It’s okay to be human – the power of tone

A few years ago my son, Owen, failed a hearing test. He was 3 years old at the time, and when I picked him up from daycare, his teacher handed me a sheet of paper with two line graphs showing that he had passed in his right ear but borderline failed in his left ear.

Borderline failed?

I was surprised. This was a kid as healthy as a horse with no signs of a speech impediment or hearing loss except when I was telling him it was time to turn off Thomas and Friends and take a bath. The teacher assured me that it could just be ear wax or congestion from a cold. It was nothing to worry about, right?

That line graph led to a round of visits to the pediatrician, who prescribed ear drops to dissolve ear wax build up. After bath time, I would hold Owen down on our bed while my husband put drops in his ear and Owen squirmed and tried to push his hand away. He had to lie on his side for 10 minutes while the drops dissolved, not an easy task for an active toddler.

Six months later Owen failed the hearing test again. Borderline failed. In his left ear. We took him to a specialist – a pediatric otolaryngologist (try saying that three times fast).

Using an otoscope longer than I had ever seen, the ear specialist found the culprit: fluid in Owen’s left ear. He grilled me on Owen’s health. Did he have allergies? Earaches? Did he get a lot of colds? Had I noticed any issues with his speech? Did he sometimes seem not to hear me?

“Only when I tell him it’s time for bed,” I said. “When I say the words ‘ice cream,’ he comes running right away.”

The ear specialist prescribed a steroid, one that I’d have to spray in front of Owen’s nose and have him sniff into his nasal passage. Yeah, right. Have you ever tried to teach a 3-year-old how to inhale through his nose?  It’s a messy, confusing proposition. (“Breathe in, not out!”)

Back at the doctor’s office a few weeks later, the ear specialist looked in Owen’s ear again. The fluid was still there. He sat back in his chair and listed our options:

  1. leave it and the fluid could drain on its own
  2. implant ear tubes

I knew about ear tube surgery from friends whose kids had had chronic colds and earaches. It was a minor surgery, one of the quickest you could have, but it did require putting the child under anesthesia and signing all of those papers saying you understood the risk of death.

This was an unusual case, the ear specialist said. Usually kids with fluid in their ears display symptoms. Owen didn’t have any besides barely failing a hearing test in one ear. Twice.

“It could go either way,” the doctor said. “You could leave it and see what happens or go ahead and get the surgery. It’s entirely up to you.”

He paused.

“If it were my kid, I’d probably do the ear tubes.”

Those were the magic words.

I looked at the doctor, sizing him up. He was 40ish with an earnest, clean-shaven face. He had two children a few years older than Owen. He wasn’t just a doctor, he was a dad. He talked to me parent-to-parent and gave me actual advice rather than throwing a lot of technical ear terms at me and listing the pros and cons.

If it were my kid…

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about writing client alerts and how important it is for lawyers to not only analyze a legal development, but also tell clients what they should do about it. In that post I gave this advice: Get to the point, use plain language, and provide useful action steps.

After reflecting on my experience with Owen’s ear specialist, I have some additional advice: Just be a person. Write your client alert, memo or any communication from the place of, This is what I know about this legal or business issue, and if I were you, here’s what I’d do.

Answering the question, What would I do if I were in this situation? will enable you to give better advice. You’ll no longer stand high above the issue stroking your chin and trying to sound smart. You will be standing in the shoes of a general counsel, employment lawyer or tax director at a multinational company facing the same time and budget constraints as they do. You will start to understand what clients mean when they say things like this in our post-matter reviews:

I sometimes felt I was being given too much detail that I was not able to understand. All I really needed to know was if there was going to be a cash flow impact or whether there were major risks to the project.

You will stop yourself from writing long reports that say, “On the one hand this, but on the other hand that.” Instead, you might say something like, “In an ideal world you would do X, but I think if you do Y, you’ll be okay.” You will start giving clients what they want: commercial advice.

Being human also means being conversational. In the writing world, we call this “tone.” This does not mean casual. It does not mean starting emails to clients with “Hey guys!” and ending with “C U later.” It means you sound like a human being, not a robot, when you write. You use common language and choose shorter, simpler words like “get” instead of “obtain” and “use” instead of “utilize.”

One of our banking and financing partners explained his approach to writing for clients like this:

I try to picture the general counsel on a four-hour flight. What they really want to do is watch the in-flight movie, but they know they’ve got my memo in their bag. When they take it out and start to review it, do I want them to get engaged in the material or give up and watch the movie? That’s why I write memos like I’m talking to them on the page.

It’s a scary proposition to use plain language and offer a clear opinion about what a client should do. What if you sound like a simpleton? What if you turn out to be wrong?

That’s a tough one.  As experts, no matter our specialty, we do the best we can given the information and knowledge we have at the time. If we’re wrong we can admit it, learn from it and move on. In my experience, those who are willing to make mistakes and learn from them often provide the most valuable advice. And clients tend to appreciate those willing to put their necks out and take a firm stance. I mean really. How refreshing to hear a clear “yes” or “no.”

Providing clear advice and standing behind that advice has become so important to clients that they are increasingly requesting risk-sharing pricing models with outside counsel. These models provide fee reductions if a transaction falls through and incentives like success fees if we achieve the desired outcome.

If it were my kid…

At a recent practice group retreat, I was listening to partners Ben Allgrove and Theo Ling talk about our new global innovation program. As they described how our lawyers would work with clients, IT specialists and other business, government and academic experts to find solutions for clients that go beyond providing legal advice, a message emerged: If our firm is going to pursue innovation, we also have to embrace failure.

That’s not an easy proposition for a risk-averse bunch.

But in my experience, the fear of failure, like most fears, is often unfounded. It is simply head chatter that tries to protect us from taking risks but has no real bearing on the actual outcome. Think about some of the things you’ve worried about recently. How many of those worries came true?

When we do fail, I find it helpful to take an objective view of the situation and evaluate what worked and what didn’t and adjust accordingly. You win some, you lose some. No big deal. Because guess what? You’re a human being. So you might as well let yourself sound like one.

Besides that, it fosters connection. We simply don’t feel connected to those who write paragraphs we have to read five times before understanding what they’re trying to say. We don’t feel connected to experts who give us an opinion that lacks the sense they know what it’s like to be in the situation we’re in.

So try it. Try writing a client alert or memo like you were talking to your mom. Try drafting an email to partners that simply says what you want to say. Try having a clear point of view on a client issue that shows you’re not simply restating what the law says, but also have their best interests in mind.

If it were my kid…

As for Owen, the surgery was a success. A few months after they implanted ear tubes the size of the smallest macaroni noodles you could imagine, the fluid drained and he passed his hearing test. In both ears. He’s healthy and happy and asking me questions like, “Mommy, do monsters go potty?”

Somehow, however, he still doesn’t hear me when I tell him it’s time for bed.

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