Counsel article - Building rapport in the digital space and fixing ruptured relationships for barristers

This article on building rapport in the digital space and fixing ruptured relationships for barristers was published in the June 2021 edition of Counsel. This edition had a special focus on everything you need to know about marketing and PR for the Bar. Counsel is the official monthly magazine of the Bar of England and Wales, published by LexisNexis on behalf of the Bar Council for barristers. 

 At the heart of all legal business development is the relationship between barrister and client (whether solicitors or direct access lay clients). Covid restrictions forced interactions – the lifeblood of relationships – into the virtual space. Our focus on grappling with the technology meant that we overlooked the differences in how we forge relationships and manage them when there are problems. In this article I shine some light on these two challenges – building rapport in the digital space and fixing ruptured relationships.

Building rapport in the digital environment

Social distancing stopped face-to-face meetings. Yet before Covid we developed rapport in digital environments (e.g. the phone) with vulnerable clients and those who are physically distant.

Even online, relationships go through the same stages:

  • Acknowledgement
  • Understanding
  • Acceptance
  • Respect
  • Trust
  • Bond

Many barristers are referred their clients so some elements of respect and trust are there already. However, that doesn’t mean that those earlier stages can be ignored.

Sometimes the issue is in our own head and this makes us behave differently. Our beliefs change the way we interact and this then alters the outcome. If you believe something will be more difficult, then you will make it so.

Engage in small talk

Relationships are about emotions. So how do we achieve emotional connection in the digital space?

In digital encounters we often get straight down to the law – omitting the settling small talk that we enjoyed when you met in reception, walked to the meeting room or poured a cup of tea.

The humanising element of asking social questions is missing. So show an interest in people and things beyond the legal situation. You might remark on what you see on the screen behind them – art or books.

Be more human

In person, we shake hands. It’s an important social ritual. Touch is incredibly powerful at creating a bond. So what is a digital alternative?

You are more than a barrister. You build rapport by sharing information. And finding similarities. Be authentic. Maybe show some vulnerability by indicating that you would prefer meeting in person or that you struggle with the technology. Build a bridge with your humanity.

Early psychologist William James said: “The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated”. Use empathy and emotional intelligence to connect.

Maintain visual contact

Norm Friesen, an educational technology researcher, observed four “weird” things happen when videoconferencing:

  1. Eye contact is lacking – The camera and display are never in the same spot.
  1. Looking awry – You are on screen all the time so doing anything other than looking at the camera may create a poor impression.
  1. Feeling watched – You can feel like you are under surveillance or scrutinised.
  1. Squelching voices – You may have to check whether others can hear you and the sounds you make are undirected.

You can be too close or too far from the camera so expressions can’t be seen. The advice is to be at eye-level about three feet from the camera. Don’t look down on your camera – people may perceive this as being aloof or arrogant.

It is suggested that you turn off your self-cam as your own image will distract you. You might try physically anchoring before a meeting starts – exercises to stretch, breath and use space to help you to be more present.

And as we typically use eye contact to signal that it is someone else’s turn to speak, you may have to prompt or ask people explicitly for their comments. Pausing and silence become more important.

Observe Non-Verbal Communication

The camera focuses on our faces – so people’s hands, arm movements and posture cannot be easily observed. The vast majority of meaning in interactions is conveyed by non-verbal communication. Screens mean we are cut off from this vital information.

Make an effort to convey interest, warmth, energy, enthusiasm and other positive emotions through facial expressions, posture and gestures and the words you speak. Your speed, pitch and tone of voice will also have an impact.

When we have rapport we tend to mirror and match people’s behaviour unconsciously. This mirroring also occurs in our brains. We need to be alert to what the other person is communicating with their NVC and also what we are unconsciously conveying.

In April 2020, Christine Liu, Innovation editor at HBR, interviewed a body language and presence expert. The advice was to avoid being stoic, non-moving robots. People are often too focused on what they are seeing – and forget about what others see.

Follow modern manners in the age of Zoom

In April 2020, the FT published an article by Pilita Clark called “A guide to modern manners in the age of Zoom”. Key points included:

  1. Avoid being a Zoom bore – keep your contributions brief
  2. Learn how to use the mute button – to avoid feedback and background noise
  3. Don’t interrupt – prepare an agenda and keep track of who has spoken
  4. Don’t be a broadband snob – be patient when others experience connection glitches
  5. Upper wear does not equal any-wear
  6. Keep the camera on – use grid view so you can see everyone
  7. Ignore the occasional child or cat
  8. Invite carefully – avoid pointless participants and be aware of time zones and international differences
  9. Ignore the ring light – This may make participants look different to their in-person selves

Build trust in virtual meetings

Trust is separate to distrust which has a stronger effect on decision-making due to it taking place in the older part of the brain. When the older part of the brain is activated it shuts down the collaborative part of the brain by evoking the emotional “fight or flight” response.

Distrust may occur in virtual meetings because:

    • Misunderstanding – it is harder to interpret social cues online
    • Distance – the virtual space emphasises the distance between you and makes it harder to find similarities
    • Dishonesty/deception – a research study found that slow signals cause the speaker to appear to hesitate which is considered a sign of dishonesty
    • Safety – some feel apprehensive about legitimacy or security online
    • Lack or loss of information

You can improve the success of virtual meetings with preparation:

  • Pre-meeting
    • Send an agenda and advance information
    • Be consistent – ensure your digital presence matches your brand and the real you
    • Create familiarity by finding similarity – research people’s interests beforehand
  • During the meeting
    • Accentuate social cues – ensure gestures can be seen
    • Slow your speech – annunciate clearly
    • Maintain eye contact – look at the camera (not the screen)
    • Engage in co-operative conversations – understand rational AND emotional needs
    • Show curiosity – ask questions rather than make assumptions
    • Confirm you are listening – repeat back their words
  • Post meeting
    • Show commitment – spread your time across multiple meetings
    • Keep them committed – get them to agree, write down details or accept actions
    • Reciprocate – Find something to send to them

Being on Teams or Zoom is draining. So take regular breaks. And remember that you can always pick up the telephone instead.

Fix broken relationships

Nearly all relationships experience some form of difference, disinterest, disagreement, divergence, difficulty or disruption – it is a normal part of the human condition.

There are many reasons why relationships break down: misunderstandings, disappointment, loss of trust, being let down, arrogance, loss of respect, being judgemental, one way traffic, personality clashes, jealousy and rivalry. Perception is key. In the virtual space there’s also distance bias – the tendency to favour people who are closer to us in time and space.

Often, we are aware of a relationship issue but avoid a confrontation. So it gets worse. If we act on early signals we can prevent a full blown relationship breakdown.

Where a relationship is going wrong, consider the causes of the problem. Do this from the perspective of the other person. Use empathy although there is no substitute for asking ‘What went wrong and how can we fix it?

There are particular types of problematic relationships, for example in the drama triangle where people get stuck in roles such as persecutor, victim or rescuer. Or in triangulation – where two people are set against a third person. Or where, as Transactional Analysis (TA) suggests in the PAC model, someone behaves in a way that moves a person out of their adult, rational state into more emotion associated with their parent or child state.

There are many strategies to deal with conflict including capitulation, humour, mediation, collaboration and negotiation. Although barristers will often focus on rational negotiation methods and miss or avoid the emotional elements.

Be aware of how you feel and behave when others express anger. And be alert to whether the anger you witness is masking another emotion – such as fear.

Where there has been a problem, there needs to be positive action to repair the ruptured relationship:

  1. Listen actively  – don’t interrupt or get defensive, repeat back what is said and summarise perceived issues. Only 40% of what people hear is retained so pay attention.
  2. Use empathy to see things from their perspective – and validate their emotions
  3. Ask questions in a caring manner – get to the source of the issue and check you have all the information
  4. Apologise without blaming – often this triggers an immediate instinct to forgive
  5. Ask “What would be an acceptable solution?” – work with them to find a solution
  6. Solve the problem
  7. Check back that they are happy

If you need to make an apology, there are five parts:

  1. A specific definition of the offending behaviour – show that you truly understand what you are apologising for
  2. Acknowledge the behaviour caused harm – perhaps by repeating back your understanding of the emotion you have caused
  3. Statement of responsibility for the behaviour and harm
  4. Statement of regret
  5. Commitment to avoid repeating the behaviour

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