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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Be a Good Advocate. Stop Talking and Listen

Most short duration advocacy courses (and I suspect many College semester long ‘Trial Advocacy’ programs) focus on opening statements, closing arguments and witness examination.  It is all about the talking.  Sure, to be an effective talker there must be solid case analysis.  Any good witness examination means we are paying attention to the answers.
Yet we don’t really focus on the listening.  We don’t do listening exercises or drills.  Surely however, our ability to recall (ie listen to) our own question and the witness’s complete answer is essential.  For the trial advocates amongst us, isn’t it the case that most ‘pearls’ appear in cross examination from the answer that wasn’t give quite the way it should have been, the ‘most of the truth’ response that slides past the gap, or the witness’s phrase that becomes our motif to the judge or jury in closing argument.

In our general life, we don’t really need to listen.  We distil enough meaning from all the words to be able to respond.  We gloss and summarise. 

I have just finished conducting a workshop in which I introduced listening exercises.  They are not hard and don’t take much time.  We watched a ‘you tube’ clip of a politician’s speech.  I asked the participants to tell me what had been said.  They could only recite the distilled meaning (which is exactly what the politician wanted).  We watched it again, then deconstructed fully using the text of the speech.

Another was simply requiring one person to let the other tell a story without interruption for 3 minutes and then accurately summarise what had been said.  Given we usually interrupt to add our own ‘value’ within 30 seconds, that is very challenging.  A third person notes the questioner’s interactions and reality tests the summary against their own recollection.

In another exercise one participant asks another some questions so that the first can glean enough information to determine whether a particular (corporate schmoozing) offer would be attractive.  It is the information not disclosed, but in the context of the conversation, that is so valuable.

Simple exercises that each take mere minutes.  The impact on the participant’s ability to listen and respond properly is, immediate and palpable.

--Graeme Blank

Graeme Blank is lecturer at Australian National University, a barrister, and a communications coach with his company Blank Canvas. He recently served as  member of faculty at the International Advanced Advocacy Program for the England Bar at Keble College, Oxford. 

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