Listening – an active skill

Listening – an active skill

Those of you who have gone through training at the Trial Lawyers College by Gerry Spence, or who have attended any regional meetings of the the College, know about psychodrama. Originally developed by Jacob L. Moreno, psychodrama involves exploring emotional issues through acting out the situation. Participants assume roles and it is conducted so as to put into action life experience issues in order to understand them and deal with them. Re-enactments and role playing under the supervision of a trained person help bring to life issues that need to be seen more clearly. There are various exercises and procedures that can be used. One of the exercises is a listening exercise. It is designed to teachlawyers to be active listeners in a proper way.

In this exercise, as used at the Trial College, two participants sit in chairs, one slightly behind the other.One person talks and the other listens. The way it is conducted, the listener learns not to jump and tell the other person how to deal with the subject or interrupt with stories of their own. They learn to say things that assure t he speaker the listener is really listening and is hearing what is said. The listener learns to communicate to the speaker that he or she also is trying to understand and feel the emotion behind the words. In other words, total and complete listening and nothing more. Sounds simple doesn’t it? Yet, lawyers are classic bad listeners. They want to interrupt, shorten the matter and justgive the solution. They want to be in control and they strain at having to be quiet and just listen.

Malcom Gladwell in his book Blink discussed a study involving how physicians listen to patients and their chance of being sued for malpractice. The shorter the time of listening and the less demonstration of really being interested in the patient, the greater the chance of being sued for malpractice. The New England Journal of Medicine has published articles about skill in listening to patients and it’s importance in healing. Many otherprofessional journals have dealt with the same issue. Listening is a very important subject and yet the majority of lawyers are extremely poor listeners even though it is a skill that they should learn well. We all know the importance of trial lawyers listening carefully during trial and especially during jury selection.Yet the greatest failure of most trial lawyers is they simply don’t listen well.

What brought all of ths to mind was a broadcast I heard on National Public Radio ( in a series "This I believe." Dr, Alicia Conill is a clinical associate at the University School of Medicine and she was featured in a recent broadcast entitled "Listening is Powerful Medicine." I was struck by what she had to say. She described visiting an older patient in a rushed kind of way, when the patient said to her "Sit down doctor. This is my story, not your story." Surprised and embarrassed the doctor did sit down, stopped activity and talking, just listening to the patient. The doctor learned that all the patient wanted to do was to have her listen and benefited just from the fact she did listen. Dr. Conill says that she learned from this:

"Each story is different. Some are detailed; others are vague. Some have a beginning, middle and end. Others wander without aclear conclusion. Some are true; others not. Yet all those things do not really matter. What matters to the storyteller is that the story is heard – without interruption, assumption or judgment. Listening to someone’s story costs less then expensive diagnostic testingbut is the ky to healing and diagnosis."

Dr. Conill says she has learned the importance of "stopping, sitting down and truly listening." I hope everyone involved in helping other people learns the same lesson. It is an extremely important trial skill every great lawyer must learn and learn well.

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