4 Unusual Listening Tricks for Lawyers

Listening Techniques for LawyersGood communication is at the foundation of virtually every relationship.  For lawyers, the ability to communicate well is a skill that influences the outcome of just about everything that takes place during a typical day.

Delegating tasks to co-workers, persuading a judge or jury, working with opposing counsel, understanding a client’s objectives – the success of each of these is grounded in the exercise of solid communication skills.

One key aspect of good communication is attentive, focused listening.

If we’re honest, listening is an aspect of communication that can be particularly difficult for us as lawyers.  Maybe it’s traceable to law school (e.g., “I’d better have something at least marginally intelligent to say when she calls on me?”) or it’s just inseparable from the nature of a lot of the confrontational stuff we sometimes do, but how many times do we find ourselves formulating a response to someone before they’ve even finished what they’re trying to tell us? Sometimes we even jump in midstream, interrupting. Both of those things are flaws that I find myself constantly trying to avoid.

While there is no shortage of advice that vaguely reminds us to “be a better listener”, there really aren’t many specific, tactical suggestions offered in order to achieve that goal. Let me suggest one that I often use myself, a practice that’s pretty popular here at Rocket Matter.  If you hung out at our office for a few days, you’d hear it used at least a handful of times.  You might even hear it (and after reading this, recognize it), while speaking with one of our support folks.

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A few specific suggestions for better listening:

1. Stay quiet. Basic, but essential. Let the other person (your client, your partner, your paralegal) finish their point without interruption.

2. Refrain from “thinking ahead” while someone is speaking to you. By focusing solely on exactly what the speaker is saying, to the exclusion of everything else, you will be less likely to miss anything – including important nuances or implications.  Also, by consciously keeping this focus, you’ll be far less likely to fall into the trap of: (a) starting to formulating a response (which often takes the form of an objection or counterpoint) while they’re still communicating with you; or, worse yet (b) just cutting them off completely.

3. Wait for the speaker to explicitly note they’re finished making their point, or ask if they’re finished. Sometimes people need to pause for a second after they speak to think about what they said, gather their thoughts, and make sure they expressed it in a complete way. Things don’t always come out perfectly the first time, and that’s especially true with clients who aren’t used to speaking with lawyers. Sometimes these clients perceive speaking with you as speaking with an authority figure.  As such, they can be nervous, shy, self-conscious, and so forth.   Be certain that the speaker is finished making their point, and they’re happy with the way they’ve made it, before you start responding.

4. Explain the speaker’s point back to the speaker. One of the best ways to measure whether you really know something or not is whether you can comfortably teach it to someone else.  In order to make certain you’ve heard what someone has said, and that you completely understand it, politely ask the speaker: “can I explain that back to you to make sure I got it?” And then take a stab at explaining everything back, preferably in your own words, so that you can show you’re not just memorizing something and shooting it back; rather, you’re evidencing complete understanding by taking their message and putting it in your own voice.

In addition to confirming understanding, there’s often a bonus to this step: from the speaker’s perspective, there can be a little boost of perceived respect.   Whether the listener agrees or not with what the speaker is communicating, the simple act of evidencing complete receipt of the speaker’s point or perspective can be an implied statement of respect and consideration.

Need a better way to manage your practice?

I was surprised how effective these simple little rules can be.  The steps are  particularly useful when you’re dealing with subject matter that’s highly complex, emotionally charged, or contentious – precisely the type of stuff lawyers deal with constantly.

If you’ve got your own tips or tactics to ensure better listening, please share them.

37 Responses to “4 Unusual Listening Tricks for Lawyers”

  1. John

    I used this technique in couple’s counseling..they call it mirroring and it is effective in honoring what each side feels is important to them within the conversation…

    Reply
  2. Nancy

    This method is good for ANY occupation!

    In our self centered narcissistic society it is quite the challenge to LISTEN to others. Many are too busy closing their minds to what the other is saying and formulating what they are going to say next.

    Reply
  3. David

    How productive is it to sit and patiently listen to someone whine on and on about their financial problems and how they cannot afford your initial retainer and why you should give them a break and work for free because of all their ridiculous financial woes?

    Hint: It’s not.

    Reply
    • susan

      Amen.

      Signed,

      Criminal Defense Attorney

      Reply
    • Insurance Defense Guru

      AMEN – churn em and burn em.

      Reply
    • Neal C. Chambers

      Isn’t it unfortunate that OUR societies system of justice is only available for money. The Preamble to American Constitutional Law states (paraphrased) that without equal protection under the law for everyone the right to police power is null and void. Yet when the poor are turned away for lack of finances then the law is NOT serving them.

      Lawyers who refuse a case because someone doesn’t have the money are doing an injustice both to their profession and to the system that they profit from by serving. Clearly these cheers from the peanut gallery underlines a major problem in our legal system and with our lawyers that requires remedy.

      Reply
      • Neal C. Chambers

        When I was young, my parents, both college educated, taught me not to fight with people and that if a conflict could not be resolved amicably, then a third party should be brought in to arbitrate.

        Indeed society tells us to go through the proper channels and not take the law into our own hands. Yet (unless you are a retailer), an individual with a criminal or civil complaint has no remedy without money and power. Police actually encourage people to ‘duke it out’ and not waste their time. This conflicting message from society to the population is the cause of greater injustice and a factor in the tragedy that the United States has more people in prison per capita than any nation in the world.

        Reply
  4. Jeff Lambert

    One challenge to listensing patiently is the concept of “efficient” and quick meetings. If one gives the time to understand the other side, will there be time to discuss the overall situation and the other perspectives. I am not dsagreeing with the importance of listening and understanding.

    Reply
  5. Sheila

    Thank you, David, for making it clear why so many people hate lawyers? Yes, you listen. Then you say “I’m sorry you feel you can’t afford my services. If I can help you find someone else to represent you, don’t hesitate to ask.” Then calmly escort them out. Even the whiners deserve respect.

    Reply
    • Karin

      Thank you Sheila. Honesty v. $

      Reply
    • Neal C. Chambers

      I won’t even get started on when Corporations engage in racketeering to attack and silence individuals; or how they use non-disclosure agreements to gag others so that they might conceal wrongful acts.

      Suffice it to say the Corporations typically trample the individual citizen without cases ever making it to court just by out-lawyering the opposition.

      I have been involved in a case now for four years. We have yet to see a judge and have been constantly stymied with legal technicalities and protocols without ever approaching any conversation about the crimes that were committed.

      Reply
  6. Robert

    Listen well, speak clealy, but hear. Most people are too busy “Waiting to Transmit” than “Receive” a good listener makes a good husband, wife, or friend. Doctors need to listen better too. Most folks just do not listen per above.

    Reply
    • WC Simpson Jr MD

      Ask the patient what is wrong with him and then listen because he will probably tell you.

      Reply
  7. Steve Apelman

    The most difficult attempt at executing this necessary method of communication is when you are trying to be attentive in understanding what the client is saying, making sure that you have their thoughts and thought patterns understood correctly, all while you are listening to them getting something completely wrong. The most difficult thing is to let them ramble on only to have to tell them, sometimes 5 minutes later, that they have it all wrong. That’s what takes discipline.

    Reply
    • Alan Harrison

      @Steve, that’s a good point. It’s important, though, to get a real good sense of just HOW wrong they are. Sometimes when I have jumped in to correct the blatant misapprehension, I’ve initially missed some much bigger covert errors. Those have lead to much more time-wasting later on, when they’ve proven able to pay but question why the work costs what it does.

      Reply
  8. Alan

    Only a lawyer or politician would consider active listening a “trick”. You might have called it a “tip” or “advice” or anything else. Your choice of words is Freudian.

    Reply
  9. Phil Sarazen, Commercial Appraisers

    Our clients have concerns that need to be clearly defined, analyzed and resolved. I listen and respond politely. That said, if the size and scope of the assignment is not in my wheelhouse, or the fee is insufficient, I thank them and refer them to another qualified appraiser. And, yes, it is sad that listening and responding to people as if they actually matter has gone from good manners taught by good parents and teachers to a “trick”. Brave new world.

    Reply
  10. Jim

    I found out, very early in my time as a counselor, that listening – intentional listening, focused listening – is hard work. After two or three counseling sessions in a day I would go home quite tired. And it is a learned skill. There are no (or very, very few) natural listeners.

    Reply
  11. Jim

    I think the previous Jim has it right. It is not natural as our brain immediately starts processing the information through our file system of knowledge and experience, much like a computer does immediately upon getting data. We have to shut down that processing step to be sure we fully understand the information coming in. But, both lawyers and doctors are on the clock as they “listen” to their client /patient. I have had the experience where both an attorney and a physician got it wrong because they assumed things and moved forward,….only to have it wrong. I felt partially to blame for not being sure they understood fully the symptoms or legal issue. And if one is going to want the listener to hear it all the speaker must take responsibility in that process. We always address the poor listening skills, but should equally point out the need for good verbal skills.

    Reply
    • Don Curtis

      I totally agree that much of any communication problem belongs to the speaker. It is hard to follow a speaker who uses many filler words or ah, umm, and 2-5 second breaks in their speech; my mind tends to race ahead to other subjects. Frankly, I find it insulting by someone rambling on, incoherently, thinking about some other subject, trying to talk to me at the same time, much like a person taking a phone call while discussing an important matter.

      Reply
  12. Ben

    Lawyers that don’t listen are called “tax attorneys” or should be

    Reply
  13. Mary

    I believe that good communication is a two way street. As a physician I do my best to ask focused questions only to have people wanting to “start at the beginning” which is, more often than not, something that happened 20 years ago. When I attempt to refocus to the present time they often go right back to their discussion of what happened to them 20 years ago. Since I have a limited amount of time to hear their story and treat their problem this becomes a totally frustrating process which usually ends with me interrupting them several times to get them to stay focused on the present problem. It is the responsibility of both the speaker and the listener to stay in the moment and concentrate on the present.

    Reply
    • sanda

      Try motivational interviewing.
      ESPECIALLY health care. Patients are as frustrated as providers.
      Invest your time in a course, it will really change your practice! Lawyers and mediators too!

      (I am an RN and mediator)

      Reply
  14. Rick

    That people need to express themselves and have someone listen to them has been well covered here. But there is something that has been missed: that people are not likely to be influenced by what you say. They have spent a lifetime settling into their understandings and routines, and are unlikely to change their perceptions. That they follow your advice is not due to their changed perceptions, but rather it is a matter of trust – have they grown to trust you? And listening with respect is a critical factor in earning their trust.

    Reply
  15. Reggie Brian

    As a hospice volunteer, I have found that being a “good listener” is critical to doing my job well.

    It helps to understand what the desired direction of flow of information is – whether to you, or from you, as well as whose desire you are honoring.

    Reply
  16. Craig kennedy

    Everyone seems to be talking about extremes. It is quite possible to listen effectively and still interject occasionally to keep the person on-track. Depending on time constraints inherent in most conversations you may want to utilize the authors technique of summing up and reviewing what was said so far ( 2 min, 5min, etc) to make sure you understand what the speaker is saying and they understand their point is or is not getting across. The key is not interjecting in a rude or dismissive manner. This helps keep the discussion on track and on time.

    Reply
  17. Jared

    I can appreciate that this is kinda based on skill sets from a lawyer’s point of view, but it really holds true for all walks of life. I’m an electronics technician & most think this means that I repair equipment. I’ve seen allot of techs repair equipment yet never really address the customer’s needs. Without the customer, the equipment is useless. I’m not repairing equipment, I’m fixing a customer’s problem. Communication is the strongest tool in my tool shed. If I haven’t fixed the customer, the equipment doesn’t really matter. That’s one of my concerns for the younger generations doing most their social maturing behind a keyboard. Face to Face is gonna always be where it’s at in the business world.

    Reply
  18. Tom

    I wish I could use the technique. Bit I find that if I don’t interrupt, the person will just go on and on. Suppose the person’s premise is wrong from the start. Should we allow them to continue to their conclusion, knowing that their conclusion will be wrong? I think its better to stop them at their point of being wrong or there misunderstanding instead of letting them ramble on as if they are going to get to the correct point when we know they will never get there. The art form is the ability to stop them respectfully, graciously and politely.

    Reply
    • George / plaintiff's emp discrim litigator

      The key is having an intake checklist at first contact – I have a three page checklist that any paralegal can complete in the course of a five minute conversation on a cold call. If the PC can’t clear the checklist they are given the county bar’s attorney referral line and never enter the office. If your practice has walk-ins then you may have to devote a bit more time. Still, creating checklists for your primary areas of practice and using them to filter potential clients down to those whose legal issues are within the scope of your practice really streamlines the number of PC’s that you will interview in an initial consultation.

      Reply
  19. Don’t make a client ask: Did you hear me? | The Business of Serving Clients

    […] Legal Productivity provided some interesting points about how lawyers can learn to listen better and thus improve client service. A few of those tips are: stay quiet; refrain from “thinking ahead” while someone is speaking to you; wait for the speaker to explicitly note he’s finished making his point or ask if he’s finished; and explain the speaker’s point back to the speaker. Now, while this article geared these tips specifically to lawyers, they could apply to any businessperson in any industry when it comes to dealing with clients or customers. […]

    Reply
  20. Attyboy

    Attorneys who do not listen carefully cannot hear what, or everything, clients tell them and likely will overlook what clients are not saying. Clients of such attorneys receive what they perceive as incomplete service, inadequate representation and likely will be unsatisfied with the outcome of their cases to some extent. A client who believes her attorney fully understands the legal issues AND where she is emotionally, because legal issues and lawsuits can and do deeply affect litigants, likely will more readily trust her attorney. Such clients likely will be more receptive to legal advice and more forgiving when their case goes south for whatever reason. Attorneys who do not listen well to clients probably do not listen well to others who are not clients. They may have personal issues to deal with that they have yet to identify because they have not taken the time to listen to themselves either.

    Reply
  21. George / plaintiff's emp discrim litigator

    These are practices that I use when dealing with anybody explaining a complex matter.

    I’ll apply these practices whether I’m evaluating a potential client’s case at an initial consultation or conducting an informal investigation – essentially every time that I’m called to perform some evaluation of a person’s veracity and substantive knowledge short of taking a deposition.

    Usually, a layperson is very disorganized in reciting facts/data. I do my best to sort the pieces into some logical framework while listening (if I’m able to, I’ll be taking brief notes and I list the most important facts/data as it comes out in the speaker’s stream of conversation and then I number them in either chronological order or by relevance/importance if ordering by chronology doesn’t fit well with the data).

    My first questions are brief, and made specifically to collect data obviously missing from the whole, or else to narrow a broad statement to just the relevant facts.

    When I’ve asked my fill-in questions and I am reasonably satisfied that I have a grasp of the issues, then I repeat the fact pattern back in my reordered/focused form to my speaker/client to make certain that I’ve not missed a point. I’ll then ask the broad question, “Have I missed anything?” I then listen carefully to the next iteration of the story/facts/data recited by the speaker.

    If It is appropriate under the circumstances, I’ll form brief questions to inquire about the speaker’s motivation/perception of their situation or about a logical gap in their fact pattern. I ask them one at a time. I find that remaining silent for a much longer time than I would in an ordinary conversation creates a condition in my speaker/client where they feel compelled to fill that silence with more information – and, where the speaker/client has left out material to avoid disclosing something they feel is embarrassing or detrimental – it is amazing how often they will fill the “awkward” silence with facts/motivations/perceptions that really are admissions against interest.

    Yes, I’ll be thinking about a question to fill in an obvious gap (or, to elicit the speaker’s reason/motivation for doing, or not doing something) while listening – and, I’ll usually write a brief reminder of my concern/question down while going through through this process of uninterrupted listening.

    I don’t need to use the cross examination technique of dismembering a flawed statement at the first instant possible – this discussion may well be an adversarial situation – but, there is no judge, jury, or court reporter present to record the “ace” of my “instantaneous” analysis of missing facts or my declaration of the speaker’s obvious mendacity. That’s an aggressive approach that rarely serves any beneficial purpose (aside from putting the speaker/client in an openly defensive position) in practicing the gentle art of interrogation.

    Get the facts, repeat them, fill in the gaps with simple questions and make use of silence: if the situation calls for gutting the speaker/client then they will make admissions against interest and they won’t have felt the knife going in when I’m using these techniques. Brief, focused questions, asked only after completely listening to the speaker’s story, followed by complete silence – letting the speaker give their first answer and, as the silence continues, the speaker is frequently compelled to augment their answer. The most that I’ll do is to prompt the speaker with, “Is that all?” after a good two minutes of dead silence from their last response to my question. Once I have a full answer (or, as full as the speaker will provide at the point in the interrogation) to my first question, I’ll move on to the second, third… however many that are called for under the circumstances – and, then I’ll return to any that I think haven’t been completely addressed and use the same type of narrowly focused question (rephrased and conforming to the present status of the story) and silence to see if I can elicit still more information/admissions.

    It’s a western cultural phenomena: people have to fill awkward silence. Listening is tough work, but it is ultimately rewarding when you want to get to the core information or to reveal that the speaker/client is engaging in mendacity to advance their own agenda.

    As for winnowing the inappropriate clients from the pool – these practices make the process relatively painless – you know your field, listen to the PC, repeat the PC’s facts back to the PC, tell the PC that their facts don’t fall within the scope of your practice and open your standard form “decline to represent” on your computer, type in the PC’s name, print the form (that should have your jurisdiction’s mandated notices – SOL / deadlines / should seek counsel – along with your county bar attorney referral line / legal aid /pd numbers and websites) sign it and have a place for the PC to sign acknowledging receipt – scan that into your declined to represent database and send the PC out the door with the original. I never have problems with whiners because I’ve listened to the facts/recited them back/explained case was not within my scope of practice/provided them with a written statement declining to represent them along with a list of alternative resources for them to pursue and I can accomplish all of this in less than 4/10′s.

    Reply
  22. Scientech

    Right on, Jared and Reggie! I spent 35 hours in training a couple of decades ago on active listening (reflecting not only facts, but also feelings and values) to work on a crisis hotline. I was already empathetic and (frankly) smart, but this skill has proven useful in my consulting career, and all relationships (although it takes a while to integrate a “technique” into an authentic skill which doesn’t come across as formulaic and thus alienating, particularly in intimate relationships). You want to be sure to address the client’s real goals, which (as in therapy), aren’t always the “presenting problem.” Even in technical situations, sometimes a simple workaround or alternative makes as satisfied a customer as an expensive or difficult (but complete and “right”) fix. Listening deeply — explicitly including active reflection (“So it sounds like you want your landlord to apologize as much as you want your deposit back — is that right?”) can help you identify possible alternative solutions.

    I agree with the statements about building trust, as well: if you treat clients with integrity and respect, they are much more likely to do the same for you. I do also understand the concerns of time-dogged professionals, and (having worked in social services), the fact that some people can indeed ramble and be incorrect (unlike our Most Perfect Selves, of course). In such a situation, perhaps reflecting emotion (“it sounds like you’re worn out from living with this problem for so long”) would be as valuable an interjection as one meant to ascertain a fact, allowing you to move the conversation forward (“so can we focus together on ways we could fix it?”) while making the client feel valued rather than rushed. You do want to get to the end of the hike, but you want to get there together.

    Reply
  23. Spence Kerrigan

    Written communication is better understood.

    Reply
  24. Rod C. Venger

    I’n not a lawyer, just a consumer. Unlike doctors, who can begin with a limited amount of information…symptoms…and through a process of diagnostics using their experience and technology, create a list of possible causes for the symptoms. They can then narrow their search for the cause with further work and consultations, the end product, hopefully, being a correct diagnosis. Their bill is the sum of equipment used, tests and procedures performed, resources utilized, etc.

    With lawyers it’s somewhat different. No mater what is done or resources used, what your client gets at the end of the day is your bill, pretty much solely based on billable hours. Time is everything. Your time is my money and frankly, if you’re not listening, you’re cheating me. For some people, seeing a lawyer and using his or her services is every bit as traumatic as surgery…we’re there with you out of necessity, not want, and unlike the hospital, there’s no real system in place to insure against the costs of your services. We’re liable to be emotional, distracted and rambling. Like a doctor, in order to cut through the clutter, it’s up to you to ask pointed questions. Remember that your charges may follow the client for a very long time.

    Reply
  25. Jay

    The only thing “unusual” about these four listening techniques is that today’s populace scores so ineptly at the art of listening. The causes are many and not my focus here. These listening / understanding techniques have been well documented for decades. I hope our entire nation can focus on listening better because it leads to a problem solving environment and our country needs that now more than ever….profoundly so in the area of finding political solutions to our growing list of worries.

    Reply
  26. L.M.Hawley

    These concepts work with friends as well, perhaps especially with friends. I recall a luncheon a while backwith only 6 out of the usual dozen or so. The individual who usually dominated the conversation with her aches and pains was not in attendance. That day this small group (4 of the 6 were widows) solved some world, national and local problems, even some personal issues, quietly but with excellent input and some laughs. End result: stronger friendships, increased respect, and the memory of a great day. Try these ideas… they work in all situations.

    Reply

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