GPSolo Magazine - April/May 2006

Learning to Listen, Learning to Be Heard

I am not a lawyer, but I have had many opportunities to get to know lawyers in both my personal and professional life. I admire the skills involved in practicing the law, such as research, comprehension, and analysis of issues. Although most lawyers are also good communicators, few have had formal training in aspects of interpersonal communication skills that are so vital to the practice of law. The ability to focus, attend, and truly listen to what is being communicated, and then respond appropriately, is essential in interactions with office staff, clients, and other lawyers. These skills may be the difference between good lawyers and great lawyers.

Interpersonal communication skills are learned over a lifetime, starting from our earliest interactions as infants. We never achieve perfect skills—they are always a work in progress. The skills themselves seem quite simplistic. You may think, “I know that,” as you read descriptions of the various techniques below. Yet, the development and use of interpersonal skills is much more complex than one might imagine.

Two-Way Communication

A lawyer’s expertise is typically in communication directed from the speaker to the listener. One-directional communication is focused on the ability to articulate ideas clearly and concisely. Whether in the form of courtroom presentations or as written briefs, such communication focuses on conveying the lawyer’s ideas, with no verbal input or response from the listener. When lawyers do use input from the other side, they are likely to do so by employing their debating skills, which promote the speaker’s views and, by definition, attempt to discredit opposing views. In most settings other than mediation, the lawyer is attempting to create a watertight case that his or her viewpoint is correct. Much legal work involves communicating to rather than with others.

Lawyers are also goal oriented and problem solvers. The need to have the pieces fit together into a logical whole focuses lawyers on an outcome rather than the process of communication. But this can lead a lawyer to “not hear” clients when they say things that don’t fit the lawyer’s understanding of the case. Although the lawyer may have been presented with a similar situation hundreds of times before, focusing on what is unique with this client takes time and effort to put aside preconceived ideas. Listening is inherently an interactive skill.

The Need for Focus

To focus on an interpersonal interaction, you need to clear your mind of everything except the person or persons before you. You must be ready to tune in to the words, both those spoken and unspoken, and the way in which the words are stated. The emotional content being expressed is as important to “hear” and understand as the words themselves. The ability to attend, focus, and listen during interactions fluctuates owing to the impact of internal and external factors.

Lawyers multitask. Large volumes of work, interruptions, deadlines, simultaneous cases—these represent some of the external factors that interfere with focus. Taking time outside work to identify your own patterns of reacting to stresses and pressures of work may provide clues to alert you to times when you are not focusing. Focusing requires clearing your mind and slowing down, which may feel counterintuitive when being bombarded by these various external factors. A natural tendency is to try to work harder and faster. Yet the mind can hold only one thought at a time. By slowing down the thinking process, you are able to attend to each thought thoroughly, rather than jumping from thought to thought. Taking a moment for a few deep breaths and clearing your mind may increase general productivity as well as provide an environment in which a meaningful interaction can occur.

Internal factors that affect your ability to focus and attend can include how tired or alert you are, worries or preoccupations, past experiences and your understanding of those experiences, and beliefs about yourself and others. For example, if you recently made an error, do you hear criticism each time someone asks a question or seeks clarification of what you are doing? Developing personal awareness of what triggers strong emotional reactions can decrease the likelihood of inappropriate responses. The more aware you are of your own idiosyncratic reactions, the more you can identify how you are responding to what was actually said.

Not all interactions require the same level of focus and attention. Routine interactions with colleagues and office staff may require little focus and attention, but knowing the attributes of what is and what is not routine requires continued awareness. When you are feeling angry, frustrated, or anxious, extra care must be taken to “tune in” to those speaking to you. When there is a change in tone of voice or speed with which words are expressed, or if the content of what is being said to you seems out of the ordinary, then you may need to shift your attention and increase focus on the interaction.

A Paradigm for Communication

One helpful way of understanding the process of communication was formulated by Ida Jean Orlando in her book The Discipline and Teaching of Nursing Process (1972). In this paradigm, communication is never static; the speaker and the listener are continually processing information—both verbal and nonverbal—as the interaction unfolds. The listener observes the speaker’s nonverbal communication and hears the words that the speaker utters. In a split second the listener processes this information. The listener may try to relate what is heard to past experience or place what occurred in a familiar context. The information may trigger emotional responses as well. The listener then responds to the speaker based on these internal processes. The response may be both verbal and nonverbal. At this point the listener and the speaker exchange roles and the process begins anew. In order to avoid misunderstandings, the listener can state verbatim the words that were heard, describe nonverbal observations, and share thoughts and feelings about these perceptions. The listener can respond by seeking clarification. The listener has become the speaker. And the process continues.

To illustrate, imagine a lawyer receives a telephone message from a potential client in the middle of an extremely busy day. The lawyer has numerous pressing matters to attend to, as well as several associates seeking her attention. The lawyer decides to call the potential client but realizes that the conversation must be brief. The lawyer begins the call by asking the client, “How can I help you?”

The client explains that he has changed insurance companies and the new company will not pay for specific medications. The new company wants to retry treatments that were not successful in the past. The lawyer listens to the information regarding the client’s situation and then thinks, “I have heard this many times and I know exactly what is going on here and exactly what needs to be done.” The lawyer may also have feelings about what she heard—relief that this problem can be dealt with quickly and confidence that she can be helpful. The lawyer responds by describing procedures for filing a lawsuit. The client then states that he was hoping to avoid a lawsuit. The lawyer hears these words, thinks “I must have missed something,” and feels inadequate. The lawyer’s response might be, “I must not have understood what you want. Are you asking for help filing an administrative appeal under the insurance policy?” Once again, the lawyer jumped to a conclusion about what the client wanted, rather than giving him the opportunity to state his ultimate goal.

In another situation, while discussing fees with a client, the lawyer might state, “I charge $X per hour.” The client nods her head and begins to discuss the case. The lawyer assumes the client has heard and understood what was said regarding fees. The lawyer might go on to state, “Yes, I have dealt with this type of situation many times. This is a fairly simple case.” The client appears relieved and states, “I am so glad to hear that.”

Here, the lawyer assumes that the client shares the lawyer’s understanding of what was said. The lawyer has a clear understanding of what he means by “fees” (i.e., billed in tenth-of-an-hour increments, including phone calls and all work associated with the case). On the other hand the client hears that she will only be charged for her time spent meeting with the lawyer, as she is for a doctor’s appointment. And when the lawyer said this was a “simple case,” he meant, “I understand the issues in the case and can predict how the case will proceed.” The client heard that the case will be short in duration and resolved with little cost.

Although this lawyer may not view “hourly rate” or “simple case” as technical terms, he must understand that he lives and breathes these concepts on a daily basis. Lawyers communicate with each other using many terms and shortcuts that are unknown by people outside the legal culture. Also, young associates or recent graduates may not be as well versed in this terminology as seasoned lawyers.

In order to prevent misunderstandings, the lawyer in this example might say to the client, “I noticed that you nodded your head and seemed to understand, but to be sure could you tell me your understanding of what I have said about the fees?” In the second case, he might ask the client, “You seemed relieved when I said this was a ‘simple case’—exactly what do you understand this to mean?” This technique asks the listener to confirm a shared understanding of what was said. That way, all parties to the conversation know that they are “hearing” the same thing.

The lawyer also needs to be aware of the client’s emotional state. If the client is experiencing intense feelings, the ability to “hear” is impaired. Anxiety, anger, and feelings of being overwhelmed can block retention of what is heard. The lawyer may need to repeat information, clarify what the client heard, and discuss the information again at another time when the client is in a receptive emotional state.

The communication skills described here are basic to all interactions and are applicable with family, friends, colleagues, and clients. When people believe they are “being heard,” they will reward your practice of active listening skills.


Donna F. Howard, MS, RN, CS, has a private psychotherapy practice in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in individual and couple psychotherapy. She can be reached at


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