Category: People skills

Client developmentEmotional intelligenceFact investigationLegal communicationPeople skills

Speaking “business”

Listen Like a Lawyer is a fan of several lawyers who write and blog in ways that touch on listening skills, including but not limited to* Jeena Cho, Keith Lee, Lee Rosen, and Pam Woldow. Another highly, highly recommended blog resource on listening and lawyering is this six-part series from Mark Perlmutter on Trebuchet Legal.

And then there is Kenneth Grady, who writes at Seytlines (for Seyfarth Shaw) and often on Medium. His Medium post today, 5 Reasons to Become a Doctor Dolittle of Lawyer-Client Communications, should be read by any lawyer who interacts with business clients in any way.

Let me repeat that: if you are a lawyer and you ever deal with any client that runs a business, works for a business, or has a background or connection remotely related to business, read this post.

Years ago when I was a summer associate in my first week at a firm, my partner mentor shared the same advice he gave to all new and aspiring attorneys at the time: take more business classes. Now almost 20 years later, Ken’s post updates and magnifies this sentiment, pointing out that the gulf between attorneys and business clients has widened into an even broader gap. And it’s not something one class (or CLE, or blog post) can fix. It’s a cultural chasm, and those who bridge it will succeed.

One thing I really like about Ken’s post is how it presents real-world situations for lawyers to understand the more abstract yet crucial lessons of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. (This book popularized the finding that Israeli parole judges made different decisions depending on whether they were about to eat lunch, or had just eaten lunch.) Are lawyers guilty of retreating to their legal comfort zone? Do lawyers give easy answers to the wrong questions? Trying to understand a client’s real business issue, explore options, and perhaps create new options is certainly more difficult than quickly selecting and suggesting a commonplace legal approach.

(Thoughts on Thinking, Fast and Slow in the context of listening can be found on this blog here and here and here. Keith Lee also shared advice on getting to know your business client in his book for new attorneys, The Marble and Sculptor, reviewed on the blog here.)

Ken’s post touches on listening in a number of ways both abstract and specific. It exhorts lawyers to learn to “speak business” so they can truly understand their clients and help solve their problems. Of course that does not mean adopting the business buzz words that generate so much mocking. (For a more serious and historical insight into business jargon, see this article from The Atlantic.) Speaking business means tearing down—and not incrementally rebuilding—the “artificial ‘law versus business’ wall.”

One of the post’s anecdotes sums up the techniques and benefits of listening in a way that applies to all client conversations, whether corporate or individual. Its message of listening and problem-solving is a fitting close to this post:

One manager approached me with a request that our company immediately bring a lawsuit against a business partner for breaching a contract. Rather than discussing the lawsuit, we talked about the contract and the relationship. After a long conversation, the client opened up and explained that he had misread the contract years ago and had been overpaying the other party to the contract. The business person on the other side came into the relationship after the contract had been signed and just accepted the payments without checking the contract. After investigating a bit further, I called the general counsel of the other party and we were able to work out a solution fairly quickly.

  • This short list was not meant to be exhaustive; please share suggestions on other bloggers who consistently touch on communication issues for lawyers.
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How important is listening to new lawyers?

What do new lawyers actually do?

In a 2013 report, the National Counsel of Bar Examiners studied this question in detail by undertaking a very large survey of practicing lawyers (attempting to reach 20,000 lawyers although ultimately receiving usable survey data from 1,600). They result of this survey was the “Job Analysis Survey,” The key points of which can be found in this summary. (The survey methodology is described in the full report here.) The purpose of this survey was to provide “a job-related and valid basis for the development of licensing examinations offered by NCBE.”

Hat tip to Professor Ben Bratman of Pittsburgh for discussing this report in his recent post on bar-exam and legal-ed reform. Analyzing the results of the survey, Professor Bratman organized the numerous skills included in the survey into five groups: communication, analysis, research, project management, and professionalism. He suggested that this framework may be useful for developing learning outcomes in law school, particularly in response to new ABA guidelines.

The list of most highly rated skills and abilities was of particular interest here as well. Here’s the top ten:

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 1.06.53 PM

As you can see, listening was the third most highly rated skill, with respondents ranking it a 3.60 on a scale of 1-4 in terms of significance and 99 percent of newly licensed lawyers needing to perform this skill. (Apparently one percent of lawyers need to write but don’t need to listen, since the only skill that garnered 100 percent was written communication.)

In addition to the very broad category of “listening,” other related skills of interest included #2 (paying attention to details) and #10 (knowing when to go back and ask questions). Listening seems correlated with #5 (professionalism) as well. “Interpersonal skills” almost made the top ten, coming in at #13 with a 3.44 significance rating and 99 percent of newly licensed lawyers needing interpersonal skills.

Chart reprinted by permission of the National Council of Bar Examiners

Emotional intelligenceLegal communicationPeople skillsWriting

Speed of speech < speed of thought

You could certainly accuse this blog of idealism about listening. In contrast to e-mail, for example, just go and talk to the person. Through listening to their words and observing their body language, you can pick up so much more subtle and complete information: How do they feel about the subject? What are their expectations and how can you adjust your own work in light of those expectations? How important is this to them, anyway?

The downside of all that additional information you get from listening is . . . all that additional information you get from listening. People speak at about 140-180 words per minute, but on average, a listener can comprehend about 400 words per minute. Different sources offer slightly different numbers, but a common thread runs across all version of this statistic: the listener thinks faster than the speaker thinks.

That “thought-speech differential” or “listening gap” means the brain has extra capacity and WILL process information using that extra capacity. For example, the listener can process lots of non-verbal cues. Great listeners will observe such cues and use them to guide the conversation to fit their communication goals.

But the difference in how fast people talk and how fast they listen also creates the opportunity for the brain’s cognitive biases to operate and shape how the listener’s perception. I have previously written about some of the cognitive biases that may arise in particular when listening is involved. See Listen Like a Lawyer blog posts here and here and here covering cognitive biases such as the well-known confirmation bias.

To use Daniel Kahneman’s framework, the difference between the speed of thought and speed of speech is a space where “System 1” can roam. System 1 is the automatic, always-on system and also the one with all the cognitive biases (in lay terms, mental shortcuts). The more thoughtful “System 2” is where you find the careful “thinking slow” of his great book’s title, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Whatever the task, the most effective communicators are able to use the speech/thought differential for custom listening, not listening fueled by standard cognitive biases based on the Kahneman formula “WYSIATI”—What You See Is All There Is. Effective listeners are able to suss out what is not happening, and what they need to ask.  Effective lawyers in particular will use their excess cognitive capacity to both attend to non-verbal cues and how the speaker presents, while also ignoring the cues and presentation to focus on the information and what else they need to know. As with all other lawyering skills, the most effective lawyer-listeners perform the task in a way that is both standardized to what they need to know and do as well as customized to the particular situation including strictly relevant facts and all the other seemingly irrelevant but highly important background and emotional factors affecting the communication experience.


Note: The original version of this post cited to sources no longer available, an article by Rita Hedley on Medium, and Ken Grady’s project for Seyfarth Shaw at Seytlines. Ken now teaches at Michigan State and writes on Medium here.

 

 

Emotional intelligenceLeadershipPeople skills

Being “judgeable” is a good thing, mostly

Listen Like a Lawyer previously reviewed Heidi Grant Halvorson’s No One Understands You and What to Do About It. The review (and much of the book) focused on understanding how you are perceived, to have a more accurate effect on others. Accurate in this sense means you are perceived the way you intend to be perceived. It’s a pragmatic concern about how to interact with the world so as to be effective. The portions of the book about trust, power, and ego should be highly relevant to any lawyer working in a group.

What I didn’t talk about enough in the original review, and want to talk about now, is a deeper and more personal aspect of the book: the concept of being “judgeable.” Different people are stronger and weaker at being judgeable. What it means is expressing yourself so that others can perceive you more accurately:

It is definitely better to be judgeable—to have others read you easily and accurately. Research consistently shows that people who are more judgeable are psychologically better adjusted—they are happier; are more satisfied with their personal and professional lives; have more lasting, positive relationships; and have a greater sense of purpose. They feel able to live more authentically and are more confident in their self-knowledge. This makes a lot of sense.  . . . Life is simply easier and more rewarding when people “get you” and provide you with the opportunities and support that are a good fit for you.

Halvorson mentions a connection between being judgeable and living authentically. Within the context of a book all about thinking about how others perceive you, I found that a bit counter-intuitive at first. Before reading No One Understands You, I might have naively described authenticity like this: Proclaim you are living authentically and then stop caring about what other people think; you’re now living authentically and people need to accept you as you are. If they don’t understand you the way you like to express yourself, that’s their problem. You shouldn’t do anything about it because to do so would be compromising your authenticity.

(It should be obvious I hadn’t read very much on authenticity up to this point.) 

In fact, the book implies that living authentically means caring more about what other people think. Thinking about how trust, power, and ego may affect the way others are interacting allows a person to adjust to those distortions. By understanding the perception of others and trying to shape their perception toward what is really intended, a person can become more judgeable. This in turn helps them find the right social and professional fit for their skills and personality, which bears an obvious connection to living and working authentically.

In the professional world, we all know there are times when professionals—including but not limited to lawyers—need to make themselves less judgeable. Masking one’s motives in a negotiation, for example, could be an important skill. Projecting confidence when you are feeling dread seems like a good tool for any trial lawyer.

But negotiating and trying cases call for different skills than effectively managing a team. No One Understands You  is a business book, and Halvorson’s main audience is business leaders. For leaders, coming across to others as they intend helps with both communication and motivation. Thus lawyers interested in leadership and retention would do well to check out No One Understands You. 

So would lawyers who are interested in authenticity on a more individual basis. I had never heard the word “Judgeable” used in this context, and to be honest, the spelling with that “e” in the middle of “judgeable” still makes me cringe a little bit. (Too many years of highlighting “summary judgement” in commenting on legal writing.)

The concept of being judgeable, however, makes a lot of sense, both personally and professionally.

Emotional intelligencePeople skills

No offense . . .

Today 3 Geeks and a Law Blog offers an interesting post by Casey Flaherty: “No Offense, But Aren’t You Embarrassed to Open Your Mouth?” Flaherty is known for creating the Service Delivery Review (formerly known as the Legal Tech Audit) and generally promoting efficient lawyering through technology in a variety of ways including via his company, Procertas.

Flaherty travels the legal-tech circuit, and on that circuit he recently received a potentially offensive question:

No offense, but how did a mid-level lawyer at a mid-tier company get so much pub for saying something that everyone already knows.

Flaherty’s response (both internal and external) should be interesting to readers of this blog on a couple of levels.

“No Offense, But . . .”

This phrase is not good. In a comment on the 3 Geeks post, former general counsel Jeffrey Carr (newly on board at Valorem Law Group) points out, “lawyers are particularly prone to use these kinds of ‘amnesty phrases’—phrases that give the speaker ‘permission’ to say something that appears responsive but in actuality can be non-responsive, offensive, groundless, insensitive, or simply unsupported.” A few others he lists are these:

  • with all due respect
  • I don’t disagree with that
  • It would not be inappropriate
  • It’s a business decision

I would add this gem:

  • I’m not trying to . . . . but . . . .

Somewhere on the Internet I read a great interpretation of this phrase: delete the “not” and replace “but” with “therefore”:

  • I am trying to . . . ; therefore . . .

(If a reader could help me find the origin of this great interpretation, I would be very grateful. I have tried many times to track down the source because it’s so clever.)

Slide1The main point here is that phrases such as “No offense, but . . . ” are generally not consistent with a constructive conversation. Careful observation of nonverbal cues after a “no offense” statement will probably reveal hostility and reduced eagerness to continue with good-faith conversation. (Let me rephrase: they won’t want to talk to you anymore, or at a minimum they will be annoyed.)

So those who want to work on their listening would do well to eliminate these phrases from their own working vocabulary. Honestly I would think that’s fairly obvious, but see the discussion of the Dunning-Kruger effect that follows.

“No offense, but you’re saying something that everyone already knows.”

Flaherty writes that when he received this question, he actually was not offended. In that sense he may be a particularly gifted conversationalist, or just a very peaceful person.

He writes he was not offended because he has often wondered the same thing. Is what he is preaching really common knowledge? He then delves into the nature of ignorance and knowledge, as general concepts and specifically in his area of legal process and technology usage.

The first point of interest is “meta-ignorance” or delusions of inadequacy—that is, the Dunning-Kruger effect: the most ignorant do not know what they don’t know. I think he’s saying that since there are enough lawyers out there ignorant of their own ignorance about process and technology improvements, technology innovators in law have to keep going and spread the word.

His second point is that saying something and actually demonstrating it by doing are two different things.

And third, information is only common knowledge if everyone in a group not only knows that information but also knows that the rest of the group knows that same information. (Check out the links in his post for more interesting backdrop on each of these points.)

What I liked about his post for Listen Like a Lawyer is that I’ve gotten similar comments:

No offense, but it’s obvious that listening is valuable and under-appreciated. You’re saying something that everyone already knows.

So Flaherty’s response is helpful to me as well. Modeling Casey: I shan’t take offense when people suggest listening is obvious. I have that same question!

Regarding the problem of meta-ignorance, just as legal process improvements may not be appreciated by those who labor in a state of low-tech, inefficient ignorance, listening too may be a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Here I couldn’t help but think of legal writing by comparison. Listening in the legal profession receives a fraction of the attention legal writing gets from articles, blog posts, tweets, and comments by judges and Supreme Court Justices about what attorneys need to do better. And even with all that coverage, Dunning-Kruger remains a real problem for poor legal writers, as my friend Scott Killingsworth has pointed out, leading to this discussion by Bryan Garner. If it’s possible to exist in a state of meta-ignorance about one’s legal writing, how much more so is that a problem for the relatively less-appreciated skill of listening?

Also listening skills are much more subtle and hard to recognize and assess, whereas bad writing can seem so glaring. The red squiggly line on Microsoft Word’s grammar checker is at least one tool that the meta-ignorant have going for them to try to overcome that state. There is no grammar checker for listening.

Another point of interest is the nature of knowing something and doing something about it. We all know listening is important and valuable. But how many lawyers really do something about their own listening or training others in effective listening? It’s worth continuing to talk about listening to try to bridge that divide between saying and doing. Personally I try to walk the walk by being a good listener. It can be quite difficult. Sometimes I will write about that here, and through sustained effort over time, maybe this blog can offer some lawyers the tools they need at the right moment to become stronger listeners or encourage others to do the same.

And lastly, to track Flaherty’s analysis, what exactly is “common knowledge” about listening in the legal field?

I don’t think the legal community’s common knowledge—that we all recognize as common knowledge—is all that fleshed out or deeply shared. Law professors such as Neil Hamilton have worked to enhance that body of knowledge. Despite such efforts, I worry that the actual common knowledge in the field may boil down to two words: active listening. That isn’t enough.

I want to do more on this blog to help expand that base of common knowledge, or create a conversation about what it might be. I’m still reading and learning a lot, so this is very much a work in progress. No offense.

Thanks to Casey Flaherty of 3 Geeks and a Law Blog for an interesting post prompting these thoughts. 

Emotional intelligencePeople skills

Listening—and speaking—in a time of grief

Carolyn Elefant, solo practitioner and blogger at My Shingle, is a valuable source of wisdom and advice, as well as some spicy and entertaining sarcasm.

But earlier this year she shared a beautiful post of grief and remembrance after the death of her husband.

Today she follows up with a related post, When Faced With Loss. Say Anything. This post should be read by any law student or lawyer whose colleague or client may die or face the death of a loved one—which is to say it should be read by all law students and lawyers. Especially those who care about kindness.

I recently fielded a question from a law student whose supervisor’s mother had just passed away. She was not sure whether to send an e-mail, write a personal note, or say anything at all. For business colleagues, as Carolyn points out, just acknowledging their situation and their grief is so much better than avoidance. Even if you say or do the wrong thing, it’s better than not trying.

Law schoolLegal educationPeople skills

Back to school means “what’s your learning style?”

The idea that each learner has an ideal learning style—that is, a style such as visual or aural or kinesthetic, in which they learn most effectively—remains unproven. Yet it appears to be wildly popular and naturally appealing to both teachers and students. The new school year seems like a hot zone for this idea to proliferate anew.

Before delving into the research on learning styles, let’s preempt some backlash. Of course different students have different strengths and weaknesses, and of course different students have different preferences and habits for studying and learning. That’s not the problem.

What remains unproven is that a given person learns “best” in a particular learning style that is different from the way another person (with a different learning style) learns the same materialHere’s UVa education professor Daniel Willingham summarizing his critique of learning styles as a theory. Here’s another article by two psychology professors summing up the studies finding no support for learning styles, including one that tested medical students.  A frequently cited 2008 study by four education professors concluded  “there is no adequate evidence base to justify incorporating learning-styles assessments into general educational practice.” 

Learning styles are so appealing and so omnipresent from preschool to graduate school that it can be hard to accept they are some sort of “myth.” A helpful illustration comes from neuroscientist Christian Jarnett in Wired Magazine:

[A]lthough each of us is unique, usually the most effective way for us to learn is based not on our individual preferences but on the nature of the material we’re being taught – just try learning French grammar pictorially, or learning geometry purely verbally.

Similarly, studying sculpture is not done best by reading long texts describing said sculpture, as pointed out this helpful and balanced piece from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching.

Christian Jarnett goes on to argue that adhering to learning styles as a teaching method is not just a benign misconception but actively harmful. It encourages teachers and learners to direct their teaching toward existing areas of strength, given that “style” may function as a proxy for existing ability and preference. Dan Willingham would also say that mixing teaching styles in the interest of meeting different learning styles in a group may also be harmful, or at least not as beneficial as believed, if doing so works to the detriment of teaching the particular subject matter in the most appropriate way.

This is where listening comes in. When people are surveyed to try to determine their dominant learning style (or preference), listening—i.e. auditory learning—does not tend to rank as a top choice. Legal educator M.H. Sam Jacobson suggested a ranking for law students as learners: most law students report being verbal learners (learning by reading), followed by the next-most populous group of visual learners, followed by oral learners (learning by talking) and only then by auditory learners who learn by listening.

And because auditory learning is relatively unpopular, teaching to preferred learning styles could effectively hurt students’ listening skills even more. Under this theory, if a law student feels most comfortable as a visual or verbal learner, should that student thus learn to represent clients by looking at photographs of clients and reading scripts of interviews with clients? Clinics and externships offer incredible opportunities to interview clients, to take notes, to negotiate, to go to court—to do a lot of things that don’t neatly fit into the most popular categories.

It seems unlikely that an idea about learning styles would dissuade someone from clinic work. What I’m more concerned about is the way learning styles might subtly affect law students’ habits and beliefs: A law student might gain the notion he or she learns particularly well by reading and visuals, more so than by listening, and thus steer her way of thinking and studying towards words and images and away from talking and listening. Or struggle with taking notes in class or interviewing a client, and conclude that part of the reason is a learning style other than auditory.

Law students need to develop all modalities to be effective practitioners. . . . [R]egardless of whether one self-identifies as a visual, auditory, kinesthetic, or tactile learner, lawyers regularly use each of those modalities in practice. They process information by reading and synthesizing legal authority and documents obtained during discovery, for example, and act on oral directives from clients, judges, and colleagues.

This is from an excellent, in-depth, and critical yet constructive exploration of learning styles in legal education, Aïda Alaka’s article Learning Styles: What Difference Do the Differences Make?, 5 Charleston L. Rev. 133 (2011). Alaka carefully explores other frameworks for learning styles besides the “visual-aural-kinesthetic” model which is the main focus of this post. She ultimately concludes with the pragmatic notion that teaching material in a variety of ways beyond (1) assigning cases and (2) employing the Socratic method is certainly a good thing. (Hear, hear!)

She also suggests that while listening should not be neglected, reading will remain the most critical skill:

[R]ecent empirical studies suggest that developing law students’ critical reading skills and literacy are paramount to successful law school performance. Regardless of desire or preference, law students should understand that learning through reading is, and is likely to remain, the principle method by which they will absorb new information in law school and beyond.

In reading for this post, I came across a completely different type model formulated by educator Ken Bain in his book What the Best College Students Do:

  • Surface learners “do as little as possible to get by”
  • Strategic learners “aim for top grades rather than true understanding”
  • Deep learners “leave college with a real, rich education”

Just on its face, this framework bears parallels to listening. Surface listeners may just take in the key points and miss information as well as subtle cues. Strategic listeners may deploy active listening and other techniques, but miss opportunities to follow up and dig because they seize conversational cues to begin talking again. Deep listeners make the most of precious face time spent with conversation partners, leaving the conversation with a “real, rich” sense of learning information and building relationships through their communication skills including listening.

I look forward to reading more about this framework and exploring how learners who may fit into each of these categories can enrich the way they learn, and especially the way they listen.

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Blogger’s note: People I greatly respect have written about and at times touted the benefits of teaching to individual learning styles. In fact I myself gave a 2006 presentation about using visual tools to teach legal writing, which I based partly on the idea of visual learners as a significant component of the law-student population. My post here does not in any way change my admiration for the scholars and educators who have studied learning theories including as learning styles in the quest to improve their teaching and their students’ learning.

Client developmentCollaborationEmotional intelligenceLaw firm marketingPeople skills

Listening until it hurts

Recently I tried a workout at Orangetheory. This is a relatively new exercise franchise offering intense one-hour workouts with running, rowing, lifting, and uncountable numbers of crunches. Everyone wears a heart monitor, and throughout the workout you can check out the monitor to see just how hard you and your heart are working—as well as everybody else in the class.

I was nervous to try a new workout, but every time I glanced up there, my score was green. Green is good, right? It’s aerobic, and aerobic is good, right?

Actually no.

5447958713_050cab91aa_b

To score points in the Orangetheory workout, you have to go beyond green. You have to get into the “orange zone” (thus the franchise name, I suppose) or even the red zone. That means not walking, not jogging, not running at a steady clip. That means sprinting, and panting, and gasping for breath.

You get lots of points for orange and red. Not so much for green.

At the end of the workout, the guy next to me had scored 24 points and I got 6. He crushed me even though he appeared to be near exhaustion the entire time. He crushed me because he appeared to be near exhaustion the entire time.

As I pondered this failure, I wondered whether the lesson might to listening as well.

It seems likely that many of us are sailing comfortably along with our listening and other communication skills. Of course we’re putting out effort. We make eye contact. We use active-listening techniques to paraphrase back important nuggets of the conversation and move it forward. We take notes unobtrusively and follow up with e-mail confirmations.

We’re in the green zone of listening.

What would it look like to move into the orange or even red zone?

Listening is a receptive communication channel (like reading, and in contrast to writing and speaking). To design an Orangetheory program for listening, we would need to raise the intensity level quite a bit. It’s not about trying a little harder on one or two points all the time. It’s taking a short amount of time to listen, radically.

But how would we know that someone was working in the high-intensity range of this receptive skill?

Maybe by measuring the proportion of time spent talking to listening. There is a natural give and take in conversations, but if you’re talking and listening comfortably—for you, subjectively—you may be malingering in the green zone. (See Mark Goulston on “How to Know If You Talk Too Much.”)

Some have suggested an 80-20 rule of focusing on the other person. Steve Yastrow, who writes about improvisation techniques for marketing, says to keep the focus 95 percent about the other person. That is red zone material. That’s hard.

Maybe the mindfulness of the listener to what the speaker is saying. There’s no “brain monitor” for focus—at least no affordable one—but theoretically if the listener’s mind is filled with what to say next and what to eat for dinner, that may not even be in the green zone of listening. It could be the dreaded blue zone, which is literally the zone of pointlessness in Orangetheory because you score no points.

Red-zone listening takes in information in a powerful and efficient way. At the front end of the listening process, focus and memory are as crucial as body strength and VO² max are to powerful workouts.

Maybe one key metric would be whether—and to what extent—the listener feels he or she is actually being listened to.

One reality of exercise and mental processes is that they work only to exhaustion. Attention is a muscle that can be depleted. The body and mind together can be depleted. (Read anything by Daniel Kahneman’s work, or anything about his work. In a study of parole decisions, judges made harsher decisions when they were hungry and tired after hearing several cases.)

But the concept behind any program like Orangetheory is to build capacity by stressing the body. The stress has to be appropriate, but what is appropriate has changed. (See this article from the New York Times on a 12- minute workout that helped veteran runners shave time off their 5Ks simply by a few 10-second spurts of going all out.)

Georgia attorney and magistrate judge Phill Bettis told me about a church mission to West Virginia where he met and talked with a retired coal miner. Phil and I were discussing emotional intelligence and empathy, and how they relate to listening. This was a vivid memory for Phil because he wasn’t sure at first how to find common ground with someone whose life experience had been so very different from his. Phil’s experience might be viewed as one type of “red-zone listening.”

So is listening to someone in grief, or a life crisis. An attorney recently wrote on the Texas Bar Blog about his experience with depression, and how other attorneys may serve as a “patient friend.” No one seeks a conversation like this out in order to hone their own skills, of course. (Actually some people run from them, although those will admit doing so are rare in their honesty.)

Being in such a conversation creates a moment to leave the green zone (the comfort zone) behind. Really listening at such a moment—which regardless of your legal training and expertise may actually be the only way to help—makes all the other efforts pay off, and far beyond what can be quantified in zones a scoreboard.

Here is a related post imagining “Tabata” training for listening.

Photo credit: Courtesy E’Lisa Campbell/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Client developmentCollaborationEmotional intelligenceGenderLeadership

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Client developmentEmotional intelligenceLaw practiceLegal communicationLegal writing

New proof about “sounding smart”

Every time a lawyer communications, that lawyer must choose not only what to say but how to say it—in person, phone, e-mail, or something else.

Speaking and listening obviously take longer and may seem inefficient. Writing (such as e-mail) can reach a group of people instantly and allow them to access the information at a convenient time, also creating a record all parties can use and refer to later.

Courtesy Flickr/Horia Varlan/CC by 2.0

Courtesy Flickr/Horia Varlan/CC by 2.0

But e-mail just isn’t as accurate at conveying meaning.* Anyone who has had an e-mail misunderstanding has experienced what the academic research shows:

Because of the paralinguistic cues in voice, such as intonation, cadence, and amplitude, observers who hear communicators guess their actual thoughts and feelings more accurately than observers who read the exact same words in text.

This is just the background in a new study conducted by Professor Juliana Schroeder and Nicholas Epley at the Booth School of Business (University of Chicago) (sub req’d for link). There’s actually another surprising disadvantage of writing, compared with speaking the same material to a listener.

In that study, MBA students prepared pitches on why they should be hired, and then delivered them either orally or in writing. The results were pronounced:

[E]valuators rated a candidate as more competent, thoughtful, and intelligent when they heard a pitch rather than read it and, as a result, had a more favorable impression of the candidate and were more interested in hiring the candidate.

Why is this? It has to do with cues provided by the voice, and heard by the listener—cues that are lacking in writing. The study summed up the effect:

The words that come out of a person’s mouth convey the presence of a thoughtful mind more clearly than the words typed by a person’s hands—even when those words are identical. Across five experiments, evaluators who listened to job pitches were consistently more interested in hiring the candidates than were evaluators who read identical pitches. A person’s voice communicates not only the content of his or her thinking, but also the humanlike capacity for thinking.

The effect persisted whether the written material was prepared for purposes of reading or speaking. It persisted in one form or another for “evaluators” drawn from a general audience at a Chicago museum as well as from recruiters at Fortune 500 companies. The study also asked trained actors to deliver the pitches in another sub-set of the study to glean whether professional voice skills were the deciding factor. They weren’t.

In an article on the study—”The Mouth Is Mightier than the Pen”—the New York Times pointed out that study authors did not control for the quality of the writing itself. Study author Dr. Epley told the Times he assumed the MBA students were “better-than-average” writers, given that they were enrolled at a top business school. But the study’s findings turned out to be greatly surprising to the students themselves: responses to a survey question showed they did not expect their spoken pitches to be so much more powerful in conveying intellect.

The study does not indicate it would be “impossible for a talented writer to overcome the limitations of text alone.” Rather, the study participants did not predict or expect that voice would provide such an advantage, and thus in their written pitches did not spontaneously try to overcome any deficit from that communication medium.

The study has a number of implications, for lawyers and anyone who conducts business in a variety of media—or anyone who cares about making an impression about their intellect:

[T]ext-based communications may make individuals sound less intelligent and employable than when the same information is communicated orally. The findings imply that old-fashioned phone conversations or in-person visits may be more effective when trying to impress a prospective employer or, perhaps, close a deal.

* Among e-mail’s other well-documented disadvantages such as creating a sort of tyranny of distraction.