Client communication: can the jargon

First, let me say that the potential for ironic failure in this blog post is not lost on me. Here I am, communicating with you on how to communicate effectively. Like the applicant who notes their attention to detail but doesn’t spot the numerous typos in their CV, I could be opening myself up to very easy criticism.

Feel free to roll your eyes or skip yet another blog on “soft skills” – you don’t need to believe or accept any of what is written below. But let me at least explain why I feel so passionately about this particular topic.

I Am Lawyer: Hear Me Bore

Let’s face facts: lawyers have a natural tendency to err on the side of “more is more” when it comes to communication, whether it be big words or long sentences (let’s call this a propensity for verbosity, just to prove my point).

You can give any number of reasons for this. For example, we are often dealing with risky subject matters (no one consults their lawyer when the answer is simple or obvious), so it is human nature to take care and make sure all bases are covered. However, this often translates into layer upon layer of caveat and equivocation.

The vast majority of my time is spent, in one form or another, communicating with my colleagues or with our customers – I would say verging on 80%. So it is clearly something I need to make sure I am doing as effectively as possible, otherwise I’m just creating hot air, noise and little else…and boring everyone in the process.

I make no pretence that I get it right every time – I absolutely don’t – but I know it has to be one of the skills I prioritise for constant development and refinement.

Hearing v Listening

The fundamental message I want to get across is that effective communication is critical to what lawyers do every day: if you cannot make your point clearly and with impact, will people really listen to your advice?

In my opinion, there is a big difference between being heard and being listened to. The former is just noise that someone is conscious of (and we’ve all met those lawyers (and clients)). The latter, by contrast, is where your audience attributes value and merit to your views and takes them into account. They don’t have to agree, of course, but you want to be in the race.

So no matter how good your advice, if you are not listened to, it becomes pointless. You therefore ignore the importance of good communication at your peril.

Les mots justes

I am not going to be foolish enough to suggest that you reduce all of your advice to short, punchy sound bites (or, perhaps more fun, give all responses in the form of a haiku). I know as well as anyone that you cannot summarise what are often fantastically complicated subjects in a couple of lines.

But, if you can, do at least try to make it shorter. I often read back through an email or note of advice (or my notes for a presentation) and try to strip out about a third of the words and see if the meaning remains basically the same. You will be amazed at how often it does. (And yes, I did do that on this blog.  And yes, it could still be shorter…).

You what..?

Even if you cannot reduce the length, focus on the content itself: think about your target audience and then about the language you use. You might know exactly what you are saying but your clients may not have a clue.

A good doctor can tell you what is wrong with you without giving you the scientific name for your condition. A good lawyer can explain the position without quoting legislation, reading from learned judgments or showing off their vocab (or perhaps their command of the thesaurus function (shift F7, anyone?)).

It’s a two-way street

I hate to break it to you, but communication is not a solo pursuit. You may genuinely enjoy the sound of your voice but talking to yourself is never a terribly good sign and unlikely to get you very far.

So you have to let other people have a go too.  And – perish the thought – you have to listen to what they are saying. If you do not understand their point, ask them to clarify. If you do not know the answer, have the nerve to say so (provided you provide a constructive solution at the same time).  Whatever you do, do not just answer the question you wanted to be asked or give the advice you want to give – that is just a waste of everyone’s time and money.

While you are at it, try and understand what is behind what is being said – your conversational counter-party may say one thing but they may really be getting at something completely different.  If you can decode this, and respond accordingly, you are on to a winner!

And finally…

If you can try and take the sting out of it all, please do. A lot of the conversations we all have to have are potentially acrimonious. That doesn’t mean you cannot do it all with politeness, civility and, if possible, a little humour. Trust me, it may not make the other side drop their point (although it has been known), but it will certainly make it all a lot more painless.

In short, all you have to do is be a brief, plain speaking, counsellor-psychologist-comedian. Easy when you know how…and if you find out, could you let me know?

Filed Under: Practice of Law

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