Netflix has a new program  featuring David Letterman interviewing prominent people,  “My Next Guest Is”.  https://www.netflix.com/title/80209096  I watched the interview with President. Barack Obama and was struck by the contrast of communication skills between the interviewer, David Letterman, and the guest. Obama is an extraordinarily gifted communicator. He is poised, self-confident and has impeccable timing with the gift of articulate communication. Trial lawyers should study him as a model for improved communication skills.

Letterman presented a distracting interviewer from my perspective. He has elected to ignore the first rule of good impression by growing an out of control beard resulting in looking like someone who was recently rescued from street homelessness. In addition, he was inept in his interviewing by poor listening skills. Much of good listening skills involve non-verbal mannerisms and conduct. For example, we all know the basics which include good eye contact, open posture and demonstrated interest in the speaker. Yet, from my perspective, Letterman didn’t exercise these fundamentals. Too often he had his hands in front of his mouth, made nervous gestures with his fingers and was simply not connected on a continuous basis. He would exhibit obvious interest on some subjects and have an “eyes glazed” over appearance at other times. The contrast between the skill of President Obama as a communicator and the ineptness of David Letterman as an interviewer on this particular occasion was striking to me.

I thought of the great listeners Bill Clinton or Gerry Spence. They would have been leaning forward with open body posture directly towards Obama. they would have had direct eye contact and with their facial expressions communicated clearly how engaged they were with the speaker. They would have given the impression there was no one else in that auditorium then the two of them and they were one hundred percent interested in hearing everything he had to say. When we interview new clients or witnesses or anyone else that should be our demeanor. When talk to jurors our first goal is to make a good impression as someone who is interested  in everything they have to say  and is totally listening.  Good listening skills are as much an essential trial lawyer skill is artful cross examination or any other aspect of trial.

What are the attributes of a good listener? There has been a considerable amount of publications and information available regarding this subject. One excellent source of advice on the Internet is at WikiHow: https://www.wikihow.com/Be-a-Good-Listener . Here are their recommendations on how to be a good listener.

  1. Listen with an open mind Place yourself in the other persons shoes. If we allow our inward thinking about other things to dominate, it will block our ability for active listening. We know about hindsight bias, that is when we know the outcome we think we would have known how to avoid it and have done something different. As we listen avoid that kind of thinking to interfere with really listening to the other person. Try to be completely focused on the person who was talking and make sure you are maintaining eye contact as long as the other person is speaking.
  2. In response do not make comparisons between your experiences and the other persons experiences. It’s important to focus on the other person’s situation and avoid responding by comparing it to your own experiences. While that might appear to be helpful it can make the other person feel like you don’t really understand their experience and aren’t really listening. Avoid using “I” or “me” as these indicate you are not listening. Be cautious about acting like your experiences are exactly like the other person’s experiences if you are asked for advice.
  3. Don’t immediately offer solutions.  While listening don’t be thinking about quick solutions to the problem. If you are engaged in thinking about quick fixes you aren’t really listening. Possible solutions should be the product of calm discussion after a full communication to you.
  4. Demonstrate sympathy. In most cases people are just looking for someone to tell their problems to and be sympathetic more than they are looking for a solution. Demonstrate sympathy by your body language, such as nodding at appropriate times or short words of understanding and caring. Look sympathetic. Confirm that you are hearing what they are saying and paying attention by short appropriate comments.
  5. Remember what you’ve been told. One essential part of being a good listener is to actually hear and process what the person has said. Try to avoid having the person explain and repeat themselves by closely paying attention to what they’re telling you so they will know you really have been listening. Be prepared when they are finished to remember what’s been said in your responses.
  6. Know what to avoid doing. Knowing what you should avoid in order to be a good listener is also important. These include the fundamentals of good listening: (1) don’t interrupt – ever.(2) don’t try to change the subject (3) don’t cross-examine – be sympathetic and (4) don’t say or do things that make the person feel worse. Avoid minimizing, “it’s not the end of the world” or “you’ll feel better in the morning.”
  7. Wait until they have finished before you respond. The most important rule is:  never interrupt with advice or your own experiences. That includes resisting the urge to voice impulsive thoughts or solutions. It also includes a reasonable period of  silence when the person has finished speaking to ensure they are done. Waiting patiently for the other person to unfold their thoughts at their own pace is the primary key to becoming a good listener.
  8. Assure the other person of confidentiality and honor it. If a person is sharing with you information that is private and sensitive, you should reassure them that you are a trustworthy person who will keep the conversation confidential. Advise them that whatever is said stays between the two of you and that your word in that regard is your bond.
  9. Be positive and encouraging in your response. Be empathetic and encouraging. Repeat some of the things you were told to show you were really listening and offer positive feedback. Avoid being dogmatic in your responses with statements like, “I may be wrong, but” or “correct me if I’m wrong.” Summarize and restate in your own words to assure the the other person you really been listening.
  10. Your questions should be both meaningful and empowering.  Refrain from putting the other person on the defensive by your questions or statements you make. Use questions as a means by which the other person can find their own solution. Questions you asked should help the speaker move from an emotional response to a more logical and constructive one.
  11. Be reassuring. At the conclusion of the conversation let the other person know that you have been happy to listen and that you are open to further discussion if need be. A reassuring touch can be important. Avoid building up false hopes but offered to assist with solutions if you have the ability to do so.
  12. .Have great eye contact . The primary way the other person knows you are listening is by your eye contact with them. Focus directly on the other person’s eyes and do not stare off into space or glance away at something else while they are talking. Focus fully on what the other person is saying. You should not be thinking about what you are going to reply but totally on what the other person is saying. It’s all about the other person and not you.
  13. Be fully attentive to the other person. If you want to be a good listener then you have to demonstrate that fact physically as well as mentally. Ignore all distractions by turning off devices such as cell phones. Let your body language and your eye contact demonstrate you are fully listening and engaged. Look straight into their eyes. Turn your body towards the speaker. Do not cross your arms or put your hands in front of your face.
  14. Be an active listener. Active listening involves the entire body, face and eyes. It’s okay to throw in an encouraging word or two from time to time. Look interested. When you do speak, do so at the same energy level as the speaker. Mirror their tone rate of speech and talk.
  15. Be patient.  Be patient and willing to just listen.wait until they’re done and when you do speak avoid misunderstanding by brief summaries of what you understood them to say about different things they were discussing. Be patient with them as individuals. If they are sensitive person in an emotional state avoid “tough love” responses. Be sensitive to their state.


  1. I remember Eric Oliver teaching me early on that too many trial lawyers won’t let a great answer get in the way of the next question they want to ask. It’s a lost art, with too many judges interjecting if, God forbid, there is silence in a courtroom. It voir dire it’s the most important skill one can have. If you listen and just follow up with how so, tell me more and what does that feel like for you, you have done well and can prepare your case for your decision makers.

  2. Great observation. I’ve known and read Eric’s writings for many years. His extensive background in NLP training gives him an added edge of knowledge on communication. Thanks for sharing Michael

  3. One can’t help but think of Oprah when it comes it listening. She is always warm, engaged, trustworthy, non-judgmental, honest, and above all, curious.

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