March 15, 2013
When it comes to having difficult conversations, the majority of people don’t. Individuals struggle with conveying information that might be poorly received. Lawyers are no exception. Messages such as, “The firm is decreasing your vacation time,” “I am not satisfied with your performance,” and “Your bad temper is interfering with the department’s productivity” are left unsaid.
Alternatively, there are those who are perfectly comfortable confronting issues head-on. However, they tend to fall to the other extreme. Their delivery approach lacks empathy, is devoid of instructive or useful information, and is overblown. Imagine broadcasts like, “I cannot believe you transmitted this document to opposing counsel. It is a disaster. Where did you go to law school again?”
If you are interested in adopting an approach other than avoiding the hard message or mishandling the difficult talk, just look at the lawyers among you who are master communicators. A brief reflection on their style reveals that these professionals most always share the following two communication traits.
Direct. Attorneys who have successful interactions with others speak personally with the individual at issue. They do not pass the job off to someone else. They are the bearers of their own bad news and the executors of their own dirty work – there is no messenger to shoot. A game of telephone is a terribly ineffective way to effect a change in behavior or obtain different results. For someone to receive a message, particularly when it is important, that message must be hand-delivered to the intended recipient. Hearing it from a friend who heard it from a friend, gossip and innuendo are all for amateurs. If you want your message to be heeded, you must have the courage and confidence to deliver it yourself.
Clear. The lawyers who best connect with others are straightforward and to the point. There is no talking in circles for this crowd. They know that concise messages are the only way to ensure that the recipient walks away from the interaction with a precise understanding of the issue and the desired change. A good format for an impactful conversation is simple – state the issue, state how the issue makes you feel, make your requested change, and state how that change would make you feel. By way of illustration, “John, lately your work has been sloppy. As a result, I’m losing confidence in your ability to contribute. Going forward, I’d like you to be more careful when checking citations and proofreading documents. Your doing so would signal a significant improvement and would be much appreciated.” As a rule of thumb, nothing worth saying should take more than four sentences. Less is more, can’t see the forest for the trees – all of that rings true here.
If your intention is to become a more masterful communicator, this line from Moneyball is worth keeping in mind, “Would you rather get one shot in the head or five in the chest and bleed to death?” Attorneys who get the best from people go for the head every time and they pull the trigger themselves. It is kinder, braver and is the only way for them to get what they want.
Don’t be shy! Here’s your chance to weigh in. How does having a difficult conversation affect you? Does it make your heart race or are you cool as a cucumber? What is your strategy for having a heart-to-heart? Where have you succeeded? When have you fallen flat? Are the suggestions in this post even relevant? Tell us what you really think in the comments below.