Kairos in 2017

Killing time has never been easier, with smartphone settings that feed constant data and the average smartphone user checking it 85 times a day. But what exactly is being killed? How do we describe these moments lost?

One of the first books I read for this blog introduced me to the concepts of chronos and kairos timing. The book was Talk and Social Theory: Ecologies of Speaking and Listening in Everyday Life by Frederick Erickson. Yes, it is an academic work, but with some charmingly concrete moments. Anyone who’s seen a gunner in a law-school classroom will understand a term coined by the conversational turn-taking analysts: “turn shark.”

Erickson also explored the concept of chronos and kairos timing in communication study. Chronos (or kronos) is basically clock or calendar time. Chronos time is measured in equal bits and sequenced perfectly and inexorably one after the other. In contrast kairos timing is about “the opportune time” or “the moment of opportunity.”

Kairos is important to conversation study because mutual timing is what allows people to make sense together in conversations. Kairos moments in conversations are those where the conversation shifts, someone begins to contribute, a person speaking notices someone else shifting their gaze and notices the need for a conversation pause, and so on. Because conversations aren’t defined by automated turn-taking and timed exchanges, communications scholars find multiple kairos moments in conversational analysis:

Kairos is the time of tactical appropriateness, of shifting priorities and objects of attention from one qualitatitvely differing moment to the next….It is a brief strip of right time, marked at its beginning and ending by turning points.

Or, more poetically:

In kairos time there are kinds of time that are apples and others that are oranges. There is a time when rain will fall from a cloud, a time to attack the enemy in battle, a time to negotiate a truce, a point that is qualitatively different in time from the time in kronos just before.

Kairos can be a blessing or a weapon, according to Erickson, who summarizes meticulous moment-by-moment studies of various conversational settings, finding kairos moments of opportunity and of subtle and not-so-subtle power exchanges. A teacher tries to manage a group of students where a shy student continually loses her turn to a “turn shark” who incessantly interrupts. A medical intern and senior supervisor talk about an overdosed patient, with the supervisor offers a smile while implying the intern (who is African-American) might know something about buying illegal drugs. Using “hyperformality,” the intern refocuses the conversation with clinical language about the patient. These conversational studies were done years ago in the era of gas shortages and the Vietnam draft, but connections to today’s topics of gender-based “manterruptions,” cultural competenceimplicit bias, and microaggressions cannot be missed.

And for those kairos moments that are not a weapon but a potential blessing, the fact is they can be squandered. In Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle details the effects of smartphones on in-person conversations:

The mere presence of a phone signals that your attention is divided, even if you don’t intend it to be. It will limit the conversation in many ways: how you’ll listen, what will be discussed, the degree of connection you’ll feel.

Urban Dictionary now includes a definition of the common, meme-friendly phrase “Wait, what?”:

“[a] phrase used to back the conversation up when you realize you weren’t listening.”

(See Resolve to Use Your Device as a Tool—and to Resist Being Tooled by It, Jack Pringle’s guest post here last week.)

Kairos is a useful idea not just for individual conversations, but also for effective storytelling and understanding broader social situations. In his book Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates, legal writing expert Ross Guberman implicitly criticizes chronos timing as a storytelling method:

Few things are duller than a paragraph stuffed with dates.

Instead, he shares a variety of techniques for connecting factual details into a series of meaningful moments. Although not using the terms chronos and kairos, Guberman shows how to play upon a reader’s conception of kairos, in the sense of “the right moment.” His examples show how a fact statement can suggest that certain events happened too slowly or too quickly—or that they shouldn’t have happened at all.

Explicitly applying the kairos idea to advocacy and litigation strategy, Professor Linda Berger explored kairos in Creating Kairos at the Supreme Court: Shelby County, Citizens United, Hobby Lobby, and the Judicial Construction of Right Moments. Berger uses her deep knowledge of rhetorical theory to provide context:

Through their use of two words for time, chronos and kairos, the Greeks were able to view history as a grid of connected events spread across a landscape punctuated by hills and valleys. In chronos, the timekeeper-observer constructs a linear, measurable, quantitative accounting of what happened. In kairos, the participant-teller forms a more qualitative history by shaping individual moments into crises and turning points. From a rhetorical perspective, chronos is more closely allied with the narrative accounting for—how long? what next?—while kairos is the more metaphorical imagining as—at what point? in what space?

The end of any year is an opportunity to make a kairos moment—and the end of this particular year brings to mind thoughts of a crisis or turning point. Berger shows that kairos moments are not passively experienced as one watches a ticking stopwatch measuring off equal seconds and minutes. Kairos moments are sensed and recognized, but they are also shaped. In rhetorical terms, Berger tells us, “kairos presumes that the author will intervene in history’s causal chain.”

So it’s the end of a year. It’s the end of 2016 specifically. It’s a moment of kairos time, or at least it could be—personally, professionally, socially, politically. For 2017, I propose a resolution: let’s not kill time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Introverted Lawyers Listen

theintrovertedlawyer_cov-finalListen Like a Lawyer is grateful to Professor Heidi K. Brown for this guest post. Professor Brown is an Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Legal Writing Program at Brooklyn Law School. Having struggled with shyness and social anxiety as a law student and litigator and, through substantial research and self-study, embraced introversion as a powerful asset in studying, teaching, and practicing law, her passion lies with helping quiet law students find their authentically impactful lawyer voices. Her book, The Introverted Lawyer, is forthcoming from Ankerwycke Books in Summer 2017.

In a song called Every Breaking Wave, Bono of the Irish rock band U2 sings, “It’s hard to listen while you preach.” Poignant advice for lawyers.

In Professors Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck’s inventory of 26 Lawyering Effectiveness Factors, Number 10 reads:

“Listening: Accurately perceives what is being said both directly and subtly.”

Even so, the American lawyer stereotype epitomizes vivacious talkers much more so than quiet observers and absorbers. Good lawyers must stop talking and not only hear but listen to their clients, opponents, and decision makers in their client’s cases. Similarly, great law professors listen to their students, to ascertain what these learners do and do not know or understand so as to facilitate intellectual growth.

In their book Essential Lawyering Skills, authors and law professors Stefan H. Krieger and Richard K. Neumann, Jr. emphasize, “The ability to listen well is as important in the practice of law as the ability to talk well.” Similarly, in their book Lawyers as Counselors: A Client-Centered Approach, authors and law professors David A. Binder, Paul Bergman, Paul R. Tremblay, and Ian S. Weinstein explain that active listening—defined as “the process of picking up clients’ messages and sending them back in reflective statements that mirror what you have heard”—is a vital lawyering skill. Through active listening, we “demonstrate empathy and understanding,” building trust relationships with our clients to facilitate information-sharing and pave the way for impactful advocacy.

Listening is an intentional and mindful act. It involves action, not passivity. It’s a conscious choice.

While quieting down and ceding the stage to a client or opponent might not come naturally for an extroverted lawyer who thrives and revels in verbal volley and less so in silence, concentrated listening is a powerful innate competency for an introverted advocate. Introverts listen well. They possess a natural affinity for quietude, preferring to step into external stimuli gently, surveying and processing multiple competing sensory triggers before contributing to the cacophony.

Introverts appraise their surroundings, actively hearing, smelling, seeing, touching, and tasting before jumping into the fray. Introverts resist interruption, to their own thought processes as well as others’—which enhances listening abilities. Before speaking, introverts absorb, synthesize, and discern. Sometimes too many external data sources can be overwhelming for introverts. But in law-related contexts, quiet introverts can be the most effective listeners in the room, tuning out distractions and focusing on the issues at hand.

In one-on-one client interviews, for example, introverts pay attention to spoken words and unspoken emotional markers. Perceiving a client’s flinch or a break in eye contact, an introverted lawyer’s nod or encouraging “it sounds like this situation has been stressful for you” can facilitate instead of stifle the client’s continued dialogue. In group meetings and negotiations, rather than immediately speaking, introverted lawyers process facts, rules, and legal theories internally before sharing them externally, which often allows them to extract items of group consensus and discord that other participants talking over one another miss.

Additionally, scientists have linked introversion and empathy. Introversion author, Dr. Arnie Kozak, indicates that “[i]ntroverts can be highly sensitive to the needs of others.” He explains in The Everything Guide to the Introvert Edge that “[t]he ability to sit still can nurture compassion and empathy.” This natural empathy enhances the introvert’s ability to listen patiently to others and resist projecting personal biases and agendas.

Some extroverted law students, law professors, and lawyers might erroneously perceive introverted students or attorneys as disengaged or not assertive enough. In reality, they routinely are just-right-engaged (or even over-engaged) and their legal solutions—initially formulated through listening, and ultimately vetted through quiet contemplation—possess profound might. Next time you’re in a classroom, conference room, or courtroom, notice the quiet ones. And when they speak, listen. Their words will pack a punch.

 

Holiday listening

StoryCorps’ Great Thanksgiving Listen of 2016 wraps up this weekend. StoryCorps is an oral history project with a mission to “preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections with people and create a more just and compassionate world.”

The Great Thanksgiving Listen of 2016  follows up on the first Great Thanksgiving Listen of 2015, facilitated by StoryCorps’ release its app in 2015. The app has lots of stories to listen to, and it also walks users through the process of preparing and recording their own interviews:

Choose someone to interview. Pick great questions. Find a quiet place to record. Listen closely.

StoryCorps seeks to make interviewing a standard part of the high school curriculum, based on the success of the 2015 Thanksgiving Listen:

A 14-year-old in Georgia heard what it was like for her grandmother to go to bed hungry; students in Colorado heard one man’s experience of enlisting during the Vietnam War; and a teen in Louisiana found out that her grandparents got engaged at a drive-in movie.

There’s no reason this endeavor should be limited to high school students. Really, it’s for anyone who wants to make a deeper human connection by listening to someone and helping them memorialize their story. And the interview need not be a Forrest Gump-like overview of historical moments. The ABA Mentorship Project has teamed with StoryCorps to record narratives on mentorship in the legal profession here. The University of South Carolina School of Law’s Pro Bono Program is partnering with StoryCorps to record lawyers’ and students’ stories related to serving the Hispanic community as well as advocating for LGBT clients

Outside the boundaries of required classwork, law students may not be able to record someone’s story in the stressful period between Thanksgiving and the end of final exams. But if finals end in mid-December, the holiday break is an ideal time to rest and recharge by listening to someone else. It builds interviewing skills and may help students clear their heads. More importantly, it creates a human connection and participates in StoryCorps’ mission of creating a more just and compassionate world.

Love your lawyer (part 2): Emotional labor of lawyers

Love Your Lawyer Day prompted the question: what makes clients love their lawyers? Client satisfaction is one way to gauge clients’ love. As addressed in an earlier post, client satisfaction depends on the lawyer’s competence and expertise. But client satisfaction is also intertwined with how the client experiences the process.

The client’s desire for a satisfying experience raises an aspect of lawyering that deserves more attention: emotional labor. Emotional labor is a common practice across service professions and “requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” Emotional labor generally occurs in personal interactions such as face-to-face or voice-to-voice moments. The person doing the labor displays emotion to influence the client or customer, and that display of emotion follows the rules of the profession. (The source here is Sofia Yakren’s article Lawyer as Emotional Laborer in the University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform, which is this post’s major source along with Joy Kadowaki’s Maintaining Professionalism: Emotional Labor Among Lawyers as Client Advisors in the International Journal of the Legal Profession.)

The concept of emotional labor was originally formulated and studied by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, who focused on flight attendants in the early 1980s. Emotional labor has been in the news with the rise of Uber and other on-demand service where customer ratings mean a lot. As reported in the Harvard Business Review Blog, “on-demand workers end up performing outsize amounts of what sociologists call ‘emotional labor,’ or expressive work to make the customer experience a positive one so that users come back to the platform.”

Lawyers may not use platforms like Uber apps (not much yet anyway), but Yelp ratings are important and sometimes problematic for many. And whether a lawyer gets clients from Yelp or a casual conversation at the Yale Club, lawyers do perform emotional labor. A common theme of all emotional-labor literature is the tools workers use for performing it:

  • deep acting
  • surface acting
  • detachment

Deep acting means trying to make yourself experience the emotions you are displaying. Surface acting means using techniques to fake emotions. (This can be done in good faith to help the client, or in bad faith as a sort of cover-up.) And, as Joy Kadowski found in surveying consumer-oriented lawyers, detachment means dealing with repugnant clients by “taking emotion entirely out of the interaction with the client, reducing the relationship to one that is ‘strictly business.’”

The emotional-labor literature does not paint a particularly optimistic picture. When professionals genuinely change their feelings or align them with their actions in deep acting, the costs of emotional labor go down. But surface acting and detachment are associated with emotional dissonance, which leads to a host of problems from addiction to depression to general alienation.

Another question is, who is emotional labor for, anyway? If the focus of emotional labor is on creating a comfortable emotional state in the client, then perhaps it’s for the benefit of the client. Emotional labor to keep the client as comfortable with the legal process as possible under the circumstances could indeed help clients love their lawyers.

But emotional labor also follows predictable rules defined by the profession, and part of what professionalism does is to “convince, cajole and persuade employees, practitioners, and other workers to perform and behave in ways which the organization or the institution deem to be appropriate, effective, and efficient.” (This is Kadowaki quoting sociologist Julia Evetts.) The sociologists coined the term “feeling rules.” And feeling rules are not just for the benefit of the client in the relationship; as Kadowaki points out, “In some cases [emotional labor] is done for the benefit of the attorney-client relationship, but at other times emotional labor is used to protect the emotional state of the attorney, and thus his or her performance of professionalism.”

What can be done to minimize the consequences of dissonance for lawyers while preserving what clients need? Dismissive attitudes might say the profession should self-select: if practicing law is so dissonant and painful, then don’t do it. But that’s not a very good answer, as Yakren points out: “Do we want to eliminate healthy self-doubt as a check on professional conduct?” No. Moreover, “constructing a profession comprised of a particular type of thinker could stifle creative solutions to complex problems.” (And thus it could make clients individually and collectively not love their lawyers even more than they already don’t love them.)

Solutions Yakren poses include expl0ring and teaching lawyers more about deep acting (which helps clients just as much if not more than surface acting and detachment, and emotionally costs less for the lawyer doing it); encouraging more autonomy for lawyers to exercise their consciences; and critiquing formalistic notions of professionalism and ethics to recognize the importance of context. Similarly Kadowaki points out that professionalism is far more complex and interconnected than any formalistic system can account for: “While the lawyers [interviewed in her study] defined professionalism as requiring the suppression of emotion, their description of their actual practice detailed significant emotional labor efforts and a much more nuanced negotiation of emotional expression.”

Sources:

Joy Kadowaki, Maintaining Professionalism: Emotional Labor Among Lawyers as Client Advisors in the International Journal of the Legal Profession (2015), http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09695958.2015.1071257

Sofia Yakren, Lawyer as Emotional Laborer, University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform (2008), https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2602520

Dan Defoe, Emotional Intelligence and Selecting Personnel Lawyers for High Emotional Labor Jobs, Psycholawlogy, July 15, 2016, http://www.psycholawlogy.com/2016/07/15/emotional-intelligence-and-selecting-personnel-lawyers-for-high-emotional-labor-jobs/

 

Loving your lawyer (part 1)

Last week once again America—or at least American lawyers—celebrated “Love Your Lawyer Day.” See also #loveyourlawyerday on Twitter. Beyond the marketing hype, there’s a good question:

What makes people love their lawyers?

The first answer is competence. A 2002 study of how the public perceives lawyers found the majority of consumer clients to be satisfied with their lawyers:

Consumers tell stories of lawyers who apply significant expertise and knowledge to their cases, identify practical solutions, and work hard on behalf of their clients.

The survey also delved into various aspect of lawyers’ performance with clients. 72 percent of clients were very satisfied with their lawyer’s knowledge of the law. The study did go into some factors beyond hard-skill competence. For example, 68 percent were very satisfied with how the lawyer handled the initial conversation.

This study did not ask participants to rank which criteria were most important, or most strongly correlated with satisfaction. It did not ask them whether they found it more important that the lawyer knew the law, as compared to handling the initial conversation effectively.

Analyzing a study of big-firm clients in the U.S. and similar studies in Australia, Professor Clark Cunningham’s paper “What Do Clients Want” delved deeper into the causes of client satisfaction and dissatisfaction. In these studies, the comparative importance of competence appears to be more complicated (emphasis added here):

Many lawyers equate client satisfaction with the outcome achieved; however, studies over the past three decades in three different countries has produced impressive evidence that clients evaluate their lawyers’ competence more in terms of the process experienced by them in the representation than the outcome.

It seems clients see competence as necessary but not sufficient for client satisfaction. Competence is the baseline, and something else is what makes the difference in client satisfaction or dissatisfaction. What is that something else?

Although there was widespread client satisfaction with the specialists’ legal knowledge and skills [in the Australian study of clients], the evaluators also found “consistent evidence of client dissatisfaction with the provision of services, and the quality of the service-delivery process.” According to this study (emphasis added):

Practitioners are concentrating on developing their knowledge and skills to deliver better outcomes; but their clients, expecting both technical competence and results, are being disappointed by the process of getting there. Clients complained about the quality of their lawyers’ services in terms of inaccessibility, lack of communication, lack of empathy and understanding, and lack of respect . . . .

The original idea for this post was to write about the “emotional labor” lawyers perform for their clients and others. Emotional labor means, basically, showing up and being constructive even when it’s difficult: “the effort it takes to keep your professional game face on when what you’re doing is not concordant with how you feel.”  Does a lawyer’s performance of emotional labor make the client “love” the lawyer more?

That question led to the more basic question of what motivates client satisfaction, which led to this overview of the studies above. (There must be more information; please direct my attention to additional good data on client satisfaction.) And the overview here suggests it will be worthwhile to explore emotional labor in more depth in a future post. Emotional labor does seem connected to accessibility, open communication, empathy, and respect.

Feedback would be welcome on clients “loving” their lawyers, client satisfaction generally, and the idea of lawyers performing emotional labor for clients, colleagues, and others. Please share thoughts in the comments or on social media.

Best Practices for Law Schools and Student Organizations when Inviting Guest Speakers

This post is formatted as a draft policy on best practices for law schools and law-student organizations when they invite guests to speak to or interact with their law school community. This policy errs on the side of formality and specificity, attempting to spell out specific steps for inviting guests and planning events. Feedback is welcome, particularly from members of the bench and bar who may want to share their thoughts on having a good (or bad) experience guest-speaking at a law school.

Purpose

The purpose of these best practices is to articulate norms of civility and courtesy for events sponsored by law schools and law-school student organizations in which guests—such as members of the bench and bar—are invited.

The norms are based on the idea of thoughtful reflection before planning an event, open communication while planning the event, respectful attention and engagement during the event, and appropriate expressions of gratitude after the event.

Observing these norms make the experience of hosting a guest more likely to be a positive experience for the guest. Observing these norms may also make the experience more meaningful for event attendees. Observing these norms may, in the broadest sense, encourage legal professionals to accept future offers from other organizations to future events. Thereby, these norms serve to encourage positive interactions between the bench and bar and students and faculty at law schools.

Audience

These best practices are offered for consideration by any law school or law-student organization that invites guests to campus to speak and interact with students and faculty.

Before the Event

The organization will confer with law school administrators and event planners to ensure that inviting the desired guest is appropriate in light of other law-school communications with that guest, the overall relationship with that guest, and the law school’s other commitments and events during the proposed time for the event.

The organization will make a reasonable estimate of how many attendees it can expect at the event. The organization will communicate with potential guests when making invitations and share the estimated attendance. Guests should have this information when deciding whether to accept the invitation.

For example, a legal professional may be willing to donate his or her time to speak to 30 law students, but not 3.

The organization will take reasonable steps to schedule the event at a time when attendance will meet the initial estimate. This includes checking with calendars and event planners for scheduling conflicts. After reasonable steps have been taken, the organization will assess whether to pursue the event should a conflict arise.

If the organization later learns of a scheduling conflict that would materially change the conditions that guest experiences in the event, the organization will contact guest and describe the new conditions, giving the guest the opportunity to revisit and change the commitment to attend the event.

The organization will set a schedule for the event that provides an appropriate time and setting for the guest to speak or lead a discussion. This includes confirming and communicating the amount of time available for the guest to speak. It also includes organizing any lunch, cocktails, or other refreshments so as not to interfere with the time and setting of the guest’s presentation.

One or more designated representatives of the organization will provide coordinated communication to any guests the organization may invite for the event.

Communication will be coordinated, meaning everyone within the organization with some responsibility for the event will stay in communication with others within that organization. Thus the organization will provide consistent, timely information to guests. The organization will facilitate directions and parking and any other logistical details, and will share this with the guest as soon as reasonably possible.

Ideally, the organization will share logistical details with the guest before the guest feels the need to contact the organization and ask for those details.

The organization will delegate to one or more individuals the task of preparing an introduction for the guest. This includes verifying in advance and then using the proper pronunciation of the guest’s name. It also includes the task of asking for a resume or C.V. or other biographical details, or collecting them from research.

Students who may be unsure of what an appropriate introduction is or how to deliver it should ask experienced professionals at their law school.

Digital Etiquette During Events

As a general practice, the organization will notify its members and others invited to the event, in advance of the event, about its policy for encouraging, permitting, discouraging, or prohibiting digital distractions including phones, tablets, and laptops.

Having no policy and leaving digital etiquette up to attendees is a possible option, but it surrenders the organization’s role in creating the appropriate environment at the event.

Prior to the event at an appropriate location near the entrance of the space where the event is taking place, members of the organization will post prominent signs stating the event’s policy on phones, laptops, and other digital devices.

If the organization believes the guest may wish to permit or encourage event-related digital activity during the event, such as tweeting and other social-media sharing, the organization should check with the guest before the event and adjust event policies accordingly.

For example, some guests may strongly desire that their presentation be shared on social media, and others may wish to discourage such sharing.

At the beginning of the event, a designated representative of the organization will announce the event’s policy for laptops, tablets, phones and other potential digital distractions.

This can be done in a friendly manner such as before theater productions.

Members of the organization will set the standard of respectfully focusing on the guest during the session.

If the event draws both members and non-members, attentive focus by members can create a respectful and positive environment for the guest.

If appropriate, attendees who are seen committing distracting behavior inconsistent with the norms announce for the event may be discretely asked by a member of the organization to stop.

After the Event

A representative of the organization will personally thank the guest and attend to any needs the guest may have in connection with the event, such as parking vouchers.

A representative will offer to accompany the guest to their next destination in the law school (or the building exit).

The organization’s leadership will thank the guest in writing after the event. Whether to email, type, or hand-write the note is a decision to be discussed among the organization and with others at the law school as needed.

The organization will contact the law school administration if appropriate to confer whether additional thank-you notes should be sent from administrators.

The organization will seek to build institutional knowledge about the relationship with this guest. Event organizers will create notes to disseminate to future leaders of the organization. This process allows relevant information to be handed down to future leaders within the organization responsible for planning new events.

Inclusive Listening: Pushing Through Bias and Assumptions

kellyGuest post by Katherine Silver Kelly, Associate Clinical Professor of Law and Director of Academic Support at the Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University

Lawyers like to think we are excellent listeners. We do it all the time; it’s at the core of our profession. As with any skill, good listening requires ongoing practice and development. But before you say you’re a good listener, determining this is not up to you, it’s up to the recipient of your listening.

I’ll illustrate this with an example: At a professional event not too long ago I was having a conversation with a group of attorneys. The talk turned to college sports and I mentioned I’m from Kentucky. One of the attorneys said to me,

“Huh, you don’t sound like you’re from Kentucky. Where in Kentucky are you from?”

I answered the question and politely moved on with the conversation. What I wanted to say was:

“Really?! How do you know what someone from Kentucky sounds like? How is that relevant to what I’m saying? ”

Yes, it was a casual conversation and maybe the attorney would not have said it to me had we been in a courtroom or meeting but she would have thought it. And it definitely affected how she listened to me going forward. It also distracted me as I couldn’t help but wonder what assumptions she was making about me because I’m from Kentucky and whether her perception of my competency had diminished. All it all, it diminished the authenticity of our communication.

 

2285036990_03676ef8e7_o
Courtesy Flickr/Sciencesque/CC BY-SA-NC 2.0

 

 All of my life, I have been judged based on where I am from. You cannot see my ethnicity on my skin, but you can hear it. I carry it on my tongue, and I can no more get rid of it than anyone can change their skin color. 

The only way a person can open their mind and their heart is by opening their eyes and seeing that these differences make us stronger and that we are not as different as we might imagine. Only by serving others do we serve ourselves. Only by realizing the beauty of those different from ourselves are we able to realize our own beauty.

-Author Silas House, speech at Berea College (2013)

Truth be told, I’m not “from Kentucky” because I was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My family moved to rural, southeastern Kentucky when I was 14 and it’s my home.

I never thought I had a Kentucky (or other) accent until a few years ago when I moved to Ohio. People would cut me off mid-sentence to remark on it and how cute it was that I said, “y’all.”

Regardless of whether people are actually biased listeners, pointing out that someone has an accent basically says that the speaker is different and this difference matters. It certainly made me self-conscious of how I spoke and what I said. People have a natural affinity for others like themselves, and pointing out a difference reflects an implicit bias.

Like it or not, we all have subconscious stereotypes that affect our unconscious beliefs and perceptions. Denying this only perpetuates the bias. Instead, by acknowledging that we make assumptions, we can challenge and start to change them. This is especially important for lawyers as effective communication is a basic tenet of our profession. While the type of communication may vary, one overarching fundamental legal skill is the ability to effectively assess and respond to the perspective of the recipient of the communication. This requires inclusive listening.

Inclusive listening makes other people feel valued and understood. When listening to others most of us tend to assume we understand and we reach conclusions based on our point of view and our implicit biases. Inclusive listening doesn’t make assumptions. It requires one to actively engage in critical thinking: notice and question our assumptions, and recognize that assumptions are not truths.

This is not easy to do. I know because writing this post made me quite aware of my habits as a listener. This past week I’ve made it a point to recognize that I have unconscious biases and started to challenge my assumptions (ex: don’t negatively categorize everyone under the age of 30 as a “millennial.”). I’ve made sure my non-verbal cues show respect for the speaker and I’ve worked on better engaging as a listener by affirming the speaker’s contributions and asking clarifying questions.

Consciously engaging in inclusive listening has helped me realize that I’ve expected (maybe even demanded) it from others but wasn’t doing such a great job myself. For so long I’ve been on the other side and this helped me switch my point of view. If I want to be listened to, I’ve got to be an inclusive listener. On a broader level, for lawyers to be truly effective communicators, they must fully understand all aspects of a situation. The only way to gain this understanding is through inclusive and engaged listening.

 

Categories of listening

Katrina Lee from Ohio State tweeted earlier this week:

The article referred to in her tweet is by  Jim Lovelace, Director of Talent Development at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, and was published in the ABA Law Practice Today.

As Katrina said, it is a quick read. And it’s a pretty powerful read, too. The essential premise is that to be effective, a listener must move beyond “self-focused listening.” What does that mean?

In my 25 years of experience as a practicing lawyer and legal career development professional, I have observed that lawyers spend the vast majority of their work time—when they are not talking, that is—as self-focused listeners. When they hear others’ stories, their minds are occupied with: What are the flaws and where are the potential liabilities? Where is the “good stuff” on which I can build a case? They dig for facts, often asking for more information to construct their narratives and theories. This is not surprising. This is what lawyers have been taught, from law school onward, to do.

But there’s more to listening than this self-focused approach. Lovelace introduces empathic listening and comprehensive listening, two other categories of listening that may not be right for a contentious deposition but are very, very right for interpersonal situations at work. Lovelace uses a hypothetical in which a trusted senior associate blindsides the senior partner by announcing he’s leaving the firm. Different listening methods can affect not just the tone but the outcome of such conversations.

Lawyers love categories, and somebody this blog will have a pull-down menu listing the many categories of listening that communications experts have identified. When it comes to (1) self-focused listening, (2) empathetic listening, and (3) comprehensive listening, Lovelace’s article is an excellent introductory resource. It doesn’t take long to read, and it’s really good. Thanks for the tweet recommending the article, Katrina!

Cognitive bias and listening

Cognitive biases—such as believing information that confirms what you already believe—present a major challenge to the idea of the “rational actor.” Cognitive biases are being being studied in practically every field, including law. Bringing the research to a popular audience, Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, is a challenging but accessible read. And I was happy to learn that Kahneman’s Nobel-Prize winning partnership with Amos Tversky will be the subject of Michael Lewis’s next book.

Also providing an accessible take on cognitive bias, here’s a “Cognitive bias cheat sheet” by Buster Benson. In addition to the concise and helpful text, the visual “Codex” of cognitive biases at the bottom is a brilliant piece of visual storytelling. (This “cheat sheet” was shared by Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of Originals plus a forthcoming book with Sheryl Sandburg. His Granted newsletter would be useful to anyone who puts thought into their communications.)

Listen Like a Lawyer has covered cognitive bias before, here and here and here. Reading Benson’s post reminded me of why it’s so important to continue revisiting and emphasizing this topic.

How can cognitive bias affect (or should it be infect) the listening process? I’ll quote a few of Benson’s summaries from the cheat sheet.

For example:

“Bizarre/funny/visually-striking/anthropomorphic things stick out more than non-bizarre/unfunny things.”

Have you ever talked to someone with food stuck between their teeth? It’s so bizarre and distracting you may not have been able to concentrate on what they were saying. That’s the example of a listening problem that came to my mind, anyway.

Also:

“We notice flaws in others more easily than flaws in ourselves.”

When listening to someone face to face, the flaw-finding intuition may kick on, whether the person has food between her teeth or not. This is actually even more true in writing. An interesting study found that people consistently give higher ratings to spoken material than if the exact same words are written down:

“[W]ritten passages lack critical paralinguistic cues that provide critical information about a speaker’s intelligence and thoughtfulness. Your voice is a tool that has been honed over the course of human evolution to communicate what’s on your mind to others. Without even thinking about it, you naturally flood your listener with cues to your thinking through subtle modulations in tone, pace, volume, and pitch. The listener, attuned to those modulations, naturally decodes these cues. That’s why if you claim to be passionate about your prospective job, for example, hearing your passion may be more convincing than reading your passion.”

So perhaps listening creates a bias toward the human connection in face-to-face communication. But what if some of this human connection is distorted in our memories?

“We edit and reinforce some memories after the fact.”

An important part of listening is remembering what has been said in order to form an appropriate response. This is a short-term memory function. In the longer term, as Benson writes, details can be “swapped” or even “injected” into a memory. Remembering what you were thinking during a conversation might in some ways overshadow your memory of the conversation itself.

Such distortions can cause other communication problems:

“We think we know what others are thinking.”

Benson writes that we may be “modeling their mind after our own” in how we think about what they are thinking. This presents an impediment to properly gauging another person’s level of understanding.

Another issue:

“We find stories and patterns even in sparse data.”

Legal listeners may make the most out of the data available such as the paralinguistic cues indicating the speaker’s emotions. Or they may turn their mind inward, hearing a few facts and then instantly connect this client’s situation to a past experience or archetypal story like David v. Goliath.

Some of this gap-filling may happen partly because people think faster than others can talk. This creates the well-known “thought-speech differential”. The excess brain capacity to think, compared with the relatively slow rate of speech, creates mental opportunities to spin stories around the “sparse data.”

And could this differential cause problems? Yes, in several ways.

One issue is a simple intolerance for listening, especially when speakers aren’t perceived to be concise. We’ve all felt that frustration as listeners:

Just get to the point!  

And that frustration can lead to simple “self-help solutions” such as checking one’s phone for more pressing info. Benson writes about how many cognitive biases come from the fundamental human need to act fast. Listening is slower than thought, so it may simply stand in conflict with the brain’s drive to take in information quickly and make a decision. Our collective acclimation to faster and faster pace of receiving information has been written about elsewhere in wonderful sources such as Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and the work of Sherry Turkle. That topic is too broad for this one post. But it’s connected to the preference for texting over seemingly inefficient phone conversations and voicemails.

The drive to make a decision quickly can also lead the mind to rely on cognitive biases for gap-filling information, sometimes in troubling ways:

“We fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities, and prior histories whenever there are new specific instances or gaps in information. “

To put it in even more troubling terms, again quoting Benson:

“We imagine things and people we’re familiar with or fond of as better than things and people we aren’t familiar with or fond of.”

Legal professionals should be able to work with people from different backgrounds using an open, unbiased approach. Cultural biases can infect the communication processes with numerous distortions, omissions, and other bad effects. As an example of legal work being done to combat those problems, here’s Professor Susan Bryant’s foundational article on the “habits” that build cultural competence. Professor Andrea Curcio has some excellent work in this area as well such as here and here. There are many, many others. On a positive note, Curcio’s work suggests that simply taking a carefully crafted survey can itself have beneficial effects on survey participants. She cites studies involving medical students in the U.S. and U.K. with similar outcomes.

More generally, with all of these cognitive biases around everywhere—just take a look again at that visual Codex of Cognitive Biases to understand how many there are—can anything be done to mitigate their pervasive effects?  Benson suggests studying a simple four-part outline of the problems causing cognitive biases as well as four corresponding consequences of unmitigated cognitive bias. The idea is that by keeping these ideas fresh in your brain, perhaps the “availability bias” privileging this countervailing information will cross over into other assessments our brains are constantly working on.