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Monday, August 19, 2013

What Are They Thinking: Coaching With Better Awareness

Graeme Blank is an Australian barrister and a lecturer at the Australian National University College of Law. This is his first contribution to the blog, and we hope there are many more to come.

Three o’clock on a drowsy afternoon.  The quiet halls of legal power are broken by the crack of the gavel as the judge calls the case to order.  The plaintiff’s application for an urgent injunction is supported by an extensive affidavit setting out its concerns.  The defendant has reacted quickly and has an affidavit and outline of argument.

An experienced practitioner conducting this hearing knows what is important.  Yes, the legal case is significant.  Facts do matter.  But equally essential is how to engage a judge who thought she had finished for the day and has other commitments on her mind. We know about this issue because we have experience.  Our personal construct of this situation dictates it.

Our students do not have that construct.  They have no experience.

We obtain our views of the world from a number of sources.  Jean Piaget suggests we organise our knowledge into mental structures or schemata.  A schema affects what we notice and how we interpret and act.  Importantly schemata only change with experience; being told it is wrong does little.

George Kelly developed a ‘personal construct theory’ in the 1950s which is now applied in many industries to assist people better understand how their view of the world may not be the only one.  These constructs provide our interpretation of events and experiences and help us predict and control behaviour.  They are concrete and polar so need ‘opposites’: ‘healthy’ vs ‘sick’, ‘great teacher’ vs ‘poor teacher’.  Within those constructs are elements set at the poles.  For a teacher two might be ‘good structure’ vs ‘no cohesion’, ‘interest in student’ vs ‘focus on self’.

Kelly postulates 11 corollaries.  They include that we construct participation based on the past, with the unexpected comes change and that we can choose to gain new experience (‘expand our constructs’) or stay in the safe zone.

So what does this mean for advocacy coaches?  We ask students to perform new tasks in unfamiliar environments.  A student’s only perception of a lawyer may be cousin Vinny Gambini or an aggressive defence counsel on a favourite TV show.  Thus when we tell our students not to act a certain way, their schema of a lawyer is challenged.  They may struggle to accept the new information and must learn the change, not be told. 

This struggle causes anxiety and fear.  That manifests in different ways.  We must not assume that trembling hands or clicking pens is fear of public speaking.  Giving a solution to mask the trembling will not help. The underlying cause remains.

Those of us who prefer our ‘comfort zone’ are not ‘difficult’ but take more time to process, accept and change.  Unfortunately we often typecast early.  They may just need more time.  We need to better understand before we apply our own schema of ‘problem student’ to them.

How might we do that?  Kelly developed a ‘repertory grid’ that could be given to each student to fill out.  I do a drill early to introduce each student by getting each other one in a ‘conga line’ using open questions. We get to know the student.  I get to see the types of question asked by the students and from that I start to understand their capacity to reflect and cope with new tasks without them being ‘on the spot’.  Another option is to role play an event and put each student into different roles (“Improvisation”) and see how well they step into another’s shoes. 

An interesting by-product?  I have a better sense of my own constructs as well.

--Graeme Blank

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