Interpersonal Dynamics Class Offers Law Students a Mirror for Relationship Skills
I may be a slow learner, but after 20 years of teaching, I finally “got it.” I realized that spending three years telling law students about things like property rights, consideration, gross income or the commerce clause might get some of them high-paying jobs right out of law school, but it wasn’t going to make them either very good lawyers or very happy lawyers. Study after study shows that success in law correlates significantly more with relationship skills than it does with knowledge of substantive law, intelligence, writing ability, or anything else. Since success in law requires working well with colleagues, getting along well with clients, and being able to work well with judges, juries and opposing counsel, the importance of relationship skills may not be surprising. But law is not really unique in this respect. Relationship skills are the best indicator of future success not just in law, but in every profession.
Not only are relationship skills important to success in law, but they are also the key to enjoying the practice of law. When asked what they like best about their work, lawyers almost always talk about relationships: "I like to help people;" or "Last week, a client told me that what I did for her made a big difference in her life;" or "I like being part of a team." On the other hand, when asked what they dislike most about work, the number one complaint is not the long hours, but their work relationships. They often feel at best disregarded, and at worst abused, by their own partners and co-workers; and they feel isolated, abandoned and overwhelmed by stress and conflict. Yes, high salaries are wonderful things; but they don’t really help lawyers like their work, they only keep lawyers working in the jobs they dislike.
The notion of teaching about human relationships is not entirely new to law schools. Students in clinical programs, internships and externships, and in courses such as Negotiation, Mediation, Client Counseling, and Alternative Dispute Resolution ("ADR") are exposed to creative problem-solving and listening skills, and are often given opportunities to practice in role-plays or, in clinics, with live clients. I have taught several of these courses, but after a few years, I found myself getting frustrated. It dawned on me that while one might learn something about relational skills as a part of Client Counseling, and/or Negotiation, and/or Mediation, and/or Law Practice Management, and/or CLE courses in Ethics, and/or substance abuse, and/or Marketing a Law Practice, learning this way is repetitive, but, much more importantly, it is inadequate. It’s like a high school offering courses in subjects such as "Grocery Shopping," "Getting and Keeping a Job," or "Leisure Activities" with each course including a little piece about driving skills (because some stores, work, or leisure activities are not readily accessible by walking or by public transportation), but never offering a self-contained course in driving. Whether it’s steering a car through traffic, or steering one's self through myriad relationships in different contexts, there is a fundamental skill set that is both important to learn and, once learned, has daily applications in numerous contexts.
If it were as easy to learn relational skills as it is to learn Torts, or even Tax, it wouldn’t really matter whether or not they were covered in law school. Whatever students missed at school they could get from hornbooks or nutshells. In fact, unlike other law school courses, there are thousands of books on relationship and communication skills in every bookstore in the country. Unfortunately, we just can’t learn relationship skills the same way we learn information. To try to learn relationship skills by reading is akin to trying to learn to play baseball by reading: if we read about baseball, we can know that on any pitch, the batter should have swung a little higher or lower (or faster or slower), but that will not make us major league players. Both hitting a ball and relating well to others take a great deal of practice and feedback to learn well; and while batting skills are not essential to success in law or life, communication and relationship skills most definitely are.
At the University of San Francisco School of Law we began offering a class entitled “Interpersonal Dynamics for Attorneys.” Basically, this class consists of about 12 people sitting comfortably in a circle, without books or computers, and simply giving clear and honest feedback to each other. By explaining my reactions to, and understandings about, you and having you tell me whether or not I got it right, I test out the accuracy of my way of seeing things. If you do the same with me, I learn a lot about the image I project to you. It’s that easy. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “it’s that hard.” The truth is that most of us almost never either receive or give clear and honest feedback of our reactions to others. Out of a desire not to hurt others’ feelings or not to embarrass ourselves, we often sugarcoat our critical reactions and ignore our positive ones.
The key to both getting and giving effective feedback, and the single most important lesson of Interpersonal Dynamics, is simple enough to state (although difficult to actually do): avoid labeling people. Instead, describe (1) their specific behaviors (as they might be recorded by a video camera, without editorializing) and (2) your reaction (thoughts and feelings) to those behaviors. If I give feedback as a description of my own reaction (including my feelings) to specific behaviors I have identified, I will be giving feedback that is less threatening to the hearer (because it doesn’t purport to label them) and much more accurate (because it honestly describes my reaction, rather than (probably inaccurately) describing your motivation).
In a way, Interpersonal Dynamics is a little like meditation on steroids. Meditation, as well as much psychotherapy, requires a person to pay attention to her own reactions. In Interpersonal Dynamics, we do that and then ask people to share those reactions with others. People develop not only self-awareness, but awareness of others. They learn to communicate clearly, and self-awareness develops not in the service of personal enlightenment, but as a means to mutual understanding and relationship-building.
By sharing their own reactions to others, and their own understanding of (attributions about) others, and having those others either confirm or deny the accuracy of those understandings, people quickly learn, and are usually stunned by, the extent to which they misunderstand others and others misunderstand them. When people become aware of how often their conclusions about others are wrong or incomplete, their motivation to actually listen to others grows. When they see how often others misunderstand them, their desire to communicate more clearly and honestly grows.
As the class gets to know each other better, it also turns out that while many attributions are off-base, others are accurate. Some students demonstrate patterns of thinking or acting that get noticed only by a few others, only after several weeks, and only because people are spending so much time in close quarters with the purpose of giving and receiving feedback about their behaviors and internal processes. The person who often smiles and nods in agreement may find that these behaviors make her well-liked, but may also find that she is taken less seriously than others and that her opinions and desires are typically disregarded. As a result, she may work on acting more assertively when appropriate. She may also begin to discover patterns to her own thinking that coincide with these behaviors--patterns she had previously taken for granted. She may begin to understand that she thinks of herself as less capable than others, or as less deserving than others, and that her behaviors accurately reflect that thought. At that point, she may, with feedback from others, reassess that thought and change her self-image along with her behavior.
Similarly, after several weeks, some person may suggest that a particular student tends to challenge and dispute others, or to belittle others. That student may learn that she can become more effective by listening more and stifling her urge to dispute, and learning and practicing those behaviors would likely serve her very well. Possibly, in addition, she may start to examine her thought processes more closely, and to see that she tends to attribute to others an intent to belittle or dispute her, and that she reacts the way she does in order to avoid being "done in" by others. She may begin to see that she continuously plays out the self-fulfilling prophesy that others are trying to trick and disagree with her, and, with feedback from the group, may be able to see that her attributions are often incorrect.
A talkative student may learn that some see her as helpful and nurturing, while others may see her as bossy and pushy. She may begin to work on talking less and learning to tolerate more silence and lapses in conversation (learning this will serve her very well in negotiations). In addition, she may begin to see that when there is silence, she begins to feel anxious. Once she becomes aware of that anxiety, she may look for the thoughts she has that generate that anxiety, and she may see that she tells herself that it is her responsibility to fill in the silence. Once she becomes conscious of that thought, she may begin to look at it, and, perhaps, to change it. Alternatively, she may find that when there is silence she becomes anxious and begins to predict awful consequences that will result from that silence. By slowing down her internal processes enough to become aware of those images, she will give herself the chance to look at them and test their appropriateness.
A quiet student may find that while some see him as shy, others view him as vain and haughty. He may decide to work on talking up more, and he may begin to look at what he tells himself, or imagines, that causes him to remain silent, and may, as a result, develop assertion skills that will serve him well throughout his career.
For the most part, students do not know each other well at the beginning of class. Typically, they are not enemies, but neither are they close friends. As a result, simply being in a small, interactive class together engenders a degree of contact with peers that they otherwise might not have had. Much more important than simply having contact, however, is the kind of contact that they have. Either prior to or early on in the class they have formed judgments of most of their fellow students. When people check out their attributions, they get responses that allow them to get a much fuller picture of the other person. They begin to learn that others are usually not as bad as they thought. They start to understand that others, like themselves, had difficult times, and they begin to develop a real appreciation of both what those people went through to get where they are and of what their experiences are really like.
In many cases, what results from honest, non-labeling communication is an intimacy with and appreciation for others that people may never have experienced before (in our out of law school). This experience may transform the way people look not only at communication, but at the opportunities that human relationships offer. Just as riding a bike or skiing can bring pleasure to some and great pain to those who lack the skills to stay upright and, as a result, suffer all sorts of scrapes and bruises, relationships provide little joy and too much pain to those who lack essential relational skills. To convince them that there can be real pleasure in relationships is akin to convincing an out-of-shape couch potato that skiing or riding a bike is better than watching a rerun of one of his favorite shows. In either case, there is nothing in the other's experience that correlates with the point you are trying to make, and much that suggests to him that you are wrong. Being in a group that engages in honest and effective feedback, as a result of which people really do get to know and appreciate each other, very often does much not only to develop the skills, but also to change this attitude.
While the results of Interpersonal Dynamics are stunning, the beginnings may be slow and awkward. Asking students accustomed to traditional law classes to come together in small groups to discuss their personal reactions and internal processes is somewhat akin to asking practicing attorneys to be naked in court. It seems crazy, inappropriate, and wrong, not to mention incredibly embarrassing. While some might be interested, and others embarrassed, to see what others have to reveal, almost everyone would resist to their utmost revealing anything of themselves. Such is, at times, the beginning of the class in Interpersonal Dynamics.
The role and the responsibilities of the "teacher" are quite different from those typical of law professors. We neither lecture, nor use the Socratic Method, nor use any other techniques typical of most law classes. Our efforts are directed at (1) helping to create the kind of atmosphere that allows students to take the (potentially embarrassing) step of talking about their thoughts and feelings, (2) modeling the kinds of behaviors that we hope students will learn and which will allow the students, in turn, to learn what they need to about themselves and about others, and (3) helping focus attention on self-awareness and clear communication.
How Things Might Start: Some Examples
In order to see how this process might work, below is a short example from a typical class. Because the class often begins with students being asked to agree to some sort of confidentiality, I begin at that point. A typical conversation about confidentiality might begin as follows:
What people say
A: Ok. Let's get our confidentiality agreement (picks up a pad and a pen).
B: (Smiling) I know this is law school, but I don't think we actually need a written agreement.
C: How about we just say, whatever we say in here stays in here. That's simple.
D: OK, but I can tell you, if that's the agreement, I'm not gonna stick to it. I know my wife is going to ask about what happened, and I can't just say 'It's all confidential.' I mean, I know I'm going to talk to her about what happens.
What people think but don’t say
A: I want to be involved in this class, whatever we do, so I might as well start it off. Also, in case I get bored, at least now I'll be able to doodle.
B: A wants to write this all up. I thought for once this would be an interesting class, but he's already acting like a lawyer. I wish people at school would just lighten up. We can't agree on one simple thing without writing up a 'contract.'
A: I was not going to write up an 'agreement,' I was just going to take notes. Also, I like having a pen and paper, even if it's just to doodle. B is a jerk
C: We shouldn't take up any more time than necessary with this whole confidentiality thing. Who cares, anyway. It's not like we're really going to reveal any 'confidential' information.
D: I do not want to be put in the position of having to break rules. I want to act in good faith, so I'm making sure we don't get an agreement that won't work. Plus, I don't see what difference it should make to anyone else if I tell my wife. It's not like she knows anyone at school anyway. But I want to make sure that we don't end up with rule I'd have to break.
C: I can't believe D is saying he's just going to ignore an agreement we make. If he doesn't like it, why doesn't he just say so, instead of telling everybody that he's just going to ignore it. That's incredibly disrespectful
This is the kind of 'straightforward' conversation in which we often engage. We tend to believe that we understand the others with whom we are dealing, and we imagine that if there is something we do not understand correctly about someone's position, they will let us know. Often, as in this case, we are simply wrong.
From a functional workplace perspective, the above groups' productivity would be enhanced if its members could communicate just a bit more clearly with each other, and if each one was sufficiently aware and competent to take whatever action might be needed to help her perform effectively in the group. For example, A has a fairly strong reaction to B's comment about not needing a 'written agreement,' and it is likely that her reaction will keep her from participating at her most effective level. If A could find a way to feel better and continue to participate, rather than remain stuck with hostility and a need to remain silent, she could likely contribute more effectively. She might reply to B, 'I wasn't going to write down an actual agreement. I just like having a pen and pad in my hands to take notes or just to doodle. I feel a little awkward about taking time to even talk about it, but I was feeling embarrassed and a little irritated, and I needed to say something.' If A could do that, it is likely that A and B would soon have understood each other more clearly, and A would both feel better work better.
Of course, that kind of response would have required not only some skill, but also some self-awareness that A simply did not have. If A somehow could express whatever she is conscious of, in an environment where it did not lead inevitably and directly to an intense conflict with B, she could make significant progress toward the greater self-awareness, and skills, that could eventually enable her to communicate clearly and effectively. In Interpersonal Dynamics, the conversation might end up going something like this:
A: 'I was not about to write up an 'agreement,' I was just going to take notes. Also, I like having a pen and paper, even if it's just to doodle with. B, you are a jerk.'
Teacher: I get the part about why you picked up the pad and pen. Can you say something more about the 'B is a jerk' part. I'm guessing you have some feelings about that.
A: Obviously. It makes me angry.
Teacher: What exactly makes you angry?
A: He was trying to make me look like an idiot, making fun of me.
Teacher: Can you make that into a statement about yourself?
A: Sure. I think he was trying to make me look like an idiot and was making fun of me.
Teacher: Do you want to check that out with B?
A: Not really ... ok. B, is that what you were doing?
B: I thought you were going to write down an agreement and have us all sign it, like a contract. I was frustrated.
A: So why were you smiling?
B: Was I? I guess I was just trying to not seem frustrated. I didn't want to be rude.
Perhaps not apparent from a brief description of this scene is any learning about interpersonal dynamics in general and the way any learning from this scene might be usefully related to the practice of law. To quote a term often used in legal negotiation classes, effective negotiating often requires understanding one's own, as well as the other party's 'interests' rather than merely knowing 'positions.' What Professors Fischer, Ury, and Patton meant by this, and what every student who takes negotiation learns, is that in order to have any hope of reaching a 'win-win' resolution, it is essential to know what the parties really want, and what would make them satisfied with the negotiation. Unless the other party knows what I want, it will be very difficult for them to give it to me.
Although the above example does not display people with perfect self-awareness or giving perfect feedback, those are not levels we humans ever attain. Nonetheless, as the class goes on, self-awareness, listening skills, and clear, non-blaming self-expression and assertion grow geometrically. The class is not about each individual having an epiphany, but about everyone learning something continuously.
It is not psychotherapy
When I first began teaching the class, some faculty members, and some students, believed that the notion of teaching Interpersonal Dynamics, and the way that I proposed to teach it, were silly. I was allowed to teach it, at first, only as an overload, and only because I could point to the success of the same course at the Stanford Business School under David Bradford. Every semester, however, a majority of the students in the class explain, to other students and to whatever faculty will listen, that the course was the most useful and most rewarding class they have ever had. As time passes, more and more of the faculty have become supporters of the class simply because they have noticed, or heard about, the results.
Quick to follow the suggestions that the class was somehow less than it ought to be, though, were suggestions that, somehow, the class was something more than it ought to be. Both some faculty and some students who had heard bits and pieces about the class suggested that it was "psychotherapy," and was inappropriate to the law school setting. In fact, Interpersonal Dynamics is no more psychotherapy than the training that athletes get is "physical therapy." The course is not intended to, or able to, cure mental illness. It is intended to teach certain relational skills and self-awareness. It does a much better job at teaching these than does psychotherapy, but it does nothing to cure mental illness. Some of the tools that we use are similar to some of the tools that psychotherapists may use, but then, much exercise equipment used by world class athletes is also used by physical therapists, and much dietary advice developed for the sick has turned out to be incredibly valuable to enable the very healthy to stay healthy.
Some have suggested to me that it could be "dangerous to get people to explore their thoughts and feelings." The apparent dangers inherent in this exploration are similar to the dangers feared by those who oppose labeling food ingredients--we might not like what we see. Just as the danger with toxic foods is not knowledge of the toxicity, but consumption of the food, the danger with our thoughts and feelings is not awareness, but is in acting without awareness.