Editor’s note: This sponsored commentary was written by Michael Manely and is published as part of The Manely Firm’s annual sponsorship of Global Atlanta.
While my colleagues here at The Manely Firm and I all enjoyed the same schooling as attorneys in any other area of law, I find that there are some things unique to practicing international family law that really guide the work we do and set us apart.
With World Listening Day coming up on July 18, I started thinking about how this applies to our approach to communication in particular.
While there’s a strong stereotype that attorneys are argumentative and love a good debate, that style of communication doesn’t work well in family law, where two-thirds of our cases are settled in mediation.
And since we work internationally, we find diplomats to be great role models for effective communication. Their style is defined by listening, understanding and working toward resolving conflict.
There’s one final lesson we can learn from diplomatic communication, which is to be aware of our own biases and perceptions. Diplomats work across cultures and engage with individuals who have very different perspectives and experiences from their own. It’s impossible to set our biases aside entirely — we’re human after all — but having some awareness of your own biases goes a long way toward effective communication.
If you’re thinking that all of these lessons sound great but seem hard to apply, know that learning to listen well and communicate effectively is a lifelong practice. Working in family law, I have the privilege of listening to many people’s most precious stories and deepest aspirations.
Applying the principles of diplomatic communication helps me to create the necessary space for my clients’ relationships to be repaired and to thrive. It also has helped me to cultivate better listening skills, which serve me personally and professionally.
Effective communication is at the heart of diplomacy. When we think of communicating, very often talking or expressing ourselves comes to mind before or in lieu of listening. But active and engaged listening is the real key to effective communication. And that takes some practice! It’s common to start formulating your response as soon as someone else starts speaking, but doing so means you’re not really listening. Active listening requires a shift in mindset from “How will I respond?” to “Do I really understand what this person is trying to say?”
We learn another important lesson from diplomats as well: Your goal matters. Diplomats engage in communication with a specific goal in mind: conflict resolution. Entering a conversation with a desire to find a solution and to truly understand the other party’s perspective sets an entirely different tone than coming to the table only with a desire to be heard or air one’s grievances. There is certainly a time and place for that as well, but it’s best done with a trusted friend or counselor rather than at the mediation table, where the goal is to find solutions.
[pullquote]Having some awareness of your own biases goes a long way toward effective communication. [/pullquote]
If you’re wondering where to start, take a few tricks from the book of mediation: Slow down and don’t interrupt. Simply slowing down the pace of communication will go a long way to decrease the odds of miscommunication. It creates a sense of safety for the speaker and gives them space to craft what they want to say carefully and meaningfully. The same goes for not interrupting!
Take some time this month to really listen to your loved ones. It’s a gift you can give that requires nothing more than attention and intention.
The Dean Rusk International Law Center at the University of Georgia is the presenting sponsor of Global Atlanta's Diplomacy Channel. Subscribe here for monthly Diplomacy newsletters.