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Lawyers are talkers. They talk for a living — arguing, negotiating, giving advice and expressing themselves in many other situations. Yet it is often in listening well, in casual conversation as well as in client consultation, that lawyers can truly distinguish themselves as caring, capable professionals. Following are some of the most important elements in effective listening. Your style of listening, of course, will be your own. However, consideration of some of these elements may increase your awareness of your own style, and lead you to consider means to improve your listening techniques in ways that are appropriate for you. LISTEN WITH PURPOSE Active, effective listening requires focused attention. If you are not listening “for” something, you may only hear noise, without any real understanding or retention of information. Lack of purpose in listening, moreover, will give you the appearance of being bored and distant. Although your purpose in each listening situation will depend on the circumstances, there are some general purposes that should apply in most instances: � Listen for the main point. In the course of conversation, you should, at very least, seek to determine the main point of what is being said. What you choose to do with that information — following up with questions, adding your own commentary, or making some plans for how to deal with any issue raised in the conversation — will vary. But you cannot begin to process information unless you grasp the main point. When in doubt, of course, your instinct should be to ask questions about the speaker’s main point, or attempt to summarize the main point, as you understand it, for the speaker to confirm. � Listen for the speaker’s mood. Just as important, in many instances, as ascertaining the speaker’s main point is the need to be sure about the speaker’s mood. It is not possible to respond appropriately to another person’s speech without knowing something of his or her mood. Some speakers may be impossible to deal with on a purely rational level because they are angry, tired, confused, upset or in a hurry. You may need to respond to the speaker primarily on an emotional level by reassuring, sympathizing, or urging calm. In some instances, moreover, where the speaker is clearly too upset to permit any rational dialogue, the appropriate response may be simply to withdraw, or remain silent. In most other circumstances, an appropriate gauging of a speaker’s mood will permit a response that is more likely to be well-received than a response that ignores the speaker’s emotional background. Again, if you are unsure of the speaker’s mood, it may be very appropriate to inquire, or to state your preliminary observation, for example, saying “you sound upset,” and let the speaker confirm or deny your observation. � Listen for information gaps. Often, in determining what a speaker is saying, and in determining the speaker’s perspective on the main issue(s) involved in the conversation — where he or she is “coming from” — it will be important to notice what the speaker is not saying. By observing that there are particular facts that the speaker apparently does not know, or that there are particular issues that the speaker apparently wishes to avoid, you may gain insights that you could not gain simply from listening to the words that the speaker says. LISTEN TO PARTICIPATE Few conversations are wholly one-sided. Even the most dominant conversationalists stop, once in awhile, to let someone else speak. Active listening thus must take account of the responsive side of a conversation. Planning for participation in a conversation may be essential, to ensure that you get out of the conversation what you need, and to ensure that the conversation proceeds without major gaps, or gaffes, on your part. � Be prepared to start the conversation. The nightmare scenario for most novice conversationalists is the situation in which you are introduced to someone for the first time, and suddenly find your mind going blank, with absolutely nothing to say, or ask, to start a conversation. Worse yet, as the introduction leads to a gap in the conversation, you may find yourself groping for something, anything, to start the conversation. This is the stuff of which cheap bar lines are made, like “Do you come to this place often?” The solution to this nightmare is not necessarily to have some “magic” conversation-starting line. The solution is to be yourself, and to be observant. Often, a self-revealing comment or question can easily start things off: “I don’t know many people at this function, do you know many people here?” What matters most is not your first line, but your willingness to listen attentively to the response, and to follow up with conversation-extending comments and questions. � Make it easy for people to talk to you. Lawyers, especially litigators, are trained to pursue logical, often staccato lines of inquiry. Most people, however, do not enjoy being cross-examined. An approachable style in conversation requires the use of positive, open-ended statements and questions, which signal to the other party that you are interested in them, and that you are eager to listen to them. Thus, for example, if someone tells you that they do a lot of gardening for recreation, a positive, open-ended response might be: “That’s interesting. I don’t know much about gardening. How would a beginner like me get started?” The use of “how” and “why” can be especially effective in this regard, because the answer generally cannot be a single word or a simple yes or no. You are inviting the speaker to explain himself or herself, and most speakers will take the invitation. � Be prepared to change the subject. You may find yourself doing the job of encouraging conversation too well. There are plenty of speakers who, given a chance, will spend a great deal of time talking, usually about themselves. When their comments fail to hold your interest, you may be tempted to drift off into day-dreaming. Resist that temptation by focusing your mental energy on formulating an outline of other subjects you would prefer to explore in the conversation. Once you are resolved on where you would like the conversation to go, look for the right opportunity to introduce a new topic. This does not mean that you must wait until the other speaker stops talking. Instead, wait a decent interval — until the speaker completes a main point, at least — and then consider a polite entry into another topic: “Excuse me, I have a completely unrelated question to ask you, and if I don’t ask it now, I might forget it.” So long as the focus remains on the speaker, and the interruption is not too abrupt, questions of this type can be an effective, polite way of changing the subject. � Plan your exit question. Good conversationalists, like good broadcast interviewers, know how to close out an encounter. In most instances, in conversation, it is polite to ask permission to break off, at an appropriate point: “Do you mind if we stop at this point, I have another appointment?” In some instances, the question at the close may be about something you want the other party to do, or remember about the conversation: “So, do you mind if I call you next week about the Widget project?” Even if not framed as a direct question, your conversation closing can often be planned around the general impression you want to leave: “I sure had a great time talking with you,” implicitly inviting the “me too” response. The point of the exit question is to force yourself to think of the last thing that the other party will hear from you before the conversation ends. LISTEN TO EVERYONE Everyone has something to give you — some fact, some insight, some amusing anecdote, some observation on life and their experiences. Attentive, active listening, to everyone you meet, can thus enhance the quality of your life. By practicing effective listening regularly, moreover, on matters that you might otherwise consider mundane, you may sharpen your conversation skills for the times, which are increasingly likely as you advance in the practice of law, when effective listening truly matters. Steven C. Bennett is a partner in the New York City office of Jones Day and co-director of the New Associates group there. The views expressed are his own and should not be attributed to the firm or its clients.

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