Category: Public speaking

Dispute resolutionJudicial listeningLegal communicationNonverbal communicationPublic speaking

Silence for lawyers

Silence.

That was the heart of Emma González’s speech at March for Our Lives on March 24. After a introductory remarks, she named the 17 dead and the small experiences in life they would never partake of again. Then she stood, silent, for the remainder of six minutes and 20 seconds—the time it took for the gunman to kill and then escape at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. The Washington Post called it “the wordless act that moved a nation”:

The absence of language, the extended pause for contemplation, remains a rare thing in public discourse, and even rarer onstage. A moment of silence is the ritualized form of respect we employ on many occasions to mark tragedy, but it’s usually only a moment. González’s silence was an act that felt, in its way, radical. It was as if she dropped the mic — yet a mic was still in front of her.

The length of the silence is what made it more than rote. Long silences challenge the senses and the mind, reflected in an art critic’s visual and auditory hallucinations within a “supersilent anechoic chamber” on exhibit at the Guggenheim in New York.

Silence in these political and artistic contexts operates as rhetorical Silence. On a more pragmatic note, addressing silence with a lowercase “s,” Bret Rappaport recently published “Talk Less”: Elloquent Silence in the Rhetoric of Lawyering, 67 J. Legal Ed. 286 (2017). He quotes Che Guevara:

Silence is argument carried out by other means.

When silence is done correctly, it brings a “participatory dynamic between speaker and audience” in which the audience fills in the unspoken premise of an argument. In his article Rappaport goes on to describe background and techniques of silence. He lists three kinds of silence: simple silence as when you stop speaking so someone else can take a turn, silencing another by not allowing them to speak, and the “eloquent silence.” The article focuses on the latter. Silence can be eloquent when it violates expectations, leads the audience to understand a shared meaning, and is understood by the audience as directed at them. (Here he cites Purdue professor Barry Brummett.)

Rappaport goes on to show that silence enhances thinking by moving past quick, intuitive reactions to the world. Awkward silences can also yield better results in negotiations because the counter-party feels compelled to fill the silence, perhaps to their detriment. Silence also functions as flattery and, since by definition it means not talking, it reduces the risk of unintentional revelations.

Rappaport breaks down examples from movies and well-known trials (O.J. Simpson of course). He says early on that his argument for lawyers is remedial: silence as a “lawyer’s tool [is] one too often unappreciated or outright ignored.” For lawyers who wish to become more powerful public speakers or achieve better strategic results by saying less, I recommend Rappaport’s article.

I also recommend closing all other tabs, notifications, and alerts to watch the full-length version of Emma González’s speech at March for Our Lives.

 

 

 

 

AdvocacyLaw schoolLaw school skills competitionsLegal educationLegal skills

“May it please the Court…”

It’s that time of year when 1Ls start preparing for their first oral argument. In a class on how to prepare, I’ll be sure to share this tweet from experienced SCOTUS advocate Bob Loeb of Orrick:

As the card shows, even expert advocates benefit from a sort of security blanket in a high-pressure situation. And precisely because a SCOTUS argument is so important, holding the card gives the advocates a small bit of extra mental bandwidth. They can reallocate this bandwidth to the actual substance of the argument. Of course, experienced SCOTUS advocates do not really need notes for the opening moments of their arguments. They probably never look at the card. But just having the card can provide some piece of mind.

Beginning advocates also need notes, partly to avoid the possibility of going blank.  (This happened to me in my 2L trial advocacy class and it was a lot like this, but scarier.) Beginners are more likely to cling to their notes and read them even when they don’t need to. But ideally, the notes serve a similar purpose to the Supreme Court card. Having them as a backup can reassure the advocate, freeing up mental bandwidth to think more about substance, and maybe even listen more intently to the questions.

There is one difference in the SCOTUS card and cards that 1Ls might make for themselves—a 1L’s creation does not double as a library card:

Question for readers: How do you make sure your notes are a help, not a hindrance, in public speaking—oral argument or any other formal setting?

Legal communicationNonverbal communicationPeople skillsPublic speaking

“I hear you”

“I hear you.”

Those words can be powerful. They can also be scripted.

At his listening session with survivors of mass shootings at schools and families of victims, President Trump was photographed holding a notecard with five points. They included questions such as “What would you most want me to know about your experience?” The last line, point number five, was “I hear you.”

Trump was derided by some for having to script out basic empathy. Was he actually listening?

There are multiple levels of listening. In their textbook on listening, Margaret Fitch-Hauser and Debra Worthington cite literature on workplace conflicts that identify six levels of listening:

  • Passive listening. This is “marginal listening” while sitting quietly while someone talks. “We are aware that the other person is talking, but we don’t expend enough energy to truly comprehend what the individual is saying.”
  • Responsive listening. This means “making acknowledgements, either verbal or nonverbal, that we are listening.” Responsive listening “has the potential to damage a relationship because we remain disengaged as a communicator but send the false message that we are paying attention and listening.” Responsive listening relies on established social schema (basically scripts, in this context) such as “How are you? Fine, thank you. And you? Fine thanks.”
  • Selective listening. This means engaging the brain and listening, but for “only things that support what we believe, think, or endorse.” Fitch-Hauser and Worthington call it “listening with an agenda.” Doing this too much leads others to resent the selective listener for having a lack of awareness.
  • Attentive listening. This is a form of selective listening because it does have an agenda—for example, a doctor or lawyer interviewing a patient or client. But the listener uses “probing and inquisitiveness” and “evaluative questions that guide the responses of the other person.” Still, this form of listening is about the listener’s agenda, not the speaker’s needs to be heard.
  • Active listening. This uses all of one’s listening capability and “total sensory” engagement to pay attention to verbal and visual cues: “we listen to the paralinguistic aspects of the message, we focus on the facial expressions and the body language, and we listen to the patterns of silence.” Active listening also means giving “reflective responses that provide feedback to the other party” demonstrating understanding and encouraging them to continue. Active listening requires accepting that the other person has feelings and ideas, although it does not require accepting that their feelings and ideas are justified.
  • Empathetic listening. This means “listening with the intent to accept and understand the other person’s frame of reference.” Empathetic listeners “suspend [their] personal reality and immerse themselves in the other person’s reality.” The purpose is not to gather information but to understand and accept the other person’s feelings.

The words “I hear you” could be used at several of these different levels. They may be a rote script, i.e. just responsive listening. They may be a placeholder for selective listening: “I hear you. But . . .” They may be a tool for the attentive listener to hasten the speaker and move on with the agenda of questions. Or the words “I hear you” may be part of a more complete response with active, empathetic listening. “I hear you. You just went through the worst experience of your life and lost your best friend. And you want to do something about this so it never happens again.”

So I think the problem with the notes containing “I hear you” is actually not that the president prepared substantive questions or was reminded to use listening cues. At least one person agrees with me, I discovered when searching for reactions to this photo:

Revealing that list of listening cues is the bigger problem and impediment to meaningful sharing. Being a good listener means managing your listening behaviors to establish your sincere intent.

But revealing a list of cues containing the words “I hear you” means any authentic utterance of “I hear you” would look inauthentic. The very visibility of the notes to others means the notes shouldn’t be used. At least not as to the overall generic reaction language of “I hear you.”

Revealing the cues could silently shape the dialogue by discouraging those who were considering sharing something, but spied the notes. Scripted responsive listening may damage a relationship, as Fitch-Hauser and Worthington point out. Seeing “I hear you” in someone’s pre-prepared notes could reasonably be interpreted to mean the listener will represent that listening has occurred, regardless of whether it actually has. And what’s the point of sharing with a listener on autopilot?

Using notes is not a bad thing. But notes—whether jotted on a 3×5 card, tapped out on a phone screen, or outlined on White House card stock—are a tangible part of the listener’s overall effectiveness. The notes should be held and managed with care to promote listening, not to distract and possibly stifle it.

 

 

InterviewsLaw schoolLegal communicationLegal educationNon-verbal communication

Non-Verbal Persuasion

This guest post summarizes the authors’ presentation, “Beyond Words: What Business Schools Can Teach Us About Non-Verbal Persuasion” at last week’s Association of Legal Writing Directors Biennial Conference held at the University of Minnesota Law School.

By Erin Carroll, Georgetown Law, and Shana Carroll, Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management

The practice of law places great emphasis on words. Yet, how we communicate transcends words. Studies confirm that when we (lawyers and non-lawyers alike) speak, our tone, volume, pace, stance, gestures, and expression may convey more to our listeners than the words we use.

carroll-profile-200-287Most law schools teach oral presentation skills during the 1L year in the context of the appellate argument or the meeting with the supervising attorney. But often these skills are afterthoughts to a focus on written work. And even in teaching these skills, professors may unduly home in on the substance of arguments rather than on the way they are delivered and how listeners receive them.

Given the realities of legal practice, law schools would do well to conceptualize presentation skills more broadly. Law professors should consider the range of situations in which students will present and how those presentations could be more effective, putting aside their substance.

Business schools can serve as a model. Business school curriculums generally recognize that innumerable interactions in the working world are indeed presentations. Pitching clients, negotiating deals, running an effective meeting, and reviewing employees, for example, qualify. They all offer opportunities for speakers to consider and shape how they want the listener to understand their message.

Carroll_Shana

This is no less true for lawyers. Lawyers—at least those in the private sector—are also businesspeople, bringing in clients, doing deals, and interacting with colleagues. Public sector lawyers, too, negotiate, interview, and supervise. Interactions that fall into any of these broad categories can be bettered by adroit presentation skills.

Accordingly, we urge our business and law school students to think about how they can use their voices and their body language to drive home their intended meaning. That means focusing on volume, pace, tone, emphasis, stance, and an array of other paralinguistics (the qualities of how something is said rather than what is said) as well as gestures and expressions.

First, to familiarize our students with the multitude of means by which we communicate to our listeners, we have done the following exercises:

  • Ask students to find a video of a speaker they find particularly effective or ineffective. Have them post the video to a discussion board along with a description of why that speaker was effective or not. To the extent a student’s description is generic, press the student to substantiate it by indicating particular paralinguistic qualities or aspects of body language.
  • Alternatively, have students watch a video in class, identify these qualities, and discuss them. We have used this video of the 1992 presidential debate between Bill Clinton and George Bush, and this video of a press conference given by Tony Hayward, the former chief executive of BP, just weeks after the Deepwater Horizon explosion.

For either exercise, create a list of the different paralinguistic qualities and aspects of body language that can impact meaning. These could include: volume, pace, inflection, facial expression, movement, and fluidity. Professors might also discuss the importance of congruence between body language, paralinguistics, and message in conveying meaning.

In our classes, once students have some comfort with identifying and critiquing the presentation skills of others, we give them the opportunity to experiment. Here are a couple of things we suggest:

  • Start with a quick, kinesthetic exercise that gets students to hear the range of sentiment their voices can convey and see how their body language can impact meaning. We accomplish this by asking students to pretend they are ordering a ham sandwich. Students line up around the perimeter of the classroom and one by one come up to a podium at the front. Once they get there, we shout out a descriptive word like “despondent,” “angry,” “elated,” or “frustrated.” Students must then try to express that emotion when they say the following sentence: “I would like a ham sandwich with the works.” All sorts of sentences could be substituted here, but we like that this exercise uses something that feels a bit silly as a means of easing nerves.
  • Students are then ready to try out those same skills in a more serious scenario. Pass out slips of paper that include a couple of sentences that students might actually say in an upcoming presentation. For example, if oral arguments are approaching, short excerpts from student briefs could be used. Once students have their “script,” they get a couple of minutes to prepare to present it. During that time, students can think about what meaning they want to convey to the listener and how they can use volume, pace, tone, emphasis, gestures (and any other skills the class has discussed) to best do it. Students could be encouraged to experiment with different variations to identify which approach works best given their objective. They could also be placed in pairs or small groups and allowed to practice and get feedback from one another. Students could then be asked to volunteer to share their version with the class.

Of course, there are many, many other exercises that emphasize paralinguistic and nonverbal communication skills. These could include, for example, exercises on articulation or stance. What will be most helpful depends, of course, on the students’ and professors’ goals.

Regardless, law professors should keep in mind just how broad presentation skills are, how often students will use them in practice, and the variety of ways to teach them. We want to ensure that we are helping students improve their ability to persuade beyond simply teaching them to make a well-reasoned argument.

 

AdvocacyLaw school skills competitionsLegal educationLegal skillsLitigation

Deliberate practice and lawyering skills

This past weekend, the Legal Writing Institute hosted its second Biennial Moot Court Conference at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. Several of the talks touched on listening-related themes. Kent Streseman of the Chicago-Kent College of Law explored the concept of “deliberate practice” for moot court competitors. His summary of the tenets of deliberate practice could be useful for anyone who wants to improve their mental dexterity and ability to think on their feet. 

I once heard Rutgers Law professor Ruth Anne Robbins refer to moot court with an analogy to “muscle memory.” In sports, building up muscle memory can be a good thing—or a bad thing. If you learn how to swim the wrong way and then repeat the mistake over and over, she said, you won’t become a better swimmer no matter how much you practice. (Likewise for lawyers preparing presentations and arguments, creating wordy PowerPoint slides and then silently reading them to yourself may not be the path to great public speaking.)

In his Chicago talk, Streseman made a related point about sub-optimal practice: Even practicing correctly but in the standard, same way over and over is not going to produce results, especially if it’s ill-informed to begin with. Repetitive practice doesn’t help a learner progress beyond a certain fixed point, and in fact, “skills tend to regress.” 

The “gold standard” of preparation is “deliberate practice,” a concept from Anders Ericsson’s work summarized for a popular audience in Ericsson’s Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. The purpose of deliberate practice is to yield expert performance:

The hallmark of expert performance is the ability to see patterns in a collection of things that would seem random or confusing to people with less well-developed mental representations.

To build up these mental representations, you need deliberate practice. In his talk Streseman outlined some of the conditions of deliberate practice:

  • The practices must be challenging, with the learner giving their full attention to a task demanded beyond the edge of their comfort zone.
  • The feedback needs to be informed by experts’ accomplishments and understanding of what they themselves do to excel.
  • The feedback must be followed by the opportunity to modify the performance in response, and to recover and reflect on the practice.

These types of focused practices lead to more effective mental representations of the argument in the competitor/advocate’s own mind. And having those effective mental representations mean the competitors can react more quickly to questions and make better decisions on what to say next and how.

The closest connection to listening seemed to be the crucial fact that deliberate practice requires the learner’s full attention. Moreover, the learner has to actually listen and adjust to the feedback provided. Speaking and speaking and speaking again without attention to feedback may be practice, but it’s not deliberate. You can do that in front of a mirror or your dog, and we all know sometimes that’s what a person needs to initially prepare. As beginners approach a task, they may need some repetitive practice with no feedback to get into their comfort zone. Once there, they can then start to push beyond that zone.

But rehearsing to a dog is too comfortable. It’s not deliberate practice, as the dog’s feedback is not informed by experts’ accomplishments and methods of excelling. My dog has been a lawyer’s dog most of his life, spanning three owners with a variety of practice experience both civil and criminal. All three of these lawyers were moot court types. But the dog still can’t coach moot court effectively.

Thanks to Kent Streseman for his talk on deliberate practice and moot court, and to John Marshall Law School and the Legal Writing Institute for hosting the conference.  I look forward to reading Peak and sharing any additional insights from delving into it.  I also hope to share more posts from the conference with additional connections to listening. Until then, you can access tweets from me and others at #LWIMootCourt.

 

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Postscript on “um”

Yesterday I had the pleasure of moderating a Facebook chat on Rutgers law professor Barbara Gotthelf’s article The Lawyer’s Guide to “Um.” She published it in Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD (for which, full disclosure, I’m a social media editor.) The Facebook chat, available here in LC&R’s ongoing Discussion Group, was a chance to explore and, in some cases, push back on her unexpected thesis:

Lawyers who speak before courts, clients, and other discerning audiences should know how fillers function to communicate information; they should understand that the actual effects of fillers on listeners may be less dire than imagined and may even be beneficial under some circumstances.

More specifically, Gotthelf shows in the paper how listeners comprehend speech better when it contains some discourse markers and “fillers” (also known more favorably as “planners”) such as “um.” Taking a text and reading it out loud perfectly, with no fillers, is less effective for speakers  than inserting some speech cues—including, yes, “um.”  Use of fillers such as “um” can signal delay while processing a thought, but can also preserve one’s “turn” to talk, attract attention, or actually help emphasize a point.

Building off of Gotthelf’s paper, the most heated part of the Facebook Discussion, if you can use “heated” to describe a respectful group of people who appear to care very much about the topic as well as one another, concerned whether to explicitly call students out on using “um.” Professor Gotthelf’s strongly held belief is NOT to point them out early in a student’s preparation cycle:

Many of my students begin the semester with annoying habits. Umms, giggling, hair twirling. It’s early nerves. That stuff melts away on its own as the students gain confidence from practicing and thinking about their arguments.

In that sense, Gotthelf said, “ums” are caused by natural unpreparedness, which can be cured naturally as well, by substantive preparation. Georgia Tech professor Brian Larson uses the opposite approach:

I DO point them out. In fact, we count each other’s (I subject myself to video as well) ums and uhs per minute in presentation videos (undergrad presentation class). We do so to draw attention to something that many audiences find annoying. I also draw attention to the fact that as a very experienced public speaker, I still average 4.5 UPM (ums per minute). Thus, there is no point freaking out about a few ums/uhs. Most of them start the semester at 12-15 ums per minute and are down below 8 by end of semester.

This debate is important because, as Gotthelf writes in the paper, there are two causes for uttering “um”: (1) task complexity and (2) task concern. Basically when a task is more complex and more vocabulary options to describe a single idea, the speaker is more likely to say “um.” And—in a painful but all-too-understandable irony—being self-conscious about speaking makes a speaker say “um” more. Which of course leads others to comment on the speaker’s use of “um” as a problem to fix, leading to even more self-consciousness.

Although there was disagreement about whether to be explicit in addressing “um,” the discussion participants seemed to agree that obsessively fixating on “um” is a mistake. As Gotthelf noted in explaining why people hate “um” so much, it’s partly because “um” is simple:

It’s easy and superficial to focus on things like “um.” It’s much harder to evaluate the content of what someone is saying.

She also noted in the paper that historically—in the classical glory days of spoken rhetoric—no one cared about “um.” Only with playback on radio and TV did “um” become a major perceived problem. And now a distaste for “um” has entered the popular view of what good speaking is:

I think people just accept the conventional wisdom about “um” and don’t dig deeper. So that conventional wisdom gets repeated and repeated and becomes cemented.

Still professors have to prepare students for the world that is, not the world we wish for. Thus some thoughtful approach to helping students avoid excessively distracting “ums” was a common theme—even if that means rigorously never mentioning “um” at all.

 

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“Um” and its discontents

Umm, hi everyone. Umm, does anyone want to join the Facebook discussion I’ll be moderating on Thursday, April 6 at 3 p.m. Eastern? (Note this time is corrected from some earlier messages.)? The topic is the article “The Lawyer’s Guide to Um” by professor Barbara Gotthelf in Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD. Professor Barbara Gotthelf will be joining the conversation, which is open to all lawyers, legal professionals, and law students. You just have to join the Legal Communication and Rhetoric Discussion Group on Facebook before the discussion begins.

I previously mentioned the article here on the blog and recommend the entire thing—which is a pleasure to read—as preparation for the discussion. Gotthelf does not hide the ball:

[U]sing uh and um was not only “perfectly normal,” but also helpful in furthering effective communication.

Whether you hate “um” or barely even notice it, if you’re interested in lawyering and public speaking then this conversation is of interest to you.

This Discussion Group is a project of the journal Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD and is active during scheduled discussions such as this one. This Discussion Group seeks to bring together lawyers, law professors, law students, and legal professionals generally to discuss legal writing and advocacy topics. I’m one of the Social Media Editors for Legal Communication & Rhetoric and look forward to moderating this discussion.

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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.

Emotional intelligenceLegal communicationPeople skillsProfessional developmentProfessional responsibility

Talking means making mistakes (and that’s okay)

Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age has been on my reading list for a while now. I’m in the process of reading it and was stopped cold by something on page 54. Turkle is talking about “the flight from conversation.” The flight from conversation basically means kids these days—and yes, their parents too—don’t want to talk and will take active steps to avoid conversation.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/barry_b/143928531/in/photolist-dHEWp-fwfo9x-8eJS1L-cnr4r5-8eJV6J-8eFzux-aUbvWF-aUbviF-6BVufY-8eJZfS-8eFzdR-8eJUHQ-8eJUnQ-8eJYU9-8eJWc1-6Q3UVm-8eFyDk-aKPi8T-8eJXRU-8eFDq6-pR8z8t-8eJYcq-8eJTmN-8eJVHw-8eFCjV-8eFAEr-8eJU4y-8f54q4-8quZL3-8KdXtG-d5nAa3-geUjn4-DdJibk-4z1Yux-8YEJTM-bsC179-eYbj32-4PpL7E-6ebNVp-nCDLcE-dYT8p3-62dKpd-58hFYL-bUZK3m-9Zjt3J-nKVQU7-hfoTV3-dLnekA-9PAWD7-bNQjUp

I’m in the process of reading it and was stopped cold by something on page 54, a reference to a law student in the making.

This is a pretty big book, and in the first section  (which includes page 54) she goes to lengths to lay out her basic premise about “the flight from conversation.” This flight affects every facet of life and goes down very deep in the psyche. The most worrisome suggestion is that an intense digital life (at the expense of a social life) doesn’t just make people inefficient or unempathetic at that moment, but it actually stunts emotional growth.Turkle describes the work of Stanford psychologist Clifford Nass showing that spending too much time with social media and its “thumbs-up” emotional culture deprives frequent users of the ability to process more complex negative emotions. These people then become even less able to respond appropriately and quickly in real-life situations involving negative emotions. This diminishing skill set creates a downward cycle driving people to avoid difficult face-to-face situations and to seek out comfortable digital forms of communications.

Page 54 is part of this background. It caught my eye because it featured an aspiring law student. Turkle frames this anecdote as “[t]he desire for the edited life”:

A college senior doesn’t go to his professors’ office hours. He will correspond with his teachers only through email. The student explains that if he sees his professors in person, he could get something “wrong.” Ever since ninth grade, when his preparations to go to an Ivy League college began in earnest, he and his parents have worked on his getting everything “right.” .  . . Now he is three years through that Ivy education and hoping for law school. He is still trying to get things right. “When you talk in person,” he says, “you are likely to make a slip.”

He thinks his no-office-hours policy is a reasonable strategy. He tells me that our culture has “zero tolerance” for making mistakes. If politicians make “slips,” it haunts them throughout their careers. And usually they make these mistakes while they are talking. He says, “I feel as though everyone in my generation wants to write things out—I certainly do—because then I can check it over and make sure it is okay. I don’t want to say a wrong thing.”

I really wish I could reach out to this student. If he’s in law school now and if his first-year professors have used the Socratic method in any way, shape, or form, he has probably had a pretty rough transition. And whether he’s in law school or not, somehow he’s going to have to face a terrible realization: conflict and imperfection and mistakes and regret are

And whether he’s in law school or not, somehow and sometime he’s going to have to face a terrible realization: conflict and imperfection and mistakes and regret are all a reality, for all of us. You can run but you can’t hide. So he might as well build some strength now, ideally with a matching dose of empathy and humility, to deal with them as best he can.

I would also introduce him to the concept of a “growth mindset” as popularized by Carol Dweck of Stanford. A growth mindset is consistent with effort, mistakes, learning, and forward progress. What you are at the beginning of college/law school/a new job/anything is not your destiny.

The opposite is a fixed mindset, which is the concept your skills can be uncovered and revealed by testing but not truly built up or changed. The fixed mindset has a lot of disadvantages. One of them is a possible correlation with unethical conduct. A person’s desire to conceal a mistake might make that person dangerous. Being terrified about making a “slip” can lead to covering up mistakes, not seeking help, and in general turning potentially small problems into much worse.

This is just one reflection on the wealth of points in Turkle’s book. I’m still reading it! Throughout the summer I will be blogging about passages of interest, and perhaps even trying a Twitter chat at some point.

Read Jonathan Franzen’s New York Times review of Reclaiming Conversation here.

 

 

 

AdvocacyCross-cultural communicationGenderLegal communicationPeople skills

What do we hear when we hear vocal fry?

Tennessee professor Michael Higdon has followed up his 2009 Kansas Law Review piece on nonverbal persuasion with a thoughtful new essay,   “Oral Advocacy and Vocal Fry: The Unseemly, Sexist Side of Nonverbal Persuasion.”

If you’re not familiar with vocal fry, check out this MSNBC video at minute 3:30 for an example drawn from law practice (“Um, I don’t really think that evidence is sufficient.”) The video briefly explores a few themes expanded upon in much greater depth in Professor Higdon’s piece: Is the problem with women using vocal patterns that diminish their appearance of competence? Or is the problem with managers and society scrutinizing and judging women harshly yet again? Higdon quotes Amanda Hess describing the joint perils of vocal fry and “upspeak”:

So we’re wrong when we raise our voices, and we’re wrong when we lower them.

Higdon takes this debate into the realm of law and the individual choices women law students and lawyers must make. He also places vocal fry into a larger framework of nonverbal persuasion including body language such as gestures, the use of space, the relationship to the speaking environment as well as any props or other instruments, physical appearance, the use of time, and other factors. “Vocalics” or what the speaker sounds like is the factor raising these questions.

Higdon and many others eschew the easy answer that women should stop vocal fry simply because it hurts others’ perception of them.

What is a female attorney to do? Does she scrupulously monitor and adjust her professional nonverbal behavior to match those qualities that social science tells her tend to be perceived more positively? Or does she ignore this research and what it might mean within her own career and instead follow her own preferences on how to present herself? Clearly, this essay cannot definitively answer that question—it is instead a personal question that must be answered by each person individually.

He points out that not all critiques of nonverbal behaviors are complicated: for example, lawyers should avoid pointing at their audience, especially when that audience consists of judges sitting as a court of law. But preferences about some nonverbal behaviors such as women’s vocal inflections raise harder questions of underlying bias. Higdon’s discussion reminded me of the discussion—how can this discussion still be happening?—whether women make a mistake by going to court in pants suits rather than skirts.

[W]hat one gains in the short term by presenting herself as in line with societal expectations can create problems in the long term by making it that much easier for everyone to ignore the sexism motivating those preferences.

Some would say the women lawyer’s identity shouldn’t matter. If she’s going to court where a judge has previously expressed disdain for women in pants suits and if she takes seriously her role as an advocate for the client, then she should grin and wear it (the skirt, that is). Likewise if society is saying vocal fry makes a woman sound incompetent and if a woman lawyer wants to represent clients effectively in said society, then stop with the vocal fry. As Higdon acknowledges, failure to comply can be damaging.

But he urges a deeper analysis that makes room for identity even as it contemplates audience:

[T]he preferences people have for certain behaviors are almost always motivated by something other than the behavior itself. Typically there is a connection in the audience member’s mind between that discrete behavior and something else—and it is the “something else” that requires more inquiry.

I recommend this article, especially as a companion to Higdon’s foundational article on nonverbal persuasion, previously reviewed here on the blog.