What do we hear when we hear vocal fry?

Tennessee professor Michael Higdon has followed up his 2009 Kansas Law Review piece on nonverbal persuasion with a thoughtful new essay,   “Oral Advocacy and Vocal Fry: The Unseemly, Sexist Side of Nonverbal Persuasion.”

If you’re not familiar with vocal fry, check out this MSNBC video at minute 3:30 for an example drawn from law practice (“Um, I don’t really think that evidence is sufficient.”) The video briefly explores a few themes expanded upon in much greater depth in Professor Higdon’s piece: Is the problem with women using vocal patterns that diminish their appearance of competence? Or is the problem with managers and society scrutinizing and judging women harshly yet again? Higdon quotes Amanda Hess describing the joint perils of vocal fry and “upspeak”:

So we’re wrong when we raise our voices, and we’re wrong when we lower them.

Higdon takes this debate into the realm of law and the individual choices women law students and lawyers must make. He also places vocal fry into a larger framework of nonverbal persuasion including body language such as gestures, the use of space, the relationship to the speaking environment as well as any props or other instruments, physical appearance, the use of time, and other factors. “Vocalics” or what the speaker sounds like is the factor raising these questions.

Higdon and many others eschew the easy answer that women should stop vocal fry simply because it hurts others’ perception of them.

What is a female attorney to do? Does she scrupulously monitor and adjust her professional nonverbal behavior to match those qualities that social science tells her tend to be perceived more positively? Or does she ignore this research and what it might mean within her own career and instead follow her own preferences on how to present herself? Clearly, this essay cannot definitively answer that question—it is instead a personal question that must be answered by each person individually.

He points out that not all critiques of nonverbal behaviors are complicated: for example, lawyers should avoid pointing at their audience, especially when that audience consists of judges sitting as a court of law. But preferences about some nonverbal behaviors such as women’s vocal inflections raise harder questions of underlying bias. Higdon’s discussion reminded me of the discussion—how can this discussion still be happening?—whether women make a mistake by going to court in pants suits rather than skirts.

[W]hat one gains in the short term by presenting herself as in line with societal expectations can create problems in the long term by making it that much easier for everyone to ignore the sexism motivating those preferences.

Some would say the women lawyer’s identity shouldn’t matter. If she’s going to court where a judge has previously expressed disdain for women in pants suits and if she takes seriously her role as an advocate for the client, then she should grin and wear it (the skirt, that is). Likewise if society is saying vocal fry makes a woman sound incompetent and if a woman lawyer wants to represent clients effectively in said society, then stop with the vocal fry. As Higdon acknowledges, failure to comply can be damaging.

But he urges a deeper analysis that makes room for identity even as it contemplates audience:

[T]he preferences people have for certain behaviors are almost always motivated by something other than the behavior itself. Typically there is a connection in the audience member’s mind between that discrete behavior and something else—and it is the “something else” that requires more inquiry.

I recommend this article, especially as a companion to Higdon’s foundational article on nonverbal persuasion, previously reviewed here on the blog.

You should watch The People v. O.J. Simpson

To echo what many have said, I now know what I’ll be doing for the next ten Tuesday nights. The People v. O.J. Simpson: An American Crime Story (FX Networks) is as incredible as everyone is saying. For viewers who lived through the spectacle, it brings back memories (“Where was I the night of the white-Bronco chase?”) and forces connections (an even closer look at the Kardashian family, which didn’t seem possible). More broadly and as the New York Times has pointed out, the opening scenes of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots (mediated through TV news) set the stage not just for the investigation and “Trial of the [20th] Century” but for connections to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement today.

The People v. O.J. Simpson is also a story about lawyers and lawyering, with a deeper view than anyone got in real-time, drawing from Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson (interview with Toobin here).

There’s the distracted Marcia Clark cradling a landline and feeding cereal to her cute but ungrateful kids while she learns about the murders. (Actor Sarah Paulson told the Wall Street Journal: “I didn’t understand what I do now—that it was a great failure of women everywhere to not have come out rallying behind her in what was a real assault on her by the media.”) There’s Robert Shapiro holding court about his greatness in a posh restaurant when he’s interrupted to take O.J.’s call. There’s Robert Kardashian patting his friend O.J.’s shoulder, his eyes widening perhaps just a bit when Shapiro suggests that he reactivate his law license and join O.J.’s defense team. There’s Christopher Darden in an unguarded moment with Johnnie Cochran before either of them knows what is about to hit.

During the first episode, I tried to watch with an eye toward blogging something about listening. The most obvious scene was Shapiro’s show of meeting alone with O.J. to ask him if he did it. O.J. looks him back in the eye and says, “No. I loved my wife.” The police demonstrated some really poor listening and questioning skills in their early taped interview with him, sending Marcia Clark into paroxysm and foreshadowing trouble for the prosecution. (Later listening to the tape, an officer notes how hard it is to question a famous guy like The Juice.) Yet there’s the initially positive and collaborative environment within the prosecutors’ legal team, fueled by confidence at the story they perceived to be coming together.

By the end of the episode, however, I turned off the analytical brain and just watched. Even now, it was too much. How did this all happen? I couldn’t parse it objectively from a distance. And I guess that’s the problem and one of the show’s essential points.

Best of 2015

This post is a rather unscientific summary of some of the best articles and posts related to lawyers, law practice, and listening in 2015. Please feel free to comment on other sources you think should be considered among the best of 2015.

General article of the year

How People with Type A Personalities Can Become Better Listeners

Type A personality patterns include competitiveness, urgency, and hostility. For type A people, “the listening struggle is real.” This article offers a few techniques for compensating such as practicing the “WOA” method: Wait. Observe. Allow. It’s amazing what one can learn by patiently waiting and letting the person finish his or her thought.

Study of the year

Take a paragraph. Have one test group read the paragraph out loud to a listening audience. Have another test group hand over the paragraph in writing so the audience reads the exact same text. These two audiences will rank the speaker as more intelligent than the writer, even though the text is exactly the same. The study, conducted by business-school professors at the University of Chicago, found this result to be true across several different conditions. Even when a text is written to be read rather than spoken, audiences who hear it still rank the speaker more highly than audiences who rank the author after reading it.

It is thought that “vocal cues” provide more signals of intellect than are available in the reading experience. As one study author summed up,  “If you read aloud my written pitch, you’d sound smarter than my written pitch.” The study was described in the New York Times here, “The Mouth Is Mightier than the Pen.” The study is available here, with a subscription to Sage Publications: http://pss.sagepub.com.proxy.library.emory.edu/cgi/content/long/26/6/877 (subscription required)

Law review article of the year

A theme of this blog has been that it’s difficult to measure listening and even more difficult for any person to accurately judge just how good—or bad—a listener they are.* Professor Andrea Curcio of Georgia State wrote about how hard it is to accurately judge one’s own cultural sensibility as well, due to a variety of cognitive biases. A culturally sensible lawyer is a lawyer “who understand[s] that we all have multifaceted cultural backgrounds, experiences, and biases that affect how we perceive and analyze legal problems and how we interact with clients and colleagues.” Curcio’s article discusses cultural sensibility, barriers to developing it, and methods law schools/classes may consider to foster it. Being not just theoretically knowledgeable but actually skilled at cultural sensibility leads to more effective listening, which is why this article is LLL’s law review article of the year. The citation and link are here:  Andrea Curcio, Addressing Barriers to Cultural Sensibility Learning: Lessons from Social Cognition Theory, 15 Nev. L. J. 537 (2015).

Book of the year (reviewed on the blog)

Heidi Grant Halvorson, No One Understands You and What To Do About It, reviewed here. This book is short and insightful for analyzing different aspects of communication situations through the lenses of trust, ego, and power. The book explores ways to make a more accurate, less distorted impression and perhaps even recover from having made a bad impression.

Book of the year (still to be reviewed)

Another book of the year, not yet reviewed on this blog is Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (2015). The New York Times (and specifically, Jonathan Franzen) reviewed it here. He sums up the book as a “call to arms”:

Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-­reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place.

Tweet of the year

This is from the Clio Cloud Conference in the keynote by John Suh, CEO of Legal Zoom:

 

Word of the year

Manterrupting

Pam Woldow and Doug Richardson wrote a great series on “manterruption” at Pam’s website At the Intersection: Where General Counsel & Law Firms Connect. They wrote about this issue in three parts:

Part 1: Are You a Manterrupter?

Part 2: The Quest for a Cure 

Part 3: Reader Responses and Connecting the Dots

Not surprisingly, some of the feedback they received included helpful thoughts such as “Stick to your knitting.” Some of the other feedback was actually constructive and hopeful.

Runner up for word of the year

Deipnosophist: “a person skilled in table talk”

Hat tip to @LibrarySherpa:

  

Futuristic thought of the year

Ken Grady of Seytlines argues for process improvement and technological innovation in the legal industry, while also maintaining that soft skills have never been more important. In a September post on measuring lawyer performance, he touched on the possibility of wearable sociometric devices that will quantify social skills and effectiveness—essentially, as Ken said, a “FitBit for listening.” Such devices can already measure “proximity to other employees, who was talking, engagement levels, and other data points.” Such data can be interpreted to “determine which group dynamics led to more creativity or productivity.” (Seyfarth CEO Stephen Poor more broadly explored the idea of FitBits for lawyers as well.)

Thus, perhaps by 2016 or 2017 one of the “best of” posts here will include someone’s experience using a sociometric device to assess their actual listening skills.

*(By 2017 “their” as a pronoun for “someone” and “a person” will be widely accepted as well, but that is a different post for a different day on a different blog.)

Listening analytics?

One of my favorite sayings is from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

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Kenneth Grady’s Seytlines blog is an exercise in what Fitzgerald meant. In Grady’s essays on innovation in the legal industry—what it needs and where it is stagnating—human skills including “soft skills” have never been more valuable. Yet humans must use processes and systems and technology to avoid losing the competition to deliver value. Individual lawyers in all of their humanity have never been less expendable—or more.

Grady’s recent post Talking About Lawyer Performance illustrates the tension:

Providing legal services today involves much more than listening to a client’s problem and giving an opinion or delivering a document. It is a complex task in a fast moving environment that involves a much deeper and more nuanced understanding the environment in which the client operates. This isn’t an equation solely for large law firms and corporate legal departments, it is true throughout all levels of legal services delivery. Individuals’ lives are much more complicated today than 10, 20 or 30 years ago, so advising them isn’t as easy today as it was then.

This complexity manifests in the idea that legal-services delivery should be examined and broken into more distinct parts. This idea is pervasive throughout the legal-innovation conversation, and I’d like to think more about how it affects listening.

There may be a tradeoff in client satisfaction unless technological innovations are built with empathy and surgically precise understanding of how to approximate human interaction, and when actual real-time conversations and face time are crucial. On the other hand there will be a gain in client satisfaction if perceived unnecessary conversations where the client keenly feels the billing clock ticking are reduced or even eliminated. As I said, I’d like to think more about the delivery questions—and mostly I would just like to learn from those such as Grady and Patrick Lamb and Jeff Carr and others, the gurus in this area.

Beyond the questions of legal services delivery are deeper questions about what an individual lawyer does. (See Grady’s post on Defining the Unique Role of the Lawyer.) The analytical and problem-solving contributions are inextricably wrapped in the soft skills used to deliver them. As Grady has written elsewhere, “During the next decade, the skills that make up personality will play an increasingly important role.”

But do not believe that means the lawyer is unique beyond measure. Even the most human of human skills can benefit from systems analysis because even the most human of interactions can be measured:

Alex “Sandy” Pentland, who directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, is one of the leaders in the people analytics field. His team developed sociometric devices—smartphones using special software—that teams of employees would wear during the day. The devices measured proximity to other employees, who was talking, engagement levels, and other data points. They did not capture what was being said. But, from this data Pentland’s team could determine which group dynamics led to more creativity or productivity. By altering the work situation, such as aligning work breaks rather than staggering them, Pentland’s team drove performance improvement along many metrics.

This was the part of the Lawyer Analytics post that really stood out. This blog has talked at various times about the problem of measuring listening. If you can’t measure it, you probably can’t assess it in a meaningful way. Perhaps these “sociometric devices” are the beginning of a solution to the problem.

When I first got started blogging here, I read a difficult but rewarding academic book, Talk and Social Theory: Ecologies of Speaking and Listening in Everyday Life, in which a scholar, Frederick Erickson, analyzed detailed transcripts of several conversations recorded in 1974: a blue-collar family at dinner, a college counselor and a student who was eligible for the Vietnam draft, a combined kindergarten-first grade class, and a medical resident and intern diagnosing a difficult case. He parsed every last detail of these conversations and even showed how they could be rendered with musical notation:

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This book is where I learned the concept of the “conversation turn,” which essentially means taking over or handing back the conversational flow to your conversation partner. (See prior post on the “turn sharks” in law school.)

How do a bunch of random conversations in 1974 relate to legal skills today? Some things don’t change: Being a good listener means mastering conversation turns to keep the conversation going without taking over.  Just refer to Pam Woldow’s lengthy discussion of “manterruptions,” and the gender imbalance in who does the interrupting versus gets interrupted, to understand the relevance of conversation turns today. (Part I of Woldow’s series is here.)

The conversation studies in Erickson’s book were fascinating but clearly expensive to create and difficult to replicate.  With newer and more affordable technology like the sociometric device described in Lawyer Analytics, people won’t need to be invited to a scholarly study to get this kind of data. (To see the logical and alarming extension of these possibilities, read this article on “searchable speech.”)

The possibilities of these devices inevitably bring to mind FitBits. Ken Grady’s boss Stephen Poor has already covered that ground for lawyering generally in “FitBits, Data and Lawyers.” On quantifying communication specifically, it seems pretty likely that we will soon have relatively affordable “FitBits” for listening.

Why it’s so hard to be understood

Among Listen Like a Lawyer’s summer reading is Heidi Grant Halvorson’s No One Understands You and What To Do About It (Harvard Business Review Press 2015). Halvorson is a professor at Columbia Business School; here she is interviewed by CBS News about the book.

51nTzV8T70L._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The book’s focus is on understanding how others perceive you, so that you may better manage how you are perceived. It’s not focused on the legal industry, but it discusses psychological dynamics that certainly apply in law offices as well as any organization. For lawyers, law students, and legal professionals, I would say this book is most useful for the following goals:

  • exploring the dynamics of interviewing process
  • delving beyond the surface in what is happening at work, particularly in work teams and with organizational clients
  • improving how one is perceived by a supervisor or work team
  • lightly exploring broader “psychology of leadership” concepts in the business world

Across situations, cognitive biases on all sides create distortions and disconnects in how someone thinks they are perceived and a perceiver’s actual impression. For the person communicating a message, the “transparency illusion” creates the overly optimistic expectation that others do in fact understand our intention. This illusion comes about in part from overconfidence about how clearly we communicate:

Your emotions are less obvious than you realize, and your face is less expressive too. Studies show that while very strong, basic emotionssurprise, fear, disgust, and angerare fairly easy to read, the more subtle emotions we experience on a daily basis are not.

On the receiving end, the well-known confirmation bias leads people to interpret information as confirming what they already think. These types of biases are semi-automatic and hard to combat, although more effortful, careful thinking in the “correction phase” can correct for distortions. (This is what Daniel Kahneman calls System 2.)

After laying this groundwork, Halvorson spends most of the book talking about the “lenses” that affect first impressions, before any intentional “corrections” can take place. The three key lenses are:

  • the trust lens

Trust is based on two factors—warmth and competencethat may sometimes be at odds with each other. More on that in a moment.

  • the power lens

To get the attention of a powerful person, it’s all about showing your “instrumentality.” As Halvorson writes, “It’s not about being niceit’s about being useful.”

  • the ego lens

The ego plays games with perception so that the perceiver comes out on top. Understanding ego dynamics can help a person avoid being seen as an ego threat. The least manipulative-sounding of these is focusing on how the speaker and perceiver are members of the same group (such as alums of the same school or members of the same profession).

These lenses are at work in difficult situations that lawyers and legal professionals face every day. A few that come to mind: clients who resist signing settlements that are strongly in their favor; supervising lawyers who want to control conversations with clients; legal professionals who gain a reputation—either for good or poor work—that seems difficult if not impossible to alter.

All of these lenses could help with the goal of listening, in that knowing about them can help a listener understand better what the other person is saying and why. Developing trust by cultivating warmth was where listening came into play explicitly. Some warmth tactics seem obvious: make eye contact, smile, and focus. But Halvorson cites studies that “people generally have no idea when they are not doing these things.” One practical theme of the book is just to ask friends and family about how you come across: do you make eye contact? How do they perceive you?

A potential difficulty for lawyers is the conflict—or at least perceived conflict—between what it takes to show warmth versus competence:

When people are trying to appear warm, they are agreeable, engage in flattery, make kind gestures, and encourage others to talk (i.e. they are good listeners). But when they want to appear competent, they do the opposite–speaking rather than listening, focusing the conversation on their own accomplishments and abilities, and challenging the opinions of others as a demonstration of their own expertise. In fact, both consciously and unconsciously, people tend to use this knowledge and play down their competence (i.e., play dumb) to appear warm, and vice versa.

 

Halvorson notes this conflict is a particular conundrum for “nontraditional women” who may experience particularly virulent sexism for perceived failure to adhere to stereotypes about women. This is an example where she nods to the deep and troubling excesses of cognitive biases, but this book is not the place to look for introspection or sensitive exploration of stereotypes and what to do about them.

Rather, it’s a pragmatic toolkit for the person who wants others to “get” them. For trying to resolve the warmth/competence conflict, Halvorson suggests the “moral” aspects of warmth do not conflict with competence. These aspects include being “courageous, fair, principled, responsible, honest, and loyal.” She notes that in a brief interview, it is a lot easier to show your sense of humor than that you are principled. But overall, perceived—and actual—trust is built by “being someone the perceiver can always count on to do the right thing.”

Halvorson also has chapters for difficult interactions such as those with “vigilant risk-mitigators” and “aloof, avoidant perceivers.” She closes with a relatively short treatment  seeing others more clearly (e.g., “take more time” and “consider evidence for and against” a hypothesis) and even seeing yourself more clearly. A common thread throughout the book is to ask friends, family and (if you dare) colleagues how you come across. If people consistently perceive you in ways you don’t intend, then reading, re-reading, and working on the ideas in this book may be in order.