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Friday, March 5, 2021

Communication Skills for Lawyers – Why are people always so dense?

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Have you ever felt that the message you were trying to communicate was simply not getting through?  Me too.

Now in my case, of course, that’s always completely the other person’s fault…  I expect it is for you too.  The other person just refuses to grasp what we are trying to drill into their thick skulls.  How could they possibly be so uncomprehending, we ask ourselves.

But just in case it is sometimes not as entirely one sided as we think, I thought I’d best do up a little piece on the “big picture” of effective communication skills.

Communication Skills are 2 way

I’m going to keep coming back to this until I’m blue in the… um…. keyboard – a legal practice is about relationships – there are at least two pieces to the communication puzzle.  That means that communication must be understood and discussed in the context of the relationship with the other party.   You can’t listen and comprehend without understanding the other puzzle pieces.

Before you can properly advise, inform or communicate with a client you need to establish the context of both what they are saying to you, and what you need to say back (sometimes also how you need to say it).

Stephen Covey calls this “Empathetic Communication” which sounds a little mumbo-jumbo, but in our case as lawyers can ultimately be a tool to develop more effective ways of getting your point across and being understood.

He says it this way:  seek first to understand, then to be understood.  I find it extremely effective when I can put the brakes on my own desire to leap in, and take a minute to think more about the context of what I’m trying to do.

As advisers, we frequently find ourselves in a position of having to understand facts, form a view and give advice with limited timeframes (sometimes on the spot).  That can be challenging.

But what many lawyers have a tendency to do is to stop listening.  Instead of hearing properly what is said, we are busy framing up our next sentence in our own heads.  As a result we both lose opportunity to learn more about our client (or whoever) and also lose the opportunity to gauge how to most effectively communicate our message when the time comes.

Without listening properly, we frame our responses in a way that fits the only paradigm we know:  our own.  “I know just what you’re going through as I went through the same” or “My past clients have found it useful if….”.  Now those aren’t necessarily wrong, but they are indicative of the issue:  effectively communicating with someone needs to take place in THEIR framework, not ours.

Understanding before Response

So to communicate in a way that will be most effective, we must ensure that we understand the message being told to us properly.  Take more time, ask more questions, summarise what is told to you in your own words.  Ensure that before you leap in you actually know what the other participant is getting at, rather than assuming you know from past experience.  Sometimes your past experience will serve you well, and other times it will lead you down the garden path as you make assumptions rather than seeking understanding.

Once you understand the issues, the motivation and the paradigm of your audience you are much better placed to communicate to them in a way that is both helpful and persuasive.

Don’t Make Assumptions

We assume things all the time.  When the light is green we assume it’s safe to go.  When we turn the key we assume our car will start.

However, assumptions in legal practice are both dangerous and stupid.

Don’t assume – ask.

This goes not just for information, however, but also motivation.  Don’t assume that the potential plaintiff is coming to you to recover money – maybe they want something else.  You can’t advise them unless you know.  You don’t know unless you ask.  Asking questions helps develop relationship and build trust, but it also allows you to provide more accurate, timely and useful advice.

Now Be Understood

Ethos, Pathos, Logos.

Character, emotion/relationship, logic/reasoning.

In order to provide a compelling communication you must address each of these issues, not just one.  As lawyers we rely heavily on our “logos” thinking that a logically framed argument will win the day.

Over time, most of us learn that is not the case.  The fact that we are right, develop a good logical argument and articulate it well – doesn’t always mean that we end up in the winner’s circle.  In fact, ignoring the other facets here can be devastating to an otherwise effective message.

To advise, as well as to persuade, we have to appeal to the recipient at all levels, not just their logical self.  We can only do that well after we have engaged in the first process of understanding the recipient.

Over time, of course, your ability with any individual to do this will increase.  Initially it is hard and will need work, just as it does if you are communicating with larger audiences.

However that doesn’t mean you should ignore it.  It means you should put more effort into understanding the perspective of your audience before you communicate.  Seeking to address issues from the point of view of the audience will greatly assist us to be more effective communicators.

It’s not easy, but in my view it’s worth it.

Have a think now – do you have any experiences where logic didn’t get you over the line, despite expectations?  In retrospect, and specifically considering these tools, how might you have used a different approach with potentially a different outcome?

Happy lawyering!




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  • I like your topic: Making Assumption, ‘don’t assume ask’ how true.
    Where lawyers are concerned it is like ‘falling into the snake pit’ if you assume that the client is going to be ‘straight’ with you.
    Sometimes they( clients) have ‘hidden agendas of their own’ and it is up to the lawyer concerned to ‘dig’ and ‘dig’ for information for the case at hand.

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