When I was an associate, the most prominent item on my desk was a big, black, ugly toad that sat on the front corner and stared at me expectantly all day, every day. Occasionally it would ring and I would be jerked from the safe haven of legal research and thrust into the paralyzing world of human interaction. Today, I see associates who hide in their little havens of email, texting, and Facebook and Twitter, and more senior lawyers who still hide behind “important” formal documents sent via courier.
Sure, these communications methods have their place. Texting or twittering works fine for your buddies, and email can be effective to focus conversations with coworkers and to transmit certain information to clients. Formal communications must, obviously, be formal. Notice, however, that each method maintains a barrier between you and the recipient. There is no human-to-human contact, where you can talk directly, touch (shake hands, pat on the back or, rarely, hug) and read all the nonverbal signals that enrich communication. And that’s a shame. Since face-to-face meetings are somewhat rare these days, there’s just one method left to fill the void: the dreaded telephone call.
Enter the Toad
I don’t know why talking on the phone is so intimidating (don’t get me started on the idea of Skype and video “chats”), but I know I’m not the only person who finds it so. Maybe it’s the inability to see the impact of your words on the other person. Maybe it’s just the uncertainty of what may come at you out of that void of silence. Over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks to help overcome my fears. See if they work for you.
- If you originate a call, pick what your first words are going to be ahead of time. Script the first few exchanges in your mind (or on paper if it helps).
- Identify why you are calling. What’s the point?
- If you know the person, visualize them on the call. Humanize the exchange.
- Leave a message if they don’t answer, and keep a note for their return call. Put the date and time on the note to manage when to try them again.
- For incoming calls, develop a canned greeting and a ritual exchange. It’s their call, so listen. Take notes as appropriate and don’t be pressured to respond. (Caller ID is great, but screening calls is chickening out. Be brave and take the call.)
- Know your boundaries. You have time constraints, limits on your authority and you do not have to make a decision or commitment right then. You can call them back.
These tips do not eliminate my phone anxiety entirely, but they help me focus on the communication instead of the fear. And usually I feel clearer about the issue at hand after speaking, voice to voice, with another human. Besides, on the occasional screw up where the phone call goes horribly wrong, I know that there’s always the face-to-face meeting to worry about.
Otto Sorts has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.”