Lawyer by profession, humourist, writer, teacher and speaker by passion, I've learned something about communicating when the message truly matters.
A lot of my learning has come the hard way. While some skills are intuitive, more often than not you learn effective communication from experience-- as often as not, hard experience. In law you typically don't get a second chance to send home your message. You learn to make sure you are communicating effectively in your single opportunity.
Having developed a lot of scar tissue in the process, I now share my take on how to communicate when there's no second chance.
Over the years I've had the privilege of presenting extensively on legal topics, both in popular forums and in Law Society, University and Bar Association lectures. I've argued cases from Magistrate's Court to the Supreme Court of Canada and I've negotiated countless issues and transactions. I have come to understand the imperative of winning the heart before winning the mind.
My life began on a dairy farm in Southern Ontario. As often happens in early March, a blizzard had roared in and shut down the district, closing all roads. My Dad called the Reeve, who called out the snowplow, and my parents followed the plow through the swirling darkness to the city hospital. They arrived with minutes to spare. Those who know me well are not surprised by this beginning.
I was blessed with parents who cared about principle, ideas, history, poetry and values. They told me my world would be a better place than their world, and that it was my responsibility to be part of the change. I believed them then, and I still do.
Sixteen years later I found myself in Teachers' College, mostly because in those days, it was free. There were no student loans, my parents could not afford anything else, and I surely could not. Better still, it was a noble cause-- a life dedicated to the advancement of mankind! Who could ask for more?
And so a year later, at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa, an idealistic seventeen-year-old stood before his first class, ready to make the world a better place, ready to revolutionize the world.
The classroom had other ideas. These thirty-two Grade Seven “C Stream” girls were not ready for the revolution.
"C Stream" meant that they weren't winners. They weren't even defined as average. They had been labeled as losers-- confirmed over and over. Most of them had already repeated several grades. They were told they were "dumb", they were trouble, they just had to comply until they were sixteen (some were close), pregnant (some were working on it) or expelled (most were working on it). They were sullen and they were angry.
And they were justified. Today, I completely understand. But back then, for a young man who had always loved order, ideas, acceptance, learning, co-operation and understanding, these kids were from another planet. I'd never met so many people in one place at one time who disliked me so intensely. I learned it wasn't personal, they just didn't like what I represented. They didn't like school, they didn't like the system, they didn't even like their parents, they didn't like each other, they were just angry. As they should have been.
All the academic theory in the world crumbled. None of the lessons on classroom management and delivery made any sense in this universe. This pack was unwilling to be managed, unwilling to learn, unwilling to let go of their hurt and anger, and I became the lightning rod for their rage. And so played out one of the hardest years of my life-- an idealistic but very naive seventeen year old country boy in front of thirty-two very worldly-wise, tough, sullen and unhappy fourteen and fifteen year old girls.
I wish I could say I responded brilliantly and heroically, but I didn't. The truth is I was just about as unhappy as they were, baffled, only a few years older, and much less street smart. I think they had the advantage.
But, we were stuck with each other for a year, I had no plans to quit, there was a job to do, and darn it, there was that idealism.
Little by little I learned that you can't communicate until your audience is listening to you, and you need to figure out how to make that happen. I learned that you need to have your listener's respect, that you need to understand your listener's heart as well as their mind, and you need to speak his or her language.
Early in the year I caught a lucky break. The military might of Base Petawawa had decided in its wisdom that there was to be one package of paper per class per month. We blew through that in a week, I scrounged a little more here and there, but that was the allowance, and on an army base, rules are rules, and no amount of pleading, begging and shouting could produce more paper. My little rebels watched with amusement, enjoying seeing their teacher frustrated by the system-- the same system which relegated them to third class citizens.
My luck was that the Queen's Printer had just set up shop on the Base, and was desperate to prove its worth. They were willing to print anything that wasn't obscene of illegal, in any quantity you could imagine.
I'm sure you can see where this is going.
So when the Queen's Printer rep arrived at the classroom door begging for work, I was ready. I had already taken a clean sheet, drawn a left-hand margin one inch in, a top margin one inch down, and then ruled it off horizontally at quarter-inch intervals. It looked exactly like exercise paper, except it was black on white.
I asked for ten thousand sheets.
The exercise paper arrived a few days later, boxes and boxes of it, with the promise of an endless supply.
The class loved every second of this adventure, and their attitude changed subtly. They had seen the teacher beat the system, and for a moment, we were all on the same side. The new paper wasn't just exercise paper, it was rebel exercise paper. And I had learned an important lesson of communication- sometimes it's useful to take the conversation in an unconventional direction!
After that, little by little, came tiny successes – here a grudging smile, there a tentative question, sometimes an assignment done with pride...
It was still a long year, but somehow our tough little pack survived. The kids had changed a little, the teacher had changed a lot.
The next nine years before the classroom were far less traumatic, but in many ways just learning to refine the basics I had learned the hard way. I learned to control the dialogue, speak to the heart, speak to the mind, keep in focus, earn the right to be heard, and learn how to do all these things reflexively...
As confidence and success grew, I began working on my first university degree through night school and summer courses, and life was good.
Some time after I had acquired the Bachelor of Arts, I looked for another challenge. I would become a lawyer, rich, famous and making the world a better place (little did I know). I wrote my LSATs, applied to the University of Ottawa and was accepted.
In the late 1970s, law school was an amazing place, filled with bight idealists who wanted to change the world and professors who loved the majesty and mechanics of the law. Process, principle, reason, logic, argument, advocacy, balance, probing, explaining. And a lot of memorization!
Surrounded as I was with very clever people, I was surprised and humbled not only to graduate, but to graduate cum laude, to receive several prizes and to win the national family law essay contest. I was, after all, just a country boy with a bit of luck, not particularly special. What I had earlier learned, though, was how to communicate effectively, and this stood to my considerable advantage.
I was called to the bar in 1981, right in the middle of one of the worst recessions since the Dirty Thirties, with interest rates running in the high teens. Law firms were not hiring, and there was nothing to be done but hang up a shingle and hope for clients. I soon found that much like my first year of teaching, the academic theory was of limited use when real clients expected practical solutions to real problems in hard times. I was fortunate to encounter, and wise enough to listen to, many a senior practitioner who was willing to give practical direction.
I remember my first commercial transaction (an ice cream parlour) and spending hours at the registry office with a kind old registrar, trying to sort out what matters.
I will never forget my first criminal trial-- I thought I was eloquent and amazing, but when I sat down next to the old cop who looked after the Crown files, he leaned over and said, "Young man, you gotta know when to shut up." One more lesson in effective communication!
In an early Examination for Discovery, over a coffee break, the old veteran acting for a co-defendant took me aside and told me how to be smarter and less belligerent, particularly toward counsel opposite. "Ottawa is still a small community, Norm, and lawyers have long memories!" And of course he was right. I'd learned another lesson in communications.
Nor can I forget a certain drunk-driving trial, after which Judge Paddy White called me into chambers. In his gentle and kindly way he said that I had done pretty good job with the law and the evidence, but it really did not help that the accused had showed up with a beer-branded T-shirt, and that it was part of his overall "take" on the accused and his credibility. Yet another lesson in conveying an overall message!
The first time a judge copied my written argument in his judgment, without any credit, I was somewhat annoyed. But then I I understood that it was the result that mattered, and if I could consistently get judges to copy my argument into their endorsement, I won! Even if they took full credit, I won.
In fact, if you start with writing the ideal endorsement of the record, you can then work backward to the facts and the law you have on your desk. Yet another step for this young student of communication!
Occasionally we learn our lessons of communication when judges tell us what goes on behind the scenes. Justice Panet explained to a seminar group the math of good motions drafting. "After my dinner, I go to my study to get ready for the ten motions that I typically hear the next day. I allow two hours-- 120 minutes. That means twelve minutes per case. Every case has two motion records, sometimes more. So, the most you will get is six minutes. That's all! If I give you more than that, I have to take it away from somebody else, and I won't do it. So, ladies and gentlemen, when you draft your argument, what I can't read in six minutes won't get read."
Suddenly it all made sense-- legal drafting can't rely on volume, you need to make your point convincingly in a very efficient fashion. I understood that the good communicator will respect the time constraints and the agenda of the listener.
Mr. Justice John Laskin of the Ontario Court of Appeal was chatting with a small group of lawyers at a conference when he said, casually enough, something that turned on all of the lights for me. "Never underestimate," he said "the Court's instinct for rescue."
He went on to explain that although the Court must follow the law which applies to the fact situation, it is looking for a way, within legal precedent and principles, to rescue a deserving party from some wrong. It is up to good counsel to provide the court with the tools to do that. All effective communication must speak to the heart, but at the same time provide to the mind the intellectual framework for arriving at the point the heart wants to go.
Whether mediations, collaborative process, trials, negotiations, client interviews, planning, drafting, contract preparation---- these and dozens of other communication events all use a similar set of tools and precepts. What I have learned over four decades of education and law is that we are all speakers and we are all listeners. The principals of effective communication are universal.
Let me share with you what I have learned!