be afraid to use silence.” Sometimes clients come to lawyers with a “story” that may or may not match the facts. By talking with them and learning how they feel about the case, and at times remaining silent, an attorney can find out more about the real story behind what the client presents as the “official story.”

Worthington and Fitch-Hauser also touched on the power of nonverbal communication as an aspect of listening. “Look at the client as the client is talking,” Fitch-Hauser advised. “You can hear the pause and see them glance away. And then you can say, ‘It seems like there’s something else you want to add.'”

Ultimately, being a bad listener is somewhat part of the human condition, Worthington said. We all have moments of effective and ineffective listening. Lawyers, and anyone else who cares about communication, can seek an honest self-assessment of when they listen well and not so well. By keeping a communications journal, lawyers can start to recognize the situations when their listening is strong and weak. Reinforcing a theme from their textbook, Worthington noted that the answer to good listening versus bad often lies in the motivation to listen. “Motivation is finding some reason inside ourselves to expend the energy and get in there and listen.”

Fitch-Hauser sharpened the edge a bit: “Pretending to listen isn’t listening. Many people go through the motions. They put on the face, they lean forward, they nod, and they turn on a light. But they truly need to be home.”

Listening, legal writing, and legal reading: there’s an app for that

One theme of this blog tilts toward the Luddite: let’s put down our phones, look into one another’s eyes, and really listen, and listen some more. But another theme is to stop worrying and learn to love the technology/internet/digital life etc. Want to be a great listener and a great lawyer? There’s an app for that.

Along those lines, there really is an app that can help listening play a valuable role in the writing and revision process (legal writing or any other kind of writing). Voice Dream Reader is an iPhone/iPad text-to-speech app ($9.99).

IMG_0202Voice Dream Reader can read word-processing documents, PDFs, webpages, certain kinds of digital books, and other types of documents. It integrates seamlessly with many other apps (I used it with Dropbox). Here’s a simple screen shot of some clipped text; visit the App Store to see more examples of what it can do: The default voice that comes with Voice Dream Reader is a little bit computer-ish. Buying a premium voice for $5 or $10 may make this work better for you. I tested out some voices and found that “Salli” was the most listenable for me personally.

Interacting with the app suggested several possibilities for using text-to-speech in legal writing, mainly engaging with your own written work for revising, editing, and proofreading. Text-to-speech could also be valuable for listening to particularly important texts (such as critical research sources). I used Voice Dream Reader to listen to various passages of legal writing and an article about listening and reading. Here are some thoughts on how this app (or other text-to-speech apps) could help with editing and with reading.

Listen to your own writing for flow and proofreading

Most obviously, you could use something like Voice Dream Reader to listen to your own writing. Open a document in Voice Dream Reader and listen to it. They say (and by “they say,” I mean everybody says) editing is about “getting distance from your work.” Listening to your own writing as read by a robot voice is one way to get some distance.

One feature of Voice Dream Reader that fascinated me was its ability to highlight each line and each word as it reads. Speech is slower than thought, and that’s one reason listening is such a challenge. By highlighting the line in yellow and the word inside a red box as it reads, Voice Dream Reader’s multiple inputs help to close that “thought-speech differential” and focus attention on the text. If the sentences are hard to listen to because they are convoluted, too long, or constructed in a confusing way, they probably aren’t readable either. Readability and listenability are closely related, although formulas that quantify readability and listenability may not be identical.* Whether listenability is precisely the same thing as readability need not be resolved by a writer with a pragmatic interest in editing.

To focus on the flow of ideas and connections of sentences, you could turn off the highlighting feature so you don’t see each word highlighted. Listen to the draft in a sort of auditory, storytelling mode. Stop the process when you feel a gap in the story; work on the problem, re-load the new text into Voice Dream (which doesn’t take long) and then resume the listening.

For proofreading, it might be desirable to use the app’s most robotic, computer-sounding voice. The goal is to use technology to get that distance from the draft; a robotic voice can help override the brilliant, friendly internal voice you may hear when editing your own work. (This is the voice that conveniently “fixes” errors as you go, thus compromising the editing process.) Reduce the rate of speech so . . . that . . . the . . . words . . . unroll . . . slowly. Turn on the line and word highlighting so that each word gets its own spotlight as you go.

Listening to a draft probably isn’t great for very large-scale revision questions. And it seems stronger for editing what is on the page rather than what isn’t. Still, it could have collateral benefits in these areas as well, prompting questions about organization and missing content. Listening to a draft is an investment of time (22:07 for a six-page double-spaced memo), but one that could be both interesting and beneficial.

Listen to the important legal authorities

Listening to a legal authority is another investment of time: 7:03 for the text of Fed. R. Civ. P. 56; 36:14 just for the majority opinion in World-Wide Volkswagen Corp. v. Woodson, 444 U.S. 286 (1980). But if a legal source is very, very important, it could be well worth the time to listen to the entire thing. You would know the document more thoroughly than if you simply read it silently and highlighted it. You could stop the reading and take notes. You could really hear language that was important or vivid and would therefore make a great quote in a piece of writing about that source.

This may be wishful thinking, but perhaps listening to a legal source could help with that elusive goal of “hearing what they’re not saying.” Expert legal readers can do this; law students learning to read cases are advised to notice what the court did not say or hold. (Linda Edwards’ Legal Writing: Process, Analysis, and Organization is one such text with this advice.)

By listening to a text, which is slower than reading, you have more time to run alternate scenarios of how the text might have been worded. Apart from using any app, reading the authority out loud in your own voice could be beneficial in related ways (maybe even more beneficial). Yet it also might be difficult to persevere through an entire legal document.

Voice Dream Reader could help with the necessary perseverance. It shows you the total reading time and you can see a circle progress through a timeline, orienting you to how much longer there is to go. This timeline could be another useful piece of information for revision purposes as well: if the text seems to drag and make unnecessary points, perhaps it could and should be shortened.

Caveats and conclusion

As mentioned above, here are the features I found most useful in Voice Dream Reader:

  •  the ability to highlight text, or turn off highlighting
  • control over the rate of speech
  • premium voices
  • integration with Dropbox

A few critiques and caveats: Trying to move back and forth in a document was awkward and difficult for me. I did figure out how to bookmark certain moments and navigate among them, which was helpful. One of the sources I read was a PDF with footnotes. Voice Dream Reader did not know how to handle footnotes other than to plow through them in linear fashion. When it came to the bottom of the main text on a page, it then went immediately into the footnotes below.

This linear reading of text and footnotes was both awkward and helpful in a strange way. It was awkward because citations aren’t sentences and they sound just plain ugly. But listening to the footnotes was actually kind of helpful as well because it gave me a moment to listen less attentively and jot some notes about the main text. I didn’t totally tune out from the footnotes; the reading was slow enough that I could make notes on interesting sources to investigate later.

Another caveat: I am positive there are many other apps and web apps and software programs with similar functionality. I did not do a comprehensive search into alternative text-to-speech platforms. (There is a free version of Voice Dream Reader called Voice Dream Reader Lite. Apparently it reads in 300-word segments, after which you have to press “play” again to continue. I did not try out the lite version.) I did find this helpful in-depth review of Voice Dream Reader.

Using Voice Dream Reader revealed some interesting possibilities for bringing speech and listening into the analysis and writing process. If you have used a text-to-speech app such as Voice Dream Reader for your own listening, reading, and writing — especially in a law-related context — please share thoughts in the comments.

*Sidebar if you’re interested: Patrick Ellis — a lawyer and scholar with some serious coding skills — measured the “simplicity” of an oral argument by Supreme Court advocate and former Solicitor General Paul Clement by converting the recording to text and quantifying its readability. But some listening scholarship suggests that listenability and readability are not as closely related as one might think because nonverbal cues, attitudes, and presentation issues affect listenability in a way that readability formulas don’t take into account. See Glenn, Emmert, and Emmert, A Scale for Measuring Listenability: The Factors that Determine Listening Ease and Difficulty, 9 Int’l J. Listening 44 (1995) (“too many variables intervene that prevent unqualified use of reading measurements to test and evaluate the listenability of oral texts”).

Listening’s influence on writing

When we talk about communication, we are talking about four basic channels:

  • Listening
  • Speaking
  • Reading
  • Writing

Did you see a pattern in the color scheme here? The blue channels are receptive, and the red channels are productive. Listening and writing share the least in common, since listening is receptive and does not require literacy. Listening occurs in context with many additional cues, whereas writing must supply its own context.*

Yet my message here — for any lawyer or law student who wants to be a better legal writer, as well as legal writing professors — is that working on listening can contribute to stronger writing.

Listening at the outset

The social aspect of legal writing means listening is crucial. Whenever an writing assignment or project is delegated through spoken words, listening sets the stage for successful writing. In professional contexts such as law practice, “successful writing” may be defined in large part as whether the writing satisfies the expectations of the person giving the assignment. Effectively listening to that person as he or she gives the assignment is therefore an important aspect of effectively writing it.

Listen Like a Lawyer previously suggested a checklist for taking an assignment, itemizing the obvious points one needs to get out of such conversations as well as some of the more intuitive information to listen for. While listening at this stage doesn’t guarantee success, it’s hard to imagine how one could successfully complete the project without effectively listening first.

Listening to feedback

On the other end of the process — but still fundamentally social — another link between good listening and good writing is handling feedback. Effectively listening to feedback and incorporating it into future work is crucial for a writer’s growth and development. The legal writing scholarship offers a number of insights into how professors should give feedback to 1Ls and what challenges they are likely to face. These recommendations help students listen to what their professors/writing mentors have to say.

In law practice, however, attorneys most likely *are not* well trained to give writing feedback, either in writing or in person. Anyone ever receive back an entire page x-ed out and annotated with the lone word “awkward” or — my personal favorite — “revise”?

But maybe unskilled feedback is actually not the problem. The real key to feedback lies in the person receiving it, according to Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. These are the same folks who wrote Difficult Conversations, so you know they are onto something. Their book outlines the importance of feedback in every aspect of life and the most important reactive barriers to learning from feedback — namely reactions to the perceived truth of the feedback; reactions based on the relationship with the person giving the feedback, and reactions due to a threatened personal identity. (I am halfway through this book and have concluded EVERYONE SHOULD READ IT. Expect a longer blog post to follow about listening to feedback.)

“Listening” while writing?

While it’s pretty easy to see how listening contributes to the assignment and the feedback, what about the middle — the actual writing itself?  This part of writing isn’t so social. There’s no one to listen to.

Or maybe there is. Communications scholar Sara Lundsteen and others have suggested that part of good writing means having a good dialogue with oneself while creating. Being able to articulate what you’re writing about and why is part of a healthy writing process, writes Lundsteen in Listening: Its Impact at all Levels on Reading and Other Language Arts (1979). And being able to “hear” your own writing and revise it as needed are aspects of a healthy writing process as well. Here’s one amazing writer, Verlyn Klinkenborg, recommending that writers just listen to their own writing and notice how it sounds.

In contrast, stressing out about how much the professor or supervising lawyer is going to hate this piece of writing is not an effective “voice” to listen to when trying to write. Models of writing such as Betty Flowers’ “madman-architect-carpenter-judge” (widely promoted among lawyers by Bryan Garner) help writers hold the critical voice at bay, opening their thoughts to more constructive internal dialogue. Methods such as Professor Mary Beth Beazley’s concept of “private memos” (footnotes with the writer’s questions and notes) help manage a writer’s internal dialogue as well. Preserving one’s personal voice while learning the conventions of legal writing is the concern of scholars such as Andrea McCardle.

As the idea of internal dialogue demonstrates, “listening” is surprisingly difficult to define and inextricably intertwined with thinking. Here in the middle of the writing process, thinking as embodied and expressed in various ways — listening to your own internal voice, hearing the sound of your writing, reading your draft, speaking the words out loud, and writing some more — is what will make better writers and better writing.

***

*For support and a more in-depth discussion, writing professors should check out Irene Lurkis Clark’s article on LIstening and Writing.

I look forward to presenting about listening and writing at the upcoming 16th Biennial Conference of the Legal Writing Institute. Co-presenter Professor Tami Lefko will discuss listening, professionalism, and law school pedagogy.

Listenability and readability

The essential difficulty with writing is “the curse of knowledge,” as Lisa Cron describes in her excellent book Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. The writer is cursed with the knowledge of what he or she is trying to say — knowledge that the reader by definition does not share. This curse manifests in at least two ways:

On the one hand, the writer is so familiar with his subject that he glosses over things the reader is utterly clueless about. On the other, it’s way too easy for the writer to get caught up in the minutiae of how things “really work” and lose sight of the story itself.

Cron then takes a bit of a cheap shot, although maybe it’s deserved:

This is something that, for some reason, lawyers seem particularly prone to.

(Digression: Forgive this one moment. Cron’s book is great, and particularly great for any law student or lawyer interested in storytelling.)

Composition scholars and legal writing scholars have been talking about this “curse of knowledge” in different words for a long time. In this post I’m drawing in particular on an article by Irene Lurkis Clark, Listening and Writing, 3 J. Basic Writing 81 (1981), available at http://wac.colostate.edu/jbw/v3n3/clark.pdf. Professor Lurkis Clark did some interesting work with listening and writing that helps explain why and how listening can help build better writing.

A different way to describe the writer’s curse of knowledge is the problem of “writer-based prose,” a term coined by famous communications scholar Linda Flowers. Writer-based prose is bad because it assumes the reader already knows what the writer is trying to say. This kind of prose is an “‘unretouched and under processed version’ of the writer’s own thought.” Students must learn to produce “reader-based prose,” which entails a “deliberate attempt” to reach the reader using “shared language and context.”

Beginning legal writers face the double challenge of learning to use legal concepts and language with precision *and* writing about those concepts for a reader. The reader for our purposes is not just any reader, but a legal reader. Extensive legal writing scholarship explores these challenges and how to address them. A few key methods include reading excellent writingfollowing structured self-editing processes, reflecting on the writing process and written product, and  obtaining/implementing meaningful feedback from peers, professors, supervising lawyers, and others.

Effective listening can help with effective writing too.

This is in part because language skills are integrated. Some scholars claim they are completely integrated (good reader = good writer = good listener = good speaker). Others take a more nuanced position, seeking to explore and define the boundaries between listening, reading, speaking, and writing. The extent of integration need not be resolved for listening to help a lawyer or law student wanting to write more effectively.

For example, reading your work out loud is something we are all told to do. Professor Lurkis Clark explored the composition theory behind this recommendation — namely that “listenability” and “readability” are closely related. Early work in listenability actually used readability scores to measure listenability, a method that has been questioned and refined since then.

Based on the connections between listenability and readability, Professor Lurkis Clark proposed that students listen to each other’s writing and share structured feedback. The idea is that beginning (non-legal) writers can build their reading comprehension skills and gain a stronger sense of audience. If students’ listening is stronger than their reading (which can be the case with unskilled writers), then critiques based on listening may be more advanced than those based on reading.

Lurkis Clark didn’t claim peer review by listening was a novel idea, but she sought to explore why it works and what it’s best suited to do. In this work and a subsequent experimental study of how evaluators scored text depending on whether they listened to it or read it, Professor Lurkis Clark concluded — not surprisingly — that listening is best for critiquing structure, content and audience appropriateness. She found a high correlation between scores assigned to a text by listeners and those assigned by readers of that same text. Taken in sum, her work validates the role of listening in what is, ideally, a virtuous spiral of developing communication skills:

One’s ability to listen . . . can enhance one’s ability to read, which, in turn, can enhance one’s ability to revise, which, finally, has significant implications for the production of coherent discourse.