Building trust through communication
A wise man said: “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” That person was George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, critic, polemicist, and political activist, well-known for his influence on Western culture and critique. As humans, because we use language, we think we are naturally good communicators. Not so. Think of the last rambling email you received or the four-hour meeting that could have been a ten-minute conversation over a flat white.
As legal counsel, communication is one of our most important tools. Much of our days are spent talking to colleagues, business partners, opposing counsel and various stakeholders, so what we say and how we say it is key to our success. In fact, it’s one of the main building blocks we use to prove our value and establish trust within an organization.
As in-house lawyers, we provide value to the organizations we work for through things such as resolving issues via emails and explaining risk mitigation processes in face-to-face meetings, our goal being to fix what is broken. A large part of in-house lawyers’ work is based on parsing and understanding information and communicating clearer, more concise information back to the organization so its leaders can make good decisions. We take the law and simplify it to make issues less complicated. The role is critical to the future success of the business. To be effective and to build a foundation of trust, we need to be good communicators.
According to Upguard’s General Counsel, Theo Kapodistrias, lawyers are often perceived in a negative light: pretentious, arrogant, sealed in a vacuum, and speaking their own language. He says it doesn’t have to be like this. “The best way to establish trust is by being able to communicate with someone in a way that they understand you. If you’re speaking jargon, you’re not going to gain the trust or the respect of the people around you.”
No one, not even lawyers, wants to read heavy, jargon-filled legal prose. What we need is communication that is useful, easy to understand, and purposeful. A one-pager where the information is succinct and instructions/actions are clear.
Kapodistrias believes communication skills are a vital building block for establishing trust in his role as General Counsel. “Lawyers are expected to speak in a particular way, but you don’t need to fit that template.”
He speaks from experience. Kapodistrias was only 23 years old when he started as a lawyer at the University of Tasmania, working in a team where the average age was 47. He became interested in communication because he realized it was important for his career and working cross-functionally. “I was in an environment where there were so many voices and I had to cut through the noise to be heard and trusted,” he says.
Kapodistrias wanted to be the trusted advisor without being judged on his age and appearance. One thing that helped him do this was one-to-one meetings, turning up in person to break down barriers. “If you get in the room so people can put a face to your name, where you can speak in a way people understand, and where they themselves feel heard, that establishes trust.”
In other words, clear, concise, and relevant communication gives you leverage and helps you to build your personal brand as a professional.
Communication is often poor because it’s subjective. Don’t worry, we won’t now bore you with a rant on the four discourses of knowledge. When we communicate, we’re expressing thoughts and information or ideas from our own perspective, built on our life experiences and influences. Based on this unique viewpoint, we may make assumptions about another person’s perspective, resulting in a lack of clarity and misunderstandings.
If communication is subjective, what does “good” communication look and sound like? Kapodistrias has some tips.
Start with the language you use. Is it plain English? Can anyone understand? The best way to avoid blank stares in a conference call or a Zoom meeting is to tell people what they need to know, as if you’re addressing five years old. In the 1993 movie Philadelphia, Denzel Washington plays the role of a trial attorney who asks his clients to explain their situation “as if I were a six-year-old”. So, if you’re in the role of listening to someone, you can also ask them to explain their situation in a way that’s easy to understand.
Next, think about context. Are the words you’re using in context with the environment you’re working in? The language used in various industries is obviously different. For instance, a VC (venture capital) in a technology company isn’t the same as a VC (vice chancellor) at a university. Being contextual with your terminology can help improve communication disparity. Context also means knowing your audience. Think about who you’re talking to and the language they use. If no one understands what you’ve said or advised, you’ve done a poor job. The goal is to transform how advice is provided.
You also need to think about the format you use to communicate. Is it necessary to send an email? If so, is it possible to provide information that gives the recipient several options: a list of actions to take and a solid solution/action plan in 200 words or less? What about sending a voice memo? We’re all drowning in emails. Maybe a better way to cut through all the noise is to send your CEO a short message saying, “Here are the three things you need to do to solve this problem”. If you can provide advice in a different format that works more efficiently and more effectively for the business, do it. You can, and should, break the mold.
Ensure your communication is useful. It should have a purpose beyond communication. It’s helpful to ask at the end: “Has this provided you with a way forward?”, “Has this helped you?”, “Have I told you where you need to be and what you need to do?” Seek feedback. It will help you communicate better over time.
Says Kapodistrias: “People often think their communication skills are fine, so they don’t want to push themselves to progress or get better. But we can all improve what we do. Continuous improvement is critical. You have to put yourself in a change mindset, or a growth mindset, to get to the best version of yourself.
Finally, one of the most important things excellent communicators do is listen. Are you hearing what the problem is? Sometimes we grab onto something and take it in another direction. Ask yourself: “Am I answering the question that’s being asked? Am I solving the problem?” If you think the person isn’t asking the right question, guide them. Let them know you’ve listened to them and heard them, but after consideration other issues have come up. Check in to see that you’re both on the same page. The aim is to get a result that is good for everyone.
Becoming a good communicator opens doors. You can become a trusted collaborator, a great leader, someone who is invited to participate and to contribute. Communication isn’t just a tool, it’s a leadership skill you should hone.
InView champion Theo Kapodistrias is a multi-national award-winning lawyer and keynote speaker. Currently General Counsel at UpGuard. He holds leadership positions in the not-for-profit sector and is considered a thought-leader in the legal environment. He is passionate about being involved in the community and holds several voluntary positions. He recently launched his keynote speaker business helping individuals to be seen, be heard, and make an impact www.theokap.com.au.
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