Effective Active Listening Skills for Trial Lawyers
“You cannot learn anything about a juror or a jury panel if you’re talking. You need to be listening at least 80% of the time or you’re missing out…you’re not learning anything.” –Robert T. Eglet
Listening Skills Are Crucial In Trial
Communication is a two-way process –it’s not just talking. Real communication involves a great deal of listening. However, genuine listening has become a rarity in today’s fast-paced world. It seems we devote less and less time to actively listening to one another and more energy spent on the thoughts going on in our heads! It’s a real shame, especially when good listening helps foster good relationships, solve problems, and improve understanding.
In trial law, good listening skills are imperative. Every trial lawyer must take the time to work on improving and maintaining superb listening skills. If you want to understand and learn something during voir dire, you must limit the amount of talking you do and really hone in on listening intently to what the jury panel is saying.
Here are 7 great tips/reminders to improve your listening skills:
- Be mentally present but still relaxed. Always maintain eye contact with whom you are speaking. You should use physical expressions, such as nods of the head, and facial expressions to show the speaker you are attentively listening and interested in what they have to say. Screen out distractions going on in the background and do not to let your thoughts drift.
- Shhhh! Quiet yourself. Listening while talking will not work. That includes internal noise i.e. talking to yourself or formulating in your head what you want to say next. Don’t! Active listening means your attention is on the words of the speaker, not the words inside your head!
- Communication is more than words. Not everything is communicated with words. Body language is also important. Be sure to pay attention to others’ body language and your own. If you are standing in front of your jury panel with your arms crossed and frowning, you are not going to be perceived very well. You want to appear friendly, as if you are sitting around a dinner table chatting. Relax your body language to relax your audience.
- Watch your movements. This goes with #3 above, you need to show your willingness to listen. Therefore, you need to exhibit the right body language. Do not fidget or look away. Focus, smile, maintain eye contact, keep an open posture toward the speaker, and nod your head while the jury member is speaking to show you are listening and understanding.
- Don’t interrupt! For the love of…. This is probably the worst thing you can do in any communicative situation but especially during voir dire when trying to get information from your jury panel and gain their trust. You must let jurors finish what he/she is saying. Interrupting sends a myriad of negative messages like:
- “I’m more important than you.”
- “What I have to say is more important.”
- “I don’t really care how you feel or what you have to say.”
- “I don’t have time for this.”
- “This is no longer a conversation, I need to persuade you to win.”
As a trial lawyer you are trying to get information out of people so you can learn what’s needed to eliminate those detrimental to your case. You undoubtedly will be faced with a variety of different people and personalities. Everyone thinks and speaks at a different rate, so you must be patient and let the jurors have the time to express themselves and be heard. Above all, you don’t want to be perceived as a lawyer, you want to be perceived as a friend who listens and cares.
- Never assume. Making assumptions of what you think you heard could distort what the other person said. Always question for understanding.
- Ask relevant questions. Try to stay on topic as best you can when questioning the panel of jurors. Moving from topic to topic can easily confuse a juror and limit or hinder their true response. Remember, this is old hat for you as a trial lawyer, but for jurors, it may be their first time. So stick to relevant questions during voir dire.
In the end, if you want to learn something about a juror or you want to learn something about your panel, you have to listen –actively listen. Otherwise you will miss something that could be crucial to your case.