Talk is not Cheap. It’s Priceless! by Eileen McDargh, a Hall of Fame speaker, business consultant and top thought-leader in leadership.

Look closely at the characteristics of great places to work and at the conditions most conducive for worker satisfaction. At the core of the majority of these characteristics and conditions is a simple human ingredient: communication. Somewhere along the line, people must talk to each other to understand mutual goals and to create a place where people feel valued. Somewhere along the line, leaders step from behind the desks to LISTEN to what people need, to ask deep questions, to seek critical feedback, and to share information that gives the WHY behind the WHAT.  Somewhere along the line, folks understand that emotional data is just as critical to implementing change as financial data. In short—people truly communicate with each other!

Ah. There’s the rub. Communication is a soft skill when it comes to creating and maintaining productivity as well as productive relationships. It is not the same as the powerful rhetoric practiced in courts.  It’s not the same as legal briefs filled with precedent, persuasion and often ponderous words.  Rather it is learning, using, and relearning the most basic communication tool of all: conversation. In great places to work, the phrase “Stop talking and get to work!” has been replaced by a far better mantra:  “START talking and get to work.”

When communication fails and conversation is truncated here are just some of the results:

-        Tasks are repeated because instructions aren’t clear.

-        Morale plummets and rumors abound when a managing partner engages in doublespeak regarding the firm’s future.

-        Administrators constantly battle employee retention because of the poor interpersonal skills of some professionals.

-        Precious time is wasted in meetings that are exercises in egos rather than solutions.

-        Valuable staff leave because they feel devalued and unappreciated.

-        Office tensions result in absenteeism, health claims, and turnover.

To develop or enhance the conversation that will support efforts to be a great law firm, consider six steps.

First: Conduct a communication audit to assess the perceptions about communication processes and interpersonal abilities within the overall firm. Using either internal or external consultants, ask the following questions:

1. Our clients would talk about our firm in these words: Employees would talk about the firm in these words:

2. When it comes to communication, my firm (department, unit, etc.) is______________________________ because ________________________________.

3. I receive most of my information from (my immediate supervisor, my colleagues, bulletin boards, the grapevine, e-mail, other).

4. I could do a better job if I received the following information in the following manner:

5. I would describe the majority of our meetings as:

6. I would describe communication with my peers as:

7. I would describe communication with my manager as:

8. I would describe communication with other firm attorneys as:

9. Communication would improve immediately if:

10. I would be a better communicator if I learned to:

Warning: do NOT conduct this audit if you are not willing to candidly share and do something with the results.

Second: Prepare a series of tools. The first tool is a steady flow of information about management decisions that affect employees, the marketplace, and competitors. Without that information, an organization cannot hope to bring employees into problem-solving discussions, innovation circles or the like. Although senior partners might deal with such lofty and necessary concerns as strategic planning, capitalization, or international expansion, it might very well be the battlefront employee who can see solutions for day-to-day problems. But without the benefit of management’s broader perspective, the solutions could fall short.

The second communication tool employees need is a straightforward, clearly written sourcebook on organizational policies and procedures. Even if a firm is quite small, there will be more cohesiveness if everyone understands the do’s, don’ts and how to’s of a firm. For example, the owner of a small practice “just figured” his employees knew what was the vacation policy and when salaries would be reviewed. Unfortunately, without a written document, even the boss forgot his intended policy. The resultant confusion and arbitrary handling of vacations and reviews netted a disgruntled staff. And unhappy staff do NOT work to capacity.

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Third: To improve communication for more productive employee relationships, offer training in the communication aspects of emotional intelligence, relationship development, listening, and even writing. Because we all have learned to talk and someone put a pencil in our hands and showed us how to make words with an alphabet, there is a tendency to think that we know how to communicate. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Speaking clearly, with vocabulary and message tailored to the audience, is a task mastered only through learning. Listening, without training, is a selfish trait. Learning how to listen actively, to “hear” the additional messages sent by nonverbal signals and emotions, is a priceless skill. But it must be taught. There are numerous workshops available for in-house classes as well as sessions at local colleges and universities.

Fourth: Conduct a 360 assessment of key staff.  When managers have difficulty, it’s rarely because of a lack of knowledge but more likely a blind spot regarding their behavioral style. Style is manifested through communication.  An executive coach might be needed to help someone break a poor behavioral pattern.

Fifth:  Create opportunities to have informal firm gatherings with the intention of breaking barriers. Be conscious of the work/life demands in scheduling such gatherings. Use a variety of reward/recognition practices to showcase people at all levels in the firm.  Rainmakers bring in work, but without the others on a team, the crop will not be harvested!

Sixth:  Explore how e-mail is used within the firm. In too many cases, the “e” stands for “error” and “escalation”. Humans send their most accurate messages vocally and visually, two components missing in e-mail. Responses are often sent out of context and sent days later. Use e-mail for facts, immediate answers, and simple requests. But when emotion is involved, opt for phone or face-to-face conversation.

In the world of business, the intangibles drive the tangibles. Being able to connect with the hearts and minds of clients and colleagues has never been more important.  Without connection, clients don’t give us their time and employees don’t give us their talent. To create a great law firm, remember: talk is NOT cheap. It is priceless.

© 2010, McDargh Communications.  Publication rights granted to all venues so long as article and by-line are reprinted intact and all links are made live.

Professional speaker and author, Eileen McDargh, is ranked in the top 100 thought-leaders in leadership development by Executive Excellence. Need a speaker or facilitator who engages the minds and hearts of your group through extensive preparation & involvement in your entire event?  Visit today to find out Eileen can help you.  Eileen also invites you to visit her women and leadership site at