Tapping Into the Potential of Lawyers, Through Meaningful Conversations, Within the Context of Virtual Working

by Heather Watson & Attiyya Malik, Senior Managers, Bendelta

How to tap into potential is an age-old question– how to do it in the context of virtual working is a relatively new one.

Virtual supervision is a challenge for both those supervising and those being supervised. Supervisors we work with worry that lawyers will not work as hard or as efficiently (though there is research to indicate otherwise).  They also feel ill-equipped with the tools to engage and motivate lawyers in the context of remote working.

When we ask them to reflect on their own experience and identify what has helped them grow and develop the response has been consistent. People most value the conversations where they feel seen and heard, where they feel understood and stretched and where the conversation and feedback is tailored to their individual needs. These meaningful conversations create the environment for performance and well being– and are the key to tapping into potential.
“Meaningful conversations are conversations that have an impact on the connection and understanding between people and are characterized by deep listening, empathy, and sense-making”
Human beings are hard wired to connect.  The quality of our relationships and how valued, safe, and connected we feel, is the biggest predictor of how fulfilled we feel, according to clinical psychotherapist Natajsa Wagner (2019).  Some of the latest research into the new world of work indicates that this need for connection has been exacerbated during the COVID pandemic.  Both employees and employers report a much higher demand for emotional and social support, as well as frequent two-way communication (Bersin, 2020).  Focusing on relationships, care, and communication will have long lasting impact on people’s well-being, positive affect, engagement and productivity.

The next question without fail is “How can I have a meaningful conversations in the virtual context?”

Supervisors are often surprised to hear that the ‘how’ is neither complex nor novel but does require intentionality and discipline.

At the very essence of a meaningful conversation, whether in person or virtually, is the conscious choice to hold space, listen, reflect and question. We draw inspiration for this from a number of fields; primarily Dialogic Organisational Development techniques (Bushe & Marshak, 2014) and Adaptive Leadership (Heifetz & Linsky, 2009).

Here are four suggestions on how to have more meaningful conversations within the context of remote working.

1. Holding Space

Holding space is the ability to provide a safe, open and warm environment for people to show up authentically and fully in the moment.  It starts with being in the right mindset, which is, consciously choosing to be present, stay curious, be comfortable with silence, and be aware of how you may be influencing the interaction.  Part of holding space includes being aware of and calling out the inherent power dynamics in the conversation (especially if the conversation is happening at a group level). According to Bushe & Marshak (2014), “the simplest way to understand and practice holding is simply to do nothing .…. don’t let yourself fill it”.
“Every piece of doing requires the strong presence of non-doing to anchor it.”  Chris Corrigan
Consider the next opportunity to have a meaningful conversation.

  • What is your intention?
  • How do you want to show up?
  • How do you want the other person/people to feel?

2. Listening

We all know listening is a critical communication skill.  The depth of our listening can either detract from or enhance the quality of our conversations.  Our intention with having meaningful conversations is to deepen our relationships and ensure the person or people we are interacting with feel valued, safe and connected.  An understanding of the Four Levels of Listening (Scharmer, 2015) is useful here.

To listen deeply, we need to listen with a sense of curiosity and non-judgement, and to listen without expectation of what may or may not emerge.

Practice using the four levels of listening.

Level 1: Listening from what you already know How am I projecting my own view?

Level 2: Listening to notice what is different How does this person think differently to me?

Level 3: Listening with empathy What is this person’s experience, how are they feeling, what is important to them?

Level 4: Listening for what is emerging What makes sense now that did not before?

3. Reflecting

Part of being fully present, listening and connecting deeply, is the ability to get on the metaphorical balcony and notice what is happening from multiple perspectives, the ability to reflect in action, on action (Argyris and Schön, 1974).  This reflection allows you to test your assumptions and give in the moment feedback.  For example, you may say during a conversation with a lawyer “I am noticing every time we approach this topic, we get distracted.”  With noticing and reflecting, there is no question, rather just a sharing of an observation.

Be disciplined in asking yourself:

  • What am I noticing?
  • What assumptions am I making about what I am noticing?
  • How might I test my assumptions in the moment?

4. Questioning

The nature of questioning in meaningful conversations is different to asking questions to gather information.  The intention is to stimulate new possibilities in the way we think, engage and act.  Questions that are directive or judgmental for example, “why didn’t you complete the report on time?”  do not constitute meaningful dialogue.

Rather, start questions with words like “I wonder …..” or “I am curious about ….” or “tell me more about …” or “why is that important to you?” For example, “I am curious about what got in the way of you completing the report on time?”  This type of questioning leads to deeper thinking and reflection.

Ask questions you do not know the answer to, ones that inspire new ways of thinking.

  • What perspectives are we not hearing?
  • What have we not considered?
  • What gaps can you see in my reasoning?
  • What other information might influence your views?
  • What are we avoiding and why?

Why do I need to be more intentional and disciplined about having meaningful conversations in a virtual context?

Research by Neuroscientist and Leadership expert Dr Fiona Kerr tells us a key aspect of positive engagement is the face-to-face nature of the neural activity involved in building trust.  Mirror and spindle neurons are associated with empathy, trust and the integration of task, reasoning, and emotion.

This has implications for breaking bad news, presenting challenging ideas, drawing out multiple perspectives – it means you should do it in person face to face which is obviously a little tricky right now. This doesn’t mean you can’t do anything.

Below are our five tips on how to be intentional and disciplined in having meaningful conversations:

  1. Be disciplined in how often and when you check-in on the other person/your team
    Do you have regular check-ins with the lawyers you supervise? If not, why?

  2. Ensure when you engage in a conversation you are fully present by removing any potential distractions in your physical, digital, and virtual environment.
    What devices or applications can you turn off?

  3. Turn your camera on so you can see each other’s facial expressions. The virtual setting requires you to be more attentive to what is in front of you.
    What are you noticing about the person/people on screen that you have not noticed before?

  4. Show you are listening by not interrupting.
    This sounds obvious, but interrupting is one of the most common conversation sins, and it can be incredibly hard to stop yourself especially in the virtual setting.
    Next time you are in a conversation notice how often you interrupt.

  5. Get comfortable with silence. It is harder to tell when someone has finished speaking virtually. They are often still thinking.
    How comfortable are you in silence? How do you know?

We believe that meaningful dialogue is possible and needed more than ever in the context of virtual working.

Heather Watson and Attiyya Malik are Leadership Consultants and Executive Coaches at Bendelta. If you are interested in meaningful dialogue and coachable moments and how to lead in a virtual world, contact Heather on heather.watson@bendelta.com or Attiyya on attiyya.malik@bendelta.com

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