Category: Mentoring

Emotional intelligenceEmotional laborLeadershipMentoringmindfulness

Listening to Combat Loneliness    

According to this study in the Harvard Business Review, lawyers are #1 when it comes to being lonely at work:

In a breakdown of loneliness and social support rates by profession, legal practice was the loneliest kind of work, followed by engineering and science.

(Hat tip to Keith Lee of Associate’s Mind and online lawyer community Lawyer Smack. He wrote more about lawyer loneliness here.)

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.

This quote is from British psychotherapist Philippa Perry, board member of a social business called Talk for Health which aims to create a network of long-term peer support systems for meaningful sharing and listening.

Many lawyers and legal professionals and law students already have 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:

  • Giving advice
  • 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.

Cross-cultural communicationEmotional intelligenceEmotional laborMentoring

Ready to listen

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.

 

Client relationshipsEmotional intelligencein-house counselMentoringPeople skills

Lawyer as anxiety filter?

In-house lawyer @J_Dot_J has described it most directly:

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:

  1. Whatever affects one affects each one in the system. That is, anxiety moves easily from person to person in the group.
  2. [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.

(When reading about this loss of self and its connection to “groupthink,” I was immediately reminded of compliance challenges and the work of my friend, compliance attorney Scott Killingsworth, on how organizational culture is transmitted and replicated.)

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.

Emotional intelligenceMentoringPeople skillsProfessional developmentSmartphones

Summer-associate advice

When I speak to summer associates, I always tell them they have two jobs:

  1. do great work and gain as many opportunities as possible within the employer’s organization, should they end up working there; and
  2. study the employer, lawyers and staff, and the overall culture to discern if it’s a good fit for them.

Listening will help with both of these jobs.

As far as doing great work, summer associates should start using their listening skills before the job starts. Use social media to “listen” (in the sense of monitoring) to what the employer is saying to the public. What topics seem to be interesting? Who’s writing? What tone do the lawyers use in their publications and social-media content? What personality do they project?

Summer associates should also talk to mentors about how to do a good job as a summer associate generally, and (from mentors within the organization) how to do a good job in that particular setting. Ask good questions, listen, and follow up with more good questions. Listen actively and paraphrase the advice back to the mentor sharing it. Take notes later, reflecting on the advice and assimilating it even more thoroughly. Send thoughtful follow-up messages that demonstrate listening skills and reinforce the relationships being built.

Once the job starts, listening skills are crucial during any meeting to take down an assignment. Beyond the basics like expected format and deadline, the assigning meeting offers so much more for the careful listener: the supervisor’s own baseline of knowledge in the area of law, attitude toward the case, expected answer to the assignment, expected difficulty of the assignment, general areas of confidence, and general areas of perceived risk. All of this information can be highly valuable in completing an assignment at a level beyond basic law-student competence.

“Shadowing” work such as observing a deposition or negotiation may not be a true assignment, if there is no deliverable work product. But during a shadowing experience, it seems crucial to display the highest form of attentiveness. Even if an attorney working on the case displays distracted behavior such as checking email on a phone, the summer associate should not feel free to reciprocate that behavior. Buying into the myth of reciprocity—the senior lawyer checked her phone, so it was appropriate and for the summer associate to do so as well—seems like one way to make a bad impression. What’s more important to a summer associate than the valuable opportunity to observe right in front of them? Unless they have a family crisis or already on a deadline for another supervisor within the organization and can explain that to the people around them, it seems likely that nothing is more important. On a more positive note, careful listening and good follow-up questions can actively show a person’s potential as a future lawyer.

Another opportunity to listen happens during a debrief on any assignment. This is the opportunity to accept constructive criticism gracefully, i.e. non-defensively and in a manner that makes the supervisor comfortable working with that summer associate again in the future. Another lesson is that sometimes (oftentimes?) in the legal world, feedback isn’t really helpful or specific. Or it isn’t there at all. Seeking out feedback and asking good questions show a dedication to professional development and professionalism generally.

Strong listening skills during the interview are likely part of the reason a summer associate got the job in the first place. Listening skills on the job are just as crucial, and actually even more so.

Here’s another post hitting some of these same themes and delving into more detail on listening for summer associates: https://listenlikealawyer.com/2016/06/01/listening-for-summer-associates/