Everyone Needs Good Listening Skills, Especially Lawyers

“We have two ears and one mouth so we can listen twice as much as we speak.” – Epictetus

Many of us like to talk. I talk quite a bit. (Anyone who knows me is smiling and nodding right now.) But I also like to listen. I can certainly learn much more from listening than talking. I try to not only hear what someone is saying but go beyond the words and pay attention to the whole message. That includes body language, expressions, and other nonverbal cues that impart meaning to an exchange.

As someone studying to become a lawyer, being a good listener should be near the top of your professional goals list. To provide advice and counsel to any client, you have to understand their situation. You have to determine what they need not just what they want. You have to ask questions and listen to the answers so you know what other questions need to be asked to comprehend the whole picture.

We can all work on our listening skills. So how do you become a better listener?

Fast Company outlines six ways to become a better listener:

  1. Listen to learn, not to be polite. It is not uncommon for people to listen to each other out of generosity not curiosity. True dialogue only happens when we really listen and interact with each other. Enter conversations to learn something. Don’t interrupt or jump in with solutions. Just let someone speak their entire message. We can learn something from everyone we meet. The trick is to figure out what that is! You’ll need to listen and ask questions to find out. If you go into a discussion with the main goal of understanding, free of any judgment, people will open up to you, because they will feel they can trust you to respect what they are saying.
  2. Quiet your agenda. Really listen to what someone else is trying to say instead of listening to what is going on in your head. Clear your mind. Turn off/away from your phone. Don’t multitask or think about what’s coming next in your day. Pay attention and focus on the person/people in front of you.
  3. Ask more questions. By asking questions, you will better understand what is being said and be a participant in the interaction rather than just an observer. Asking questions will help you avoid assumptions based on what you think someone means. And it will also help you stop focusing on what to say next.
  4. Pay attention to your talk/listen ratio. Remember Epictetus and listen twice as much as you talk. When you do talk, be self-aware and understand what is motivating you to talk. Remember the acronym WAIT: Why Am I Talking? Are you talking for the benefit of the other person and to enhance the conversation? Or are you talking because you want to brag a bit, show off your knowledge or be critical/judgmental of something you have heard?
  5. Repeat what you heard. Take some of what you have heard, repeat it and then add your perspective or ask a question. It will demonstrate that you have been listening and allow you to continue the conversation by adding something of your own. Dialogue should be a two-way give and take, a back and forth exchange.
  6. Actually wait until someone is done talking before you respond. If you are just waiting for someone to finish talking so you can jump in with your thoughts or opinions, are you really listening? Or are you just waiting to talk? That’s less a dialogue than a series of mini monologues. Listen to what someone is saying the whole time they are talking.

I found an excellent article from the Harvard Business Review called “What Great Listeners Actually Do.” The authors analyzed data describing the behavior of almost 3500 participants in a development program designed to help managers become better coaches. They distilled everything down to four main findings about the individuals rated as the best listeners. These research findings confirm and expand what is outlined above.

  • Good listening is much more than being silent while the other person talks. People perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight. Sitting and silently nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening, but asking a good question tells the speaker the listener has not only heard what was said, but that they comprehended it well enough to want additional information. Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialog, rather than a one-way “speaker versus hearer” interaction. The best conversations were active.
  • Good listening included interactions that build a person’s self-esteem. The best listeners made the conversation a positive experience for the other party, which doesn’t happen when the listener is passive or critical. Good listeners made the other person feel supported and conveyed confidence in them. Good listening was characterized by the creation of a safe environment in which issues and differences could be discussed openly.
  • Good listening was seen as a cooperative conversation. In these interactions, feedback flowed smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made. By contrast, poor listeners were seen as competitive — as listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response. That might make you an excellent debater, but it doesn’t make you a good listener. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.
  • Good listeners tended to make suggestions. Good listening invariably included some feedback provided in a way others would accept and that opened up alternative paths to consider. A good listener has been attentive to cues and knows when someone might be receptive to suggestions. The intent is altruistic, to genuinely help, instead of self-centered, such as to achieve dominance or appear smarter than.

The authors use a trampoline analogy for good listeners: “While many of us have thought of being a good listener as being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines. They are [people] you can bounce ideas off of — and rather than absorbing your ideas and energy, they amplify, energize, and clarify your thinking. They make you feel better not merely passively absorbing, but by actively supporting. This lets you gain energy and height, just like someone jumping on a trampoline.”

Becoming a better listener will help in all aspects of your life – social, personal, professional. The more you genuinely listen, the better you will understand people. And that can only be good!


More reading:
Be a Better Listener.” Adam Bryant, New York Times
5 Fool-Proof Ways to Become a Better Listener.” Amee LaTour, Good Choices Good Life

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