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Avoiding the misstep of miscommunication

If you can’t get your message across, ‘brilliant skills don’t matter’
By Simon Hally
October 30 2015 issue

Meriel Jane Waissman / iStockphoto.com

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Electronic technology has provided new ways for lawyers to communicate with each other, with their clients, with judges and with any other audiences they need to address. Tools such as e-mail, text messaging and social media have been added to the more traditional methods of exchanging information: letters, faxes, phone calls and face-to-face interactions. But every form of communication, if not conducted well, has the potential to create misunderstandings whose effects can be far-reaching and harmful.

Communication is about transferring information and knowledge, but it is also about how we present ourselves to the world. Lawyers who communicate effectively will earn trust and respect; those who are careless or inappropriate in the way they address others will appear unprofessional, or worse. Most disbarments and disciplining of lawyers can be traced back to inadequate communication.

“If communication is poor, brilliant skills don’t matter,” says Steven Benmor, a family lawyer in Toronto.

A vital first step to communicating effectively, whether in writing, by phone or face to face, is to understand your audience and tailor your messages accordingly.

“Think: what do they need to hear? How much do they know of the topic? You want to convey knowledge, not tell people what they already know,” says Benmor.

A common difficulty for lawyers when communicating with clients is a tendency to speak down unintentionally, or use legal terminology that means something else to a layperson, says Michelle Causton, a professor at Canadore College in North Bay, Ont., who has extensive experience in communication and governance. The interpretation of words as basic as “justice” and “innocence,” for example, can vary widely, depending on the extent of legal knowledge of the person using them.

“The context of the conversation adds layers of possible confusion,” Causton says. “Even among peers, there can be misunderstandings. I’ve done a lot of board work and several times I’ve witnessed articulate and intelligent people discuss issues and come to an agreement and then leave the meeting with quite different views of what the agreement was.”

The tone of communication is as important as the content, Benmor adds. “Ask yourself, what will appeal to my audience? What will put their backs up? Consider their state of mind. For example, a judge is a different audience at 9:30 a.m. than at 3:30 p.m. after several hours of testimony.”

Tone matters not only in verbal interactions, where the sound and pitch of voices as well as body language come into play, but also in written communications. A quick, brief reply to a client e-mail may be efficient and provide all the information the client needs, but it can also be perceived as rude and uncaring, especially if the client is worried or upset. On the other hand, a longer, more effusive message might be irritating to a recipient who dislikes wasting time.

Benmor and Causton each stress the point that legal issues are often highly emotional for the people involved, which adds to the potential for misunderstanding and makes it even more important for lawyers to be sensitive and careful in the way they communicate.

Furthermore, says Benmor, “When I write a letter or e-mail, I keep in mind that the recipient is not the only audience. As a family lawyer, if I write to my client’s spouse, for example, the letter will probably be read by that person’s lawyer, as well as a judge if the letter is filed. They will make judgments based on the content and tone.”

For that reason, Benmor never uses text messaging in his practice. He considers all his communications to be potential evidence, and texts do not record times, dates or other critical information.

So what makes a good communicator? “If you really want to communicate and not just look clever, you have to think about what you’re trying to tell the other person, and about what the other person needs to know,” says Causton, “You have to ensure that you’re clear and also seen by others as clear.”

To do that, it’s crucial to adapt your communication style to suit the other person’s style, says Garth Sheriff, a Toronto consultant who specializes in training businesspeople in foundational skills such as communications.

“You must be introspective, aware of your own tendencies: how you communicate, verbally, non-verbally or paraverbally.” (Paraverbal communication refers to how something is said, not what is said — the underlying messages that are transmitted through tone, pitch and pacing.)

Lawyers, because of the nature of their work, tend to be focused on the task at hand and directive or assertive in the way they communicate, says Sheriff. The strengths of this style include decisiveness, efficiency and leadership, but people who communicate in this way are often not the best listeners and tend not to be focused on the other person as much as they could be.

Not only is it important to listen, notes Benmor, but your audience needs to know you are listening. In a face-to-face interaction, “give them your full attention, watch for non-verbal cues, nod, make eye contact without staring, and don’t do other things while you’re listening. Let them know you understand them: mirror back what they said, ask a question stemming from what they said. This really proves you heard them.”

The same principle applies in non-verbal communications. Reading the other person’s e-mail carefully is a way of listening. You can show this by returning the e-mail with your comments and answers inserted in red.

And communication skills have to be learned.

“There are people who are naturally good communicators, but they are very rare,” says Sheriff. “Most people need to work on it.”

He suggests an approach that can be used by anyone, no matter how well they communicate now.

Start by focusing on yourself, not others, he advises. Document your communication moments, especially those that don’t go well. Think about your tone and how you were feeling, and try to understand how this might have affected the communication.

Consider your communication style. Are you most comfortable being brief and assertive, focused on the facts under discussion? Or do you prefer a friendlier approach, focused on your audience? Do you like to be in control of the discussion? Ask yourself how well you are able to match the style of the other person.

Think about moments that went well, and ask yourself why. Look for feedback to help you improve your communication skills by asking someone you trust for confirmation or comment.

All this will take time, Sheriff cautions, but it will be time well spent.

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