Hulcher & Hays, LLC, Client Development Consulting

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Celebrating 25 years in business, 1993-2018

Norm Hulcher    How To Market   Websites  •  Brochures    Tools  •  Advertising    Blog    Home




Some of us never learn because we understand so quickly

Here's a good doctor story.

In the late 1980s, two researchers named Beckman and Frankel taped 74 office consultations involving doctors and their patients. Among their shocking findings was that doctors aren’t particularly good listeners. In fact, when listening skills were passed out, the doctors who took part in this study must have been playing with their tongue depressors.

Beckman and Frankel found that, in responding to the doctors’ opening questions, patients were able to speak for an average of just 18 seconds before being interrupted. To put this in perspective, at least one patient was allowed to prattle on about his condition for nearly two-and-a-half minutes before his doctor cut him off. That means that, to achieve the 18-second average, quite a few consultations must have gone something like this:

Doctor: Now, what seems to be the problem?

Patient: Well, I –

Doctor: Ah, I see. Take off your shirt and try to touch your right foot to your left shoulder ...

Interrupting people is not only bad manners; it also robs doctors (and lawyers) of important benefits often gained from letting patients and clients talk:

  • Listening saves time and helps you achieve better results. By getting the whole story up front, you can avoid "misdiagnoses" and going off on wild goose chases. (I make this point knowing full well that, in some law firms, billings for misdiagnoses make the payments on the firm’s condo in Oceanside, and "Wild goose law" might as well be included in their Martindale-Hubbell listing.)

  • Listening can lead to more work. Beckman and Frankel reported that, when uninterrupted, patients in their study typically raised two or three additional areas of concern, not just one. An attorney who prematurely fixates on solving a client’s contract dispute may never get to learn about that client’s tax, environmental, paternity and bail-jumping problems.

  • Listening builds rapport and enhances client satisfaction. To have someone listen is an in-born craving, right up there with late-night runs to In 'n Out (or so I've been told). People especially need to be heard when their personal or business world is crashing down around them. In the client’s mind, a professional who can listen is a rarity, and whether clients retain you and how they describe you to others may depend largely on how interested you seem and how well you demonstrate your listening skills.

  • Listening helps avoid malpractice claims. An ABA survey of med-mal defense attorneys indicates that about 75% of claims result from poor communication between doctor and patient. And (as anyone who has ever been married knows) about 90% of communication is listening.

Two of the keys to being a good listener are (1) the ability to put yourself in the client’s shoes (be sure to secure the client’s permission first, always use a shoe horn and have plenty of foot powder on hand) and (2) remembering two cardinal rules of client relations:

  • While few clients can appreciate your technical skill, most are keenly aware of how you treat them.

  • Given the choice, most people would rather empty bedpans than visit a lawyer.

The day they come to see you for the first time may be the worst day of their lives. Whatever their dilemma – death, divorce, dispute – and whether they’re a CEO or a homemaker, by the time you see them they probably aren’t hitting on all cylinders. If there’s ever going to be a time when they need for someone to listen to them, this may be it.

Listening Generously

Most attorneys are conditioned to listen critically and selectively, to gather facts and separate the wheat from the chaff so they can begin solving the problem.

But if you start processing prematurely, you risk leaving your clients behind. Even if you’ve got it all figured out, they may not be ready for solutions just yet. First, they may have to blame, grieve, accuse or defend.

This is not the time for you to listen critically. Instead, try listening generously. It’s easy and, besides, you can generally bill for it.

Generous listening begins before you and your client even sit down. Be conscious of the physical layout of your office, and avoid seating arrangements that are awkward or might discourage openness.

For example, sitting behind your desk, across from your client, may seem natural and lawyer-like to you, but for someone who’s in a bad way and already intimidated just by being in a law office, your beautiful mahogany desk may as well be the Berlin Wall.

Also, select a seating arrangement that minimizes any significant height differences between the two of you (this is especially important if you represent basketball players or circus people).

Further, maintain an appropriate distance from your client. What is and isn’t appropriate varies somewhat, based in part on your client’s gender. Most men like to keep some physical distance between themselves and other people (especially other men). Women, on the other hand, may feel more comfortable in close proximity with other people. Don’t get carried away with this technique, however. Men won’t appreciate being stuck in the opposite corner of the room from you any more than most women are going to warm up to you imitating a department store Santa Claus.

Body Language

 Assume an open posture; avoid folding your arms across your chest. Lean toward your client or sit up straight. You may think that leaning back with your feet on the desk projects an air of comfort and familiarity, but clients may interpret it as indifference (especially if you doze off) or arrogance.

Maintaining eye contact or something close to it is a good way to let your client feel like you’re paying attention. Look at them, but don’t bore a hole through their head. To keep your eyes from glazing over, occasionally shift your gaze from their eyes to their mouth, nose, chin, etc. If you practice juvenile law, you can also study their facial jewelry and read their tattoos.

It’s okay (and in some cases, downright essential) to look away from them now and then, but only briefly and never to look outside. While the histrionics of weighing the legal pluses and minuses of their situation may dictate that you gaze out your window, that’s a sure-fire signal to insecure clients that you are not listening, couldn’t care less about them and wish you were out at the club.

Verbal Restraint

For many attorneys, mastering the non-verbal aspects of generous listening is a piece of cake compared to resisting the urge to talk. But it’s vital that you try not to compete with your clients for air time before they’re finished. Here are some useful rules:

  • Interrupt only to ask questions. If you must interrupt, do so to clarify facts or otherwise confirm what you thought you heard (What did you say his name was? How do you spell that? Let me make sure I understand what you just said.)

  • Misery does not love company. Telling them, "You know, you’re the third person I’ve met in the last week whose ex-girlfriend has accused him of molesting her son," is not going to give them much solace.

  • Repeat what they tell you. Once in a while, repeat back to them a significant point that they’ve just told you. It lets them know you’re paying attention, and it gives them a chance to straighten you out if you got it wrong. Don’t get carried away with this technique, though, as most clients will find it annoying to have everything they say recited back to them.

  • Sound alert. This may be tough when it’s 4:30, this is your ninth appointment of the day, and your client talks like an actuary, but try anyway.

  • Reflect their mood. Your rate of speech and energy level should be compatible with theirs. If they’re in a somber mood, don’t try to pep them up by clapping your hands and shouting, "What a beautiful day! Isn't life great?" Conversely, if they’re in an agitated state, they may resent your efforts to calm them down too quickly. Try to mirror their mood initially and then bring them down a little bit at a time by gradually lowering your voice and reducing your energy level. When you find them saying "What?" after each statement, you've lowered it enough.

  • Ask questions. If your urge to speak becomes irresistible, relieve it by asking a pertinent question (pertinent as in "When did you first become suspicious that your partner was stealing from you?" not "Hot enough for ya?"). If you can’t think of a question, say something that lets them know you’re listening or encourages them to tell you more.

  • Ask them to repeat themselves. What your client is saying may be so boring or tedious that you find yourself daydreaming or thinking about more important matters. Like lunch. As soon as you regain your wits, it’s okay – just this once – to interrupt your client and say, "I’m sorry, I was still thinking about something you said earlier (hey, I didn’t say you had to tell the truth). Could you repeat what you were just saying?"

  • Don’t look for an opening. Be sure your client has finished unloading before you shift into your problem-solving mode. As soon as you’re satisfied that they haven’t simply stopped to take a breath, ask if there’s anything else they want you to know. If not, now it’s your turn.

If you find the foregoing advice tedious and sophomoric, consider this shortcut to becoming a better listener: Care about your clients.

Training in listening skills is a poor substitute for sustaining a caring attitude toward the people who place their fate and cash in your hands. If you bear in mind that yours is a helping profession and that your mission is to help people who need it, you can become a generous listener, and your clients will love you for it.

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