The Art of Effective Communication

imagesAre you a good communicator?  Or do you find yourself struggling to get your point across?  If you fall in the latter category, it could be that you are focused on your message to the exclusion of other important attributes of effective communication: listening skills, tone of voice, body language, and empathy.

In Effective Communication, Shari Gregory relates the following tips:


Good communication starts with the ability to listen. Effective listening means being present, keeping an open mind, and being respectful of others. The following suggestions are just a few ways to improve your listening skills:

  • Focus on what is being said.
  • Look directly at the person who is speaking.
  • Let the speaker finish before you speak.
  • Listen for the feelings behind the words and watch for nonverbal cues.
  • Give the speaker your full attention – focus on what the speaker is saying, not on how you are going to respond.
  • Be open to the speaker’s message.
  • Ask questions to clarify what you do not understand.
  • If you are uncertain about whether you correctly understood the speaker, explain what you understood to the speaker (paraphrase) and ask the speaker if you have understood correctly.


More than half of all human communication is nonverbal. When talking with another person, be aware of your tone of voice, eye contact, and body language. If you feel harried or anxious when you speak, you may sound short or abrupt. If you are not feeling patient or well-balanced, your tone of voice might sound condescending or angry. Your gestures, such as hands and arms moving frantically, may distract the listener from your intended message.

For listeners, a speaker’s facial expression is often the key determinant of the meaning they give to a speaker’s message. When you speak, your face communicates your attitudes, feelings, and emotions more clearly than any other part of your body. Eyes squinting or glaring, eyebrows furrowed, face flushed red, or a frowning mouth may communicate to the listener that he or she is at fault for your uncomfortable state. The listener may become insecure or defensive, making it likely that whatever you are trying to say is lost.

Listeners are more likely to judge your sincerity and credibility based on your nonverbal behavior and whether it is consistent with your words than on your words alone. If you are feeling anxious or upset, take a deep breath before you speak. Question yourself about your mood. Take an internal look at how you are feeling and why. This will give you a “mental time out” – enough time to reframe what you want to say and how you are going to say it, taking into consideration to whom you are speaking. Organize your thoughts so you can explain why you are upset.


Empathy is the ability to connect with another person and to share in another person’s emotions or feelings. As lawyers we pride ourselves as wordsmiths, but at times, our emotion, enthusiasm, and passion may cause us to forget to consider our audience. Effective communicators recognize that differences in cultures, personality, status, education, or perception may become stumbling blocks to communication. Valuing differences and keeping them in mind can help people communicate more effectively.


Shari’s tips guide us on how to approach face-to-face communications with clients.  It is equally critical that we put proper effort into our written communications.  Too often lawyers (and clients) fire off an e-mail without stopping to consider: is this the best way to communicate Remember, e-mail is meant for:

  • Quick answers to straightforward, yes and no questions
  • Making or confirming appointments, court dates, or other calendar commitments
  • Transmitting documents
  • Distributing information quickly to many people
  • Short, simple communication!

Pick up the phone when:

  • You are unclear about the question being asked
  • The question is complicated and requires a detailed answer
  • The subject matter is sensitive and your words could be misinterpreted

You can always send a confirming e-mail or letter after the fact. 

For additional tips on effective communication, I invite you to listen to this podcast of my conversation with Vicki Voisin of The Paralegal Mentor.

All Rights Reserved (2013) Beverly Michaelis

The Paralegal Voice

I recently had the pleasure of participating in my first ever podcast with hosts Lynne DeVenny and Vicki Voisin on The Paralegal Voice.

Our discussion touched on a little bit of everything – practice management, ethics, and technology.  It was a lot of fun and Lynne and Vicki are great interviewers.  If you don’t subscribe to their blogs or follow them on Twitter, you should.  

The Unanswered Question

As you might suspect, our time went by quickly.  Here are my thoughts on one of the questions we hoped to tackle — how paralegals can help market their firms and improve client relations. 

Don’t Damage the Client’s Case Before It Begins

As a legal support professional, potential clients may approach you and want to talk about their case.  Resist the temptation.  You cannot give legal advice.  The person you are talking to is not a client.  Any conversation you have is not privileged, and it may be discoverable by the other side.  

Instead, steer the person firmly but politely to your firm.  The prospect can make an appointment with a lawyer and discuss his or her private legal matter in confidence.  This approach protects you, your firm, and the client.

T-R-E-A-T Clients Well

Once a prospect becomes a client, you can play a major role in promoting positive client relations.  The key is to TREAT clients well:  be Timely, Responsive, Empathetic, give Assurance, and deliver great Tangibles. 

Timeliness and Responsiveness

Make every possible effort to respond to client phone calls, e-mails, and requests in a timely and responsive manner.  If you see a delay developing (the lawyer is out of the office and won’t be able to return a call as promised), inform the client of the delay.  Keep deadline dates on your radar screen and prompt the lawyer.  If the deadline can’t be met, the lawyer can call the client and negotiate a new date.  (Not always an easy call for the lawyer, but clients are far more understanding than we give them credit for–provided they know what’s going on in their case.) 


Treat all clients with empathy and practice good listening skills.  Often the most important client need you can meet is the need to be heard and understood.  Keeping the human touch makes a big difference.


Assurance is defined as certainty, confidence, and freedom from self-doubt. By giving assurance, we inspire client confidence in our firm and in ourselves as individuals.  

You may think this element of client relations is outside your control, but it isn’t.  If you are confident in mind and manner, clients will be too.


Tangibles are the production end of the business: letters, e-mails, pleadings, and other documents that clients see, feel, and touch.  Of all the elements of client relations, tangibles matter the least to clients (timeliness, responsiveness, empathy, and assurance are judged to be more important).  Even so, tangibles are a reflection of our professionalism, and we should always take pride in producing quality work.

Remember T-R-E-A-T and you will be well on your way to improving client relations.

Copyright Beverly Michaelis 2010