At our recent “In Conversation With” event (find the video here), Obelisk consultant Rashda Rana SC called out listening as one of the most valuable success skills lawyers can develop. Rashda pointed out that, with the drop in opportunities to speak face to face caused by the current pandemic, effective listening is more important than ever right now.
Why does listening matter so much?
Really listening, as opposed to just hearing what is being said and thinking about what you’ll say next (we all do it!), allows you to pick up all the information that is being conveyed, not just the words someone says. Tone, body language, pauses, words not used and other cues all combine to give extra meaning within a conversation. In practical legal situations, these cues might indicate where you need extra information so that you can deliver better advice for your client. They will also show you how to present advice in such a way that it will be well received.
Giving people your full attention also makes them feel more valued, more comfortable and more likely to share more information with you. In a legal context, clients are paying for your time and attention. Listening properly demonstrates that you are making them a priority, helping you to build rapport and deliver the service they expect.
How do you get better at listening?
We asked executive coach, and legal consultant, Julian Harris for his advice on how you can cultivate better listening skills. “What characterises the best listeners is that they have a deep presence”, Julian told us and shared these three tips for cultivating presence:
#1 Get really curious.
Ask your client questions about their issue/challenge/goal/project. When they’re answering a question, don’t interrupt! And when they’ve finished, ask them another question (and fall silent again). You want your client to feel like you really want to know about them.
#2 Look at the other person while they talk.
Make regular eye contact (without staring!) Try not to take too many notes. It’s fine to write down some key words or phrases, but if you’re too preoccupied with your notes, and aren’t looking at your client while they talk, they won’t feel listened to. It’s also acceptable to ask them to pause while you write something important down, effectively getting permission to break eye contact.
That might sound obvious, but it’s harder than you may think. Ensure you’re breathing from your stomach, slowly and regularly, with the exhalation slightly longer than the inhalation. If you feel yourself becoming distracted, you could take a deeper inhalation, or exhale more deliberately, which has the effect of restoring your focus.
Using presence while you listen, also known as “active listening”, takes practice and patience. It means really committing yourself to the person you are listening to and using all your senses, not just your ears.
What’s different about listening on video calls?
For most of us, opportunities to meet face-to-face are thin on the ground right now. The good news is that you can still use active listening on Zoom. The bad news is that you need to work a bit harder. First of all, you need to think about your physical set-up:
- Use the best possible internet connection, so that you can use your camera without worrying about buffering
- Check what you look like on screen – do you need to adjust your work-station so that your face is well-lit? Are there too many distractions in the background?
- If possible, position the camera so that it is at your eye-level (books or a box under your laptop are a quick fix), and resist the temptation to look at yourself while you are talking
- Consider positioning your device so that you can stand up while you meet, as a way of keeping yourself alert and engaged.
Secondly, you need to minimise potential distractions:
- Close other tabs on your computer so that you don’t look at other work while you are in a meeting…the other participants will be able to tell!
- Turn off notifications from your email/messenger service, especially if you are planning to share your screen on the call
- Don’t check messages on another device while you are on video conference…it’s easy for others to see that you’re distracted even if your phone is out of shot.
Finally, you need to work even harder on maintaining your presence. Whilst you can’t maintain eye contact in the same way via camera, you can use gestures such as tilting your head or nodding your head to show that you are taking points on board. Using phrases such as “To clarify…” and checking your understanding by repeating information or “To build on what X said…”, demonstrates that you are participating fully.
Why is listening even more important in lockdown?
With the rise of dispersed or remote working, the legal industry is not alone in reporting an increase in feelings of loneliness and anxiety. Working from home also means there are even more demands on our time and potential distractions, particularly for those working parents who are having to home school or colleagues who don’t have much space at home. Listening to your clients and colleagues effectively not only helps you do a better job and strengthen the lawyer/client relationship, it also maintains vital working relationships that might otherwise weaken during this difficult time. Use your listening skills to identify opportunities to empathise and build connections:
- If the person you’re meeting with is clearly distracted by events at home, ask if they’d like to pause so they can re-group and listen with full attention
- If you’re interrupted unexpectedly, acknowledge the interruption and keep going, if you can, or explain you need to pause for a moment
- Remember to include some small-talk. A few minutes of informal conversation at the start or end of a video call helps you to learn more about the person you’re working with and gives you a chance to find more common ground outside work.
Put listening at the top of your list
As the old saying goes, “We have two ears and one mouth, so we can listen twice as much”. Be conscious of the time you’re spending listening v’s talking, check your attention and focus on your presence. With hybrid working likely here to stay, video conference isn’t going to go away. Investing time and effort in your listening skills now will set you up for success in the future.