Lawyers could drastically improve client communications by employing a simple mental exercise to strengthen an ordinary, everyday skill: Listening. Heard of it? Active listening can not only strengthen client communications by building rapport and increase perceived value but also make attorneys better at what they do.
A Regular Reeducation
Watching Judge Judy is not a bad place to begin for most lawyers since regular people have a lot more going for them in this department. One of the primary reasons for this is that law schools tend to drum the “regularness” out of us. The first chapter in the history of the our legal education system was a bizarre because law school founders feared the regular person.
Law Schools Beat the Regular Out of Us
Successful lawyers are able to overcome this impediment and rediscover the regularness. Great trial attorneys are consummate regular people to jurors and judges. Successful firms have partners who are pros at being real with clients. Some attorneys, however, find it hard to be regular, to just be yourself.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the deceptively simply skill of listening. Far too often, when a lawyer says is less of a reply to what was said and more a product of a break in the action when they say what we’ve been waiting to say.
1. Wait for Their Last Words
In working with attorneys seeking to increase their appellate advocacy or simply bolster their professional careers, I suggest a variation of a skill improvisors perfect: Don’t speak until you have heard and noted the other speaker’s last three words. A simple exercise that’s surprisingly effective. Try it at the next time you meet with a client, have a hearing, or attend a meeting.
2. Keep ‘Em Talkin’
First and foremost, focus is appropriately given to the speaker. The more clients, judges, or even opposing counsel contribute to a dialog, the more ammunition you have to build a rapport and make your case.
If you’re patient enough and make certain to wait until the person is done speaking, there is a strong likelihood that the resulting silence will also encourage them to keep talking. In general, people in our society are not comfortable with silence and will rush to fill it. See if you can count “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three -Mississippi” before you reply. You’ll be amazed at how often you don’t get to that third Mississippi.
3. Segue With Their Words
Once it’s your turn, you should ideally incorporate those three words as well as more of what was just said to segue into what you have to say. With judges, this is a superb method to stay on point, answer the question asked, and flatter the ego of the questioner. With clients, you explicitly acknowledge them and chip away at any anxiety related to you or the matter at hand.
This segueing is a skill that we naturally exercise when we are genuinely engaged or interested in someone. In a professional setting, however, it can take practice for lawyers to consistently execute, so have patience. Simply focusing on the speaker’s words and waiting for them to finish is a significant accomplishment.
Write Don’t Speak
A little trick within this trick is to jot down any thoughts that you have while they’re speaking, so you can return focus to them and reincorporate your ideas into your segue. With some practice, you will be able to mentally compartmentalize your ideas as they occur so you don’t have to break eye contact and maintain even more focus.
There’s an even better trick that’s much more effective: find whatever someone else is saying to be incredibly fascinating. Either way, you’ll help yourself by helping others make their point.