What makes a strong communicator? Trainee solicitor Helen Morris provides her top tips for good communication at work.
The Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava in 1854 is considered to be one of the most disastrous events in British military history.
A senior officer, Lord Lucan, received a message from his commander that he wished the cavalry to advance rapidly to prevent the Russians from removing captured guns. The order was drafted and was carried by Captain Louis Nolan who also carried a further oral instruction that the cavalry was to attack immediately. When Lucan asked for clarification of the message Nolan is said to have indicated, by a side sweep of his arm, where the canons were being kept.
Shortly afterwards the Light Brigade, the elite of the British army, charged along the North Valley straight at the Russian heavy guns. Of the 673 men and officers who took art in the disastrous action, just over 300 were killed or wounded - all because, through poor communication, of a simple misunderstanding.
In the legal profession, the result of misunderstanding a communicated message is highly unlikely to be so devastating. Nevertheless, recent research for Cognisco, the employee knowledge appraisal consultancy, found that there is a significant cost attached to organisational misunderstanding.
This can be measured not only in financial loss and reduced productivity, but in areas such as job satisfaction, health and safety and brand reputation. Communicating effectively is therefore a key feature of the modern law firm.
1. Never presume that a message has been understood
Despite thousands of years of human evolution, the art of communication has not been mastered and one’s own assessment of a situation is unlikely to match exactly with the recipient’s understanding of a situation.
Frequently test everyone’s perception of a situation. Ask for information to be repeated and repeat information that you receive to ensure that your understanding of the task is correct.
2. Regular reporting is regular informing
Keeping everyone informed is essential to productive and effective teamwork and ensuring that deadlines are met. Spend time deciding when and to whom you should communicate and remember that information which informs one person may irritate another.
Update your team as to your capacity to complete current tasks and be realistic about your ability to undertake further work. When you are away from the office make sure your colleagues know your whereabouts and equally provide another point of contact for clients, whether a secretary or another member of your team, who they can contact in your absence.
3. The hidden agenda
Mark de Rond, in his book The Last Amateurs: To Hell and Back with the Cambridge Boat Race Crew , spent time accompanying the Cambridge Boat Race Crew through the selection process and training for the 2007 event. Reflective of many law firms, the rowers’ camp was a highly competitive, high pressure environment where a simple mix-up could mean delaying and occasionally comprising the end result.
He noticed that where messages weren’t communicated effectively a hidden agenda developed. Coaches feared that rowers might start to undermine their authority, while the rowers thought that coaches had already made the selection decisions and were just looking for the right data to firm up what they already wanted to happen.
The reality, he says, is usually a lot less sinister than we think. “The problem is that many people cannot live with casual gaps. They need to develop casual chains about why things happen in the way hat they do. If there is a gap, we tend to fill it up with bad stuff because we are inherently paranoid”.
4. Be self-aware
Attempt to see the world through the eyes of others, in order to understand how you are perceived by others. We all have different working styles – some want to be told very explicitly what to do, while some people delight in being given a target and being allowed to figure out what to do. Everybody has a different style of listening, learning and taking instructions.
5. Verbalising problems
In some situations, face to face communication is preferable, even essential. Never deliver bad news by email and never put bad news in writing until having spoken with the recipient personally.
Never tell a client that a matter is going to be easy, as when the matter turns out to be more complicated than at first foreseen, you immediately risk losing your client’s trust.
6. Parkinson’s law
Cyril Northcote Parkinson used to work for the British Civil Service and was also an influential writer on public administration, the most famous of his books being Parkinson’s Law. Whilst working in the Civil Service, Parkinson noticed that even a simple task would take a long time if employees weren’t given a deadline for finishing it. He commented that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.
Remember to prioritise workload but be realistic about setting deadlines. If you miss a self-imposed deadline, your client will be disappointed – far better to give yourself more time and be earlier than expected.
7. Time out
Finally, anyone familiar with reality TV will have seen the frustration that comes in only interacting with the same group of people day in day out. Whilst communication between group members generally improves over time, misunderstanding can easily escalate into full scale conflict when working in close proximity with certain individuals!