Resources Newsletter Archive Issue 27, May 2003

Issue 27, May 2003

  • The Listener IS the Message

Making The Hours of Your Life Worth More™

Issue # 27
The Listener IS the Message

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Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., Editor: Ellen is the founder of™ Personal and Career Coaching for Lawyers Determined to Achieve Extraordinary Professional Success AND a Fulfilling Life


Most attorneys -- especially women -- live impossibly busy lives. Finding a balance between work and life without sacrificing professional success, deciding on the best practice area or work setting, and making career transitions can be a daunting task, even for the most gifted and accomplished lawyer.

Just as every person deserves the best possible legal counsel, every attorney deserves professional, dedicated support in accomplishing her most important goals. You know how hard you've worked to get where you are -- you serve others, both personally and professionally. You've earned the right to both career success and a fulfilling life.

This newsletter is intended to help you create a satisfying life -- within, or outside of -- legal practice.


"The Listener IS the Message"

Before we can communicate, we must...know what the recipient expects to see and hear. Only then can we know whether communication can utilize his expectations - and what they are - or whether there is need for the 'shock of alienation,' for an 'awakening' that breaks through the recipient's expectations and forces him to realize that the unexpected is happening.
Peter Drucker [1]

At a presentation by three of the few women university presidents, one shared a story. She'd called her first meeting of her management team (all men) to plan for the upcoming academic year. In her usual "participatory" leadership style, she'd first invited members of her team to offer their ideas about priorities. The meeting appeared to continue without incident. But as her team left the room, a few were overheard saying, "Can you believe her? She can't even make decisions - she has to ask us what to do."

Women are underrepresented in leadership roles in the legal profession for many reasons.[2] But this anecdote provides an insight into the workings of one of them. It's not that women don't have the necessary skills. Rather, what lawyers expect from a leader is not what a woman in a leadership role is inclined to do.


We typically assume that effective communication depends on the speaker. Many women lawyers carefully choose their words so that they'll be heard. Most likely you've asked yourself questions like, "Am I saying this clearly?" "Does this seem too harsh?" Am I qualifying too much?" " Am I speaking with sufficient authority?"

It's not that these considerations are wrong-headed. It's just that you can't answer them without knowing your audience. As Socrates noted in Plato's Phaedo, you need to talk to others in terms of their own experience. In order to be heard, you must know what the recipient of your message expects to see and hear.


In Talking from 9 to 5, Deborah Tannen [3] describes the differences in the conversational rituals of men and women based on their typical socialization.

Boys grow up in a world which teaches them to negotiate their status in the group by demonstrating their abilities and knowledge. Since boys tend to look for opportunities to gain status by putting others down, they learn to avoid status-reducing behaviors like inviting feedback, seeking information, revealing doubt and apologizing. Blunt feedback is viewed by men as honest; therefore a man is more likely to hear whatever is mentioned first as the main point of the feedback.

Childhood cultural rituals not only determine how people speak - they also determine how people listen. We assume that others mean the same things by their words as we would if we'd spoken them. People in positions of power tend to reward styles similar to their own since we all tend to take the logic of our styles as self evident. And since power in the legal profession is still predominantly held by men, the norms of behavior in the legal workplace are based on the style of interaction that is most common among men.

However, girls conversational rituals are quite different from those of boys. While boys are vying for status, girls are learning to negotiate harmonious relationships. Their conversational rituals emphasize saving face for the other person. Girls learn to downplay their own abilities and certainty, to be indirect vs. "bossy" in telling others what to do, to apologize as an expression of concern and to exchange compliments. Since girls learn rituals for restoring the status of others, as adults they're more open to seeking advice, assuming that the other person will recognize this " one-down" ritual and pull them back up. Since women learn to protect the other person's feelings, they tend to cushion negative feedback by first focusing on the positive.

But if the norms of the legal workplace reflect a male culture, what happens to women? Downplaying their abilities, being careful to cushion negative evaluations, indirectness, showing doubt, being inclusive, waiting for one's turn to speak, inviting input - tend to be viewed by men as reflecting a lack of confidence, insecurity, weakness and certainly as failing to possess leadership potential. And since it's natural and automatic for people to assume that the person to whom they're speaking shares their rules and assumptions, there's little reason for men in leadership positions to question the logic of their conclusions.


A leader is someone able to create a compelling vision and to communicate this vision to others in a way that enlists their action in the service of the vision.

Since communication is such a central leadership function, the gender differences in communication style have important implications for the future of women's leadership in the legal profession.

If the listener IS the message, i.e., if effective communication depends upon the perceptions, expectations and motivations of the listener, then how can women communicate their leadership potential to men?

Here are some ways:


When crafting your message, consider the expectations of your listener. There is no one right way to communicate.

I'm not suggesting that women lawyers should "act like men." There is no one way that all men - or all women - act. Instead, consider what you know about the person to whom you're speaking. What conclusions have you observed them to make based on the behavior of others? What kind of behavior appears to be effective in getting their positive attention?


Being attuned to the reactions of others as we interact with them is the sine qua non of "emotional intelligence."[4] In order to communicate effectively you need to be able to read others. This requires putting aside your own emotional agenda so that you can clearly receive the other person's signals.

Typically, people without power are expected to sense the feelings of those in positions of power, while those who hold power don't feel a similar obligation.

But the fact is that this kind of sensitivity is a source of power. It is a skill which the most effective leaders understand. There is no real influence without it.


Effective leaders influence others by anticipating or sensing their audience's reaction to their message. They can sense when their arguments are not having the intended effect and make appropriate adjustments.

"Active" listening is essential in this process. You'll need to be listening not just to the other person's words, but to what is unsaid and implicit.


Psychological research [5] indicates that the motivations of the listener are crucial. When you're trying to communicate, your message is more likely to be received in the way you intend if you keep in mind that the receiver must have a stake in perceiving information that is inconsistent with his implicit assumptions and stereotypes. Unless it's clear to your listener that he stands to gain by accurately receiving your message, he's likely to filter it through his assumptions and you risk being misunderstood.

If you're a woman attorney trying to convey your knowledge and competence to someone inclined to perceive you as lacking leadership potential, you'll need to give the other person a reason to listen. Communication that is consistent with the values, aspirations and goals of the recipient is powerful.

Finding a way to tailor your message to address a goal your listener wants to achieve - the potential for new business or greater profit -- will make you more likely to get heard.


Sometimes the only way to get heard is to directly address your listener's expectations. In the example of the woman university president, she might have mentioned to her team, "I'll bet some of you think that I'm inviting your input because I'm not sure enough myself of what to do." Shining a light on unspoken assumptions can enable your listener to hear and see beyond their expectations. And your own labeling of the assumptions conveys power and insight, which inspire trust - a key to effective leadership.


Although as a male attorney, you may not have to counter normative assumptions in order to be heard, the points about leadership made above apply equally to you.

In order to be an effective leader, you also need to:

  • create a compelling vision
  • effectively communicate this vision
  • motivate action in service of the vision
  • sharpen your social radar
  • manage your emotions so they don't cloud perception
  • attune your message to your listener

If you feel as if you're not being heard, don't blame the listener. Instead, consider re-crafting your message so your listener will want to, and be able to, hear.

- - - - - -- - - - - - - -


1. Drucker, Peter F. (2001) The Essential Drucker. New York: Harper Collins, 263-264.

2. Rhode, Deborah L. (ed) (2003). The Difference Difference Makes. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

3. Tannen, Deborah (1994) Talking from 9 to 5. New York: Avon Books.

4. Goleman, Daniel (1998) Working with Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

5. Rudman, Laurie A. (1998) Self-promotion as a risk factor for women: the costs and benefits of counterstereotypical impression management. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74 (3), 629-645.


BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR TM is published monthly by Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D., founder of She brings 20 years of experience assisting women attorneys to her work in Lawyers Life Coach™. is a professional and personal coaching firm specializing in working virtually (by phone with email and fax backup) with women attorneys interested in developing strategies to find greater satisfaction in their careers within the law or in exploring career alternatives for lawyers.

Ellen Ostrow, Ph.D. established to coach busy lawyers who might benefit from the insights gained from 20 years as a psychologist combined with her experience and familiarity with the legal profession.

Ellen holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Rochester and is a managing member of Metropolitan Behavioral Health Care, LLC., a multispecialty, multidisciplinary psychotherapy practice in Washington, D.C. and suburban Maryland.

She is a member of the International Coach Federation and a graduate of the Mentor Coach Program™.


NOTE: BEYOND THE BILLABLE HOUR™ is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for a personal consultation with a mental health professional and should not be construed as a form of, or substitute for, counseling, psychotherapy, or other psychological service.



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