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Effective communication is a skill that nearly every applicant puts on their CV and cover letter. Indeed, the ability to communicate is almost taken as a given by candidates – after all, we can speak, answer a phone and write an email. Further, it is a skill that is rarely challenged by interviewers.
However, effective communication is arguably more difficult than people assume. When working in teams such as those in law firms, you will often find that people have a wide variety of personalities and therefore preferred communication styles.
Moreover, your means of communication is likely to change when addressing international partners from other jurisdictions, demanding clients, new employees, the defence or other stakeholders. Further, pro bono work often involves interacting with vulnerable clients that may need a more delicate approach.
A packed calendar also means that you may have to adapt your delivery. For example, emails become quick chats, informal meeting updates become attendance notes and presentations become one-minute elevator pitches.
Elsewhere, you will often be asked questions that you do not know the answers to, possess crucial information that you do not understand or become the go-to representative of the firm when senior colleagues are away. Managing expectations is a crucial part of communicating effectively on these occasions.
Although my personal communication skills can still be developed, I have managed to improve over time by watching expert communicators at various jobs. Here are a few tips that I have learned.
Address the problem
When I was younger, I would try to solve a problem instantly – particularly if an email had been directed at me from a client or senior leadership.
I still recall running to the nearest knowledgeable person and bothering them with my self-created emergency. Alternatively, I would reply with a stock answer, hoping that my advice would appease the individual.
From experience, I can confirm that this urgent approach does not work.
A template response is likely to make the questioner feel that you are not listening to them. For instance, your reply ignores the nuances of their query.
Meanwhile, asking a colleague for advice is a good approach in general. However, if that colleague takes several hours to respond or your request is misunderstood or a low priority, your query may not get the attention that it deserves.
Therefore, a far better strategy is to reply promptly, acknowledging the issue and – most importantly – stating that you are actively looking into the request. Then, if obvious, say that you will consult the relevant team or individual and get back to the person that raised the issue within a realistic timeframe.
Having been a client on the other side of such requests, I can assure you that spending time chasing people to find out whether someone is acting on your problem is not a positive look.
Additionally, most clients understand that their requests may take time to resolve. They appreciate that important tasks may be complicated; therefore, a wrong answer quickly is far worse than an accurate one that takes slightly longer to deliver. It is also reassuring from a client-management perspective just to know that your request is being taken care of.
This is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of effective communication. Where possible, good communicators will avoid any shocks or confusion because they always keep the main stakeholders informed of developments.
For example, if a client requests a job to be done immediately, effective communicators may raise some of the drawbacks of that particular approach, mention the key people to be consulted and propose a more realistic deadline.
This expectation management requires time to consult with various practice groups around the office. Yet, it also prevents significant problems from arising. For instance, where people are expected to perform tasks that they do not have the capacity to do. In these scenarios, disappointing the client or overburdening the team and causing stress are inevitable negative outcomes.
Managing expectations is also important for team morale and prioritisation. If the client has demanded a project for a Monday morning meeting, there is no point in delivering the project on Monday afternoon. Thus, it helps to let the team know about the meeting as soon as possible. This way, it can prioritise tasks to meet the deadline – particularly if this deadline is a departure from the norm.
Managing expectations is also crucial for when things go wrong – which they often do. For example, an urgent task or new information could mean that several contracts need to be changed immediately. If colleagues are expecting work to be delivered at a certain time, keeping them abreast of these changes will help them to adapt their schedule as well.
Adopt different types of communication
The best communicators are comfortable with all styles of communication and seem to be able to choose the right one at the right time.
I have seen difficult clients satisfied with a quick face-to-face meeting and administrative bottlenecks relieved by a direct call where five emails have previously failed. In addition, clear instructions from a 20-second email response with screenshots attached can be more useful than confusing descriptions over the phone.
Further, I have built strong working relationships with individuals that I rarely work with, as when we do work together, we interact in person. In contrast, I have witnessed daily email exchanges that reveal little about a person beyond their job role.
This is relevant because the form of interaction can dictate its eventual level of success. Moreover, the style of communication can enhance collaboration going forward. Many young professionals tend to remain inside an email cocoon, perhaps to the detriment of what they want to achieve.
Therefore, be prepared to experiment. Courtesy phone calls may change the tone of an email dramatically. A quick Skype for Business message may get you an urgent answer; an email may be ignored. Elsewhere, a friendly “hello” may mean that your feedback is warmly received, rather than viewed as misguided.
Communication is a skill. Hence, it should be something that you continuously train, rather than assume that you naturally possess. The sad reality is that communication is arguably noticed more when it is done badly. Therefore, do not be afraid to self-analyse or ask someone how you can improve for next time – this communication will be appreciated.