The International Day of Listening has broader aspirations than helping lawyers recharge their batteries by listening to nature, collaborate effectively in the workplace, and do an excellent job representing individual clients—although all of these are excellent goals and high on the priority list for this blog. The International Listening Association’s broader aims with political dialogue raise far more difficult questions about listening and power. Part of a lawyer’s job is to listen effectively in difficult situations. All professionals in the legal industry should have experience listening in difficult situations. Ideally, these skills from the professional realm can serve beneficial purposes in public discourse.
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” . 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” .
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”: 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 responsivelistening 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” . 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” . 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.
What is a “unicorn skill”? It’s a skill that reasonably performing professionals in the field do not have, which is why they are just…reasonable. They can still do their job but are not “A” players. A unicorn skill is thus rarely found, and those who have it stand out as…unicorns.
I learned about the term “unicorn skill” from this article (quoting John Maeda’s Design in Tech report) claiming that for software designers, the unicorn skill is not coding (as traditionally thought) but good writing. Coders who are also great writers are unicorns:
A core skill of the interaction designer is imagining users (characters), motivations, actions, reactions, obstacles, successes, and a complete set of ‘what if’ scenarios. … These are the skills of a writer — all kinds of writers, but particularly fiction, screenwriting, and technical writing.
Mythical user experience designer with an advanced and adaptive skill range. Outstanding skills in graphic design, rapid prototyping, front end development, user testing, technical specifications, marketing and branding. It does not have an opinion, it has a process, and will harmonize with any environment.
Unicorn designers are basically “supernatural beings” that may or may not exist, but that hiring managers want. They combine the best of technical skills with the best of soft skills:
It’s important to be able to receive and give feedback and have the necessary soft skills to work efficiently with others. Fortunately, with the understanding and expertise of different skill sets, unicorns should be able to develop deep empathy for the people they are working with.
Obviously there is some skepticism here about whether such a designer exists, or could exist.
If that’s a unicorn designer, then what’s a unicorn lawyer? It’s not that far off from the combination of advanced technical plus soft skills described above for designers and coders. Here’s a draft description, inspired by the above and tailored to the legal profession:
Mythical recent law grad with an advanced and adaptive legal skill set. Outstanding skills in client interviewing, case analysis, legal research and analysis, mediation, litigation, transaction, regulatory compliance, social justice, efficiency, people skills, client development, and pro bono. They do not have an opinion, they have a complete skill set, and will enhance the justice production and economic advantage of any firm or agency. They are also qualified to be a solo unicorn needing no further mentoring.
Skepticism about unicorns in design work reminded me of the skepticism within legal education: can a law school can really be expected to produce a practice-ready graduate immediately adaptable to literally any legal environment? Those who aspire to produce or to be unicorns embrace a perhaps radical faith in and dedication to their own professional development.
Assuming for the moment that producing / being a unicorn lawyer is a worthy quest, can we identify one single unicorn skill—a skill that is under-appreciated, not commonly found, and highly correlated with outstanding performance in the field?
After reading the claim that writing is the unicorn skill for designers, I posited on Twitter that legal writing might be the unicorn skill for lawyers:
That idea was instantaneously shot down, with multiple sources confirming that legal writing is necessary but not sufficient—at least not in law firms that need client business. Any skill that is expected as a baseline cannot be a unicorn skill. The skill identified as more unusual and more likely to be rewarded was rainmaking. And rainmaking can, of course, be defined in various degrees of formality:
billables, a*skissing, more billables, client development – if you can write, great, but it’s not necessary
Listening is not unrelated to client development and even “a**kissing.” So can we say effective listening might be a unicorn skill because it is not commonly practiced at the level of excellence and is highly correlated with overall excellence?
First, it’s important to acknowledge that in almost any lawyering that involves interpersonal interactions, listening should be practiced to at least an average level of competence. Lawyers have to listen to their clients to take the facts, and listen to their supervisors to take assignments, and listen to witnesses to take depositions and conduct witness examinations at trial.
But is listening commonly practiced at the level of excellence? That means picking up the wealth of verbal and nonverbal cues that intense listening can reveal. It means making people truly feel heard. It means hearing and processing what is not being said. It means recognizing the moment of opportunity to interrupt and show engagement, versus the moment to sit back in silence and let the speaker continue unabated. The judgment and skilled intuition needed for this type of listening is why it goes into good lawyering in a technical sense and good rainmaking in the social sense of being liked and trusted. Finding all these skills in one person (plus necessary but not sufficient skills like legal writing) makes for a great lawyer.
And—according to the hypothesis of listening as unicorn skill—you don’t see top lawyers who are not also really strong at listening. You might call it charisma, but listening is part of what these extra-effective professionals do so well, and that others don’t. They take in a lot of information efficiently in their conversations and remember it. When they repeat questions, it’s not because they missed something, but to see if the speaker answers differently or to refocus on a crucial area. They may follow up in writing with precision to pin down the recipients and preserve their “record” for later.
Even in settings not traditionally understood as emotionally charged, they help others feel heard, efficiently, because they subtly manage the conversation. That’s part of what makes for great rainmaking. They may gravitate toward and be promoted in jobs that reward personal networks and interpersonal skills, e.g. negotiation and business development. After interacting with a skilled listener, people may not identify listening as the exact reason they are impressed, but they walk away with a sense of confidence and trust, and a positive impression. Those without the same skills in listening are fine, average, reasonable, even very good—but not unicorns.
Although I’ve made the case for listening as a unicorn skill, I am genuinely interested in others’ opinions of what the unicorn skill for lawyers may be.
When we look across the profession, what skill is under-appreciated, not commonly performed at a high level, and signifying truly excellent performance in the field? Have you ever interacted with someone you consider to be a “unicorn lawyer”? If so, what led you to that conclusion?
The legal industry may be particularly prone to loneliness because of the “game face” mentality necessary to represent clients effectively. Putting on a game face on for work can be a professional necessity, but also causes loneliness if it spreads to other facets of life.
People who are lonely often think that everyone else is doing OK while they are not. They think they are the only ones carrying a burden. I have had clients talk about putting their “game face” on rather than sharing truthfully about themselves.
Many lawyers and legal professionals and law students alreadyhave long-term peer groups in their colleagues and classmates. But if people are gathering on a regular basis with their game faces firmly in place, those peer groups may not be serving a support function at all. Is there anything lonelier than giving a performance that everything is wonderful and there is “nothing to see here”?
Peer groups that provide real support are one of the most valuable ways to combat loneliness. To delve more into the elements of real support, I went to the books—specifically the listening textbook authored by Professors Worthington and Fitch-Hauser of Auburn, Listening: Processes, Functions, and Competency. (I met and talked with them a few years ago and would do so again anytime because they are awesome.) They lay out some helpful categories of listening for social support:
Directive v. non-directive
Directive support provides “unrequested specific types of coping behaviors or solutions for the recipient.”
Non-directive support “shifts the focus of control from the giver to the receiver” and lets the receiver “dictate the support provisions.
Problem-focused v. emotion-focused
Problem-focused support seeks to help the speaker solve a problem.
Emotion-focused support seeks to help the speaker work through their own emotions
To provide effective social support, different strategies are called for at different times and in different contexts. Coworkers who do not know each other all that well are not just going to go out for coffee and start providing open-ended, non-directive emotional support. I recently went to a women’s bar event and heard a white woman explain that she really wanted to “be there” for her minority colleagues, but they didn’t seem willing to open up and share. Someone tactfully pointed out that you can be a good colleague just by being kind and reliable over time. Small talk is not meaningless; by being really interested in someone in a socially appropriate way, maybe a deeper relationship will develop. But no one is entitled to hear another person’s story at work.
Junior lawyers and new law students may seek and crave mentors who give them directive emotional support; I recently overheard a third-year law student lecturing—in a supportive but dominant voice—a first-year student. The 3L forcefully instructed the 1L to stop being distracted by a romantic relationship and focus on school, and everything would fall into place as long as the 1L put priorities where they belonged and made a point of taking this time to do what needed to be done, etc. etc.
This kind of directive advice can feel exactly right for a person who is lonely, unsure of their own path forward and how to be effective, or both. But over time, directive support may become more about the person offering it. Directive support can foster a dependent relationship that just leaves the recipient in an even lonelier place when the “director” is not around. A thoughtful mentor should reflect on their own strategies for providing support. Someone who naturally tends toward directive support should consider mixing it up with non-directive approaches. This means asking more questions, prompting the mentee to reflect and assess what is needed. Ultimately, non-directive listening may help a professional grow and take responsibility for their development.
Assisting someone who appears to be lonely is an advanced communication challenge. Jeena Cho has written about the difficulty lawyers may feel in breaking the cycle of loneliness:
When we feel loneliness, it’s easy to continue on the path to more loneliness rather than to do something about it. It makes sense that lawyers would avoid taking steps to break the loneliness because it would require vulnerability.
Others around a lonely person may be able to sense it and help them break the cycle. Worthington and Fitch-Hauser give an example in their book of the following—something that lawyers and legal professionals may recognize from their own conversations at work:
Person 1: Hey, how are you?
Person 2: Oh hello, I’m fine. How about you?
Person 1: Hmm, you don’t sound like you’re fine. What’s going on?
Person 2: Oh nothing. Really, I’m fine.
They acknowledge that in this scenario, 1 may accept 2’s statement at face value and leave the conversation. But to really go in for the social support, 1 might push for more with something like “Are you sure? Did something happen at work that upset you? If you’d like to talk about it, I’m here to listen.” They acknowledge this is a heavy-handed response and suggest another, less intrusive way to handle the conversation as well: 1 may choose to sit down next to 2 and ask 2 a bit more specifically how work is going. As Worthington and Fitch-Hauser point out, even the heavy-handed approach can be helpful. It’s uncomfortable and possibly annoying, but it provides the potentially lonely person with the opportunity to respond.
Both of these possible approaches also avoid the “negative social support behaviors.” In terms of what not to do, Worthington and Fitch-Hauser list the following:
Using platitudes or clichés
Saying “I know exactly what you’re going through”
Telling people to stop crying or stop being wrong or embarrassing
Saying it’s not such a big deal and minimizing the situation
Blaming the person seeking support
Other than unsolicited and unwanted advice, these should be pretty easy to avoid. It’s much harder to provide truly effective social support. Really good social support tends to be “invisible”: “The recipient isn’t consciously aware that support is being given and, therefore, doesn’t feel any negative consequences of being the recipient.”
I think this observation crystallizes the true art form of helping a colleague break through their loneliness. If they become aware that (1) you think they’re lonely and (2) you are trying to help, your chance of effectively helping them drops precipitously. Stealthy, invisible support using discerning, empathetic listening can encourage someone to begin addressing their loneliness by doing what Jeena talks about in her article: taking a tiny step.
How can I be an ally? How can I let people know I’m really ready to listen?
At the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers’ CLE on women in leadership held today at the State Bar of Georgia, several participants shared their desire to help and to listen. Discussions around #MeToo are bringing out stories suppressed sometimes for decades, stories often peeled back to more layers of race and class. Although there are no easy answers, many agreed on the value of listening. What can we do? One thing is we can listen, actively, to one another’s stories.
Then a question was raised: what if you’re ready to listen but others aren’t sharing? “I do want to listen, I am ready to hear. But sometimes I feel people aren’t willing to speak. Maybe they think I won’t understand, or they put up a defensive barrier. How can I prove I really want to listen?”
Listening is such a gift. But—as someone pointed out from the audience—showing up to listen does not obligate others to share their stories. Receptive body language and an open heart does not guarantee others will reciprocate by speaking. Nor should it. If listening is a gift, it must be given without expectation of repayment.
At a different CLE last summer, through the International Listening Association’s annual convention, I co-presented a CLE on “Better Listening for Better Lawyering.” One of the most popular parts of the CLE, according to the feedback, was discussion of the “Preparing to Listen” checklist. People—especially task-driven, problem-solving, professional people like lawyers—just love checklists. You have a focus, broken down into small parts. You can check off the boxes. If you do everything on that checklist, you’re prepared to listen. Right?
That checklist is great, and many people are failing miserably at doing half the tasks it lists. Atul Gawande popularized checklists as a lifesaving measure in surgical units, citing evidence they work because they catch “the dumb stuff.” In the world of listening, “dumb stuff” means looking at your phone or starting a conversation by telling someone they don’t look like a lawyer—another story shared at the GAWL session today.
But today’s conversation also revealed, yet again, that listening is more than checking off boxes. Avoiding the “dumb stuff” is not quite the path to the authentic, vulnerable speaking and listening.
Panelist Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming offered a response that transcends checklists and neat reciprocal obligations: Readiness to listen means being there. It means finding “small points of common interest” with the people around you. It means putting in the work “day by day.”
Someone chimed in that change comes from individual relationships, not the top down. I’m not sure I agree with giving up on top-down measures. But I agree change won’t happen without the relationships—the kind that are built through small, incremental, meaningful gifts of attention and recognition. And perhaps, when the moment is right, speaking and listening.
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:
Whatever affects one affects each one in the system. That is, anxiety moves easily from person to person in the group.
[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.
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.
Law school conditions you to know the difference between righteousness and self-righteousness. That’s why lawyers know how to go to war without turning the other side into an enemy.
A student group collectively responded, arguing that Gerken mischaracterized their protest during Murray’s visit to Yale and suggesting limits on law’s social and political influence:
If anything, our legal training has taught us that civility has its limits, and that disruption, creative protest, and rule-breaking are valid and often necessary tactics to effect change.
Amidst this debate and much, much more, a new class of law students is arriving at law schools across the country right now. Thus I was grateful to hear some excellent advice on promoting discussion and civility in legal education, shared at the recent Southeastern Association of Law Schools’ Conference.
Professor Suzanne Rowe of Oregon Law spoke on a panel about building character in the classroom. She briefly stated the character values law school seeks to instill—integrity, trust, respect. And then she focused on specific tools and methods for discourse within the classroom. That may not be all we need right now, but it definitely can help.
What do students need? They need to hear other views, respect other viewpoints, share their convictions with other classmates, and engage across the spectrum of ideas.
But what happens when this “spectrum of ideas” leads to a truly difficult conversation—where someone offers an opinion that fundamentally attacks the integrity, worth, and humanity of another person? Professor Rowe offered a roadmap for responding in these moments:
1. Recognize what happened.
For example, the professor might describe reactions: “I’m seeing eyebrows raised and people seeming very uncomfortable.”
2. Share what you feel and believe.
After an objective assessment of what has happened, the professor can share her reaction. For example, “I believe you can say that in a more professional way” or “I feel that the words you’ve used are harmful to members of our community.”
If the professor has prepared for this type of disruption, she might immediately lead students in a discussion of the unprofessional or harmful comment. If not, she might ask the class to take a break and regroup in a few minutes or the next day to engage in that discussion.
Professor Rowe also talked about teaching the value of disengaging. Students can engage more fully when they know they do not have to continue engaging no matter what they may hear. Some students might chose to step out of the classroom during a discussion.
There are no easy answers, but the framework for recognizing, sharing, and acting—plus disengaging at times—may help.
Actually they had me with the title of the handout:
“Mindfulness without Meditation.”
Last week I attended the 2017 meeting of the Southeastern Association of Law Schools, a.k.a. SEALS, in beautiful Boca Raton. The SEALS meeting lasted all week but included a two-day Conference on Mindfulness in Law co-sponsored by SEALS, the AALS Section on Balance, the Mindfulness in Law Society, and the Fredrick P. Lenz Foundation.
Day two featured a session on “Emotional Intelligence and Mindfulness in Law.” That’s where the elusive promise of mindfulness without meditation came in. There were several speakers, and I hope to blog about each of them. This post focuses on remarks by William Blatt of the University of Miami.
Professor Blatt has seven years’ experience teaching a law-school course on emotional intelligence and mindfulness. He acknowledged that mindfulness as a concept can be difficult to effectively communicate. Being mindful helps people to be at peace with themselves, to be more productive, and to have better relationships. But it’s like a neutral gear or a general state. It’s universal, but subtle. Telling someone to gain emotional intelligence by being mindful is like telling a triathlete to get better by exercising.
Professor Blatt uses his mindfulness class to delve into more specifics:
Students are drawn to techniques that help them concentrate better because they know it will help them academically. To help students see how they must intentionally focus, Professor Blatt draws a parallel to focused intensity in body building. He walks students through a bicep curl exercise. No weights are needed. The first time you just lift your arm. The second time, you imagine a marble in your bicep and you place a finger on your bicep, lifting your arm with focused intensity.
Becoming more aware of your own body can help with mindfulness. The bicep curl exercise above is one way to do it. But Professor Blatt showed some more energetic ways to do this. First, breathe for 30 seconds but forcibly exhale. Let your breath be heard. By breathing out so strongly, you gain more body awareness.
Beyond that, you can get up out of your seat, put your arms over your head, bend your knees, and jump. Like 20 times. Your attention will come back to your body. Yes it looks strange to see a hotel ballroom full of law professors doing this, but it works.
One barrier to mindfulness is repetitive thoughts. Professor Blatt shows students how to take a word—maybe “stress”—and repeat it over and over again. The key is to distort it. Repeat it so fast that it sounds like gibberish. Or slow it down and say it in a deep, slow, movie-trailer voice. Or say the word in a mouse voice. These techniques can break the association of such repetitive thoughts.
Professor Blatt also talked about ways to reframe certain feelings. Stress may feel like a threat, but perhaps it can be reframed as an opportunity. This is easy to say and hard to do. Professor Blatt suggested a good technique which is to change a problem into a question beginning “how…” For example “I’m feeling stressed about maintaining this blog” could become “How can I continue to find and post good content on this blog?”
Building on this interrogative technique, Professor Blatt talked about the broader “release technique” which walks through a series of questions about deciding whether to release a current emotional state—or not. The hyper-rational among us who find themselves dealing with an unwanted emotional state may like this pragmatic series of steps.
Perspectives on the self
Does an individual have just one personality—one mood, one approach, one way of being in the world? “I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman wrote. Professor Blatt discussed a technique for mindfulness in which you try to acknowledge these different “sub-personalities.” The examples he gave were the controller, the seeker, the skeptic, the big mind, and the big heart. Allowing yourself to “hear” the voice of these sub-personalities builds compassion for yourself and is connected to mindfulness more broadly.
I enjoyed Professor Blatt’s remarks about mindfulness because they spanned a wide range of mindfulness techniques from active (jumping up and down) to practical (using a checklist for deciding whether to let something go) to linguistic (articulating a difficult word in an exaggerated way) to conversational (practicing “talking and listening” to your own sub-personalities).
As he said, mindfulness is a general state. But there are many paths to reach—or at least to seek—that state.
Law schools throughout the country continue to face issues related to diversity and inclusion. Students may feel unwelcome or marginalized at their law schools, and these feelings can impact their academic performance. This isn’t news, and most people want to foster a more inclusive law school environment.
But what might be news are the details of these students’ individual experiences or the scope of these negative experiences within a student body. This matters because a precursor to making a law school more inclusive is understanding how students are feeling excluded. It also matters because if you’re not hearing those details, you might think that your school doesn’t have an inclusion problem. Or worse, you might be unknowingly contributing to it.
Whether you know it or not, your school probably does have an inclusion problem.
There is likely a group of faculty and staff at your school who know this well because they hear more than their share of students’ unhappy stories. Being one of those “go-to” folks is a blessing and a burden. It is a gift to be trusted with the intimate details of someone’s misery, to be present with another person’s vulnerability, to hear things before they need to be shouted. But it can also take an emotional toll on the listener. This is especially true when the student’s experience overlaps with the listener’s—for example because both are racial minorities or the first in their family to attend college.
A thing about burdens, though, is they get lighter when more people take them on. Not only that, but sharing burdens builds community.
Research suggests that the differences or misunderstandings that divide us can be lessened when we speak to each other and get to know each other a little more. Inviting students to share their stories and listening to those stories can improve those students’ well-being, especially if they feel that they haven’t been listened to in the past.
Here are some ideas for helping to invite these conversations:
In an individual conference or office hours, you might ask a student open-ended questions about how school is going. Listen to the answers non-judgmentally. Observe the student’s body language. Put on your lawyer hat and ask follow-up questions based on what you’ve heard and seen. (But remember it’s not an interrogation!)
In class, you could share a personal anecdote that suggests you have some experience with feeling like you don’t fit in. Explain that it’s common for law students to feel like they don’t belong. The reasons might be diverse, but the feeling of being an outsider is shared. This common ground can form the foundation for further conversation.
In class, you could issue a more explicit invitation to students–let them know that you are genuinely interested in their law school experience. Let them know that they can feel free to talk with you about non-academic concerns. (But be aware of reporting requirements at your institution. If you get the sense that a student might want to disclose information that must be reported, for example to your institution’s Title IX office, you’ll need to stop the conversation and advise the student of your duty to report certain information. This might be welcome news to the student, or it might not. The student can then make an informed choice about what else to share with you.)
Host a forum where students share their stories related to diversity and inclusion. A physical forum can foster real-time dialogue about students’ experiences and potential actions to address their concerns. The presence of faculty, staff, and administrators at a forum can expand the conversation by signaling that these issues matter and should be taken up by the whole community.
As readers of this blog surely know:
Listening begets listening—the more you practice, the better you get.
When it comes to conversations about diversity and inclusion, you might be afraid of saying the wrong thing. That’s a reasonable fear, and we’ve both said the wrong things during these conversations. It doesn’t feel great. But sometimes there isn’t a right thing to say. Sometimes the best you can offer is your time, your attention, and your ear.
If you are attending the ALWD Conference this week, we invite you to attend our session on Wednesday afternoon at 2 pm, where we will be hosting a conversation about these issues. The 2017 ALWD Conference is dedicated to discussions surrounding diversity and inclusion, as reflected by its theme: Acknowledging Lines: Talking About What Unites and Divides Us.
Thanks again to Alexa Chew and O.J. Salinas of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill:
Alexa Chew is a Clinical Associate Professor of Law at UNC Law. You can also find her on twitter at @aznchew.
O.J. Salinas is a Clinical Associate Professor of Law at UNC Law. You can also find him on twitter at @ojsalinas.
The short version is that a Silicon Valley patent lawyer who had been #1 in his law-school class died on his bathroom floor from a drug-related infection. His ex-wife found him. She also found his phone, which indicated his last communication with anyone had been a conference call at work. That is the “heartbreaking” and “haunting” detail many are talking about, discussing the competitive workaholic winner-take-all culture of law school and BigLaw practice.
Another detail is equally haunting:
For the last two years of his life, every time Peter and I were together — whether it was back-to-school night, our son’s cross country meets or our daughter’s high school graduation — people would ask me if he was O.K. They asked if he had cancer, an eating disorder, a metabolic disorder, AIDS. But they never asked about drugs.
Neither friends, nor law-firm management, nor the lawyer’s own ex-wife could conceive that this man had, for years, been consuming through various means “Vicodin, Tramadol, Adderall, cocaine, Xanax, crystal meth and a kaleidoscope of pills.”
People just can’t believe that a professional so seemingly successful could be a serious drug addict. And even if they could believe it, there are other barriers pointed out by an ABA Lawyers Assistance official quoted in the article:
Law-firm leadership…doesn’t really know what signs to look for when it comes to addiction. And when it’s happening, she said, they are so busy themselves, “they just don’t see it.”
So everyone is reading this article and talking, talking, talking about it. To honor the work of this lawyer’s ex-wife in revealing these details and spending so much effort to bring this story forward, it’s crucial to change and improve the profession. As lawyer Kendall Burchard said on Twitter:
Practicing atty, aspiring atty, or a family member/friend-read the article. Could be you or colleague, recognizing signs could save a life. https://t.co/xUOjNpiHAn
The question is, how to recognize signs and how to try to help. Listening is of course crucial. But someone, somewhere along the line, has to speak up in a way that is likely to help, or at least unlikely to prompt denial and more isolation and covering up. Please share comments on how to do that, here or on social media or really anywhere, with anyone in the legal profession. What the experts say about “how” will be a subject for another post.