Waiting until you’re being sued, terminated, or divorced before acknowledging that there might be a problem is, I think we can all agree, not the ideal approach to communication. And then there are those who would go the distance on principle alone because they believe they have suffered an injustice, and want “their day in court.” Regardless of whether the end result is a lawsuit, a failed relationship, a damaged reputation, or whatever, there must be a way to mitigate, or in the best case, avoid such outcomes. Learning how to communicate (more) effectively is probably a good place to start.
We all communicate. We communicate verbally, non-verbally, in person, online, in our professional and our personal lives. Every. Single. Day. I think I can safely say most of us are a work-in-progress; however, some among us are so terrible at communicating, it’s a wonder these people get by at all.
Seriously, who doesn’t know that WRITING IN ALL CAPS is tantamount to SHOUTING? Admittedly, it took me a little while to figure out that LOL meant “laugh out loud” and not “lots of love” — but then, I have always had issues with rose-coloured glasses. But that’s besides the point. As lawyers, we should be excellent communicators. We are trained in the art of advocacy, we negotiate deals, we research and prepare legal memoranda and still, many of us are astonishingly poor communicators. Where did we go wrong?
Take the deal you just negotiated: did it go well? No, not for you — for your client. Did the parties walk away from the table if not jubilant at the thought of being partners for the next decade, at least satisfied that a reasonable deal was struck that they can live with and that the foundation for a decent working relationship has been constructed? If not, why not? I think I can guess that it was because there was a breakdown in communication somewhere along the way.
We live in a world that is obsessed with communication. We e-mail, tweet, post on Facebook, text message, IM, BBM — you name it — people do it. And what is the common denominator here? We don’t communicate via any of those media in person. Even conference calls and video conferencing have made it possible for us to hear and see a live person without having to actually be in each other’s physical presence. I’m not saying all of these means aren’t great — they can be — but it is not the same as having to sit across from someone and tell them that the relationship is over or that the terms they are asking for on behalf of their client are so unreasonable as to be absurd (while keeping a straight face).
The tools we use today are incredibly powerful. If you still have any doubts about just how much so, do a little research on Rachel Beckwith or Shirley Case, or on a former U.S. senator whose biography currently ranks (in search results) below the unsavoury definition attributed to his last name. Everything we say and do has the potential to become very public nowadays. We really are a global community whether we’re ready for it or not, thanks in part to the Internet and social media.
It means what we communicate can yield results well beyond what we could ever have conceived. In nine-year old Rachel’s case, her tragic death resulted in more than a million dollars being donated to “charity: water” in her memory by people from all over the world. For Shirley, whose efforts as a humanitarian aid worker were cut short at age 30, schools are being built in Nicaragua by friends and family in her memory with the help of SchoolBOX. In the senator’s case, well, you’d need to judge for yourself. I am suddenly reminded of the advice I was given that I should be comfortable with seeing what I have said or written on the front page of a leading national paper. Enough said.
For all the money lawyers spend getting educated, I do wonder sometimes why more time isn’t dedicated to quality communication training. At a time when there are few limitations on how far-reaching your interactions might be — professionally and personally — isn’t it worth making the effort to learn how to interact with others in a thoughtful, respectful, and effective manner?
Social cues and nonverbal communication are even more important now that we spend so much time interacting online. We’ve all missed the odd social cue, but it doesn’t hurt to think twice before hitting the send button. What would you think if you received an e-mail that said, “did you look at this?????” or “it must be nice to work from home.” Context is so important. Consider how different the impact of each of these messages is if they are from a close friend or someone to whom you report. Call it what you will; the medium is the delivery system — it’s the message that is the key.
If my grandmother was still alive, she would remind me that poor etiquette is unforgiveable no matter how busy or important we think we are. Think about it.