6 steps for lawyers (and everyone) to become better listeners

What’s the number one complaint clients have about their lawyers? Uncivil communication. Put more bluntly, we can come across as arrogant jerks. For some, that’s because they actually are obnoxious blowhards. But for the rest, it’s because we’re busy, we’re stressed, we’re trained to get right to the point – to bore into witnesses aggressively, to make them answer our pointed questions.

Too often in talking to clients, colleagues, friends and family, we forget we’re not in a cross-examination and we allow ourselves to become impatient and rude with those who speak like normal human beings. That leads to lawyers’ terrible reputations and jokes about piles of us at the bottom of the sea.

Why active listening matters

The solution? Learn active listening skills. Also called compassionate communication or nonviolent communication, based upon the groundbreaking book of that name by Marshall Rosenberg, active listening is a way of conversing respectfully in stressful situations so the speaker feels heard. I’ve used this for years in my personal and professional life to de-escalate conflicts and I heartily recommend it to you (I’m not perfect at this – it’s a lifelong challenge, but a worthy one).

At the core of active listening is the concept that we can disagree without being disagreeable. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “You have very little morally persuasive power with those who feel your underlying contempt.” When you simply argue back at someone who begins a hostile conversation with you, countering his points, the speaker becomes even more defensive and the situation escalates.

See me. Hear me.

Everyone on the planet harbors a profoundly deep, often unmet, human need: to be heard and understood. Meet it, and you will relax the speaker into working with you toward a cooperative solution.  Change your tone, change your approach, change the dialogue, change the outcome.

“But I don’t agree with him!” you say. That’s fine. Understanding another’s point of view does not require you to agree, or to do what he wants. It does not make him right and you wrong. It simply demonstrates your willingness to hear a contrary view, with some sensitivity, before offering yours.

The 6 steps of active listening

Here’s how it’s done. To explain, I’ll use the example of a client, Marlene, who is unhappy that she had sent pages of witness information to the lawyer, who had failed to use any of it in an important motion he filed in court. The client comes in, angry. “How did you ignore that email I sent you about the witnesses?!”

  1. Let the other person speak, and listen intently. 

The first step is to let the client have her say. Sit calmly, no matter what, and let her vent until she’s done. Don’t interrupt. Most people hate being interrupted, especially when they’re angry.

The only exception to this is if she goes on at great length, skipping into new topics. At that point gently raise a hand, ask her if she would be agreeable to pausing on the first point so that you can be sure you got it before moving on to the next. (More on this below.)

Make eye contact. Take notes if that will help you remember her points.

Lean in. Listen like you’re going to be tested on her soliloquy. Because you are.

  1. Repeat back, paraphrasing.

When she has finished, say her central point back to her, in your own words. I like beginning with, “What I hear you saying is …” because it focuses me on the task at hand.

“Marlene, what I hear you saying is that you put together information for me on five different witnesses. It took a great deal of time and effort to do that. And when I didn’t include it on the motion, it upset you.”

For extra credit, mirror the speaker’s communication style. If she’s a slow talker and you’re a motor mouth, like me, slow your stroll to her tempo. If she’s quieter, turn down your volume. Speak English with a nonlawyer, not legalese. Meet her where she is.

  1. Ask if you’ve got it right and if there’s more.

Seeking confirmation as to whether you’ve captured her issue is respectful and shows you genuinely want to understand. If she says yes, ask if there is anything else she’d like to say on the subject.

If she adds something new, repeat steps 1, 2 and 3.

  1. Guess the underlying feeling.

We’re not playing psychotherapist here, but we are doing our best to be compassionate listeners. Something simple like, “That sounds really frustrating. Is it?” can go a long way. Keep a box of tissues handy because when people get that emotional validation, they can become weepy. That’s okay, they’re not robots.

Let the moment breathe before going on to the next step.

  1. Ask permission to offer your perspective

“Marlene, thanks for sharing your perspective with me. May I offer mine?” She will say yes, because you’ve heard her out, and now she’ll want to offer you the same courtesy. You’ve modeled respectful engagement for her, and ideally she’ll try to reciprocate.

If you’ve done something wrong, begin by apologizing, and explain why it won’t happen again. “We should have gotten back to you promptly when you sent us that email. We always want to be responsive to you, even when we’re rushing to get a motion filed in your case. As soon as we’re done here, I’ll instruct my staff that your calls and emails must always be returned quickly, and certainly within 24 hours.”

Next, avoiding judgments and hot button words, calmly explain your position. “This motion is called a demurrer, and in it we can only challenge the sufficiency of the complaint. What that means is that the court would not allow us to include witness statements, and that’s why they’re not in the motion. But they will be helpful to us as the case proceeds, so I’m glad you compiled this information for us. If we lose the demurrer, let’s set up a time for you to come in and we’ll go over these witnesses with you and brainstorm.”

  1. Check in on how your perspective is being received.

“Does that make sense? Do you have any questions?”

If the speaker has more issues, repeat these steps.

When possible, see if you can get to the root of the issue. “Marlene, what I hear you saying is that you’re frustrated at the lack of communication here. Is that a big part of what’s going on?” You’re not only listening to her words. On a deeper level, you’re grasping what’s underneath those words.

Pay it forward

Warning: once you start using these tools regularly, you’ll be frustrated that everyone else isn’t doing the same. But they don’t know the rules and benefits, and you do. So I invite you to teach it to your spouses and colleagues so you can experience the satisfaction of the receiving end of empathic talks. The more you put these tools to use, the more you can reduce conflicts in your business and at home.

And if the judge allows it, you can still be an adversarial SOB in the courtroom.