Law Ruler April 2024
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A Curmudgeon's Perspective

What Did You Call Me?

By Otto Sorts

“I told him right to his face what the deal was. And you know what? That lying scumbag now claims I told him something else! I’m gonna nail him, his client and his client’s mother, if that’s what it takes to teach him not to lie to me!”

Once I’d calmed down my partner and he stopped steaming, we discussed whether his exchange with the alleged scumbag could have been a misunderstanding, or just gamesmanship.

As a profession, we learn the differences between truth and fact and law and justice, and perceive a reality that is unique to us. Sometimes our “legal” frame of reference becomes so ingrained that we forget how to communicate out there in the real world (just ask your spouse or assistant).

Even with a translator, meaning can be lost in the shift from one language or perspective to another. And strange or new concepts can be particularly difficult to convey. It’s like the Native Americans who, upon first sight of European ships sailing on the horizon, assumed they were just weather because they had no frame of reference for the actual information. The vulnerability of communication is illustrated well by the kid’s game “Gossip,” where a piece of information is whispered from one to another, all the way around the circle until it reaches the originator, who is generally amazed at what her idea has turned into.

There’s a model used to illustrate effective communication—and how it differs from mere “telling.” It begins with a thought in the mind of person one, where it rolls around to be formulated into words that are then spoken to person two. Person two receives the words and processes them in his brain, translates them into thoughts, develops a response that is transferred into spoken words. Person one hears those words and the cycle begins again. That’s one complete communication. Every conversation consists of scores of such exchanges, and it is no wonder that we sometimes get it wrong. It’s actually quite amazing that we mostly get it right.

Communicating with Another Person is a Challenge, Every Single Time

Try these steps next time you think things are getting dicey:

  • Ask yourself if they have the know-how to comprehend what you’re saying. (Have they seen a sailing ship before?)
  • Observe whether their body language says they’re getting it. Ask leading questions to confirm it orally if you are unsure.
  • Confirm what was said, or exchange a written understanding.
  • If it’s not working, get help. Find an interpreter, even if you both think you are speaking the same language.
  • Listen and be patient.

And by the way, after we had gone back over the exchange that upset my partner, we concluded that the other guy was indeed a lying scumbag. So we nailed him. His client wasn’t very happy. We did, however, leave his mother alone.

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Otto Sorts Otto Sorts

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.

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