Lawyers prize great advocacy, but in the battle to win clients’ hearts, it’s listening, not talking, that gets results

This is anecdotal, not scientific, but in conversations with law firms over the last few weeks, from national to niche, corporate to private client, I’ve heard a remarkably similar message: we’re not where we’d like to be, but things could be a lot worse.

That said, Pollyannas are in short supply. Everyone has made tough, necessary decisions on budgets, projects and headcount, anticipating that the recovery may be more pear-shaped than V-shaped. But you can’t slash your way to success. Emerging stronger means winning a larger slice of a smaller pie. The skill to sell will not be optional, a thought that terrifies the many reserved, risk-averse perfectionists who inhabit the profession and ironically are often among its best exponents.

They fear the unknown, and this is puzzling. We are all buyers as well as sellers, so we know what being on the receiving end feels like. We recoil instinctively from the hard sell, but know a good experience when we see one: being dealt with courteously by someone who is keen to help, wants to understand us and knows what they’re doing. It’s easy to forget that in conversations with clients and prospects where our agenda is to win more work, the first task is to not to sell, but establish rapport. Listen to the great US trial lawyer Clarence Darrow, in How to be a Salesman, published in the American Mercury in 1925:

“The farmer, it appears, must not be approached too abruptly. If you are to get his money you must break the news to him gently. You should first talk about horses, soil, and market conditions. This conversation will show that you are interested in things close to him and likewise give you a chance to study his temperament and to learn his likes and dislikes.”

The enemy of rapport is talking at the expense of listening, an easy mistake – so easy that usually we do not realise we are making it. Craving the business, and full of our own message, we can barely resist the temptation to blurt it out. Here is a better way.

Reflective listening

“Reflective listening” is not just an expression, it is a skill, and has been defined thus by the behavioural psychologists Neil Katz and Kevin Murphy:

“Reflective listening is following the thoughts and feelings of another and understanding what the other is saying from his or her perspective. It is a special type of listening that involves paying respectful attention to the content and feeling expressed in another person’s communication. It requires responding actively to another while keeping your attention focused completely on the speaker. In reflective listening, you do not offer your perspective, but carefully keep the focus on the other’s need or problem. It can help the speaker achieve his or her outcomes, help the speaker clarify his or her thoughts on some matter, decide on a course of action, or explore his or her feelings to some new depth. It is useful for both speaker and listener.”

We are concerned here with selling, but as Katz and Murphy point out, reflective listening is useful in a variety of situations: problem solving, assertion, conflict management and negotiation: pretty much the job description of a solicitor.

Here are examples of questions you might ask in a reflective listening conversation:

  • “If I understand correctly, your main concern is X. Is that right?”
  • “Can I just check this out with you? Your experience has been Y?”
  • “So it’s fair to say you think Z is the core issue here, correct?”

In response, it’s important to avoid being declamatory or dogmatic. At this stage, discovering their views is more important than broadcasting your own. An unsolicited, “In my firm’s opinion, this is what businesses like yours must do now,” sounds presumptuous and is always a turn-off. But despite what Katz and Murphy say about not offering your perspective, conversations can’t consist only of you asking questions, or it won’t be long before your subjects feel like they have been dropped against their will into a quiz show. Offering thoughtful, helpful comment which arises naturally in response to what your subject has said will demonstrate your expertise and understanding.

Many professional people recoil at the thought of having sales conversations. It sounds demeaning, and antithetical to their status. But they should feel comfortable with this listen/reflect/respond process, in which they showcase their expertise and demonstrate insight, and which is not a million miles from the advisory conversations they have daily, albeit with a different agenda. In a time of heightened anxiety, clients’ desire to be listened to, understood and helped is likewise heightened. Our being paid for lending a hand begins with skilfully lending an ear.

The Author

Stephen Gold was the founder and senior partner of Golds, a multi-award-winning law firm which grew from a sole practice to become a leader in its sectors. He is now a consultant, and trusted adviser to leading firms nationwide and internationally. e: stephen@stephengold.co.uk; t: 0044 7968 484232; Twitter: @thewordofgold 

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