Category: mindfulness

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Today is the International Day of Listening

Today, September 20, 2018, is the International Day of Listening. This event, now in its third year and sponsored by the International Listening Association, aims to promote listening benefits and practices in a variety of ways, encouraging people to:

  • Become more aware of the importance of listening
  • Listen to each other better
  • Gain awareness on their listening behaviors

The theme this year is “Listening—even when you disagree.” Personal activities you can do to observe the International Day of Listening are suggested on the International Day of Listening website. Legal professionals who have 30 minutes at lunch may want to talk to a trusted colleague about their effectiveness as a listener. Or take 20 minutes for a meditative listening walk.

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.

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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.

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Mindfulness without meditation

They had me at “hello.”

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:

  1. Attention regulation

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.

  1. Body awareness

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.

  1. Emotional regulation

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.

  1. 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.

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Preparing to listen

Preparing to write means adopting some kind of routine or even a ritual: get coffee, gather some pads and paper, sit down at the computer, procrastinate a little bit online, and then get to it. Preparing to speak means making notes, practicing to a friendly audience, maybe putting on a lucky piece of jewelry or a power tie.

 What does it mean to prepare to listen?

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting a CLE with communication consultant Jennie Grau and Canadian family lawyer and mediator Anita Dorczak for the Nebraska Bar Association in partnership with the International Listening Association. The ILA was holding its annual meeting in Omaha, which gave Jennie, Anita, and I the opportunity to collaborate in person on this outside-the-box-in-a-good-way CLE.

Based on attorney feedback, one of the most talked-about parts of the CLE was Anita’s segment on preparing to listen. She shared this checklist on Preparing to Listen, courtesy of Professor Nadine Marsnik and the International Listening Association where it is posted.

The checklist prompts thought on readiness to listen. Here is just a preview:

  • Are you physically prepared to listen?

Being hungry—or worse, “hangry”—is an example of not being physically prepared to listen.

  • Are you mentally prepared to listen?

Being mentally prepared means, in part, learning about the topic you will be listening to, so you can get the most out of what you will hear. 

  • Are you emotionally prepared?

Effective listening means the listener knows their own triggers and worries that may be distracting. It also means not judging a speaker for using poor grammar. 

During the listening CLE, Anita Dorczak also supplemented the checklist with a broader, more holistic kind of preparation: a brief, focused walking meditation. As someone who struggles to sit still and meditate, I found this walking meditation a more “do-able” format. And as Anita told the CLE participants, the beauty of a walking meditation is that you can take something you already do—walk, as in walk to chambers or walk to a client meeting or walk down the hall—and make it more mindful. After trying this meditation format just for a few minutes during the CLE, I could definitely understand how it calms the mind and could help with preparing to listen.

Jennie Grau and I presented on other aspects of listening such as models of what it means to listen, listen to understand versus listening to reply, and ethics issues related to listening. I’ll share more about that work in a future post.