Article: Client conversations

Any legal professional needs to hold confident and effective client conversations.

I trained many new immigration officers in the PEACE investigative interview technique, and later introduced the concept into an Appraisals masterclass as part of the Financial Ombudsman Service’s leadership and development programme.

Some of those essentials translate well into preparing for any formal conversation where you need to gather and deliver information effectively. To help you achieve a rapport with your client and get the most out of your conversation:

Engage and explain – Whether you’re advising or interviewing a client, you may be tempted to fire off questions and give as much information as possible, in full legal language, to ensure you’ve covered everything. You’re talking about themes familiar and interesting to you, but they’re new, strange and possibly frightening to your client, and when you’re in full flow it can be difficult to notice that you’ve lost them.

Always take time to empathise with how they might feel and ensure they understand what’s happening first and throughout your conversation.

Beware too much, too fast. We can only take in so much new information before our brains switch off. Small bites of information are best.

Clarity and simplicity are virtues, so aim for clear, conversational Plain English. Don’t purchase a property – buy a house.

Gather the account – Gather information with open questions [who, what, when, where, how, tell me about, could you explain, what was the thinking behind … ]. They will open up the conversation and encourage your client to open up, too.

Clarify and challenge – What people say first may not be the whole story. Clarifying grey areas and challenging inconsistencies with probing questions, drilling down and exploring uncertainties while still maintaining a courteous, neutral and professional tone will help you collect the information you need to get to the truth of the matter. Closed either/or yes/no questions can be helpful here.

Listen and observe – If you’re giving information, find out what they already know and understand before launching into a monologue.

Whatever your aim, ask questions and actively listen with eye contact and stillness. Observe their body language, expressions, eye movement and any sudden change of demeanor when you touch on a difficult point. Listen to tone of voice, hesitations and the way they’re speaking – and observe what they don’t say for clues about to how to speak to them and draw out valuable information.

For the interviewer, empathy, questioning and observation skills are as useful as knowledge and the ability to explain.

Silence is golden – One of the most important conversational skills is the ability to stop talking. Be patient and resist any urge to interrupt or finish their sentences for them if you feel you know what they’re trying to say. Sometimes silence is more effective than a question, and more information may be coaxed out if you resist the urge to dive in with the next one.

Be clear – Their needs are paramount and you may not realise at first what they are. The way they speak may alert you to hearing or learning difficulties. If they’re hard of hearing, you don’t necessarily need to speak more loudly, it could just be that you’re not speaking clearly enough. Emphasise your consonants and word endings – vowels carry the emotion and the feeling in speech, while consonants carry the clarity and authority you need to get your message across.

Reasonable adjustments If you’re working with a Deaf client, always turn to face them, seat them with their back to the window so they aren’t seeing you in silhouette, keep your hands away from your mouth and remove distracting visual noise and clutter from their sight line. Speak normally – exaggerated lip movements make it hard to lip read. If you’re working with a sign language interpreter, keep your hands still and give plenty of time for translation. With any translator, speak ‘to’ the person you’re talking to, rather than to the interpreter.

Check understanding – Check they’ve got each point clearly before moving onto the next one. Repetition, simplification and summarising will ensure they understand – asking ‘do you understand?’ isn’t always helpful, as clients may say yes so as not to seem stupid to you.

For your professional development, you may find it helpful to ask a trusted colleague to attend your client meetings and give you feedback on your performance. Your interactions with your clients can mean the difference between success or failure – and a great client experience may win your firm repeat business and enhance your reputation.

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Philippa Hammond