Communication Skills for Lawyers
Coaching has become more than a sports term in the past few years. Many business executives, lawyers, and even housewives now have personal coaches. Coaches support their clients in achieving goals. Many of the skills of coaching are also applicable to law practice. Below are some communication tips from the coaching profession that apply to law:
1. The first rule of listening is to be present. That means you are actually there with the other person. You’re not mentally going over your to-do list while they’re talking. When you are really listening, you imagine what it might be like to live in their world. You allow the other person to share. You pay attention. You get the big picture. You don’t allow distractions. You listen to the other person rather than that ‘little voice’ in your head that is chattering away at you. You show some compassion.
2. Know yourself. Be aware of your own listening style. Each of us has our own preconceived notions and judgments. We listen through filters and we often resort to a certain style of listening. The more we take responsibility to become aware of our own filters and styles, the better able we are to put these filters and patterns aside and truly listen to others.
3. Listen to what they say and what they don’t say. Sometimes what is not said is much more important than what is said. Is the other person upset? Angry? Hurt? What is the emotion behind the words? Is she ashamed to tell you something? What details is she leaving out? Is he embarrassed to tell part of the story? Does the other person feel betrayed? What is the commitment behind the betrayal? Has some standard been violated?
4. Learn to listen to your own intuition. Everyone has intuition. The question is not whether you have intuition, but whether you choose to develop your intuition and integrate it into your professional and personal life. Integrating this intuition into the way that you listen to clients also trains you for more satisfying relationships with spouses, partners, family, etc. When you truly listen to someone, you can “hear” much more than the words that are spoken. [Caution! It is easy to confuse your own judgments or notions with intuition. Ask yourself if you are really clear to listen to the other person and to your intuition or if you are merely listening to the judgments of your own ‘little voice’.]
5. Create the environment for listening. In the office, it is often a good idea to meet clients in a conference room or other neutral place where the distractions on your desk do not claim your attention. Close the door, turn off phones, sit quietly and put all your attention on the client. Make sure others know that you are not to be interrupted except in case of a real emergency. Of course, not all listening is done in the office. There are many ways to create safe and calm environments for creating the focus for listening. When talking on the phone, it may be useful to try closing your eyes and concentrating on listening (rather than playing a computer game). In a public place, it may be useful to step aside, look directly into the person’s eyes, if appropriate you may even touch him or her on the arm to make connection.
1. Ask questions. Using your good listening skills, help the other person tell you what you need to know to get the full picture. Ask about what the other person isn’t saying as well as what he is saying. If you think your client is avoiding a topic, it is usually better to find a way to draw out the information rather than having it surprise you later.
2. Acknowledge the content of what you have heard. Therapists have a technique called active listening that is very helpful. In active listening, you repeat back what the other person said. This can feel awkward at first but it is an amazing tool. As you repeat it back, the other person knows you have heard the communication and is empowered to move on to the next concept.
3. Acknowledge the emotions behind what you have heard. Often, clients come to us when they are very angry. They may also feel embarrassed, betrayed, helpless, upset, sad, etc. Reflecting back the emotion you hear expressed by the other person has multiple purposes. First: it helps you to clarify what emotions are attached to the other person’s story. Second, knowing the emotions are there can help identify what the other person really wants in crafting a solution. Third, because the other person is acknowledged, she/he is better able to feel your compassion and to know you understand.
4. Acknowledge the unfulfilled expectations you have heard. The other person may be complaining about something, but behind every complaint is an unfulfilled expectation. Often, the complaint is a result of a standard or expectation that has been violated, unfulfilled or not lived up to. Discerning what the unfulfilled expectation is can help the client better see what is possible or not possible in crafting any solution to a dispute.
5. Let the client know you care. Often, we lawyers jump right to the legal issues. Our clients may be upset because they can’t differentiate between legal, financial or emotional issues. For some people, the issues are all meshed together. First we can acknowledge the frustration, and then help the client sort out the issues into these categories. And then let the client know that you care.
For example, recently a lawyer in California told me that a woman had called her about a broken relationship. The couple had been living together for eight years and she always expected they would eventually be married. Now, the man had left her. She wanted legal recourse. The lawyer told her that she did not live in a common law marriage state, and that the expectation of being married someday was not actionable. The woman hung up on the lawyer, then called back a few minutes later to say that she didn’t appreciate the lawyer’s attitude. “I called a human being,” she said, “and I expected to get a human response.” In informing the client about her legal rights, the lawyer had overlooked the pain of the break-up. This scenario might have gone differently if the lawyer had said; “This must be terrible for you, to live with someone for eight years, expecting to get married, loving him, counting on a future together, only to have it end abruptly. I wish I could help. It may not be fair and you may be justifiably upset but the law doesn’t provide any remedy for this sort of situation.”