1. Audit your communication
How do you currently communicate with others on a professional level? For this purpose, we’re going to consider all of your law school communications, as well as any job experience, to be “professional.” The list may surprise you:
- Written (articles/papers)
- Social Media
All of these are means of communication and translating the message of who you are as a future lawyer to colleagues, classmates, professors, future clients, and referral sources. Knowing what channels you use is helpful to ensure that your communication skills are up to par across all of them.
2. Get feedback from trusted advisors
We’ve talked about this before, when getting assistance with your professional writing, and it’s just as essential with professional communications. You may get some uncomfortable feedback, but to improve, we want to be open to what trusted friends and advisors have to say.
I’ve been presenting for a number of years, and over time, I’ve had people tell me that I speak too quickly, or that I spend too much time looking at my notes, and that I should trust my own judgment when presenting, rather than copying someone else’s style. I bristled at the feedback at first, but when I took it in as constructive criticism and made the changes I thought were useful, it vastly improved my oral communication skills. When I presented at a recent annual conference, more than one person told me they thought it was my best speech yet.
Ask people in your network that you trust, from professors to classmates to lawyers you may have worked with:
- Whether they think you communicate effectively across all platforms. Perhaps you’re very strong at arguing in class, but your written work needs some refining. Or you come off as extremely professional on items submitted for class, but your social media doesn’t match up with that persona.
- Do you rely too heavily on one type of communication over another? This becomes more important as you begin to work in a firm and with clients, because you may be most comfortable resolving issues over email, but a phone call would have solved the question or cut to the chase much more quickly. Walking down the hall to a colleague’s office for a quick meeting that includes nonverbal communication and tone of voice may have a different effect from a terse email or text message. This is where the audience becomes important – even if the means of communication feels most efficient and effective to YOU, is it the most beneficial in each particular situation?
- How do they rate your communication style overall? Do they see you as an effective communicator? Are you a good listener? Do you get the heart of the issue quickly, or do you miss key points? Do you tend to talk over people? Listen for key feedback to these questions.
3. Identify barriers to effective communication
This is a thorny and sensitive issue, but a necessary one – once you’ve gotten your feedback, if there are improvements that need to be made, what is stopping you from communicating effectively?
I’ve got two big ones – I’m an introvert, and I hate using the phone. My antipathy for the phone comes from a very short-lived stint with a professional hockey team, making cold calls to pre-sell season tickets. We had to make 100-150 phone calls per day – soul-crushing work. I was fresh out of college when I had that job, but I soaked in every rejection like it was personal and can still remember them any time I pick up the phone.
Recognizing both of those things, I’m sensitive to what my limitations are. Because I’ve identified them, I work to overcome them or adapt to them (introversion is often an asset, not a limitation), and effectively use them in my communication style. I don’t like making phone calls, but my extreme empathy means I’m sensitive enough to know when one is warranted, and I will pick up the phone to ensure that it happens.
What are the things that may be preventing you from communicating as effectively as you’d like to? It’s necessary to identify what these are, and then how you plan to tackle them or adapt to them, in order to improve your communication skills.
4. Tips to improve your skills
Regardless of where your level of communication skills lies, there are a few things you can do to improve them:
- Employ engaged listening: good communicators are often thought to be synonymous with good listeners. Engaged listeners aren’t listening with the intent to reply; they are listening to identify what the speaker or other person is really saying, the key messages, and then how they may be able to add value to the conversation. Engaged listeners ask questions and allow the other person to do most of the talking. This is an essential skill for lawyers, because it will allow you to uncover issues that your client may not even be aware of that will be crucial to your matters, or even future matters that you can act as a valuable business partner for.
- Be aware of nonverbal communication: Nonverbal communication is as important as what you say. We’ve all been in a situation with someone who is intently checking their phone instead of listening or looking over your shoulder to see if someone better is coming along. How you hold your body, your hands, your face – all of that impacts the conversation and message as much as the words that you use. A lot of these things are conditioned responses that we’ve developed, so to help with this, you may want to practice with a friend, videotape yourself speaking, look at candid photos of yourself in groups when you weren’t aware of the photographer, etc. Do you look open, engaged, focused? Or are you closed down, arms crossed, eyes on something else? Bringing more awareness to how you are engaged with someone when you’re speaking with them will help you to remain more connected to the conversation.
- Manage stress in the moment: This may sound like one only to be used in times of anger or high drama, but stress can come in the form of excitement too. What is your reaction to high levels of emotion in your communication? Do you snap back on social media, or do you pause and pen a thoughtful response (or refrain from responding)? Do you slow down your speech when arguing, or do you speak really quickly and angrily? Learning how to effectively manage the stress of a moment (through breath and pausing) can make you a superior communicator – this doesn’t mean that you back down from a confrontation, but that you take the opportunity to leverage all of your skills of intelligence, education, eloquence, AND communication to speak or write effectively in a way that serves you, rather than is reactive to a situation. We can and should assert ourselves, but to do so respectfully and with strength requires good stress management.
Communication skills are no small part of what it takes to be a good lawyer and business person, and we have the opportunity to practice them every day. Implementing these tasks to identify your strengths and challenges will help you to shore up your skills in a way that makes them an asset to you.