Law firms with poor internal communications skills and practices face great obstacles when they try to implement any decision, even minor ones.
One of the most important tools in a firm's internal "communications tool kit" is to schedule time for talking.
This is the first in a series of short posts about questions that I frequently receive about the importance of internal communications to "getting things done" in law firms.
Q: Doesn't talking "waste" time?
Q: Why schedule time to talk, isn't it better to just chat spontaneously when you have the chance?
It depends, in both cases.
It is important to set aside time for serious discussion about expectations, planning, prioritization, goals and performance issues.
Law firms don't get things done, people do. If you do not schedule time for talking, misunderstandings can arise. Everyone ends up "wasting" time by making requests, forming judgments and acting on erroneous assumptions and miscalculations.
Talking at others is not the same thing as talking with them. Talking at others, i.e., one-way communication, can be accomplished in an email. Having meetings to simply "deliver your message" are generally a waste of time.
Use one-on-one conversations and small group meetings for two-way communication where you want – and can make the time for - an exchange of ideas, thoughts and even feelings to achieve your objectives.
Successful resolution of certain types of problems, making group decisions, influencing others, improving performance and building commitment to change are enhanced through two-way communication. For example, having a brief discussion about an upcoming change is usually much more effective in encouraging people to get things done than the best written email or inspiring speech.
Don't assume that you always know what people are thinking or even what they are capable of doing. Ask them. Encourage directness. Encourage others to acknowledge frankly their frustrations, disappointments, and doubts.
People will not do this if they don't trust your intentions, if they think you don't know or care about them.
Q: How do you let people know you do care, without wasting time?
Be as transparent as you can. Don't keep information secret unless absolutely necessary. When you keep others "in the loop" they feel respected. When they feel respected, they are less stressed and more productive.
Don't talk down other people's objections. Listen patiently before you speak. Ask questions to better understand their point of view. Then present your views in ways that are likely to have value and meaning to others. If people know you care, they will care about what you know and what you think.
If you schedule time – with individuals and small groups – to share experiences and ideas, evaluate pro's and con's, discuss goals, analyze information, and talk about how people are feeling; working relationships will deepen and trust will develop over time.
When there is trust, feedback is not only possible, it's effective. Feedback improves performance and enhances the capacity to change.
Q: How do you schedule time for talking when the firm is going through a lot of changes; the partners are just too busy!
People, including partners, will talk whether or not leaders "schedule time for talking." The question is when and how do you want people talking?
Do you want gossip to fill in the gaps between what is known and unknown? Do you want people to waste time reacting to circumstances and conditions that are not likely to occur? Do you want to have the right people in the room at the same time to solve a complex problem, efficiently and with sustainable results?
These are the better questions to ask.
When you do decide to schedule time for talking, avoid other distractions during these talks. In most instances, keep discussions structured and focused. Use agendas and other effective meeting tools. Set parameters for the discussion.
For example, explain your views about the positive potential that a change offers both for the firm and its people. Also, explain the negative risks if this change is blocked. Then, ask people what they think about the benefits and risks to them. Ask, "How can we manage this change, working together?" In this case, the question posed to the group is not whether the firm changes, but how the firm members can implement the change – based on a better understanding of how the change will potentially affect them.
Lisa Walker Johnson