Much has been written about the skills and competencies necessary to be a successful general counsel. These include legal, business, leadership, and interpersonal skills as well as independence, judgment, integrity, and problem solving ability. Commentators also frequently cite financial and technology competencies as being important.
I addressed some of these items in previous columns here and here. You can also find recent reports discussing these skills here and here. A common theme explicit or implicit in virtually all these discussions is the ability to communicate.
At one or more times during your career, you will have (or have had) some communication training. This training likely will seek to improve your speaking or writing skills. Very few programs focus on being a good listener. We frequently overlook listening skills and yet they can be essential to your professional career (and, as an aside, better listening will likely improve your personal life as well). Indeed, I believe the ability to listen well to be one of the skills that separate the outstanding GC from someone who is merely good!
As lawyers, we see communication as the ability to speak and write clearly and succinctly. We see it as a tool to persuade others to do something (or not); to simplify complex matters and facilitate a course of action; or to bring someone around to our point of view or to accept our interpretation of an event. For many, we speak too soon, talk too much, and try too hard to persuade people to accept our point of view.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Tuning In: Improving Your Listening Skills,” and its related blog post provide a useful synopsis about how to improve your listening skills. Some points worth noting:
• research shows that when distracted we only remember a small portion of a conversation (about 10 per cent);
• in today’s multi-tasking world with its frequent distractions researchers believe listening skills have declined;
• three common faults that inhibit good listening:
- we think about what we are going to say rather than listening to the other person;
- we listen only to hear if the other person’s views conform to our own; and,
- we interrupt prematurely and provide a solution before the problem is defined and the conversation is complete; and,
• finally, the more powerful you are, the more likely you are to ignore or dismiss advice.
The article also provided some useful tips to improve your listening when you are in a meeting, including:
• put away your cell phone;
• do not assume you know what the other person will say;
• limit how much talking you will do — say 20 to 25 per cent of the time;
• take notes to stay focused;
• ask questions;
• pay attention to body language and facial expressions; and,
• do not jump in when there is a pause, more information may be coming.
As what frequently happens, I learned a good deal from the online comments and found one in particular to be very insightful:
“Listening is a sign of genuine concern and curiosity. Without that, there is no listening. Why listen? We all want to be heard. If you don’t listen to others, why should they listen to you? Why do we need to learn how to listen? Because we’re not telepathic. We often have to make an effort to appreciate the constraints people face and the choices they have to make.”
So, what does this mean for a general counsel or someone seeking to become a GC?
1. good listening skills will help you in both your professional and personal life;
2. you will not become a GC merely by being a good listener. You must have the skills and competencies I noted previously. But the ability to listen well enhances virtually all those skills and may well be the trait that enables you to move from the category of good to exceptional; and,
3. as in-house counsel we believe we can provide better value to our clients because we “know the company and its culture.” We also contend that because of this we are uniquely positioned to prevent problems. If this is true (and I believe it to be the case), then the next step is to determine how to make this happen.
One way would be to improve your listening ability. For many lawyers a good first step would be to talk less and listen more.