Byte of Prevention Blog

by Jay Reeves |

How to Listen – and Hear What’s Being Said

listeningLawyers are great at talking. Listening – not so much.

And we’re not the only ones.

Economic development expert Ernesto Sirolli described in a TED talk how he and other Italian aid workers went to Africa in the 1970s with open hearts but closed ears. Instead of listening to what local residents actually wanted and needed, they charged ahead with well-intentioned projects that invariably failed. An example: planting vegetable farms in Zambia that grew beautifully – until hundreds of hippos stormed from a nearby river and ate the entire crop.

Step one in helping someone, Sirolli says, is to be quiet.

“What you do is you shut up,” he said in his TED talk. “The first principle of aid is respect…. You never arrive in a community with any ideas. You sit with the local people … become friends. Find out what that person wants to do. You have to create a new profession.”

Listening Can Defuse Danger

A vivid illustration of the power of listening happened recently on a London street. Two terror suspects had just brutally butchered an off-duty British soldier when they were confronted by a woman stepping off a bus. Ingrid Loyau-Kennett was of slight build and wore a daffodil in her lapel. She walked right up to one of the killers and began talking to him.

Loyau-Kennett has been called a hero by some and a fool by others – including members of her own family. One thing is clear: her intervention helped prevent the violent situation from escalating.

In an article in Management Issues, Bob Selden writes that her communication skills were the key:

  • She assumed a non-threatening stance. She looked the principal protagonist in the eyes. She stood slightly angled to him with her hands in her pockets. She positioned herself as neither subservient nor threatening, Selden writes.
  • She initiated conversation. Instead of approaching the killers in an angry, emotional or accusatory manner, she simply asked, “What do you want?”
  • She listened attentively. She told them, “I am here and I am going to listen to you.”
  • She remained calm but stood her ground. Her body language was composed. She did not wave her arms or point fingers. She chose her words carefully – example, not saying “weapon” but asking if they would like to give her what they had in their hands.

It turns out Loyau-Kennett is a Cub Scout leader. Perhaps that is why she is such a powerful communicator. After all, being able to reason with an excited eight-year-old is a rare skill.

Most likely none of us will ever have to face a situation like she did, and for that we can be thankful.

But maybe we can learn from her experience. By becoming listeners we might become better lawyers.

Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact, phone 919-619-2441.


About the Author

Jay Reeves

Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. He is the author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World, a collection of short stories from a law life well-lived, which as the seasons pass becomes less about law and liability and more about loss, love, longing, laughter and life's lasting luminescence.

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