Fundamentals of Professionalism and Leadership: Communicating Effectively

February 25, 2008Duke Law News

Feb. 25, 2008 -- The Career and Professional Development Center reminded law students that “we are in the relationship business” at their workshop, Communicating Effectively, held on Feb. 21. This workshop was part of a series that focuses on the fundamentals of professionalism and leadership to prepare students for their legal career.

In the age of text-messaging, email, voice mail, and BlackBerries, the etiquette of communication can be unclear, yet effective use of these tools is crucial in building successful relationships. Bruce Elvin, associate dean and director of the Career and Professional Development Center, Stella Boswell, career counselor, and Tia Barnes, director of public interest & JD advising, discussed the three essential components of communication: objective, tone, and relationship. More specifically, they asked what do you hope to accomplish as a result of this communication? Have you expressed yourself in a manner that is not confusing or likely to be misinterpreted? And how do you want the recipient to feel about you?

“Your purpose could be simply to convey information or it could be to convince others to accept your ideas or to agree with you. In other instances, your objective may be to have your feelings understood. Your tone needs to match with your objective,” Boswell said. “Depending on the context and substance of a communication, the balance between the importance of each of these three components will shift.”

The workshop offered several helpful tips, especially in using common technology such as email and voice mail. While email has become one of the most frequent methods of business communication, it is important to keep in mind that not every communication is appropriate for email.

“Most attorneys feel pressure from email overload,” Elvin said. “Do not use email too excessively and know that older lawyers did not come along in the email era.”

The presenters also expressed the importance of responding to email in a timely and appropriate fashion. “Open your emails!” Boswell said. “Don’t presume from the subject line that an email does not pertain to you. If you receive an email that requires a response, try to respond as soon as possible.”

Voice mail etiquette is also a key component in business communication. “When leaving a voice mail message, it is generally best to restrict it to 20 to 30 seconds,” Boswell said. “Speak clearly. Give your name and phone number twice.” The presenters even suggested that students consciously smile when leaving a message as it will make your voice and tone warmer for the recipient.

In face-to-face communications, it is imperative to remember that non-verbal communication can strongly affect the outcome of the exchange. “Numerous studies suggest that non-verbal communication, including facial expressions, body language, gestures, eye-contact, and the use of personal space, accounts for over 90% of a communication. This means focusing merely on words, either when speaking or listening hinders a full understanding of a communication,” Elvin said.

Listening is just as important as communicating when engaging in a conversation. “Active listening is really about slowing down and taking the time to value other people and their ideas. In our world of multitasking, we are constantly thinking ahead. Give your full attention, demonstrate you are listening by asking follow-up questions, and paraphrase a statement to clarify,” Elvin said.

The Career and Professional Development Center hosted “Tips for Superstar Lawyers” on Feb. 12 as part of this series and plans a few additional sessions this semester.