“She needs to just get on board,” Bob complained. “I keep telling her what to do, but she won’t stop trying to second-guess me.”
As I listened to his complaints, I wondered if he had even tried to hear what Mary wanted to say. She was pretty sharp and, despite a lack of experience, was quick to pick up on the key issues. Bob would do well to hear her out, but whether it was ego, insecurity or bias, he wasn’t able to open his mind to her perspective. It’s a common problem.
Most of us agree with the adage, “Any lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client.” On a daily basis, I witness the root problem that spawned this saying: lack of self-awareness. This is a human foible not unique to attorneys, of course. But then again, we attorneys often feel more certain than most that we’re smarter and more important than “other” people.
Left unchecked, this can cause a whole lot of heartache and damage your practice to boot.
That Face in the Mirror
A lack of self-awareness — when we can’t recognize our personal biases, or acknowledge how our ego can get in the way — leads to communication problems and shutting out the validity of others’ perspectives. But you can contain it. Here are some steps.
First, self-examination on a periodic basis is good. Try to step outside yourself and see what others see. We each have our game face, the one we take into the arena. But we also have that truer face, the one that looks back at us in the mirror early in the morning. Visit that one occasionally, probe its strengths and weaknesses, and listen to what it tells you.
The concept is as old as dirt, and as poorly followed today as in Socrates’ time. Take a look at those of your peers who you believe “have it together.” What is it they know that you don’t? I maintain that it is not a matter of greater intellect or skill, but an ability to see themselves more clearly.
Second, a little empathy goes a long way. Work on being better able to understand where other people are coming from. If you can understand how they think and what causes them to act or what flavors their view, you will be better able to relate and weigh the information they share.
We all carry our biases around like lint on our clothes. The ability to see these trappings on others helps you interpret what they say or think. When you consider others’ filters along with your own, you can reach a truer level of communication.
Finally, how you communicate is crucial. Of course, every step of communication is fraught with the possibility of error. Simple communication begins when someone formulates an idea and converts it into words. These words fly across to another person who takes them in and tries to interpret them. They then formulate a response and put it into words, which fly back to the first person. The first person then takes the words in and interprets them in the context of the message they thought they sent.
How could anything go wrong?
As lawyers, we strive (mostly) to communicate clearly. Where we get off track is in the way others hear us. To anticipate that, we need to understand our audience and their biases and perspectives.
Apply the same skills you use in practice to your day-to-day communications. Listen, acknowledge the filters that you and others apply to the message, and then back your understanding back to them.
A benefit of taking these pains in Bob’s case is that he could learn from Mary’s perspective, and she would definitely benefit from him sharing his experience. Clearer communication can also strengthen your team — if you understand one another better, you will work more effectively together.
I let Bob grouse on for a while, then interrupted him: “Bob, you’re a pretty smart guy and a good lawyer. I think you’d be better if you pulled your head out of your butt, and listened instead of talking occasionally.”
He gave me a hard stare. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re probably right,” I conceded as he walked away.
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.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.