At Home, But Not Alone Brushstroke #43

Meaningful Communication Starts With the Listener, Not the Talker

I have spent much of my adult life in courtrooms talking to jurors, getting them to see things the right way,  when someone else was trying to lead them astray. Along the way, I learned a lesson that applies to all kinds  of situations where you are using words to persuade others when there are two sides involved. This  revelation is not limited to courtrooms or lawyers. 

The key is understanding that meaningful communication starts with putting yourself in the shoes of the  listener. You have to think about how your message will be received by the listener. Ask yourself, what points  are likely to be rejected and which ones will pique the interest of the persons you are trying to convince? 

It does you no good to make a great argument that is doomed to hit a dead end. It’s like what happened in  the movie “My Cousin Vinnie” when the prosecutor sprung a surprise expert witness on Vinnie. Vinnie  studied up on local rules and crafted a winning objection as to why the witness should not be allowed to  testify. The judge’s reaction shows how communicating successfully is more about the listener than the  talker. 

Judge: “Mr. Gambini, that is a lucid, intelligent, well thought-out objection. 

Vinnie Gambini: “Thank you, Your Honor.” 

Judge: “Overruled.” 

Next, let me give you an example of putting the listener-first knowledge to good use. An insurance adjuster  and defense lawyer are not likely to be moved by you rattling your saber at them during a settlement  conference. As the saying goes, “them’s fightin’ words”. Your words will sound good to you and your client,  but they will sound like fingernails on a chalkboard to the other side. You will create a bigger divide, rather  than move the defense towards a fair and reasonable amount. 

Now, let’s think about what matters to the listener in that situation. While the defense doesn’t want to back  down, they sure as heck don’t want to be put down at trial. Rather than using threatening words, tell the  other side what you are going to tell the jury. Curiosity will replace defiance. Deliver your message with  respect for their way of thinking. When you speak with respect, rather than rancor, you will likely be shown  respect in return. That reciprocal respect will almost certainly come in the form of active listening. 

Confrontational Talker Approach: You act as if this pain my client lives with isn’t a big deal. It’s just normal  aches and pains that everyone has after a certain age. You are dead wrong and you’re going to regret  lowballing us. 

Respectful Listener Awareness Approach: I realize you feel this isn’t a big case because aches and pains aren’t  a big deal. I thought I would share with you a small sample of what I will be telling the jury about that. You  may not agree with what I say, but I figured you’d, at least want to hear what the jury will hear. We all know  informed decisions are the best kind, especially when it comes to important business decisions like this one. As  we all know, the jury will be deciding the outcome if we can’t reach a settlement. Out of respect, I wanted to  share with you a few of the things I’ll be telling them. Then, you can make up your own mind as to how jurors  may react. That way you can assess your exposure now, rather than hearing this for the first time at trial.  Here is an analogy that I will give the jury to better explain the reality of this kind of pain and the toll it will  take over time. (To make the point, I’ll use one of my favorite analogies for disk injury cases.) 

It’s like a man who wakes up with a crick in his neck because he slept wrong. He groans a little and his wife  asks what’s wrong. He tells her he slept wrong and has a crick in his neck. His wife says she’s sorry to hear 

that and the man says it’s no big deal. All day it is there bothering him, like annoying background noise. It  seems like everything he does reminds him it’s there, such as: picking up his briefcase, turning his head to look  for blind spots when changing lanes in his car, sitting for long at his desk, standing for long when he stands to  get some relief. That night his wife asks, how was his day. He tells her it was fine other than this dang crick in  his neck that is driving him crazy. 

He wakes up the next morning and gripes to his wife that he was hoping it would be gone. She suggests he  consider going to the doctor. He tells her it’s not that kind of pain. That days is more of the same. It’s always  there affecting his peace of mind, like an unwanted, obnoxious visitor who overstays their welcome. You know  what he doesn’t do? He doesn’t call in sick, it’s not that kind of pain. You know what else he doesn’t do? He  doesn’t walk around holding his neck saying “ouch, ouch”. It’s not that kind of pain. People would say, you big  baby, get a grip. By the end of day two the pain is taking a toll, it’s really getting on his nerves. When he gets  home, he’s uncharacteristically short with the kids. His wife’s asks, “What’s the matter with you?” He  responds that he is sorry, but this crick in his neck is putting him in a bad mood. She suggests maybe he ought  to go to the doctor. This time it’s less about concern and more about not wanting a crank in the house. 

On day three he wakes up and his wife is in brushing her teeth. She hears him holler “hallelujah”. Startled, she  asks what’s going on? He joyously announces, “it’s gone!!!” 

Well that is exactly what Ms. Jones is living with since this crash, except there is no “hallelujah” EVER. And this  didn’t come from sleeping wrong. It was thrust into her life suddenly, and unnaturally by someone who was  driving unreasonably, endangering the motoring public. 

Mr. Adjuster, based on my past experience, most jurors will realize this kind of pain is a big deal, once it is put  in an easy to relate to context. I’ll leave you folks to talk about it and factor that into your decision-making  process today. Thanks for listening, 

The “respectful listener awareness” approach can be applied to any situation where you are trying to get  through to someone who is reluctant or where there are two sides being presented, and you are on the side  of right. It works in life, as well as in lawsuits. I will send a few more examples in my next post and/or At  Home, but Not Alone Brushstrokes.