Category: Legal communication

Law practiceLegal communicationLegal skillsPeople skills

The richness of sound

Listening gets a bad rap. A famous statistic about listening is that people remember 30 percent of what they hear, 50 percent of what they see and hear, and 80 percent of what they do. This statistic may be unsupported or based on apocryphal sources, but the gist is consistent with the wisdom of Confucius: “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

Actually, the world of sound provides richer information than sight in many ways. Auditory guru Seth Horowitz outlines the comparative advantage of sound in his entertaining book The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind. As Horowitz writes, what we take in from sight is certainly a rich vein of information: “Vision is a relatively fast-acting sense that works slightly faster than our conscious recognition of what we see.” But sound outshines visual input in crucial ways:

By contrast, animals and humans can detect and respond to changes in sound that occur in less than a millionth of a second . . . It is this faster-than-thought auditory speed, with a wide range of tones and timbres that visual color cannot hope to match and greater flexibility than the chemical sensitivities of taste and smell, that lets sound underlie and drive a fantastic range of subconscious elements in the living organism.

The particular value of sound for lawyers may not seem apparent at first. Lawyers aren’t hunter-gatherers trying to sense the first rustle of an approaching predator. But the speed and richness of auditory input can help lawyers in many, many ways. Listening to a judge’s questions at oral argument, an advocate may develop a very quick sense of whether the question is friendly or hostile—indeed before the judge has even finished enough of the sentence to reveal its substantive content. In discussing a settlement offer with a client, the “wide range of tones and timbres” in the client’s voice can very quickly tell a lawyer if the client is excited or skeptical. And sounds that aren’t exactly words—humming and hawing and swallowing and nervous tapping—are auditory input that adds to the richness of a lawyer’s perception in any situation.

Understanding how quickly sound works on the brain should help lawyers better understand and manage reactions, both their own and others’. The richness of sound adds yet another argument in favor of sometimes foregoing the e-mail for a phone call. And when on that phone call, don’t give in to the temptation to tap out a quick e-mail. They will hear that tapping and start to form an impression—in less than a millionth of a second.

 

Thanks to Seth Horowitz for feedback on this post.

Clinical legal educationLaw practiceLegal communicationLegal skillsPeople skills

A model of listening

For background on listening skills, I wanted to learn more about college courses focusing on listening. The leading text seems to be Listening: Attitudes, Principles, and Skills by Judi Brownell, professor of management and organizational behavior at the Cornell School of Hotel Management. This text has a lot of insights and I will be sharing them and applying them to the legal context throughout the life of the blog.

The backbone of Brownell’s approach is the “HURIER” model:

  • Hearing
  • Understanding
  • Remembering
  • Interpreting
  • Evaluating
  • Responding

Future posts will explore each step of the HURIER model. For now, here are a few holistic observations and broad applications for lawyers:

The proportions within the model are important: Responding makes up just one-sixth of it. This proportion confirms everyone’s intuition that a bad listener is someone who is just working up a response instead of actually engaging with what the speaker is saying. Clients need to be listened to and not talked over, and judges don’t want advocates to interrupt their questions. There are endless situations in the legal professional where speakers can make oafs out of themselves by talking without really listening. Future posts will explore how to mitigate bad listening habits like this and become more effective at listening.

As another broad observation on the HURIER model, it is not meant as a strictly linear or chronological outline of listening. According to Brownell, the model is based on a systems perspective, meaning the parts of the whole are interrelated and interdependent. (She cites Littlejohn’s Theories of Human Communication on this point.) Lawyers engage in so many complex communication situations that this interdependency should be very apparent. How we as lawyers interpret and evaluate depends in part on how much we hear and whether our attention was divided at the time. We can respond by clarifying points that enhance our understanding of the situation and help a further, more substantive response, but excessive requests for clarification could suggest that our hearing and/or understanding may be subpar. The overall process is not neatly linear but iterative and self-reinforcing.

The HURIER model has insights to offer for face-to-face interaction as well as mediated conversations such as videoconferencing and mediated asynchronous communication such as podcasts, webinars and MOOCs. The individual listener’s methods may differ depending on the situation: In a face-to-face meeting, a lawyer may ask a client to repeat something or may decide not to ask, so as not to interrupt the flow of conversation but rather to investigate later. In a webinar with a learning quiz attached, an attorney may choose to “rewind” the material to repeat something because the “flow” of conversation with the recording is unimportant. Listening contexts vary for lawyers as for everyone else, but the model remains informative.

And lastly, the model skirts around difficulties nailing down a specific definition of listening, Brownell writes. Perhaps the most authoritative definition is the International Listening Association’s http://www.listen.org : “Listening is the process of receiving, constructing meaning from, and responding to spoken and/or nonverbal messages.” For lawyers, each and every piece of this definition matters very much to their effectiveness.

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Welcome

Welcome to Listen Like a Lawyer. This blog will explore the theory and practice of effective listening, and how lawyers, law students, and just about everyone involved in the practice of law can benefit from working on their listening. Effective listening provides a distinct advantage to anyone whose job involves communication—a description that certainly fits lawyers.

The motivation for this project is twofold.

1. Good listening makes good lawyering

First, good listening is a necessary component of good lawyering. Lawyers who are powerful listeners can negotiate more effectively, answer judges’ questions more responsively, communicate more completely with clients, and otherwise enhance their relationships and effectiveness in almost all aspects of their practice.

2. Listening is in jeopardy

Second, I have a sense—and don’t think I’m alone in perceiving—that listening skills are deteriorating among lawyers and the general public. Distractions and the dominance of visual media and written communication are sapping our attention and our strength at gleaning auditory information. The foundation for these beliefs, as well as challenges and counter-arguments, will be topics explored during the life of the blog.

Who this blog is for

The intended audience is anyone interested in effective communication by lawyers. I think this group includes, at a minimum, lawyers, law students, in-house counsel and others who regularly work with lawyers, judges and mediators, law professors (particularly clinicians and those who teach communication- and skills-based courses), and other professionals in the legal industry. I hope to draw on a variety of source from academic to practical to totally outside the box.

This is a conversation about listening and lawyering

The benefit of the blog format is that it permits and encourages a flexible, responsive flow of ideas. Please make constructive comments, and e-mail me at jromig@emory.edu if you want to comment privately or discuss possibilities for guest blogging. Thank you, and enjoy the blog’s journey exploring what it means to listen like a (really good) lawyer.