Effective legal marketing requires good communication. Firms must be able to convey key points about their values and culture to marketers and listen to constructive suggestions about new campaigns or new directions.
Attorneys, in fact, rely on communication skills in myriad ways, from client intake to litigation to business development to marketing. Although it is a critical skill, the legal profession as a whole is often maligned for a perceived inability to listen to and connect with clients. Lawyers are one of the country's least trusted groups of professionals.
Any communication, be it an email, phone call or in-person meeting, is only effective if the listener clearly understands the speaker's intent. As methods of communication proliferate, conveying meaning clearly becomes even more tricky. Tone can be difficult to pick up on in an email, and user expectations for what constitutes an appropriate bedside manner on different types of media vary widely.
The best way to build positive relationships with clients, associates and service providers is to be conscious of your communication style in every interaction. Make an effort to foster effective discourse by trying some of these tips:
1. Work to reduce stress. You should be able to ask a question, answer a question or make a request — of anyone — without introducing negative emotions on either side. Working to reduce stress can involve a number of things, depending on the situation.
- Always consider how what you are saying will sound to the other person. Your intent may be innocent, but the use of phrases like, “Are you understanding?” can actually intimidate the listener and prevent him or her from bringing up questions or concerns.
- Promote equality. Try to communicate on equal footing regardless of differences in position. You can maintain standing as an authority figure without talking down to or patronising others. Defend your opinions when necessary, but remember that differing points of view are valid, and treat everyone with respect — whether you agree with them or not.
- Have conversations when you are not distracted. This may mean rescheduling because you are hungry or sending an email a little later because you need a work break. It may mean turning off external distractions like radios or cell phones and closing browser windows. Communication deserves the courtesy of a clear mind.
- Stop complaining. There is a time for constructive criticism, which is a necessary part of any professional relationship. But complaining is different. Complaining comes from a place of anger, stress or insecurity — from a need to be validated. Misunderstandings are most likely when emotions are heated, so take a minute to calm down and try to approach the situation in the context of looking for solutions.
2. Empathize. Try to put yourself in the position of the person with whom you are communicating. Everyone you come into contact with has their own perspectives, hopes, fears, goals and biases. Remember, others are likely feeling the same emotions you are. Respect that connection and put aside biases and judgements.
3. Pause. Avoid rushing through communication – either when speaking or listening. Do not start thinking about what you are going to say while the other person is still talking. While you are crafting your response, you cannot be listening. You are also making assumptions about what the other person is saying without letting him or her say it. Move out of your own perspective and try to understand what is actually being said.
Give yourself time to listen and respond. Do not interrupt or pre-judge. When you are hurried, it is easy to miss points, misplace thoughts and misunderstand.
4. Use fewer words (literally). Probably half of what people say is unnecessary. Aim to speak wisely, not profusely, and do not fear silence. If you simply allow silence a little longer than you may feel comfortable, others are likely to keep talking. You will learn volumes from letting others speak and will be better able to address their concerns.
Before you do respond, think about how you could express yourself succinctly. Before sending an email, reread it. Do all of your words support your point? Excessive words dilute your point at best and cause stress, confusion or insult at worst.
5. Listen carefully, not defensively. If you are on your guard during a conversation, you will not fully hear what they other person is saying. Showing empathy in communication also requires an intent to understand. Too often, people listen only with the intent to reply with their own opinion. Instead, try to listen with the aim of appreciating what is being said and with the acceptance that your opinion could change.
Why is all this important?
1. You know you are sending the right message. From the perspective of a service provider, positive communication is critical. Your marketing company, for example, is your voice. You want that voice to be as accurate and reflective of you firm values as possible. If you rush through communications or show disrespect, your voice will be muddled, and you will not get the quality product your firm deserves.
The same can be said for other attorneys and staff at your firm. Good marketing and good client service rely on consistency. Everyone needs to have the same understanding of the firm's goals and values. If attorneys are fractured or bitter because of poor communication, they are less likely to provide a consistent level of service.
2. You foster creativity. Poor communication also stifles creativity. Everyone at your firm needs to be encouraged to think critically and feel safe when offering new ideas. If people are afraid of being dismissed or judged harshly, they are less likely to think independently and offer positive suggestions in any arena.
This is especially true for the professionals who are creating your ads, website, content and other materials. When communication is only negative, or absent, it is difficult to come up with new and innovative ideas. Your team could end up feeling trapped — as though no solution will be the right one. This is the enemy of creativity. Instead, encourage creative problem solving with positive, effective communication.
3. You build trust. Your colleagues and clients need to be able to be honest with you. They need to be able to give both positive and critical feedback in order to make realistic assessments about a variety of situations. Everything will run more smoothly if people feel free to voice concerns and opinions.
Honest communication also helps build trust with clients, which could in turn lead to more referrals. It is rare to be listened to without judgment or interruption. Think of how it feels when someone else is truly present to hear what you have to say, and pass that gift on. Be in the moment, be thoughtful and be aware of others. You will find that people who are treated respectfully grow to be your best advocates.