Thoughts on ways to improve the management of professional services firms

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Communications Skills and the Professional

This morning I was doing my normal review of blogs relevant to professional services management and in so doing spent some time reading and thinking about a post by Christopher Marston on his Inside the Firm of the Future blog on communications skills and the relationship between those and firm values, policy and procedures.

Chris is CEO of Exemplar Law Partners, a US law firm trying to develop new approaches to the practice and management of law including complete adoption of fixed pricing in place of the hourly billing model. Chris uses the blog to promote Exemplar, while also encouraging discussion on professional and management issues relevant to law.

Chris wanted to encourage discussion and I have posted a comment. This has to go through moderation before it appears, so I won't comment on my comment until it appears. In the meantime, it got me musing on two linked questions:
  • Are professionals bad communicators?
  • If so, why?

Several years ago when I was CEO of a specialist medical college part of my role was to take complaint calls from the public about our Fellows. I had to be very careful in doing this. I could not say anything that might be construed as interference, I did not wish to worsen situations, I had to be very careful in case my words came back to haunt me later in any inquiry or court case. So my standard approach involved:

  • listening very carefully
  • encouraging the person to talk for as long as they wanted while not taking sides
  • use of gentle and cautious questions to draw out the facts at the person saw them, to find out if they had raised their concerns with the Fellow in question
  • regular summarising to ensure that I had properly captured the position as seen by the complainant
  • then if necessary at the end giving factual advice on the options open to the person.

In a quite remarkable number of cases I found that the core problem had nothing to do with medical treatment but was simply a communications problem between a busy doctor on one side and a concerned, sometimes frightened, patient on the other, a problem that had festered into a major issue in the patient's mind. In nearly all such cases, talking to me actually defused the problem.

Based on this as well as my experiences as a professional adviser, I would conclude that professionals are in fact bad communicators. Whether they are worse than other groups is a more open question, although I suspect that they are.

If professionals are bad communicators, why so and what can be done about it?

We all think that just because we can talk or write that we can communicate. In fact, I think that personal communications is a skill and, like any skill, must be learned and practiced. Such training may not make the person a good communicator, all sorts of things come into the picture here, but will certainly make them a better communicator than would otherwise have been the case.

I also think that communications skills should be built into vocational education programs for at least all professions requiring individual interaction between the professional and the client or patient.

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