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Law Firm DEI through the lens of Belonging

How to connect through conversation

Connecting Conversations 1 of 3
April 17, 2024

Just a few posts into this project of listening to other lawyers tell me about their experiences with Belonging at work, and I’m already way out of my depth. Dan and Tessa each spoke about the importance of engaging with lawyers different from me in race, ethnicity, gender, or other aspects of diversity, and truly getting to know them, to foster Belonging at work. That means connecting … and connecting across differences. As mentioned, I’m frankly not good at connecting, so I’ll need help on this.

When I started out in law practice, forever ago, new lawyers kept their heads down, did their work, and by and large didn’t leave their firms. This allowed for connections in the office to develop slowly, by osmosis, over weeks, months, or even years. And the lack of race/ethnic/gender diversity no doubt resulted in more similarity in lived experiences.

Times have obviously changed. Everything moves rapidly now – work pace has quickened, attention-bandwidths have shrunk, and lawyers are highly mobile between firms (and out of law practice). And post-Covid, work is often remote, and meetings are virtual. While connection remains fundamental to practicing Belonging at work, the window to establish real connections has narrowed dramatically. And so, skillfully using conversations to accelerate connection is more crucial than ever before – especially connections across differences.

Fortunately, I’ve found some help in Charles Duhigg’s new book, Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection. It’s a great read, meticulously reported, and filled with engaging stories illustrating Duhigg’s findings. In the next three posts I’ll share his high points, and why they are important to law firms in practicing Belonging.

Three Kinds of Conversation

Duhigg tells us that within any conversation there may be up to three different kinds of conversations:

  • What’s this really about (decision-making mindset)?
  • How do we feel (emotional mindset)?
  • Who are we (social/identity mindset)?

Miscommunication happens if one person is having a different kind of conversation than the other person, not to mention disappointment, frustration, and a missed opportunity to connect (think of the perennial personal partner conversation “I didn’t ask you to solve my problem – I’m just venting and I want you to listen!”). So, it’s important to pay continual attention to what kind of conversation is occurring in the moment. It’s not always immediately obvious, and the same conversation can move back and forth, from one kind to another.

Better communication happens when we align ourselves with the kind of conversation that’s occurring in the moment, which is called Matching. Matching is not mimicry, nor merely head-nodding, direct eye contact, or other “active listening” tropes. Instead, Matching is coming to understand the other person’s mindset (what they want, how they are feeling, or who they are), and then conversing in sync with their mindset in the moment.

The “What’s This Really About” Conversation

I’ll be brief on this first of three kinds of conversation, because to me, the problem-solving, decision-making style of conversation seems to be most lawyers’ default mode. It’s certainly the kind of conversation with which I’m most comfortable – likely too comfortable.

Duhigg remind us that “within every [decision-making] conversation there is a quiet negotiation, where the prize is not winning, but rather determining what everyone wants, so that something meaningful can occur.” When this quiet negotiation surfaces what everyone respectively wants, we can then creatively expand the options and find workable solutions.

We also need to pay attention to how we will each go about making choices. If we don’t understand how the other person will approach making their decision, we’ll struggle to reach a solution together. For example, some will engage in or be open to a practical discussion, and through Matching we should respond with data and reasoning to yield a decision. Yet others will engage in or be open to an empathetic discussion, which calls us through Matching to respond instead with stories and compassion to come together on a decision.

Practicing Belonging

Duhigg is just warming up at this point in his book, yet this is already resonating with me on the practice of Belonging. One of the many costs of social privilege and status power is becoming unwilling, or even unable, to go where things are uncomfortable or challenging, such as conversations about feelings or about identity. Couple that with the traditional lawyer default-mode for conversation as problem-solving and decision-making, and this all becomes fraught.

Imagine that, as a law firm partner, I’m talking with a BIPOC or LGBTQ+ lawyer in their first year with the Firm. They mention that they aren’t being included in opportunities like their peers, or that they are not receiving direct feedback on their work from other partners. It makes me uncomfortable that others at my Firm would behave this way. So I reflexively go into problem-solving mode, perhaps imposing my view of the problem on the conversation, taking action on my choice of solution, and then telling the new lawyer to let me know if the problem continues. Decision made, problem solved, and box checked. And notice how this new lawyer and “problem to be solved” may now be linked in my subconscious? Anyway, good thing I was there to save the day, right?

What a wasted opportunity to connect. How about this instead. I listen, then ask a few questions (wow – what do you think is going on? How are you feeling about this? What concerns you about this?), to suss out what kind(s) of conversation this lawyer wants and needs:

  • Is this a problem to be solved, and if so, what is it really? [decision-making mindset]
  • Does the lawyer want or need to express worries or frustration about what’s been happening? [emotional mindset]
  • Is the lawyer grappling with whether social status or different lived experience is at play here? [social mindset]

I don’t need to ask any of the above questions directly, but I’m watching and listening to the lawyer, to see where the conversation flows. I’m also Matching, by asking questions and expressing myself in sync with the kind of conversation we’re having in the moment, to build connection and trust.

And let’s say that this does develop into a problem-solving conversation (for emotion conversations and social/identity conversations, see next posts). I remember not to reflexively impose my view of what the problem is and how it will be solved. There are of course many layers to such scenarios, and solutions may involve looping in other partners, or the lawyer’s mentor(s), or the Firm’s DEI team if there is one. But it’s crucial for connection, not to mention to getting to the best solution, to have that quiet negotiation with this lawyer about what they want and how choices will be made on what happens next.

By handling this conversation in a better way, I’ve likely triggered a better connection with this new lawyer. I’ve built some trust and have also conveyed that I, and my law firm, value and need this lawyer. In other words, I’ve practiced Belonging.

Next time – how to connect through emotion conversations.