Tag: Conversation analysis

Client developmentEmotional intelligenceLegal communicationPeople skills

Listening under the influence

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Flickr/Keoni Cabral/CC by 2.0

What is the effect of drinking on listening skills?

This matters for lawyers who will be networking over a glass of wine or taking clients to dinner where alcohol is served. What appears to be a still-valid 1975 psychiatric study predicted that drinking would have a variety of effects on communication:

In a group setting, low to moderate doses of alcohol would increase the amount of verbal communication, increase disruptions in communication, and decrease the level of acknowledgment of the other speaker’s communication.

This hypothesis was indeed supported by the study, a study with a most interesting protocol.

Participating couples (married or good friends for several months, and between the ages of 21-30) showed up a testing facility for an afternoon of mild intoxication and testing, or a placebo event. They consumed a “low dose” of either “80-proof vodka in a peppermint-flavored cocktail” or “the masking cocktail without vodka.” In the low-dose experiment, women drank .83 ml per kg of weight, so (after a bit of math) about 1.4 ounces for a 110-pound woman. Men drank 1 ml per kg of weight, so 2.7 ounces for a 175-pound man. In sessions separated by about a week, they tested the other option. And some test subjects came back for another alcohol test at 1.5ml per kg of weight.

After consuming the alcohol, they did some coordination tests and then a 20-minute conversation session. The second 10 minutes of the conversation were transcribed for study. Then participants were “fed and detained” until signs of intoxication wore off, and driven home.

The study’s main finding seems fairly intuitive:

Overall, alcohol appeared to make social communication more disorganized and intoxicated subjects seemed less likely to follow conventional rules of etiquette in their speech.

The specific behavioral findings were a little more complex. The study found “an increase in the amount of interrupting or overlapping speech” that was even more pronounced with the higher dose. Essentially: the more you drink, the more you interrupt.

Separately, the study found with the low dose, participants talked more in the sense of initiating more conversations, and used more words. With the higher dose, these trends reversed. Thus the more intoxicated participants interrupted more but used fewer words and started fewer conversations. And there was a modest but noticeable effect on what the study called acknowledgment, or “the degree to which [a statement] responds, in terms of the content and intent” to the prior statement.

The study authors weren’t exactly sure how these effects happened. They could be from the “disinhibition” and “egocentricity” of drinking, or they could be from “decreased auditory discrimination” and “impaired memory” which had been proven in a similar previous experiment. 

The authors recommended further study. They also ended with a caveat on the “dyadic” setup of the study—meaning just two people speaking one-on-one to each other. The one-on-one setup may have made it relatively easier for participants to maintain the conversation. They noted prior work showing alcohol diminishes participants’ ability to hear complex auditory stimuli. Thus they suspected that intoxicated participants would show greater impairment, relative to the placebo, in a more complicated social situation with more people. Something like an attorney networking event, perhaps.

Postscript to this research: Here’s a 2004 master’s thesis on “alcohol in social context.” The study gathered 54 men (strangers) and assigned them to groups of three, then served them alcohol or a placebo while they stayed seated in their groups for 30 minutes. The study assessed their social behavior and emotional states, finding that the drinking groups did not necessarily talk more on a word count basis, but did engage in more socially coordinated communication within the group. In other words, more members of the group contributed to talk within the group as a whole. The study author reported mild surprise that study participants did not report “improved affect” or a better mood after the experiment. The author suggested that the participants may not have enjoyed the forced interaction of drinking and socializing with strangers. This brings us full circle back to networking.

What are the implications for attorneys who want to drink while still communicating effectively?

Above the Law’s Elie Mystal has some classic advice: “You have to know yourself and what constitutes ‘tipsy’ for you.” Some more excellent advice: “when it starts to feel more like a party and less like work, leave.”

He was writing in 2012 about alcohol and networking, prompted by a Greedy Associates’ post with a “Drink-by-Drink Guide for Networking Events.” Instead of “5 Tips for Networking,” that post organized itself around a sequence of five hypothetical “drinks” from the first drink (“the icebreaker”) to the fifth drink (essentially, go home and send a bunch of LinkedIn invitations). The strategy for the “third drink” was to “shut up and listen” by “resist[ing] the urge to talk about yourself the whole night.”

The Greedy Associates’ post wasn’t actually encouraging networking lawyers to consume five drinks at any networking event. And that is a good thing. One takeaway from the present post is the following: if you get to that third drink too fast, shutting up and listening is probably not going to be an easy option.

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Any article on attorneys and alcohol consumption would be incomplete without noting the study released just in the past week about substance abuse among attorneys. “The level of problem drinking and mental health problems in the legal profession appear to be higher than indicated by previous studies,” reported the ABA Journal. Self-reported problem drinking was at 20.4 percent of the profession. Behavioral questions revealed problem drinking among 36.4 percent of the profession. The ABA article ended in calls for help such as training, mentoring, and bar assistance programs. 

Emotional intelligenceGenderInnovationLeadershipLegal communication

Listening analytics?

One of my favorite sayings is from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

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Kenneth Grady’s Seytlines blog is an exercise in what Fitzgerald meant. In Grady’s essays on innovation in the legal industry—what it needs and where it is stagnating—human skills including “soft skills” have never been more valuable. Yet humans must use processes and systems and technology to avoid losing the competition to deliver value. Individual lawyers in all of their humanity have never been less expendable—or more.

Grady’s recent post Talking About Lawyer Performance illustrates the tension:

Providing legal services today involves much more than listening to a client’s problem and giving an opinion or delivering a document. It is a complex task in a fast moving environment that involves a much deeper and more nuanced understanding the environment in which the client operates. This isn’t an equation solely for large law firms and corporate legal departments, it is true throughout all levels of legal services delivery. Individuals’ lives are much more complicated today than 10, 20 or 30 years ago, so advising them isn’t as easy today as it was then.

This complexity manifests in the idea that legal-services delivery should be examined and broken into more distinct parts. This idea is pervasive throughout the legal-innovation conversation, and I’d like to think more about how it affects listening.

There may be a tradeoff in client satisfaction unless technological innovations are built with empathy and surgically precise understanding of how to approximate human interaction, and when actual real-time conversations and face time are crucial. On the other hand there will be a gain in client satisfaction if perceived unnecessary conversations where the client keenly feels the billing clock ticking are reduced or even eliminated. As I said, I’d like to think more about the delivery questions—and mostly I would just like to learn from those such as Grady and Patrick Lamb and Jeff Carr and others, the gurus in this area.

Beyond the questions of legal services delivery are deeper questions about what an individual lawyer does. (See Grady’s post on Defining the Unique Role of the Lawyer.) The analytical and problem-solving contributions are inextricably wrapped in the soft skills used to deliver them. As Grady has written elsewhere, “During the next decade, the skills that make up personality will play an increasingly important role.”

But do not believe that means the lawyer is unique beyond measure. Even the most human of human skills can benefit from systems analysis because even the most human of interactions can be measured:

Alex “Sandy” Pentland, who directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, is one of the leaders in the people analytics field. His team developed sociometric devices—smartphones using special software—that teams of employees would wear during the day. The devices measured proximity to other employees, who was talking, engagement levels, and other data points. They did not capture what was being said. But, from this data Pentland’s team could determine which group dynamics led to more creativity or productivity. By altering the work situation, such as aligning work breaks rather than staggering them, Pentland’s team drove performance improvement along many metrics.

This was the part of the Lawyer Analytics post that really stood out. This blog has talked at various times about the problem of measuring listening. If you can’t measure it, you probably can’t assess it in a meaningful way. Perhaps these “sociometric devices” are the beginning of a solution to the problem.

When I first got started blogging here, I read a difficult but rewarding academic book, Talk and Social Theory: Ecologies of Speaking and Listening in Everyday Life, in which a scholar, Frederick Erickson, analyzed detailed transcripts of several conversations recorded in 1974: a blue-collar family at dinner, a college counselor and a student who was eligible for the Vietnam draft, a combined kindergarten-first grade class, and a medical resident and intern diagnosing a difficult case. He parsed every last detail of these conversations and even showed how they could be rendered with musical notation:

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This book is where I learned the concept of the “conversation turn,” which essentially means taking over or handing back the conversational flow to your conversation partner. (See prior post on the “turn sharks” in law school.)

How do a bunch of random conversations in 1974 relate to legal skills today? Some things don’t change: Being a good listener means mastering conversation turns to keep the conversation going without taking over.  Just refer to Pam Woldow’s lengthy discussion of “manterruptions,” and the gender imbalance in who does the interrupting versus gets interrupted, to understand the relevance of conversation turns today. (Part I of Woldow’s series is here.)

The conversation studies in Erickson’s book were fascinating but clearly expensive to create and difficult to replicate.  With newer and more affordable technology like the sociometric device described in Lawyer Analytics, people won’t need to be invited to a scholarly study to get this kind of data. (To see the logical and alarming extension of these possibilities, read this article on “searchable speech.”)

The possibilities of these devices inevitably bring to mind FitBits. Ken Grady’s boss Stephen Poor has already covered that ground for lawyering generally in “FitBits, Data and Lawyers.” On quantifying communication specifically, it seems pretty likely that we will soon have relatively affordable “FitBits” for listening.

Client developmentLegal communicationPeople skills

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qg8PIK74KO4

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.

Legal communicationLegal skillsPeople skills

Mark my words: Listening to “discourse markers” to be a better listener

Spontaneous speech doesn’t fit together like Legos. Because speech reflects a sometimes messy thought process in real time, spoken transition words and phrases—what the linguists call “discourse markers”—serve a crucial purpose in conversation.

Jeneem/Flickr

Jeneem/Flickr

Discourse markers can be as empty as “I mean,” as overused as “clearly,” or as specific as “at the end of the day.” (I had thought “at the end of the day” was just a legal/business buzzword. Apparently it formally qualifies as a discourse marker as well.)

There are different kinds of discourse markers, including those the speaker provides to structure what he or she is saying, and those the listener provides in participating in the conversation. Saying “um-hmm” to keep the conversation going is one example. This post focuses on listening to the speaker’s own discourse markers because they are tempting to disregard.

Lawyers may think that they can listen most efficiently by disregarding most discourse markers and focusing on the “real” content they are hearing. I confess to having tried this in many past conversations. But disregarding discourse markers is actually a really bad idea. They are an important source of information about the speaker’s attitude toward the conversation itself. They can:

  • highlight important events in a narrative;
  • help listeners follow a speaker’s train of thought;
  • help listeners recover from a “repair”; or
  • show the relationship between two statements.

This list is quoted from a linguistics article by Fox Tree and Schrock, Oh What a Difference an Oh Makesfound in this PDF. The article reports on language experiments with a fascinating conclusion: listeners better understood speech content when it included a discourse marker as simple and seemingly insignificant as the word “oh.” When listeners heard the same speech content without the “oh” or with just a pause where the “oh” would be, they didn’t understand the content as well.

For listeners, recognizing and showing responsiveness to a speaker’s discourse markers can build trust and move the conversation forward. Misinterpreting or entirely missing a significant marker can set the conversation back and make the speaker think less of the listener.

Many markers focus on the content of the conversation:

  • Signaling an important idea, such as “The key point is . . .“
  • Highlighting an objection, such as “Here’s the thing . . .”
  • Marking an attempt to end the conversation, such as “So the takeaway from all of this is . . .”

Some discourse markers seem more personal than others, and may serve as a sign of submission or authority:

  • Using the listener’s name, as in “Casey, . .” or “Your honor, . . .”
  • Phrasing the message directly and personally to the listener, such as “What I need you to understand is . . .”

And some discourse markers involve repackaging part of the conversation to relate it to a new piece of content:

  • Rephrasing an idea and moving into a new idea as another item in a list, such as “In addition to the time and energy it will take to litigate this issue, there are also hard costs to consider.”
  • Rephrasing a concern and subordinating it to a larger concern, such as “And although the timeline is challenging, it’s going to be very difficult to justify waiting any longer.”

Discourse markers are a universal trait of language in both speech and writing. Jill Ramsfield and Christopher Rideout have written about discourse markers unique to legal writing such as “whether” for introducing a traditional Question Presented. In spoken legal discourse, perhaps “your honor” in addressing a court is the most ingrained discourse marker? One of my favorite law school professors, a frequent advocate before the United States Supreme Court, described using “your honor” as a filler when she was brainstorming what to say next. Readers: please chime in with further thoughts on uniquely legal discourse markers.

What really matters for lawyers is to recognize the importance of discourse markers. Maybe a more memorable word for the practical lawyer is “signals”: discourse markers can send a *signal* about what a speaker thinks. They could signal what a client thinks is really important or when a judge is ready to move to a new argument.

Noticing these signals can increase lawyers’ effectiveness as listeners because by doing so, they will better understand the speaker’s content in the abstract as well as the structure of the content and the speaker’s attitude toward the content.

P.S. This post started as a tirade against the conversation stopper “yes, but,” which is a type of discourse marker provided by a listener in taking over the conversation. Here’s a quick summary of how “yes, but” works as an effective conversational technique: it doesn’t.

P.P.S. For a law-review treatment of conversation theory including discourse markers, I highly recommend Linda F. Smith, Always Judged: Case Study of an Interview Using Conversation Analysis. It contains transcripts of effective interviewing techniques. As the abstract states:

Legal interviews are infrequently recorded and rarely studied. The few empirical studies of actual legal interviews have been primarily critical of the lawyers for being too controlling, eager to impose a solution on the clients, and uninterested in the message the clients want to convey. This article presents a case study of something heretofore unavailable – an experienced, expert attorney conducting a successful initial interview with an actual client. This article uses ethnographic conversation analysis to describe the interview in terms of question form, interruptions, control of the floor, and expressions of empathy. It relies upon the insights from prior empirical studies and shows why this is an excellent interview – the client not only is heard, but feels understood, rather than “judged,” by his lawyer.