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The Art of Listening Effectively

Eliza Hirst


  • It's essential to clarify the scope of representation and avoid promising specific outcomes to manage both clients' and your own expectations, thereby fostering strong relationships and preventing professional burnout.
  • Use open-ended questions to allow young clients to provide comprehensive answers, avoiding leading or limiting questions to better understand their needs and preferences.
  • Treat clients according to their individual needs and circumstances rather than uniformly, especially considering developmental differences and personal backgrounds, to improve communication and understanding.
  • Maintain open and engaged body language, such as making eye contact and avoiding distractions, to show clients you are present and empathetic, thereby facilitating more productive interactions.
The Art of Listening Effectively
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In order to build strong relationships, you need to know the art of listening effectively. An important skill that transcends all disciplines, effective listening is even more critical when working with children in difficult situations. Leaning heavily on the work of leaders, experts, and my own legal experience, below is a distilled list of 10 important components to effective listening skills when representing or advocating for your child and youth clients.

1. Manage Expectations (Your Own and Others)

This tip holds true for most aspects of life, but managing expectations is important in terms of directing representation, building client rapport, and preventing burnout among professionals. Managing expectations boils down to the notion of not making promises you cannot keep. When representing children, it is vitally important to explain the scope of representation, that you cannot guarantee specific outcomes, and that some conversations might be difficult. For example, in a child welfare matter, an attorney should not promise a child separated from her parent that she will definitely return home by the end of the year. There are a lot of factors that an attorney can control, but permanency decisions are often based on the court system and/or the team involved in the child welfare matter.

Likewise, managing expectations is important to fostering strong relationships with child clients. Children in the court system have likely experienced significant trauma. As a result, many children are often guarded when dealing with adults because so many adults have let them down or made promises they cannot keep. By explaining in basic term how your representation will unfold, being consistent with your contact, and giving the young person choices, you can build a stronger more supportive relationship. The better the relationship between attorney and client, the better chance that representation will be collaborative.

Lastly, managing expectations is so important in preventing professional burn out. According to the American Bar Association, dissatisfied lawyers feel burnt out 74 percent of the time, whereas lawyers who feel satisfied in their jobs feel that way less than 1/3 of the time. Assisting a client in understanding possible outcomes and navigating client expectations (as well as your own) will likely leave you feeling more in control of your representation and will thus result in greater job satisfaction.

2. Ask Focused Questions: Do You Want/Need X or Y, or Something Else?

After completing the Cornerhouse Child Forensic Interviewing Training in 2012, one of the most important tools I learned is to ensure I do not ask leading questions or limit a young person’s answers by narrow questions. The classic example from child forensic interviewing is asking about where a young person lives. Asking “Do you live in a house or an apartment?” can be very limiting. If the young person lives in a condo, a trailer, or some other living arrangement, you have foreclosed the possibility of allowing the child to answer with another option. I have found this questioning model very helpful when working with young people. For example, in a juvenile justice case you may want to help your client consider if anyone else should be present for a conversation regarding criminal charges after explaining how confidentiality might be impacted (depending on your jurisdictional rules). It might be helpful to ask, “Can just the two of us talk, or would you like someone else to be part of this conversation? That other person could be your caregiver or someone else who is important to you.” Maybe the young person has a mentor or a grandparent he wants to be part of the conversation? Maybe the young person has unique circumstances that you will learn about if you allow the “something else” option in the question. If you only ask if the young person wants a caregiver present or not, that might limit the young person’s choice or pressure the young person to include or exclude someone without giving the client freedom to think through what might be helpful.

3. Think about Equity vs. Equality in How You Listen to (or Treat) Others

It is human nature to listen more carefully to individuals with whom we have close relationships. Yet, it is often much more difficult to listen to people with different backgrounds or experiences from our own. In terms of effective listening, equality is not necessarily a helpful approach. Equality means you treat everyone the same. Sure, treat everyone with kindness, dignity, and respect. But employing equity can foster better connections and communication. Equity means that you treat individuals differently based on their developmental needs, abilities, and other factors. Equity is particularly important when listening to young people because chronological age may not necessarily correspond to developmental age or comprehension based on whether a young person has disabilities, trauma, speaks a different native language, or has other language processing needs.

A couple of examples illustrate this point. First, I had a 14-year-old client who received special education services under the classification emotional disability/disturbance. Anytime we talked about school, she would become angry if anyone uttered the term “emotional disability or disturbance.” No matter how many times I explained that the term was a classification for special education services, she would tell me that “it meant she was stupid and crazy.” My intention was not to frustrate her. I realized I could explain her educational supports much better by breaking down her individual education plan (IEP) into less emotionally charged terms. Instead, I would tell her that there was specific help she would receive when she became mad or upset, like being able to take breaks or talk to the school counselor. I also provided concrete examples of what the IEP would do because the goal of having this plan was to help her be more successful in school. Once I realized that my client’s trauma and disabilities created a barrier for her to hear anything else about her special education classification, changing my approach to how I addressed her school supports made her more amenable to participating in her IEP.

Second, I currently represent a 13-year-old immigrant client with intellectual disabilities in foster care. She mixes up pronouns, tells me she understands me, but then asks me the same questions repeatedly. Prior to her placement with a pre-adoptive resource, I encountered obstacles explaining adoption to her because that was a foreign concept based on her cultural background. I recognized that some of her repeated questioning was related to cultural barriers or anxiety, so I tried to talk with her in ways that helped her understand. My team member, who is an adoption specialist, read our client a children’s book about a chicken that cares for an alligator as an allegory for adoption. Discussing the story with her helped the child welfare team explain adoption in a way that made sense to her. If an approach does not work, try different strategies and customize your conversation to your client’s unique needs and questions. When thinking about listening through the lens of equity, better conversations will emerge if you adjust how you listen to and treat others tailored to their individual needs.

4. Think about Your Body Language

When you converse with others, do you sigh, roll your eyes, or look distractedly at your phone? Body language is as important as the actual words exchanged because others will glean whether you are present, engaged, and showing empathy. Involvement in any form of litigation can be incredibly stress-inducing. Stress is not one-sided—it is not limited to clients. Most attorneys have significant stress when juggling numerous demands, clients, and deadlines in a compressed time frame. Before you begin any interaction with your clients, check in with yourself to make sure you are present. If you show your impatience, stress, or disinterest to your clients through your body language (or words), you are far less likely to have productive conversations. However, if you are having a tough day or are feeling stressed, you may promote a stronger connection with your clients by showing your humanity or struggles (as long as you maintain boundaries and professionalism).

By facing your clients, demonstrating eye contact, and giving clients a chance to talk, you show that you are prioritizing them. Notably, most people take at least 7–10 seconds to process a question (or 10+ seconds if you are on Zoom to find the unmute button!). Ensure that you count the full amount of time to pause so that you allow the other person to process information with time to answer before you move on. If you ask your youth clients if they want to attend a court hearing, it is important to give them time and space to answer. Some clients may express hesitation, others might quickly say yes or emphatically no. It is important to be open and focused on your client after you ask a question. (In the seconds it takes a client to think about an answer, do not be tempted to glance down at your phone!) When the client provides the answer, it is helpful to follow up, especially if the client is hesitant or says no, by saying, “Tell me more about why you feel that way.” Sometimes silence is uncomfortable, but being present and having open body language can help you break through to have an engaging conversation.

5. I Noticed You . . ., Tell Me More about That

In Ross Greene’s phenomenal book, Lost at School, he recommends using the phrase “I noticed you (fill in the blank), tell me more about that” as a way to connect with struggling students. I have found this approach has spurred many deep conversations and has fostered better rapport with my own clients. I once represented a young person who mentioned cooking to me on a couple of occasions. During one of our meetings I said, “I noticed you like to talk about cooking, tell me more about that.” In that scenario, my client lit up when speaking about cooking. She said she wanted to become a chef and had been struggling in school because she did not see how it would help her reach her goal. My team was able to connect her with a cooking program and some chef-mentors, which opened up many doors. This is a great reminder to follow up on some of the tangents or topics that interest young people because you can help change their trajectory. You can establish trust and create opportunities to support your clients in a variety of ways. Equally, if a young person mentions something difficult or troubling, it is important to explore such emotions and conversations. When you say, “I noticed that…, tell me more about that,” what you’re really saying is, “I see you,” and what you are talking about is important to me.

6. Tell Me in Your Own Words What We Just Talked About

Many years ago, I worked at a legal aid program representing both adults and children with disabilities. I worked with many clients, in particular those with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Complex legal issues can be confusing no matter someone’s background or comprehension but even more so if the client has a disability. I got into the habit of saying, “Tell me in your own words what we just talked about,” to my clients after I explained something case related.

Saying “Tell me in your own words . . .” helped these client conversations in two ways. First, it helped me gauge how clearly I had explained legal issues or next steps. Second, it enabled me to check the client’s understanding of what we agreed upon. This tactic has been even more helpful when representing children. For a variety of reasons, young people may be distracted, may have language barriers, or developmental challenges that can make understanding a specific legal issue difficult. When I use this technique of asking clients to tell me their understanding of what we discussed, I notice they are often more engaged in the representation, and that I sometimes need to explain a concept differently or break down my explanation into bite-size statements.

7. What Do You Think Will Fix the Problem or Make It Right?

Although your client is not the one with the law degree, it can sometimes be helpful to ask the client for his/her/their ideas on what might fix or solve the problem. Most clients, whether big or small, have opinions on what they would like to see happen when dealing with lawyers. Asking clients what they think will help their case will help you evaluate whether you are managing your clients’ expectations. But your clients will generate some good ideas too.

I once represented a young man in a child welfare case who wanted to live with his grandparents, but he also really wanted to live with his foster family. (His birth mom was incarcerated, and he chose not to have a relationship with his father due to extensive trauma). I asked my client how he would handle his request since he could not live with both families and since his grandparents lived 1.5 hours away from the foster family and were not in a position to be permanent caregivers at the time. After we talked it through a bit, he suggested that he continue living with his foster family so he could stay at the same school but that he wanted to spend holidays and the summer with his grandparents while we continued to work on permanency. That was a reasonable request, and I set out to make that happen. We were successfully able to create a family time schedule, which the foster family ultimately took over managing with the grandparents. Asking the client may not net a conclusive disposition in the case, but it will certainly engage your clients and expand potential possibilities for a legal course of action.

8. The Power of Gratitude

As an advocate for individuals in vulnerable or difficult circumstances, you hold a great deal of power. As mentioned earlier, many young people who are enmeshed in the legal system have had adults let them down time and again. When clients trust you enough to share difficult information, make sure you thank them. What they are actually doing is taking a step in revealing that they are beginning to trust you. Not only thank them, but make sure you follow up in the optimal way to help them.

Several years ago, I had a teen client in foster care who had extensive trauma but did not want to talk to anyone about it. After many months of representing her, she told me about a sexual assault she experienced years earlier. It was clearly very difficult for her to tell me and challenging for me to hear. Before we took any action in calling the child abuse hotline or figuring out our next step, I thanked her for telling me. I acknowledged that must have been a really difficult thing to disclose, and I felt grateful that she trusted me enough to share her experience. However, I also told her there may be other people who could help her better than I could. I asked my client if I could call a great therapist I knew to help set up a time for them to talk. She was reluctant at first, but since I was willing to sit with her in her discomfort, she was willing to try therapy with my support. I think it was a turning point in my representation of this young person. Listening, validating one’s experience, and having gratitude for a client’s trust is really the essence of compassion.

9. The Power of an Apology

“I’m sorry” is sometimes the hardest thing we can say to another human being.  None of us say and do things in the right way all of the time. When you are working with individuals who have different backgrounds or experiences, you may inadvertently offend someone, or your words may be misinterpreted. Expect to get it wrong some of the time. It is important to have humility to recognize that you may have caused someone pain, and even more important to apologize when you do. Many young people have experienced discrimination, racism, trauma, or other barriers. We are also living through an incredibly polarizing time where we often have challenges accepting different viewpoints or hearing from one another. Apologies diffuse situations. Apologies are powerful. Being open to apologizing when you get something wrong builds stronger connections, trust, and moves relationships forward.

10. The Art of Stopping Another Person

In order to have a productive conversation, it is vitally important to remain engaged and stay focused on what is being exchanged. Ideally all parties to a communication will listen and talk with equal measure. Have you ever been in a meeting, in court, or other places where someone has talked far too long? Whether it is a rant, tirade, lecture, or convoluted explanation, we’ve all known people who may lose their audience and dilute the points they want to make when they fail to be succinct.  In such situations, it can become very difficult to maintain focus.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius says, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Attorneys are busy people, and time is not a renewable resource. We often do our best work when our clients (and non-clients) remain concise and provide relevant details. However, I have met with plenty of individuals who have unfortunately lost focus or meandered with their thoughts and ideas. I have also encountered witnesses who have said too much when testifying. Tuning people out is not a sufficient solution and talking over people is extremely rude. I struggled with how to keep clients and others on track in such situations. Fortunately, about 15 years ago, I attended a National Institute for Trial Advocacy training where I learned an incredibly helpful technique: Hold your hand up (like you are gesticulating to stop someone) and say, “Let me stop you there,” in a calm voice. While this method is not infallible, most people will stop talking if you are kind but assertive. For children and youth in particular, the “let me stop you there” technique may re-focus a client who is unsure of what to say. I have found this is one of the best ways to get a conversation, testimony, or any exchange back on track.

Listening takes time, practice, and skill. Maya Angelou once said, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” While no communication is perfect, the more you demonstrate that you are open, engaged, and really listening to another person, the more likely you will fuel deeper more meaningful connections. Ultimately, that benefits everyone!