June 24, 2013
Recently a CEO of a three-hundred-attorney law firm confided to me his belief that lawyers are terrible communicators. He went on to explain that while lawyers are comfortable managing conflict in the course of performing their lawyerly duties (negotiating a deal or arguing a motion) the same is not true for when they are acting as managers or supervisors. For instance, an attorney who wouldn’t bat an eye at aggressively defending a motion or vociferously preserving the record will break out into a cold sweat and go to great lengths to avoid a conversation with a colleague about undesirable behavior.
To gauge the veracity of the CEO’s theory, I conducted an informal poll. The response to my inquiry about whether attorneys tend to say-it-straight and tell-it-true was met with an impassioned headshake or an “are you kidding me” stare. Given the almost universal agreement on this front, it seems worth acknowledging that there is something difficult, maybe even scary, about foursquare conversations.
The first step to overcoming fear of straightforward communication is to recognize a couple of hard truths. For one, engaging in candid conversations is challenging at best. For two, most lawyers shy away from doing so.
Leveling with someone whether it be by delivering disappointing news, delegating an undesirable assignment, sharing your true feelings, or conveying negative feedback is hard. In each case you are getting into someone else’s face and telling them something they likely don’t want to hear. Seemingly, it is not the stuff that makes for winning popularity contests.
Being up-front not only requires courage, but also that you strike the right tone – one that is not too soft and not too harsh. If you err on the side of watered down or sickly sweet, your message won’t come through. In contrast, being too abrupt will get you dismissed entirely and will lead your recipient to think something along the lines of, “Now there’s a guy with a problem.”
Also mandatory for meaningful conversation is that it go straight from point A to point B (no third-party intermediaries, interpreters, behind the back chitchat) and take place in person (there is nothing like email to muddle a message). Not satisfying either of these requirements is a deal breaker. If you are not brave enough to personally hand-deliver your message to the intended recipient, keep the sentiment to yourself.
Saying something to a bystander, someone outside the chain of command, or to individuals in the wrong order is significantly worse than saying nothing at all. Sharing your thoughts, opinions, or feelings is a privilege. This privilege should only be afforded to those bold enough to wield it responsibly.
Admittedly, becoming a powerful communicator takes practice. To find your sweet spot you may first put your foot in your mouth. Despite the pitfalls and nuisances of being direct, it is the most effective way to convey your message and to obtain the result you desire.
The old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say it at all” doesn’t apply here. Instead embrace, a slightly modified, updated version. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then be direct and do it in person.”