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Bar News - February 17, 2012

President's Perspective: Are You Listening?


Jennifer L. Parent
Are you listening?

Has a colleague, client or family member ever asked you this question? When this occurs, we often reply "yes." But is this response accurate? Did we really hear what was being said or were we distracted? We have all been there. We nod our head periodically to someone talking, yet we are thinking about emails in our inbox or the 10 things on our to-do list. During a conversation, we may begin formulating a response rather than finish hearing what was said. We ask someone how they are doing, but walk away before the reply. Are we truly listening?

There are many distractions in a 24/7 technological world that impede our ability to listen. But think of all the time we could save if we actually listened. We would not find ourselves repeating things two or three times. And when people are focused at meetings, the discussion is more effective and things get done.

Why is listening important? If we do not listen, the repercussions may be misunderstandings or decisions made with incomplete information. When we listen, conflict diminishes. If people do not believe we are listening to them, they think we do not value what they have to say. It may prevent them from seeking our counsel in the future.

As attorneys, we know better than anyone the importance of communication. We also know that words are not the only way we communicate. We convey information through gestures, looks, pauses, and even silence. In law, however, we often focus on the spoken or written word. Despite listening being an important skill in the practice of law, many of the courses we attend aim to improve our public speaking and legal writing yet have little or no emphasis on listening. When you think about it, we prepare and practice what we will say to a group but we do not prepare or practice our listening skills.

An ancient Greek philosopher once said: "We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak." But listening can be difficult. This is especially true when people challenge our ideas or opinions. What is valuable to remember is that sometimes by listening we better understand others, gaining insight into their viewpoint.

Moreover, when we are listening, we are learning. In trial practice, we tell new lawyers not to be wedded to their notes and to listen to the witnessís answers Ė you never know what helpful information may be disclosed. In mediation, when we listen, we discover that the resolution for two parties fighting over an orange may be to give one party the peel and the other the fruit inside. In practice, when we listen to our clients, we understand the nature of their problem.

Recognizing the importance of this skill in leaders, our Leadership Academy participated in a listening activity last year. Pairing up, one person was charged with speaking for a minute on a topic of importance to the person. The second person was charged with listening, without interrupting, and then repeating back the message or take-away points. They then switched roles. The participants practiced hearing what was being said, understanding the message being conveyed, and relaying that understanding back to the person talking. This exercise proved that we are able make better respected and understood decisions when we listen.

So, ask yourself, are you listening? Some areas that you may want to take into consideration on your road to being a better listener.
1. Be in the moment by minimizing distractions. To be an effective listener, you cannot be distracted. While technology is a great tool, there are times you should just put the smartphone away. Practice moving away from your computer when on a telephone call so you are not tempted to check your emails or surf the internet. Focus on being in the moment and listening to what is being said rather than thinking about your response.

2. Do not interrupt. This is very difficult to do. As lawyers, we have so much to say and offer on any given topic that we feel like we will burst if we donít get it out right then and there. Practice by stopping yourself if you get the urge to interrupt others while they are talking. This does take practice.

3. Repeat or summarize what you hear. Improve your listening skills by making yourself repeat or summarize what someone has said. By focusing on anotherís words, we are more likely to hear them. By repeating back your understanding, it confirms the message you heard and demonstrates that you are truly listening.

4. Ask questions. When you ask questions, you acknowledge that you are listening. We often do this with our clients. Think about how important it is when meeting with a prospective client that we fully listen to the problem so that we understand it and can assess it. Questions are a good way to clarify and obtain information.

5. Be comfortable with your own silence. Winston Churchill once said, "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." In writing this column, I am also reminded that "silent" and "listen" are spelled with the same letters. We learn through listening. And we can only listen through our own silence.
Try practicing the five steps above. Then, the next time you are asked, "Are you listening?", you can answer "Yes" and mean it.

Jennifer L. Parent is NH Bar Association President for the 2011-2012 year and is a member of the management committee of McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton.

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