I recently had the opportunity to interview retired Illinois Supreme Court Justice Robert R. Thomas and Judge Debra B. Walker of the Circuit Court of Cook County for the Commission on Professionalism’s Reimagining Law video series. The two-part interview was scheduled for two reasons: first, to reflect on the Commission’s 15th anniversary and, well, because there is already a lot to talk about regarding the state of civility and professionalism in 2021.

In the second part of the interview (which we decided to publish first due to the relevance), the importance of listening kept coming up as a theme for promoting attorney professionalism. It got me thinking: can listening really make a difference in the state of civility? Don’t people just hear what they want to hear?

Are Lawyers Good Listeners?

In the interview, Thomas and Walker stressed that the most important aspect of civility and professionalism is the ability to respectfully listen to diverse viewpoints. We’re living in a highly polarized society where people aren’t listening to one another anymore, Thomas observed. He pointed to a Latin phrase on the wall of the Illinois Supreme Court in Springfield that reminds the justices of the importance of listening: “Audi Alteram Partem,” which means “Let the Other Side Be Heard.”

As I’ve written before, lawyers are trained to ask leading questions that pin a witness down. However, we aren’t generally trained to ask open-ended questions that may actually help us learn from another person.

In most communication contexts, asking open-ended questions and listening attentively to others is extremely important. We see this first-hand in the Commission’s facilitation trainings and courthouse professionalism programs, during which participants appreciate engaging in an exercise that boils down to active listening.

It’s important to note here that there is a difference between hearing and listening. Merriam-Webster defines the verb hear as the ability to perceive sounds whereas the verb listen is to give one’s attention to a sound. Experts take this one step further pointing out that empathetic listening can build community and make a difference in personal relationships.

What is Empathetic Listening?

Nancy Burgoyne, Ph.D., Chief Clinical Officer at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, says empathetic listening is just what we need in highly emotional and polarizing environments. In a lecture for the Northwestern Alumni Association, Burgoyne explained that empathy provides a connection to another’s experience. Human beings are hard-wired to connect to one another – but we’re are also wired to protect ourselves, which makes listening hard.

As Jaya Ramchandani, founder of the online learning community We Learn, We Grow, explains, empathetic listening is needed most when someone needs to be seen and heard, not when they’re asking for a solution to a problem.

To access empathy, Burgoyne recommends stepping away from your intellectual perspectives to access your feelings and then communicating that understanding to the other. This process, however, may be foreign to lawyers. After all, we’re trained in critical judgment and logical argument, not the touchy-feely stuff of empathy. In fact, according to the Myers-Briggs dimensions, lawyers are significantly more likely than the general population to approach decision-making from a “thinking” rather than a “feeling” perspective.

But Burgoyne says empathy may be just the secret sauce we need for disarming people who seemingly assert emotionally charged statements rather than logical argument.

How to Listen with Empathy

A critical first step to empathetic listening is listening to ourselves and identifying our “triggers,” or thoughts and feelings that are being brought up within. By first learning to listen to ourselves, we’re better prepared to listen to others.

In abbreviated form, here is a guide for empathetic listening:

  1. Check yourself. Pause, listen, and figuratively step away from yourself. This isn’t about you.
  2. Pay attention and focus on the other person. This is where attentive body language and eye contact convey your genuine curiosity.
  3. Don’t mind-read. We often disengage when we think we’ve already heard what the other person is saying. But we may not realize where the other person is coming from. Further, a person often needs to say familiar material again before advancing to the next step.
  4. Respond, don’t react. Take a moment to think through a response rather than giving voice to a reflexive, automatic reaction that comes on suddenly. (Reflexive reactions usually come from the amygdala — the situs of the “flight or fight” impulse and implicit biases designed to protect us — rather than the prefrontal cortex where higher-ordered thinking occurs.)
  5. Reflect what you heard back to the other person and validate their feelings. For example, “What I hear you saying is…am I getting it right?” “It sounds like you’re really frustrated.” Note that validating someone’s feelings is not the same as agreeing with them.

As with any type of difficult conversation, preparation is key. And in this climate, it’s wise to plan for how you’ll respond if you’re on the receiving end of something hateful. In such circumstances, remember to pause, notice what you’re saying to yourself, breathe (engaging in longer exhales), and notice where the tension is. If you’re flooded with emotion or triggered, call a time out for yourself. We need to take care of ourselves and reinforce healthy boundaries.

If you’re looking for how not to respond, Northwest Compassionate Communication compiled a list of responses to avoid if you’re trying to engage in empathetic listening. A few examples include:

  1. Don’t give advice or try to fix it, “I think you should…”
  2. Don’t explain it away, “She only said that because…”
  3. Don’t correct, “Wait. That’s not how it happened…”

Empathetic Listening Can Build Community

As a proponent of civility, I was most intrigued by Burgoyne’s assertion that if we can tolerate short-term intensity and personal conflict, we can help build community. “We must take one another in our full humanity, not just a specific opinion or quality,” she said. “This is how to move marginalized voices into the system.”

This concept was echoed by Judge Walker in my Reimagining Law interview. She noted that lawyers are naturally inclined to be leaders and often find themselves on their condo boards, faith-based boards, and in other positions of leadership in their communities. Walker noted that if lawyers lead through example, setting the tone for civility, it will help lay a foundation for civil discourse in others. “This is a time to demonstrate what unites us, not what divides us,” she said.

Lawyers, who are often sprinkled throughout our communities in positions of leadership, can use empathetic listening to bridge the emotional and political divides that have fractionalized society. There may not be a clear solution to every problem, but we all are experiencing anxiety and stress over the current situation. In our personal and professional interactions, can we let our guard down and listen empathetically? It just may provide connection and lead to a greater sense of community and civility.

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