There is something very rewarding about solving a problem. Recognizing an issue, seeing a need, figuring out a strategy, and being able to figure out how to make things whole again is a rewarding experience that makes our work meaningful. In fact, many lawyers go into practicing law because they specifically like helping others solve problems. So it is not surprising that most lawyers are comfortable playing the role of problem-solver for their clients. And if every problem had a straightforward answer, the story would stop here. The reality, however, is that many clients have problems that do not have a simple solution or they do not respond to a viable solution in the way you expect. At times, despite a simple solution, the client can continue to respond in a way that indicates that the problem is still present. You offer a solution or plan and the client is no more relieved than when he/she first started talking to you. There is even a possibility that the client is more upset after you offer a viable solution. This unexpected result can baffle a skilled problem-solver. After all, there are few things more frustrating than having a problem that is left unsolved even though you know how to solve it.
A stereotypical example of such a situation is the picture of a spouse talking to their significant other about a problem they encountered in their day. When their significant other offers a solution to the problem, the spouse gets upset and insists that they do not want the problem solved; they want their significant other to listen. When you are a problem-solver by nature it can be difficult to resist the impulse to offer solutions to problems that have clear answers. In fact, it can be downright incomprehensible to hear someone say that they do not want their problem solved. After all, why else would they be talking to you about their problem? The answer: They want to be heard and understood.
The experience of being heard and understood by someone else can be more power than to have a particular problem solved. Sometimes being understood and feeling respected is the solution, at other times it is a component of the solution. I have heard stories of clients getting exactly what they wanted in court but still feeling like they got nothing based on feeling that no one listened or understood their concerns. I understand that the idea of listening and expressing concern is more comfortable for a psychologist, but with a few simple techniques you too can be a skilled listener and empathizer. Adding this to your repertoire can help your clients at a new level.
The two basic skills to focus on are paraphrasing what you have heard and reflecting your client’s feelings.
- Paraphrasing: A simple technique to show your client that you understand what they are saying is to paraphrase what they have said back to them. While this can feel robotic at times, verbally expressing what you have heard tells your client that you have understood what their concerns are and this also gives you an opportunity to find out where more clarification is needed. Paraphrasing gives the client the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings at the beginning and communicates to them that you respect what they are saying.
- Reflecting feelings: This is probably one of the most effective and simple ways to show someone that you care about them on some level. When your client is talking to you about their concerns, try to identify the emotion that they are feeling and acknowledge it. With a simple statement such as, “That sounds really frustrating,” or “I can see how upsetting that is to you,” a client can feel that you care enough to understand what they are going through. The recognition of emotion does not have to be extensive or prolonged. This communicated understanding is often the key that enables a client to feel supported and to move to the next step in the problem solving process.
Whether the problems at hand have straightforward solutions or not, starting with paraphrasing and reflecting your client’s feelings can do wonders for your client’s experience working with you. Even if the ultimate legal outcome is not completely what they hoped for, if a client feels like they were respected and understood they are more likely to recommend you to others and to be a repeat customer themselves.
Shawn Healy, PhD