We are well aware of the importance of emotional intelligence, the soft skills that allow us to understand and regulate our own feelings and to relate to others. I have seen it written–but can’t recall specifically where–that intelligence will get you hired but lack of emotional intelligence will get you fired.
How often have you heard it said that someone just didn’t get along with others or just couldn’t understand how to deal with clients as a reason they did not make partner? Or advance in their careers?
In their book Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential, authors John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut explain that strength and warmth are the main factors on which our social judgments hinge, and we have to get them in the right balance for maximum effect.
Strength, a measure of how much a person can impose their will on the world, is comprised of two elements: competence and strength of character to act. Lawyers typically project plenty of strength.
Warmth is affection, the feeling people typically have when they recognize they share interests or concerns, the notion of “being on the same team.” A component of warmth is empathy. Understanding how others feel. To my mind, lawyers typically don’t project much warmth.
Warmth is not nurtured in law school. Some might say any feelings and empathy we had walking through the law school doors were trained out of us. When we learned in first year Torts class about the foreseeability limitation on causation through the Palsgraf case, for example, there was no discussion about how poor Helen Palsgraf, minding her own business on a train platform, would have felt when those scales fell on her head. In fact, we were told such was an irrelevant consideration.
Similarly, once we start our practices, we receive little or no positive reinforcement for showing the personal quality of warmth. In fact, we may be incentivized for coldness, for rigidity, for dog eat dog litigation tactics. After all, those behaviors translate to higher billable hours.
Surveys of clients reveal consistent complaints that their attorneys talk at them rather than with them, failing to understand their problems, corporate culture or appetite for risk. The second highest category of disciplinary complaints against lawyers is that they failed to communicate with their clients.
According to research cited in Compelling People and elsewhere, people don’t value the words themselves as highly as other, more visual/warmth-based messages. Psychologist Albert Mehrabian found that in any interaction, there are three elements: facial expressions, tone of voice and words used. In messages conveying attitude and feelings, people assign more weight to facial expressions (55%) and tone of voice (38%), relegating the words themselves a relatively unimportant 7%. And even if the message is largely factual, such as a lecture delivered orally, the attitude of the speaker and the strength of their convictions are measured largely by nonverbal cues.
Lawyers should be aware, then, not only of their words, but of the power of their nonverbal communication. I say this warmly, as someone who has been told to ‘smile more’ by my mentors and advisors: we ought to lighten up and warm up, and maybe people around us will do likewise.