Article by: David W. Ransin, of Ransin Injury Law in Springfield, Missouri.
Ransin Injury Law exclusively represents people and their families in catastrophic injury and death litigation after car, motorcycle, bicycle, pedestrian and tractor-trailer crashes. Licensed in 1982, his expertise stems from many jury trials and appeals, and six cases before the Supreme Court of Missouri.
Away from work, David enjoys spending time with his wife and two adult children traveling and doing anything outdoors, particularly working and relaxing at his farm, golf, canoeing, fly fishing, sailing, mountain and dirt biking, hiking, and backpacking.
“Whatever you have to say will never be as important as what your listener hears.”
That premise is summarized from a neurolinguistic programming book I read several decades ago and has since resonated with me every day, and I hope to share the same inspiration here.
We, trial lawyers, are taught to prepare and present our messages as staunch advocates for our clients and we believe we are great at this skill, but we are not.
The fallacy lies in believing that our message is what matters. We strive to make our message clear, concise and complete which is good but not enough. Instead, the only thing that matters is what the listener/reader receives, not what we intend to give them.
I will first share a simple exercise and example to expand your awareness and which, with time, focus, and repetition, should become your habit. I will end with a practical application you can use every day in your office.
Begin by observing. Carefully listen to or read the messages sent by others. Do this first from your own perspective and then from the sender’s perspective. Compare them and sense what implications were laden in the sender’s message, and the interpretations and inferences you as the receiver had to employ. Sort out the extraneous facts the sender provided which you, the receiver, never needed. You will find most often the sender’s message is not clear, concise, and complete. Such is the essence of miscommunication and a result that is simple to remedy but requires focus and effort to become a habit.
Once you have practiced this on messages sent by others, turn the focus on yourself: before you speak or write anything, ask yourself whether your intended message is composed from your perspective or the target’s perspective. When sending an email, avoid the instinctive “hit send and move on” we all do these days, and let go of the keyboard, sit back, blank your mind momentarily, and spend a whopping 20 seconds slowly reading the email you wrote, and apply these principles. Does your email require the reader to draw inferences? Could a total stranger understand your message? Odds are you will edit the email before sending it. And, this does not mean you will add information because more is not better. You will likely trim and tighten, adding only where needed to avoid requiring inferences and assumptions by the reader.
Also, take a moment while going through your daily listserv inbox and you will find many posts that begin: “I have a question….” and then the sender rambles on with several paragraphs of detailed facts burying the question somewhere late in the sequence or at the very end, thus requiring you to go back and parse through the tome of information to find what you really need.
Instead, had the sender begun by orienting your attention and presenting the question, you would have had the context of which facts were important and why. Without that guidance, your mind is adrift and struggles to understand. By comparison, the sender knew exactly what they were asking, and their message was composed from their perspective, not yours. By repeating this exercise, you will find many such questions are unfocused and are accompanied by numerous irrelevant facts. We must resist the syndrome we all suffer which I call: “Just because we know a lot of information does not mean we must share a lot of information.”
Example listserv query:
“I have a client named Bill; he is a banker in a small town and suffered a left clavicle fracture that might require surgery in a crash on his way to a school board meeting early one evening; he was southbound on Main street about 630pm…..on and on and on….”
Is this question about the venue? client control? case value? seeking an expert? need a referral?
The problem here is akin to “framing.” We are all familiar with framing as an advocacy tactic, but it is also pertinent to all communication, not just advocacy. In this example, the reader is given no “frame” within which to receive the information, and if it had been properly framed from the beginning, with the correct effort, the sender would have identified and deleted all the facts that fall outside the frame and thus are wholly unnecessary and only serve to distract rather than convey clear communication.
To do so requires the sender from the beginning, before composing the message, to view everything from the perspective of the intended recipient. The sender already knows the topic, question, and intent of the message. Do not keep all that a secret from the recipient!
All this applies to every communication in our lives, and in our practice be it with clients, judges, adjusters, and jurors . . . as well as our staff, who will often come to us with a question and launch into a litany of facts.
Here is a practical application of these concepts. Any time my staff comes to me with a question, they must follow these steps and tell me:
The name of the case provides a clear beginning perspective; the topic narrows it further; stating the issue beginning with “what” refines it very tightly. Requiring them to formulate the issue this way usually leads them to discover the proper solution or answer on their own. Requiring them to propose an answer or solution not only forces them to think it through but serves as a great educational opportunity for you to contrast and explain why it was close but not the best option. Limiting the number of facts will not only save time but will come naturally to them with practice.
The target, the perspective of the listener, must be your focus before you craft your message.