When I coach lawyers at all levels of seniority, some start our sessions wanting to dive right into finding the next career opportunity. Most lawyers by training, and many probably by nature, seek to get to the answer as quickly as possible. “Cutting to the chase” may be an efficient approach to tackling a legal problem. However, when it comes to career success and advancement, lawyers often benefit from slowing down and working through their developmental challenges, like listening skills. Doing so creates a solid foundation for moving up to a new position, or on to a new organization.
Many attorneys don’t realize that they have a problem with listening until it causes difficulties in their career, perhaps costing them a job or promotion. In fairness, they may not be entirely to blame. Lawyers are trained from law school on to make their point and to have the last word. It’s not enough to be right or knowledgeable; they have to “win” the conversation.
While winning has its place, not every interaction is about winning. The communication style that works in a courtroom often doesn’t translate well to professional relationships. The first clue that a lawyer struggles to listen may come from an annual review and involve negative feedback by colleagues. Often, the attorney who takes pride in being an effective communicator is shocked to find that others perceive things differently. But communication is a two-way street—talking and listening—and many lawyers are only accustomed to traveling on one side of the road.
Dale Carnegie first published his iconic book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” in 1936. That book has remained in print (with impressive sales) for almost a century because of its timeless advice. One of Carnegie’s observations is that one of the best ways to be seen as a good communicator is not to speak well, but to listen well.
That makes sense. Nobody likes to be interrupted or talked over; we all want to feel as if the person with whom we are speaking finds what we are saying compelling enough to pay deep attention to it. Yet many smart, well-trained lawyers struggle with this principle.
Whether you are working in-house, in a law firm or in government, it is not only important to listen, but also to recognize whether you are dominating, or “hijacking,” a conversation or simple interaction. Hijacking not only takes the form of interrupting or being long-winded, but also “one-upmanship.” Hijacking often involves continuously interrupting a conversation and refocusing it on one’s own personal or professional experiences. This can take the form of “Let me tell you about...” or “I remember a case I had...” or “My experience with such-and-such was...” Sometimes a hijacker just dives into an extended tale that feels irrelevant to the others in the discussion and keeps talking, oblivious.
Everyone interrupts or talks too much from time to time. But when it becomes a regular occurrence, it’s hijacking, and it can have a negative impact on the careers of both senior and new attorneys.
You cannot both talk and listen at the same time. As discussed above, being a good listener is an essential part of effective communication. When you regularly hijack conversations in your professional sphere, it can damage how you are perceived by your peers or associates, your adversaries, and those in a position to promote you.
Because hijacking means you are not listening, it can seriously undermine how your clients receive your professional advice. Yes, it is important to confirm your credentials and experience. But, if you are speaking with a client who is under considerable stress, filling the conversation with talk of prior matters and continuously bringing the conversation back to your experience undermines your credibility. Clients want to feel that their concerns are heard and to feel that you are focused on their problems, not resting on the laurels of past cases.
If you are a senior attorney working with younger lawyers in a legal department or in a law firm, you may initially impress the junior lawyers with tales of your vast experience. But over time, you will exhaust their reservoir of goodwill and veneration and erode their respect for you.
Experienced attorneys are not the only ones guilty of dominating conversations to their detriment. Young lawyers right out of law school can also be guilty of hijacking. If you are a young lawyer, you may try to impress your peers or more senior lawyers by trying to show how much you know or have read. Doing this once is not hijacking; doing it continuously is. There is a line between being knowledgeable and being perceived as a know-it-all. Crossing that line too often can damage your reputation and your prospects.
It is easy for even the smartest lawyers to fall into the trap of hijacking conversations. Fortunately, a little feedback and self-awareness can help them find their way out, and develop the listening skills they need to succeed.
If you have been told your communication skills need work, coaching can help you overcome the tendency to hijack conversations. As your coach, I will help you learn to recognize when you are hijacking and to course-correct. Hijacking is a habit, not a fixed character trait. Like other habits, it can be conquered with practice. When you are talking less, you are naturally free to listen more. Knowing when to talk, and when to listen, is an invaluable professional skill. It can help you build positive professional relationships, and make you ready to seize the next career opportunity when it presents itself.
To learn more about how to sharpen your communication skills, contact Catherine Nathan Coaching for Lawyers to schedule a consultation.