Opinion: The Art of Communicating for Legal

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The art of effective communication can often be lacking in day-to-day conversations and as a result can come at a cost to business. In fact, a recent article in The Age went as far as to say that poor communication could cost Australian businesses in the realm of billions of dollars each year. Whilst the math behind this is not substantiated, there is little doubt that ineffective communication costs businesses time, money and, in some cases, relationships. 

As lawyers, most of us believe that we are fairly adept communicators and negotiators, and rightly so as many of us are. However there is always room for improvement.
Listen to understand; not to reply
The most common reason for poor communication is that we forget that talking is only half of the equation - effective communication also requires active listening.  This is particularly important for us as lawyers, as it’s ingrained in us at law school to always come back promptly with an answer. This pressure to respond can sometimes compromise our ability to really listen to what’s being said and comprehend the bigger picture.
Rather than thinking about what you should respond with next, prioritise listening to what the other person is saying and you might notice subtle intonations in their voice that indicate how they really feel. This can enable you to read between the lines and pick up on  subtleties that are often easily be missed.
Active listening can also help to minimise misunderstandings that result in more work, lead to unnecessary back and forth, and in some cases amount to bad advice.  
Practicing the power of paucity
A conversation shouldn’t be a rapid-fire exchange of comments – savvy communicators understand and practise the power of paucity. Have you ever noticed how highly esteemed judges, politicians and media personalities often pause for a few seconds before replying? Pausing in a conversation gives you time to consider your next move and reply strategically, which is particularly powerful when negotiating. It can also make you appear a considered and smart communicator. It’s easy to feel pressured to respond as soon as the other person has finished speaking, but the truth is that you don’t need to. And, if you are in fact actively listening, you’ll need a few seconds to consider your response anyway.
Understanding the motivation behind a question
Understanding the motivation behind a question is as important as the question itself. This is crucial for lawyers who work in-house and regularly deal with multiple stakeholders – many of whom might not be clear in articulating what’s driving their enquiry.
To give you a simple example, if someone asks you why you didn’t perform a task in a particular way, the underlying message might be ‘I’m not happy with the way you carried out this task’ (depending on their tone of voice of course). Therefore after explaining the reasons behind your chosen course of action, you may choose to address the root of the question itself, E.g. ‘Would you prefer me to approach this differently going forward?’ Or ‘In light of my answer, are you happy with the way I performed this task?’
Asking why
There is a common but ill-founded perception that asking ‘why’ makes you sound uninformed, but in fact in many instances asking why and digging a little deeper is actually a wise move. Not only does it help you better understand instructions and the context of a question, but it can also save you a great deal of time when problem solving.
In business, time is money and if more people asked ‘why’ at the right time, many an unwanted issue or crisis would have been averted. So next time you feel there might be more to what someone’s saying, or you don’t have the whole picture, ask for their reasoning. Don't make assumptions based on your personal biases either.
A former partner and M&A lawyer at one of Australia’s top firms once said, ”Each time a client says to me ‘we’re buying this’ my first response is always ‘why?’ This allows me to ascertain whether the client really understands the investment and its pros and cons, and therefore tells me where I should be focusing my attention.”
In order to work efficiently and produce the desired results, effective communication is crucial. It helps to ensure you deliver considered advice, fare better during negotiations and earn respect as a thoughtful lawyer. Effective communicators understand that listening is the most important tool at their disposal. As the wise saying goes, ‘We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak’.
By Miriam Rihani, Senior Legal Counsel lexvoco.
  • Arriarne on 14/12/2015 11:04:27 AM

    I've read many, many articles on how the communicate effectively. This is definitely one of the better ones. The points made in here also apply more broadly, beyond just the legal sphere: listen actively; apply the power of paucity; ask, 'why?', and, try to understand the motivation behind a question.
    Great tips Miriam, thank you.

  • J Taylor on 14/12/2015 10:35:30 AM

    A very good article and the points well made. +1

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