In the context of a conversation between an attorney and a client, effective communication occurs when both the attorney and the client feel they have been heard. For example, at the outset of representation, a client is often looking for confirmation that their lawyer understands what the problem and desired outcome is. Similarly, a lawyer is often looking for confirmation that the client has a clear understanding of what the lawyer can realistically do for the client given the circumstances at hand. The challenge here is that an effective communication can only occur by way of a constructive conversation, which requires both participants to enter a mutual conversation. There must be a balance between talking and listening.
This balance thing can be harder than it might seem. Suffice it to say, that while I can be a good listener at times, having a constructive conversation every time I open my mouth remains a challenge and it’s all about my being unable to find that proper balance between talking and listening. In fact, in my personal life I’ve been told more than a few times by my lovely wife that if I would just listen, it would become apparent that she isn’t looking to have me solve her problem. Sometimes she just wants to be heard, to get it out, so to speak. Unfortunately, the lawyer problem solver in me just can’t shut up. I suspect I’m not the only lawyer who suffers from this conversational shortcoming. I don’t know about you, but law school taught me how to problem solve. I never had any law professor pontificate on the virtues of being an effective listener. Quite the opposite in fact, I was taught how to debate and how to put forth a compelling argument.
If any of this is striking a chord with you, following through with even one or two of the following tips will enable you to have a more constructive conversation with your clients. All ten tips come from a Ted Talk by noted author, journalist, and speaker Celeste Headlee. The following are a summary of her points coupled with my trying to put an attorney-client conversation spin on them. If you care to view the entire Ted talk, and I encourage you to do so, you will find it here. In sum:
- Don’t Multi-task – Simply be present and pay attention. No texting, no thinking about other matters, no working through your email. You are in your client’s employ and this is their time.
- Don’t Pontificate – Enter every conversation with an assumption that YOU have something to learn. Remember, the matter being discussed is the client’s matter. The more you learn, the better your advice will be.
- Use open-ended questions – Questions like “Will you tell me more about that?” invite your client to think and provide a more informative response. You don’t want to make it easy for a client to sit back and just confirm what you think you know or want to hear.
- Go with the flow – Don’t get stuck on what you want to say next. To do so requires that you miss half of what your client has just told you because it’s quite difficult to concentrate on an important point you want to make and also listen at the same time.
- If you don’t know something say so – Honesty instills trust. Faking it fosters doubt. It’s as simple as that.
- Don’t equate the other person’s experience with yours – For example, as a client shares his or her story during intake, don’t try and relate by telling your story. Worse yet, don’t respond by talking about how many times you’ve heard this story before. Again, you are in someone else’s employ. These conversations are not to be about you.
- Try not to repeat yourself – If you feel you haven’t been heard or understood, ask your client to make sure. Continuing to repeat yourself risks your coming across as condescending.
- Stay out of the weeds – Most people really are not that interested in the minutiae or the nitty gritty details. Clients just want to know they’re in good hands.
- Listen, truly listen – This does take a lot of effort and energy. According to Steven Covey, most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand, most of us listen with the intent to reply. The only way to maximize the relevancy of any reply is to first listen well.
- Be Brief – Share your thoughts and advice in a succinct manner. Demonstrate that the client matters to you as a person by confirming that he or she understands what has been discussed. Invite questions.