Communicating from the Outside In

Every leadership model and assessment includes the skill of communication. Korn-Ferry calls it Communicates Effectively. Zenger and Folkman named it Communicates Powerfully and Prolifically. Each definition includes the idea that when leaders are effective communicators, they inform, persuade, coach, energize, and inspire others because they are attuned to their audience and adjust their wording, tone of voice, pace of speech, and body language accordingly. They are attentive listeners and open to hearing others’ wants, needs, expectations, preferences, interests, concerns, and ideas. It doesn’t matter whether a leader is communicating with co-workers or clients. A leader who is also an effective communicator is versatile enough to adjust to anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Lawyers are in the business of selling their ideas. Effective business developers retain clients and develop new ones. They cultivate a steady stream of work because they are naturally curious, expressive, and amiable at the right times. They sell prospective clients on the idea to hire them and clients on the idea to heed their advice. They sell colleagues on ideas for running the business and working together. Selling tends to be easier and more successful when we sell to people who like and trust us. If you want to be liked and trusted, you may need to adjust your communication style and what you say.

What is Your Communication Style?

The Social Style Model sorts different communication styles into four types: analytical, driving, amiable, and expressive.

  • A person with an analytical style mostly speaks at a slower pace, asking questions, and is detailed, serious, and formal. The style is oriented toward thinking, avoiding emotions and conflict, and being right.
  • A person with a driving style mostly speaks at a faster pace, making statements, and is outcome-focused, serious, and formal. The style is oriented toward goals and actions, avoiding emotions, and controlling.
  • A person with an amiable style mostly speaks at a slower pace, asking questions, and is relationship-focused, casual, and informal. The style is oriented toward maintaining personal security, displaying emotions, and accommodating others.
  • A person with an expressive style mostly speaks at a faster pace, making statements, and is big-picture-focused, casual, and informal. The style is oriented toward seeking personal approval, displaying emotions, and being confrontational.

Take a moment and think about the people you work with, your friends, and your family. Can you think of different people who fit in each of the different categories? What makes each fit? Where do you think you fit?

Equally interesting about this model is that it can help you understand how people respond to resolve the stress or conflict from an interpersonal interaction. Analytics tend to withdraw. Drivers tend to take charge. Expressives tend to attack. Amiables tend to accommodate the other person. Take a moment and think about a time where you were involved in an interpersonal conflict. It could be with a help desk person about an online order, a co-worker, or even a client. How did you react?

Marketing and business development is rife with stress and conflict. You’re asking someone to spend money that they may not want to spend. An analytical person with a legal problem is already under stress. If you are an expressive person and under stress when you are selling (as many lawyers are), you may be talking quickly and a lot, pressing your ideas in a confrontational manner, which may cause an analytic person to withdraw instead of engaging with you in a collaborative, problem-solving discussion.

The value of this model is in helping you understand different communication behaviors that you may rely on a little too much, and that some people may respond to a little too unfavorably. Knowing your tendencies gives you an idea of the behaviors you may need to adjust to flex toward others and transform a contact into a loyal client and a colleague into a collaboration partner.

Acting like a third-party objective observer of your own behaviors and paying attention to how others respond gives you clues of how to adjust your communication style. For example, you should know if you are a faster or slower-paced communicator, and what the person you are speaking with prefers to hear. Take a minute and consider the following:

  • Are you more formal or casual in your appearance and communication style?
  • Do you talk a lot or a little?
  • Do you more often ask questions or make statements?
  • How much emotion do you display?
  • Do you tend to focus on the task or the relationship first?
  • Do you talk more about the outcomes, details, big picture, or relationship?

Your default communication style will show itself when you are feeling rushed, tired, or under stress and not thinking about how others are perceiving and responding to you. Discover your default style through self-assessment and feedback from others and by paying attention to how you communicate—your appearance, language used, tone of voice, and body language—and how others respond—their appearance, language used, tone of voice, and body language.

Your communication style is a default way of behaving. It’s different from intentionally adopting behaviors that are useful in a particular situation. If you pay attention to the observable behaviors of others and then adapt your style to fit with your goals and their style, you will be more successful in your business development efforts, especially if you also pay attention to the fit between what your prospective clients need to hear and what you are saying.

What Should You Say When?

Convincing people to spend their money on legal services requires more than a good idea delivered by a likable and trustworthy lawyer. Prospective clients often require more than a first impression before they decide to hire a lawyer. They must feel the consequences of a specific problem strongly and believe that they will be in a markedly different and better situation when they become your client. The SPIN Selling Model guides sales-related conversations. The model outlines a list of question types to move a conversation from an initial introduction to getting the prospect to tell you what they need and believe that you can help: situation, problem, implication, and need-payoff.

The model begins with situation questions to establish a context leading to problem questions so that the prospective client reveals implied needs. When you have a sense of a prospect’s implied needs, you can deepen the client’s feeling of an acute and urgent need with implication questions. When the prospect is acutely and clearly aware of an urgent problem and the implications of not addressing it, need-payoff questions nudge the prospect to state an explicit need—what will be different and better if the problem is addressed. Once the prospect has done this, you can explain the benefits of what you are selling and how it will lead to a situation that is different and better for the prospect.

Superimpose communication styles on the SPIN model. If you are speaking with an impatient driver or expressive person, don’t spend a lot of time on situation questions. In contrast, if you are speaking with an amiable person, be certain that you have spent enough time on relationship-development before moving to problem questions. Ask sufficient situation and problem questions to enable the detail-driven, emotion- and conflict-avoidant analytical person to logically analyze their problem and tell you how you can help them.


Adapting your communication style to the person you are speaking with should take into account different styles and preferences and involve noticing and listening as much, if not more, than talking. Selling a colleague on your great idea or transitioning a prospect into a client, a client into a loyal client, and a loyal client into a referral source is easier with an awareness of your style and flexing it to fit with theirs.

About the Author

Susan Letterman White is an attorney and an organization development/change management consultant. She is managing partner of Letterman White Consulting and a practice advisor with Mass LOMAP. Follow her on Twitter @susanletterman.

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