Tag: Body language

Emotional intelligenceLegal communicationLegal writing

Lucky listening object?

This summer I had the pleasure of reading Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, by a longtime copy editor at the New Yorker, Mary Norris. This book is a pleasure, something you can tell just by the epigram:

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Later on, Norris expounds at length upon the editor’s pencil—not in a Platonic sense, but in the sense of the actual pencils and pencil sharpeners she uses for her tasks. Her favorite is the Blackwing, a premium and pedigreed pencil that promises “half the pressure, twice the speed.” (The smooth writing experience will appeal to certain pen fanatics as well.)

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On Norris’s recommendation, I ordered a box of Blackwings, specifically the Palomino Blackwing 602 model. They really are pretty awesome, from the silky flow onto the paper to what Norris describes as the chiclet-shaped eraser. Her loving and detailed description of trial and error before finding the Blackwings also imbued them with a special sense of purpose. As a legal writing professor, I began to think about whether law students would benefit from having some sort of totemic editor’s tool. This does seem appropriate, since lawyers should be editors as much as writers.

And as with many of may daily activities (see Orangetheory post from last week), I wondered whether this idea of a special writer’s tool could apply to the complementary skill of listening. What could lawyers and legal professionals use as an expert tool of the trade, giving their listening a special sense of purpose? The ideal tool would be subjectively powerful for the individual using it and carry some historical or contextual significance as well to help the individual perform the task in the aspirational spirit of the profession. (The Blackwing website promotes a myth like this through the pencil’s history: discontinued in the 1990s and then brought back in the 2010 after some were paying up to $40 per pencil for remaining stock.)

But listening is a receptive communication channel, in contrast to writing and speaking. What does the idea of a special tool even mean for receiving information rather than making it?

The first thing that came to mind is the art of taking notes. It’s not listening exactly, but it’s an artifact of listening. When I asked academic-support expert Moji Olaniyan how she works with students on their listening, she said the first thing she looks at is their notes, and they way they take notes. (More specifically, Moji Olaniyan is Dean Olaniyan, the Academic Dean for Academic Enhancement at the University of Wisconsin.)

One revered method for taking notes is the Cornell method, described by Lisa Needham in an updated Lawyerist post just this week. The note-taking method itself does not demand any particular purchase since any paper can be used with a few lines drawn to create a left margin and summary at the bottom. However, the Levenger notebooks are one way to spend on this method if desired. For practicing lawyers, of course note-taking does not go away after law school, although it changes form. Lisa’s post offered some interesting glimpses into what note-taking looks like in law practice.

Note-taking can also go multimedia such as with a Livescribe pen that records while you write. This pen may not make listening feel sacred and special the same way the Blackwing works for Mary Norris. Rather I suspect it would make one feel a tiny bit like an engineer (or spy?), which could be good in a different way—assuming it’s legal and culturally acceptable to record audio wherever you may use it.

But note-taking is just a proxy for listening, and only in situations where note-taking is socially acceptable.

What about the listening act itself—the experience of taking in the information, and the speaker’s perception of being listened to? In social situations, people may grasp a glass of wine or a Coke, a reminder in the hand of social cues to follow. Grasping a warm cup (including but not limited to a cup of coffee) may help with social interactions, scientific research has suggested.

On the other hand, have you ever been in a conversation where it seems to be going pretty well and then you see the other person’s eyes dart sideways, as if looking down at a phone—even if they’re not actually doing so? They may be drawn to another “talismanic,” “fetishistic” and “fanatical” object: the “amulet” of the smartphone.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Legal communicationPeople skills

Listening to nonverbal cues

Effective listening captures information that can’t be gotten any other way. A previous post talked about the rich information found in spoken “discourse markers” that help structure and annotate speech content. Another rich source of information is nonverbal cues. Lawyers who want to glean the most information from their communication encounters should be attuned to what a speaker’s nonverbal cues are saying.

Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, writes in his new book, Focus, about nonverbal cues as an element of attention

“[A] steady stream of nonverbal exchanges rushes to and from everyone we interact with, whether in a routine hello or a tense negotiation, transmitting messages received every bit as powerfully as whatever we might be saying. Perhaps more powerfully.”

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For lawyers, an excellent overview of nonverbal communication can be found in Professor Michael Higdon’s law review article on nonverbal communication during oral argument. According to Higdon, “nonverbal channels” outshine the “verbal band” in two ways:

(1)  they “carry more information” and

(2)  they “are believed more.”

As far as the breadth of information provided, Higdon cites the following (admittedly broad) definition of nonverbal cues:

“communication by means other than words.”

This communication comes via body movements, characteristics of the voice, proximity and spacing, movement, pauses and other temporal features, and “surrounding furnishings and objects that may add to one’s identity.”

Actors work on their nonverbal communication and thus can be a good starting point for brushing up on this aspect of communication:

  • To see an exaggerated but charming example of nonverbal communication, follow Roger Ailes’ advice in You Are the Message: watch a tape of Angela Lansbury—with the sound turned off.
  • For a funny and all-too-familiar example of annoying nonverbal behavior, watch this smartphone advertisement about a date night gone awry: “Date Night.”

For lawyers, heeding nonverbal cues can enhance client communications. Heeding these cues can also provide a deeper strategic understanding for negotiations and disputes. When communication in person with clients, nonverbal cues send important signals:

  • Do you have the client’s attention?
  • Does the client understand your content?
  • Does the client like and trust you?
  • What are the client’s “pain points” with the process you are describing?
  • Does the client have the power or confidence to make an independent decision?
  • Is the client interested in continuing the conversation, or does the client want the conversation to end?

In addition to being highly informative, nonverbal communication is generally believed to be authentic—that is, “more spontaneous, harder to fake, and less likely to be manipulated,” compared to explicit verbal statements, as Higdon points out. This belief is reflected in U.S. civil procedure’s prohibition on credibility determinations at the summary judgment stage: the judge or jury at trial can see, hear, and evaluate all of the nonverbal cues that aren’t present on paper at the summary judgment stage.

So what can a lawyer do to better listen to nonverbal cues? Lawyers could benefit from watching tape of great, or even just average, lawyers in action, and focusing on these main criteria:

  • body language;
  • “paralanguage” (sounds other than language); and
  • appearance.

The goal of this exercise would be to focus very closely on the cues that usually seem peripheral when we think we’re listening just to content. Exercising our focus on these cues can enhance our attention to them during day-to-day interactions. Attending to the unique information in these cues can help lawyers have better conversations with clients and better understand the dynamics of in-person interactions.

Please share your experiences and advice on observing and interpreting nonverbal communication in law practice.