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You’re either a great conversationalist, or you think you are.
It’s no secret that lawyers and other professionals often have high opinions of themselves when it comes to standing around the water cooler, mingling at a cocktail party or dealing with clients. They love to spin a good yarn.
But are they truly having two-way exchanges where both sides are engaged throughout and feel good about it at the end?
Conversational intelligence enables people to navigate successfully with others. Some develop it and build trust, partnerships and lifelong relationships. Others, however, face a bigger problem than merely being poor conversationalists. Mistakenly thinking that you’ve been blessed with the gift of the gab can have significant social and business consequences, often because you’re talking down a one-way street.
Just because you’re a lawyer doesn’t make you a good conversationalist, says Bernardo Carducci, a psychology professor and director of the Shyness Research Institute at Indiana University Southeast.
Sure, you can talk about your favourite topic — law — the many cases you’ve worked on, lawyers you’ve defeated and bad guys you’ve put in jail, but the vast majority of people you encounter in the real world aren’t lawyers. And let’s face it, their eyes will likely glaze over unless your stories involve Perry Mason, Ally McBeal or anybody from the cast of Night Court.
You might also think continually asking questions is a great way to kick-start a conversation. And you’d be wrong.
‘That’s an interrogation,” Carducci says. “That’s the lazy way out. You have to find something that you can both talk about. This is about being a friend, a good person and connecting to humanity.”
So much of business, not to mention life in general, comes down to making connections. The more you have, the greater power and influence you’ll be able to exert, he says.
But having a conversation in the digital age can be challenging, to say the least, because most of us have a smart phone attached to us somewhere, says Steve Prentice, a Toronto-based expert in productivity and communication in the workplace. He says it’s crucial for lawyers and other professionals to be able to connect with clients and potential clients on an emotional level.
“The art of live conversation is more important than ever,” he says.
Keeping your cellphone out of sight is key for good communication as nothing destroys the value of the current exchange as stopping to take a phone call, read a text or open a meaningless e-mail.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that the speed of expectation has increased while attention spans have decreased, so people are forced to speak in short sound bites to keep others from becoming distracted or bored.
This is only exacerbated by social media, which encourages people to communicate in 140 characters or less and other shortcuts.
Carducci says Twitter, Facebook and texting aren’t necessarily causing people to become worse conversationalists but they’re definitely making them more self-focused.
“You can tailor (social media) to fit your specific needs. You can go online and speak only with people who agree with you. Those who disagree with you, you can delete. That gives you a sense of false identity. In order to stand out in this crowded field, you have to get more extreme, louder and more extravagant. People begin to compete with one another to be the loudest rather than the nicest,” he says.
You can, however, use LinkedIn and Facebook as ways of establishing future contact with somebody you’ve met at a conference or a social gathering, he says.
If you really want to accomplish something, it’s important that others like you, Prentice says, because deals rarely get done between people who don’t get along. People like people who are active listeners and who pay attention to them when they’re speaking.
“If I look over your shoulder, how would that make you feel?” he asks. “You need to be aware of how you’re demonstrating interest in what the other person is saying. (That includes) how you hold your hands, the eye contact you make and making sure you’re not demonstrating boredom or impatience.”
When he asks groups who they feel is a fantastic leader, a popular response is former U.S. president Bill Clinton. Prentice isn’t surprised because the Democratic Party icon can make whomever he’s speaking to feel like they’re the only person in the world at that moment. That should serve as a teachable moment for lawyers, he says.
“When you focus on that person and make them feel like that, that makes the connection for then and beyond. Your reputation has a legacy,” he says.
Aaron Harnett, a Toronto-based criminal defence lawyer, says people in his profession can be great conversationalists if they practise law that requires interviewing people and paying attention to the answers. Lawyers who deal with “moving money from pile to pile” or completing documentation are less likely to be good conversationalists, he says.
“They have to keep the purpose of the conversation in mind when they’re speaking to somebody in the same way they’d keep the purpose of a cross-examination in mind when talking to (the accused) in a bank robbery case,” he says.
Sadly, though, he believes the art of conversation has died and people are only “kicking around the corpse” as they don’t generally listen to the answers they get to the questions they ask.
The better the conversationalist, the better the chance you can build up your business. Lawyers need to realize that every social interaction they have can become a sales pitch. On the flipside, a poor conversation can kill a business deal.
“Many great sales people will tell you their pitch is really just a conversation. Lawyers don’t recognize that they’re sales people. Where they are poor conversationalists, they are likely to be poor sales people. Ultimately, sales is about conversation,” he says.
In an odd twist, the best conversations that you’ll have are probably ones in which you do the least talking, says Judith E. Glaser, a New York-based organizational anthropologist.
She says people who follow the pattern of “tell, sell and yell,” think they’re being good conversationalists but there’s really little or no mutual engagement with such a method.
“It has to be an interaction for people to get it. In many companies, it’s the old pattern of ‘if I tell them again and again, they’ll finally get it.’ People say, ‘we had that conversation. I told them three times. Finally, I had to yell at them,’” she says.
Glaser says there are three levels of conversation. The first is simply one person telling the other what to do, which doesn’t engage people in commitment.
The second involves advocating one’s point of view. This is little more than using persuasion in disguise by posing questions starting with, “Don’t you think it’s a good idea if…”
The third level is transformational conversations, where you build a rapport and get to know the needs and aspirations of the other person.
Rather than asking questions where lawyers guide people to the answers, she recommends asking questions for which they don’t know the response.
“A lot of people are afraid to ask those questions because they might get an answer that might not fit them. (They think) it might be the loss of business when, in fact, it’s the beginning of forming a business relationship,” she says.
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