Client Communication Best Practices

By Alice Shikina

As a mediator, people come to me when their avenues of communication have completely broken down and they can no longer express ideas and be heard by the other side. Before you get to a place of impasse, you may want to revisit some common-sense ground rules during conflicts in your own clients. Use these guidelines early on in the relationship, so that you get plenty of practice and become a skilled communicator. When you do come to difficult moments in your client and personal relationships, your diligent practice will serve you well.

DON’T interrupt.

Interrupting is one of the biggest causes of conflict. When people are constantly being interrupted, they don’t feel heard and the channels of communication begin to break down. Have a sheet of paper and a pen to write down your thoughts during emotional conversations. When it is your turn to talk, refer to your notes.

DON’T call names.

Sometimes people resort to name calling to belittle the other person and make them feel small. No one likes to be called names. It isn’t conducive to solving problems, so just refrain from doing this.

DON’T yell.

When in conflict, some people yell as an intimidation tactic or because they do not feel heard by the other side. Unfortunately, yelling does not achieve the goal of being heard. It frequently results in escalating the situation.

DON’T be judgmental.

When couples have been together for some time, they develop filters through which they hear their partner. They begin to expect a certain viewpoint from the other side and don’t necessarily hear what is being said. Clients also develop judgment against their attorneys. As a relationship deteriorates, judgment grows, and defensiveness does as well. The less judgmental you can remain, the more information you will be able to elicit from your client during high conflict conversations. No one wants to be vulnerable and open if someone is going to be judging them. Keep this in mind when you are listening to your client’s side of the story.

DO actively listen to your client.

Active listening means you are purely listening to your client, and not simply waiting for your turn to speak. You are not judging what they are saying, but just listening. Practice active listening on a regular basis when not in conflict. If your client has a tendency to ramble, set time limits to how long they are allowed to talk. For instance, you can say, “Give me a brief description, about five-minutes’ worth, of what happened.” This will accomplish two things: 1. It will give your client an idea of how long they have to say their piece. 2. It gives you permission to interrupt them if they are going much past five minutes.

DO mirror your client

Once your client speaks, make sure you understand what was said by restating what you heard them say. Use phrases such as, “This is what I heard you say” or “If I understand you correctly, you are saying…”

DO approach issues from an interest-based stance instead of a position-based stance.

Position-based refers to each person’s position, such as “I want to go to Hawaii for vacation.” Interest-based stance refers to the underlying needs of each party. If you start from here, you may be able to come to a win-win agreement instead of a win-lose agreement. Instead of arguing about where you will go for vacation, consider that both parties want to go somewhere warm, not too far away and where there are beaches. Once you uncover what both sides’ interests are, you are better able to solve the problem for everyone.

DO ask questions…MANY questions.

Instead of asking questions that lead your client to agree with your side, ask genuinely curious questions about why they feel a certain way or what about your side of the argument makes them uncomfortable. Allow them to explore their thoughts and values through thought-provoking questions. Good questions to ask are, “What about this solution makes you uncomfortable?” “What are some of your reasons for declining this offer?”

DO keep issues separate.

Don’t start an argument about one thing and then add multiple issues to the conversation. Get through one issue at a time. If the argument is about who whether or not your client wants to settle the case, do not add the issue of how they have been a difficult client up to this point to this same argument. Discuss them separately.

DO be willing to compromise.

Relationships take compromise and if you are not open to both parties compromising, you won’t get very far. Be creative when it comes to what you can offer to the other side to get them to compromise.