A Guide to Effective Communication

Good communication skills are a key part of being successful. Being able to effectively communicate as an individual or in a team will help you to generate good relationships between individuals, better understand objectives and resolve problems more easily. We are all capable of communicating effectively and use a range of different skills to achieve this every day. 

Different types of communication

Communication is about sending and receiving messages. You might do this using speech, text and body language. To receive communication, you not only have to be a good listener, but you should also use your other senses to understand any non-verbal messages that are being sent. Is the person speaking to you upset or calm? Are they frowning or smiling? We will consider written, verbal and non-verbal communication and try to establish what makes someone good at each.

Written communication 

Consider all the different ways that lawyers communicate in writing, both internally and with clients. In any law firm, the lawyers will write letters, memos, emails, reports, forms/questionnaires, file notes, write newsletters and information for the internet. With all these ways of communicating, they will be relying on you as their secretary to help them communicate well. The accuracy of the written word is extremely important to any lawyer; it is usually part of the reason clients are willing to pay them well. Two simple checks could help you: 

1) Get into the habit of proofreading your work before sending it back. It goes without saying that you should check your spelling and grammar, but sometimes you need to do more than simply use the standard software tools. If you check by eye yourself, you will pick up non-standard spellings. Try reading the message out loud to make sure it sounds right.

2) Check who you are communicating with. Being sloppy about who you are replying to is a classic mistake. I am sure you can think of examples you have heard of where someone has replied to an email and pressed “Reply to All” by mistake. I have even heard of firms where their older partners (who are good communicators but not by email) are virtually banned from using this form of communication without the help of their secretary. 

Verbal communication 

This includes face to face, over the telephone or via videoconference. The important point with verbal communication is to think about the following factors:

•    Appropriate language – Is the style of language that you are using right for your audience? Is it too complex or too simple? Too formal or too informal? 
•    Pace – Are you speaking at the right pace? Are you confusing them by going too fast (perhaps you have an elderly client who is hard of hearing), or are they keen to get to the point as they are worried about paying for advice by the hour? 
•    Tone – Do you sound aggressive or submissive? Your tone can give away what you’re really thinking, so sometimes you have to be careful to hide it, particularly when dealing with a difficult client or boss! 

Non-verbal communication 

Here you need to be aware of the signs and signals of body language and other non-verbal communication. If you are dealing with clients from other cultures, then do bear in mind that you may have to be careful about making assumptions based on the British norms outlined below. 

Most people often make subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, movements, gestures and facial expressions which indicate that something they are saying is not quite the same as what they may be thinking. For example: 

•    Hand gestures or arm movements. Usually gestures are used to enhance the understanding of what is being said verbally; however, some gestures carry their own meaning. For example, putting a hand up with the palm facing the other person clearly means “stop that”. Shrugging the shoulders can mean “not sure” or “not bothered”.

•    Facial expressions. Smiling, frowning or raising an eyebrow all communicate different messages. A quizzical expression can show that the person has misunderstood or maybe has a question they want to ask. A sad expression can be an indication that the individual has something on their mind that may prevent them from being focused on the matter under discussion.

•    How someone sits or stands. Having crossed arms can mean “I am not listening”. Leaning back can be interpreted as boredom, or the person may just be relaxed. Leaning slightly forward is usually seen as positive as it shows interest in what is being said. But lean too far forward and you might be seen as trying to intimidate the other person. Standing turned away from someone can show a lack of interest. 

•    Choice of dress. Finally, the way an individual dresses plays an important role in the way they are perceived, which is why many solicitors dress rather formally. 

Effective communication 

Having considered different types of communication, what makes someone an effective communicator? Effective communication only happens if the message sent is “loud and clear”. Factors such as the environment you are working in may hold you back. For example, you may be distracted in a busy office where there is too much background noise. Obviously, there is little you may be able to do about this kind of obstacle, but consider two things that you can affect:

1.    Are you listening actively? Are you concentrating on what the other person is saying? If you are listening, do you often ask questions to check your understanding? It can be hard to get into this habit, but if you do ask questions the person is more likely to feel that you have heard them and empathise with them. 

2.    Do you make the effort to use language, tone, volume and pace to suit your audience? If you do, then you make yourself seem approachable and receptive to communication.

Very often there is a difference between what we think we say and what we actually communicate. If you are listening actively and using language well, it is more likely that you will be communicating effectively. To help you decide if you are a good communicator, consider some of the self-evaluation questions below, and think about how you might communicate differently to achieve more of an impact.

Self-evaluation questions

1.    Do you think you are a good communicator? 

2.    What kinds of communication do you think you need to use in a legal environment? 

3.    How does the way you speak to your family differ from the way you speak to your employer, your colleagues or your friends? 

4.    How does the way you write differ from the way you speak? 

5.    How do you determine what style of communication to use? For example, what complexity of language and formality should you use when speaking to someone you have not met before?