Listening on TV: What Sitcom Clips Can Teach Lawyers

Thanks to unnamedTami K. Lefko for this fun and informative guest post.

I often use clips from television shows and movies in class, and there are a few related to active listening that I especially like. Here are three of my favorites, from three popular sitcoms:

1. Everybody Loves Raymond, “Father Knows Least”

This early episode of Everybody Loves Raymond largely focused on active listening. In the first part of the episode (“Part I” below), Debra forced Ray to attend a parenting class with her after their daughter Ally began misbehaving. Ray did not take the class seriously and did poorly when he was asked to role play with the instructor and demonstrate how he listens to their daughter.

(Part I – Ray demonstrates ineffective listening skills in parenting class)

But later in the episode (“Part 2”), he has a little more success using active listening techniques with his own parents. The most relevant part begins about 50 seconds into the “Part 2” clip and continues for about two minutes.

(Part II – Ray does better with his own parents)

One tangential aspect of this episode that I find interesting is that it also illustrates (and debunks) a common misperception about skills like writing and listening: that they can’t be taught. Those of us who teach legal writing and related skills have probably all heard, at one time or another, the objection that these skills cannot be taught: either you are a talented writer (or good listener) or not. In this episode, Ray initially objects to attending the parenting class. He agrees to attend, however, when he catches himself saying that his parents never took a class and they did a fine job — not exactly how he usually describes their parenting. Similarly, his parents tease him about taking a parenting class, but the techniques he learned in class are shown to work well to diffuse one of their arguments.

Credit: Season 2, Episode 2/Original Airdate: September 29, 1997

2. The Big Bang Theory, “The Extract Obliteration”

For a more recent example, I like this one from The Big Bang Theory. In the clip below, Sheldon and Leonard realize they are talking past each other rather than having a real conversation, so they try using a chess timer to give each other a chance to speak in turn.

The brief non-conversation that prompted Leonard to suggest using the chess timer is included in this longer clip, but it is of lesser quality than the clip above:

Although the use of the chess timer is played for laughs here, a chess timer or something similar could be used effectively in class for listening practice. Clients often complain that their lawyers do not truly listen to them, and law students can also find it difficult to listen, uninterrupted, to another’s story. Using a chess timer or similar device could make students aware if they tend to interrupt or pressure a speaker rather than listening patiently.

Credit: Season 6, Episode 6/Original Airdate: November 1, 2012

3. The Office, “The Whale”

In the episode linked below, Pam tries to teach Dwight how to appear interested in what other people have to say so that he can sell to female clients more effectively, without much success.

Credit: Season 9, Episode 7/Original Airdate: November 15, 2012

All three of these episodes can be viewed in their entirety on Amazon Instant Video and similar services. If you have any favorites of your own on the listening topic, please mention them in the comments! I’d love to expand my repertoire of listening videos that are both entertaining and informative.

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.”


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.

Listening when their talking style triggers “fight or flight”

The Harvard Business Review Blog recently had a great post titled How to Listen When Your Communication Styles Don’t Match. I am so grateful to the Legal Skills Prof Blog for bringing this post to my attention here. The HBR post is based on the work of Mark Goulston in his book Just Listen.

Goulston outlines two scenarios:  your conversation partner is a “venter/screamer” or an “explainer/belaborer.” The mismatch comes when a venter encounters an explainer, or vice versa.

Either way Goulston suggests some coping tactics. The sort-of-bad news is that the first tactic is to actually listen to the person. Goulston then suggests ways to get at the speaker’s substantive point and direct the communication in a more focused and constructive way. Some of the tactics are consistent with what you may already do, such as acknowledging what the person is saying and asking for takeaway points. Others may be more unexpected, such as looking into the person’s left eye, which is connected to the right side of the brain (the “emotional brain”). The post is definitely worth checking out in its entirety.

For lawyers interested in better listening, Goulston’s ideas prompt some questions.

  • What communication styles do you see in law practice? My hunch is that explaining and belaboring are more common among lawyers than venting and screaming.
  • What do you do when you experience a conversational mismatch?
  • What do you think about Goulston’s advice for coping with a mismatch?
  • What tactics have you developed to listen, understand, preserve relationships, and maybe (just maybe) manage conversations so as to reduce the venting and the belaboring in the future?