As someone who at age eight landed in a new country with a language I did not understand and no guideposts—not even family—I thought of myself as deftly attuned to the subtleties of unspoken and unwritten communication. As someone who practiced law for a number of years and then went on to build and sell a successful contract attorney services company whose clients included both law firms and in-house legal departments—I was confident I understood more than most about the legal industry.
So after a couple of other professional adventures outside of law, I rejoined the law firm that had recruited me out of law school—this time as a Director of Business Development. It was in this role that I found myself unexpectedly caught in a communication barrier that I couldn’t identify for several months. Then it hit me. Unknowingly, some of my conversations with the partners were similar to the subtitle scene in the movie Annie Hall.
Remember? It's the scene where Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, having met earlier that day, are standing on her balcony engaging in small talk and their real thoughts are shown as subtitles (like a foreign film) at the bottom of the screen. As the scene so comically captured, what the characters were saying out loud did not match what they were thinking. It was a huge aha moment for me. Although I was saying what I was thinking, it seemed the partners were not. What were they thinking? I had to figure it out.
So I took a few large steps back and started to closely examine the culture of the law firm. Specifically, a culture built upon a traditional “partnership” economic model. My approach, in a rudimentary way, applied the tools of a cultural anthropologist: keen and focused observation and inquiry.
I began to do a few key things:
- Asked more and better open-ended and probing questions.
- Listened more attentively to what was said and what was being communicated by body language.
- Spent face-to-face time with partners and other stakeholders to learn more about them as people.
- Spent time to better understand the economics of the firm, including compensation.
The benefits of this approach were profound. I earned the trust of my “clients” as both a colleague—who understood the practice of law—and as an advisor—who was an expert in the areas of sales and business development. This trust gave way to a far more open and collaborative environment when, as part of my responsibility as Director of Business Development, I launched or managed new business activities and programs.
When subtitles became stumbling blocks I asked more questions and had more meetings until the subtitles were brought to the surface. The process was not quick and it was not easy. I did not unearth any silver bullets. But I did bridge the communication gap and, together with my clients and colleagues, celebrated some business development victories that mattered to them and the firm.