Attorneys are communicators. Regardless of our practice area, essentially what we do all day is to communicate, or to prepare to do so. Whether it’s working directly with a client, attempting to persuade a judge or jury, negotiating a business deal, or coordinating with colleagues or staff, one of the key components of an attorney’s skill set is communication.
Plenty of sources exist to help with the mechanics of communication. Most large firms have someone either in-house or on retainer who functions as a writing coach, and training programs for oral and written legal communication abound. But what about the skill of knowing how to approach others to maximize communication?
An example. Suppose a co-worker knocks on your office door and comes in to talk with you. Let’s assume for this conversation that you’re both third year associates in the same practice field, so the power dynamic is fairly neutral, and let’s assume that you’re having an ordinary day with no particular pressure. Consider what your reaction would be if he chats for a few seconds (“How was your weekend? Did you see the Notre Dame-Tech game Saturday?”) before getting down to the business of his visit. Would you feel that he was wasting time? Impatient for him to get to the point? Or would you consider that normal behavior, a more or less necessary introduction to business conversation? Would you be turned off if he went immediately to the reason for his visit? And, turning to the business at hand, would you prefer that he would speak in bullet points or that he’d be more expansive, perhaps with examples? Would you be irritated that he had come to your office rather than emailing to set a time, or would you welcome the change of pace? Would you be skeptical about what he was saying, or would you take it at face value?
What if you’re an associate and you need to talk to a partner for whom you’re doing some work… You’ll be prepared to discuss the situation at hand, along with any background information or legal research that will bear on it. But how should you approach the partner? Again, should you ask about her weekend or just charge into the meat of the conversation? How quickly should you talk, and what tone of voice should you use to best relate to the partner? If she asks a question and you need to look at your notes for the answer, will your communication be dismissed as disorganized or incomplete?
It’s easy to assume the answers to these questions — in part, because lawyers tend to be so sensitive to time pressures that chit-chat and interruptions are often unwelcome. However, each of us has a different communication style, and attention to those differences will permit more effective conversation. We all have a different natural rhythm, a more active or passive approach to things, more or less desire for social interaction, an inclination to making faster or slower decisions, a tendency to listen more than speak or vice versa. Failure to recognize these differences leads to myopic communication, in which we assume that everyone to communicate in the same way we do… And that leads to less effective communication.
The easy tactic to avoid the trap of assuming that everyone communicates in the same way is simply to recognize that we aren’t all the same and to take that into account when you’re preparing to communicate. Pay attention to the reactions you get. Does she always seem impatient, eager to take charge? Does he need a lot of information? Does she do well hopping from topic to topic? Does he flinch if you touch him? These hints will help you modify your approach so that your style doesn’t hinder your message. But trial and error, fortunately, isn’t the only way to accomplish this.
I use the DISC(r) assessment to assist lawyers in identifying their communication styles. The DISC(r) assessment measures the degree of Dominance (how one responds to challenges), Influence (how one interacts with and attempts to influence people), Steadiness (how one responds to change and the pace of his environment), and Compliance (how one responds to procedures and rules set by others) that a person tends to exhibit. Learning about the DISC(r) facilitates better communication because it increases understanding of our natural tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses. In addition, learning some of the basic attributes of each of the DISC(r) styles allows us to make an educated guess about the communication style of colleagues, clients and potential clients, etc., which in turn permits us to make modifications to our own communication style to attain the greatest impact. This knowledge enhances communication and provides a tool for conflict resolution.
Stay tuned for a brief introduction of each of the primary styles.