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:

LISTENING

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.

TONE OF VOICE AND BODY LANGUAGE

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

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.

PARTING THOUGHTS

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

Improve Your Practice & Avoid Malpractice with TEAMWORK

By Lynne J. DeVenny

In a perfect world, you and your staff, including your paralegals, are a highly efficient and successful business team, committed to serving your clients well and to being part of a reputable and profitable law firm. All of you are professionals, possessing your own special skills and training essential to the team’s function – and all of you are needed to make your practice successful.

But sometimes in the real world of a fast-paced, deadline-oriented law practice, the team is not as effective as it could be, for many different reasons.  The supervising attorney, as the team captain and coach, is ultimately responsible for the team’s success, including producing a high quality work product and avoiding costly malpractice errors.

An emphasis on T-E-A-M-W-O-R-K is what it takes to lead a team that not only makes few mistakes, but is also invested in and proud of the final work product.

T-E-A-M-W-O-R-K

T ~ Train your staff members well. The higher the level of their competencies, including legal and technology skills, the lower the chances are of them committing costly errors.  As the leader, it’s equally important for you to keep your own competencies current.

E ~ Encourage your staff  members to learn new skills.  Emphasize the importance of their participation in appropriate CLE offerings and professional association activities.  Send staff members to annual ethics classes, and make sure they are attending CLEs in their specialty areas to stay up-to-date with the law and technology.  For those staff members interested in obtaining voluntary professional certifications in their field and/or specialty areas, pay their fees as a benefit of employment.

A ~ Assess your staff members’ performance regularly. Review their work product, and provide constructive feedback in areas where they can improve. Make sure evaluations are held regularly and that expectations are clear – and fair. 

M ~ Make staff relations a priority.  Treat everyone as valued professionals and get to know them. Even small gestures, such as asking how their families are doing, taking them to lunch once in a while or attending a professional conference together, can make a difference in everyone’s comfort level – and ability to communicate openly and professionally.

W ~ Write down your office policies. Pay particular attention to procedures for maintaining client confidentiality and complying with ethics rules. Make sure all staff members have a copy, and ask them to acknowledge in writing that they read and understand the policies.  Ask for their feedback as to how existing policies can be improved.

O ~ Observe your staff members’ strengths and weaknesses. Give positive feedback and praise for projects well done whenever possible, but make sure that everyone is held accountable for errors – including you. Give staff members an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.  Assign work to staff members whose skills are best suited to the tasks.

R ~ Recognize good work.  Reward talented staff members with recognition and thanks, as well as appropriate salaries and financial incentives, such as profit-sharing, matching retirement contributions or bonuses, when possible.  You’ll be more likely to retain talented staffers, and they’ll stay motivated to maintain high standards and provide an excellent work product.

K ~ Keep your door open to your staff. Let them know that you’re available for questions and concerns, and encourage them to come to you for appropriate supervision and feedback. Make time for regular team and case meetings, and make time at the beginning of each day to establish the priorities for the day.

You’re all playing for the same team, the one that is passionate about the law and the success of your practice. Everyone benefits when the team plays well – and plays well together.  You’re ultimately responsible for the final work product and compliance with ethics rules, but when you make everyone on the team feel professional and valued, they’ll respond by making you and your firm look like a World Series winner.

 Lynne J. DeVenny is a North Carolina State Bar Certified Paralegal employed by Elliot Pishko Morgan P.A. in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She blogs for paralegals (and lawyers who want to  get to know paralegals better) at Practical Paralegalism and co-hosts the monthly podcast, The Paralegal Voice, at Legal Talk Network.

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.) 

Empathy

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

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

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