Lawyers pride themselves on their communication abilities. However, understanding some basic gender differences in communication, acquiring key listening skills and applying that knowledge to one’s practice can improve an attorney’s odds of success.
Consider this example. Midway through voir dire, the plaintiff’s attorney briefly explains the proposed damages he seeks. As he describes the different categories of damages, he notices that Juror No. 8 is nodding her head. The attorney interprets her head nods as a great sign, so he makes the executive decision not to ask her any questions, fearing she will reveal her favor for his case. Juror No. 8 makes it on the jury, and the plaintiff’s attorney presents a strong case for his client.
Fast-forward to the end of trial. The jury awards minimal damages to the plaintiff. During post-verdict debriefing, the attorney is shocked to learn that Juror No. 8 convinced her fellow jurors to award such limited damages.
This scenario serves as one of many examples that demonstrate the critical importance of being aware of the different ways men and women communicate and interpret communication.
Numerous psychological studies have established that men and women have significant differences in the way they communicate. Practicing lawyers must develop an understanding of these differences if they are to become effective, powerful communicators.
Understanding gender differences in communication also allows attorneys to communicate with coworkers, clients, judges and jurors of the opposite sex in a manner that is more seamless, thoughtful and compelling.
Full comprehension of the variances in gender communication styles requires a general understanding of the differences that exist in the way males and females process voices.
Females tend to listen to and interpret voices with both hemispheres of their brains. This lets them to pick up nuances of tonality in sounds (e.g. the difference between crying and moaning). Males tend to listen primarily with one hemisphere, and they do not hear the same nuances of tonality. For example, males may miss an increasingly sharp tone in a female voice.
As a result of these differences, if a male want to increase the likelihood that a female will hear him, he should vary his tonality as a way of emphasizing his points. Correspondingly, if a female wants to increase the likelihood that a male will hear her, she should lower her voice pitch, avoid pitch variation, speak more loudly and decrease inflections at the end of sentences.
Another difference regarding how men and women process voices is the discovery that men decipher male and female voices in different parts of their brains. The findings of a research study from the United Kingdom’s University of Sheffield revealed that males process female voices in the auditory part of the brain that is responsible for processing music. In contrast, men process voicesin the “mind’s eye,” or the place in the brain where people compare their experiences to themselves.
According to researcher Dr. Michael Hunter, this is because “the female voice is actually more complex than the male voice, due to differences in the size and shape of the vocal cords and larynx between men and women, and also due to women having greater natural ‘melody’ in their voices.”
In other words, when a woman is speaking to a man, it’s not that the man isn’t listening to what she’s saying; it’s that he is hearing it in concert form. As a result, he has to work harder to decipher her words.
In addition to developing awareness of gender differences in communication, attorneys should be mindful of several listening techniques to become a better communicator.
Lawyers always should show interest in what the speaker says. Signals such as “Is that so,” “Great” and “I understand” tell the speaker that the listener is engaged and focused on the present moment.
Body language is another influential tool. Appropriate facial expressions, eye contact and body language reinforce respect for the speaker’s position and interest in what she has to say.
Another helpful communication technique deals with the brief time after an individual stops speaking but before the listener responds. When finished listening to a speaker, the listener should stop and listen another 30 seconds before reacting or responding. This small gesture conveys deliberate listening, which the speaker will pick up on and appreciate. This stands in sharp contrast the urge to plan a response while the speaker is still talking and then quickly jump in to make one’s own point.
Furthermore, when an individual responds to something the speaker says, the listener should make an effort to reflect back some of the speaker’s words. The chances of bonding with another person increase if there is exhibited similarity in communication styles. Repeating key words facilitates establishment of this bond.
Knowing gender differences and listening skills provides a lawyer with insight on how to improve his communication style and maximize his effectiveness in and out of the courtroom.
Litigators should pause and imagine how to apply this insight to their everyday practice. Depending on factors such as the client’s, main witness’ or expert’s communication style and gender, the trial lawyer can tailor what he looks for during jury selection. The goal is empanelling jurors who communicate in a way similar to the case’s most important witness.
Jury selection is typically more about de-selecting bad jurors than selecting good jurors. That’s why it’s beneficial to have witnesses and experts who communicate in different ways and who approach the case from different angles. Such variety in individuals who are called to the stand can significantly increase the likelihood that the majority of jurors will resonate with at least one witness.
The first step in recognizing and using these applications is to become familiar with your own communication style and to focus on developing your listening skills.
In diversity speaker and coach Simma Lieberman’s self-published article, “Differences in Male and Female Communication Styles,” she writes, “Too often men and women see the differences between each other [that] make each other wrong, rather than appreciating how they can benefit from those differences.” All attorneys should adopt a similar way of thinking when it comes to communicating with, listening to and understanding individuals of the opposite sex.
Lisa Blue Baron is a partner in Baron and Blue in Dallas and holds a Ph.D in psychology. Robert B. Hirschhorn is an attorney, a jury and trial consultant, and president of the Cathy Bennett & Associates in Lewisville, where Alexandra C. Figari is a jury and trial consultant.