Communication Counts: Coaching Strategies for Estate Planning Practitioners

Volume 26 No 6

By

Gwynne W. Guzzeau is a certified Gestalt coach and the owner of a boutique estate planning and elder law practice on Cape Cod, Barnstable County, Massachusetts.

In today’s economy, the analytical and advocacy skills estate planning practitioners bring to the table in meetings with clients or colleagues are no longer enough. As a profession, and especially in an estate planning and probate practice, if we undervalue the importance of communication, we do so to the detriment of our clients and our bottom line.

Years of legal practice and training are no longer enough. It is time to add to our toolkit as estate planning practitioners and learn the coaching strategies and communication techniques that will increase the impact of our legal counsel and improve our effectiveness as attorneys.

In short, it is time for a broader definition of professional responsibility in the legal profession, and estate planning and probate practitioners are poised to lead the way. Our work has always been twofold: to address both the legal needs of our clients and their human needs. The former we have mastered—more or less, even in a climate of ever-changing estate tax law. We have been less than forthcoming, however, with ourselves (never mind our clients) about the fact that our legal counsel sits within the complexity of some of the most challenging aspects of human lives (that is, relationships with money, with family, with death).

Although our work has been, and always will be, to address our clients’ legal needs, it is time to broaden our skill set to include the communication competencies that acknowledge that an estate planning practitioner is, in fact, a helping relationship. We are engaged as active participants with our clients, in our immediate work together and in the plan we draft that will continue to play out in our clients’ lives long after the final documents are signed.

Gestalt coaching and organizational consulting practices offer strategies for practitioners interested in increasing their impact and effectiveness as attorneys by broadening the range of options available at any given moment for communication and engagement with clients and with colleagues. My interest in Gestalt training grew out of my work sitting with couples, individuals, and families to discuss estate plan or long-term care issues and realizing the need and the opportunity to broaden the conversation about these issues to assist clients in their decision making about their estate or long-term care plans. In this article, I will highlight three coaching strategies that have been useful additions to my toolkit as an estate planning and elder law attorney seeking to communicate with greater effect.

Why Now? Demands for Communication Competency

Last year, 75 million baby boomers started turning 65, the age when people traditionally retired based on the now outdated life expectancy of 70 years. P. Hodge, Baby Boomer Public Policy: A New Vision, The Age Explosion: Baby Boomers and Beyond, 1 Harv. Generations Pol’y J., Winter 2004, at 7–22. In addition to these statistics, experts predict the “natural cap” of our life span will increase from 100 to 120 years in the coming decades. R.D. Hill, Seven Strategies for Positive Aging (2008). Because of longer life expectancies, women are disproportionately affected by the reality of these population statistics.

These same women are the most educated, personally wealthy, and professionally experienced population of women in our country’s history. In the peak years of their earning and spending, women ages 50–70 control over 80% of their household spending decisions. M. Barletta, Prime Time Women: How to Win the Hearts, Minds and Business of Boomer Big Spenders (2007).

For the past five years, women increasingly have brought their families’ estate planning matters to the table. Women call to make the appointment to review or prepare their family’s estate plan. It is usually these same women who, after the legal work is done, stay at the table and ask for more.

Experts reviewing population and cultural trends believe not only that baby boomers are changing our culture’s conversation on aging and dying but also that it is the women baby boomers who are going to lead this conversation. Barletta, supra.

Large or small, our clients are increasingly sophisticated and demand services that go beyond a top-down, lawyer-centered approach. In a 2010 conference at Georgetown University Law Center on the future of law firms, Eversheds offered a white paper stating that this top-down, lawyer-centered approach no longer works for large corporate clients. Why then should we think it works for any clients?

Clients want and need something more than the law. Although the skills of a counselor at law—listener, educator, coach—can come naturally to some, dedicating more resources to professional development can deepen these skills. In addition to continuing legal education, leadership training that combines theory and practice allows estate planners to test new listening and communication skills to add to their own personal styles, enabling them to experience and reflect on how they affect others.

Back in the office, as the estate planner sits at the table with a client—be it a couple or a group of shareholders of a closely held business—she should deliver not only legal guidance, but also a balance of communication strategies that allow her to exercise greater influence, thereby increasing the likelihood that her advice will be received and acted on by the client (that is, the client engages in reflection regarding which planning option is a better fit for his or her family circumstances and selects a plan that is less likely to meet challenge on implementation because of the level of consideration given to assessing the options).

The question remains: how can we broaden our skill set to include the communication competencies that support our roles as active participants in a helping relationship, as well as be attorneys working within the constraints of an ever-changing legal and regulatory environment?

Communication Competency in Your Practice

To support your professional development as a communicator, “coaching skills . . . can expand a lawyer’s skill set and become a useful complement and balance to his or her analytical and adversarial skills.” A. Elowitt, The Lawyer’s Guide to Professional Coaching: Leadership, Mentoring and Effectiveness (ABA 2012), at 152.

Consider the following coaching strategies and how they might increase your effectiveness in meetings with either clients or colleagues.

Get Curious

How you demonstrate curiosity and interest is as much about your physical presence as it is about the words you use. Studies continue to show that most communication is made up of two-thirds nonverbal cues and one-third the actual words we use. K. Hogan & R. Stubbs, Can’t Get Through: 8 Barriers to Communication (2003).

Why Is This Important? If your goal is to highlight the advantages of a certain estate plan strategy or to give feedback to a colleague, you need to create a level of trust on which you can deliver important information. Before you even begin to speak, your presence is either building a foundation for trust, creating cracks in whatever trust got the parties into the room together, or sleeping on the job—neither helping nor hindering.

“Presence represents the translation of personal appearance, manner, values, knowledge, reputation, and other characteristics into interest and impact. Presence is not manufactured. Everyone possesses presence, regardless of the level of awareness of the impact of that presence. . . . Presence is use of self with intent.” M.A.R. Tolbert & J. Hanafin, Use of Self in OD Consulting: What Matters Is Presence, in The NTL Handbook of Organization Development and Change (B. Jones & M. Brazzel eds. 2006), at 69–82.

How Do You Do It? How you do this is easy—pay attention. Notice Mr. Smith’s folded arms and direct gaze. Is he open to being here and getting some answers to his questions? Is he uncomfortable at the same time? You won’t really know unless you ask him, and I am not suggesting that you do that; however, it is good practice to develop an awareness of your client’s general posture and presence at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the meeting. And what about your own posture and presence? When you listen to your client or colleague, how are you using your posture, gaze, and overall presence to convey interest?

To achieve the effect you desire in your conversations with clients or colleagues, you need to develop an awareness of your presence and the message you are communicating even before you open your mouth. That said, your use of questions and open-ended statements contributes to a stance of curiosity and interest. S. Nevis et al., Cape Cod Training Program: Embracing the Cape Cod Model, Gestalt International Study Center, Wellfleet, Mass., May 13–19, 2011, lecture notes.

For instance, after introducing or explaining a particular estate planning strategy, try combining a statement and an inquiry: “I’ve just shared a lot of information. What are your thoughts?”

Then leave space for the client to think and respond. Leave a moment of silence to allow your client to join in the conversation. Then listen, using your presence to demonstrate a stance of curiosity and interest.

Don’t I Already Do This? This approach is different from a consultation in which the attorney explains the estate planning strategy the attorney believes is best, and then asks: “Do you have any questions? No? Well then, our paralegal will be in to get some details.” And out the door he or she goes. This authoritative approach will not work for many of today’s clients who are seeking not just the legal facts but also a thought-partner for guidance and counsel when weighing the options available for their individual circumstances.

To you and me, Mr. and Mrs. Jones—or Mrs. and Mrs. Jones—might be another married couple with a $1 to $3 million estate that merits a particular plan with a few revisions for an adult child’s substance abuse issue. As appropriate as our initial assessment may be based on a five-minute review of a client intake sheet, all our clients deserve, and more and more are demanding, a conversation about available estate plan strategies, their individual circumstances, and how the different strategies will, or will not, work for their goals and values. In other words, the law might get the attorneys the answer, but for the client, it is the communication that counts.

Lean in

Moving toward discomfort—or leaning in—is a powerful, physical practice to promote communication. In response to your own unease with questions or comments from a client or a colleague, simply shifting your posture to lean in is a means of moving the conversation forward.

Why Is It Important? By leaning in, you join the uncertainty or disagreement that your client or colleague is expressing. Consequently, you stand ready to get interested or curious about the other party, so your movement toward the other party has shifted your own discomfort and kept you present in the conversation. In addition, the other party experiences your movement toward them as a joining-in of sorts. Therefore, instead of a roadblock from which both parties might otherwise disengage, by adopting a physical posture of leaning in and a curious stance, you influence the conversation.

How Do You Do It? How you lean in is simple—just pull a George Costanza from Seinfeld and “do the opposite.” We all experience discomfort at challenging moments or during challenging conversations. Our initial urge, which brain science shows us is innate and immediate, is often to freeze, flee, or fight. If we just “do the opposite,” as George discovered in one episode of Seinfeld, then things turn out differently—and in his case, and in ours (hopefully)—they turn out for the better.

Don’t I Already Do This? You probably already do. You would not be reading this article if you had not survived the first year of law school and found ways to stay present, regardless of your level of distress or discomfort. Yet, how can you use this technique of “leaning in” to increase the effect of your conversations on colleagues and clients? I suggest that you start by noticing moments when you can try leaning in and then try practicing it. Stay curious—not only about what happens in the conversation when you lean in, but what it is like to try out a nonverbal communication technique in a strategic manner.

Step Back

Another physical practice to aid your assessment of what is happening during the consultation or conversation at a particular moment and what is called for to move the conversation forward is to step back. Whether you do this individually and discreetly or whether you invite the parties to physically step back from the table for a moment or to simply sit back in their chairs, you shift the focus.

Why Is It Important? As an advisor, stepping back or sitting back broadens your awareness of what is happening in the consultation beyond your explanation of the law and expands your focus. Perhaps this is the most critical communication tool for those of us who somehow ended up liking tax law and the puzzle-play involved in estate planning matters.

For clients, stepping back or sitting back shifts their focus too. Providing an opportunity for all parties at the table to sit back for a moment can decrease the tension often present when we discuss issues related to money, death, or dying.

Finally, stepping back or sitting back slows down the conversation. This allows you, as the attorney, to check your presence and posture, lean in, if appropriate, or simply adjust in your seat to demonstrate renewed interest and curiosity.

Don’t I Already Do This? Yes, you probably do, somewhat. You probably do it silently and at light speed; instead, try doing it slowly and explicitly. Yes, the partners want you in and out of that client consultation in 20 minutes. Even so, the extra three to seven minutes you take practicing all or any of these coaching strategies will energize you, your practice, and your clients. In turn, your partners and peers will notice, too.

Applying Coaching Strategies to Support Communication Competency

To create an action plan for implementing some of these suggestions, start by selecting one strategy that is most interesting to you and commit to practice it in your conversations over the course of the next week.

When starting, try the strategy in conversations that feel easy. Why? You’re more likely to actually try something new when the stakes are low. Notice what it was like for you and for your client or colleague. Then try it again in a different conversation.

Keep noticing what happens, not just with the other persons or in the course of the meeting but also what happens within you and as you experiment with something new. Find a thought partner to share your reflections—this could be a friend, colleague, or a professional coach that you or your firm hires to promote professional development.

Conclusion

Today’s clients need more than legal expertise. They need a legal professional who knows how to listen. Professional responsibility and continuing education requirements largely fail to address the quality of communication and listening skills attorneys possess or should consider developing. Rather, clients “luck out” and find the local attorney who listens, so that the legal practitioners who come to these skill sets naturally excel, while others remain practicing in an outdated model in which the lawyer dictates the plan for the client to follow. It is time to consider our effect both as communicators in a client consultation and in our professional relationships with colleagues. It is time for a new conversation in which communication counts. Are you ready?

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