As an attorney who regularly represents clients in high-stakes litigation, my clients look to me to argue their cases. Clients generally perceive advocacy as argument. But in my 31 years as a trial lawyer, I have learned that careful listening is the key to effective argument. The starting point is listening and learning from the client about her concerns and objectives. Effective advocacy also requires listening — and, critically, hearing — the other side. The focus should not be on the fight but, rather, on the resolution.
Organizational psychologist and author Adam Grant’s latest book “Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know” provides some interesting perspective on this question. When you want to understand where another person is coming from — what they are actually worried about and what they hope to achieve — you have to listen carefully and truly inhabit their perspective. Sometimes it’s not what they say but how they say it that helps me understand. Sometimes discovering an underlying motivation that shaped their thinking brings the picture into focus. But it always starts with asking open-ended questions and then truly listening for the answers.
Understanding on a deeper level where the client is coming from enables me to find solutions to their legal problems and advocate for their best interests — in the short and long run. To meet my adversary’s argument, I must first hear it. “Listen first and speak second” is my rule, and it offers a path to addressing the issues that actually matter. Truly hearing my clients enables me to advocate effectively.