J. Reuben Clark Law Society

A New Paradigm for Making Lawyer Negotiations Less Stressful and More Productive: Russell Wood Leadership Conference Plenary Session

Russell Wood, PhD enjoyed an extensive media career as an on-air talent, account executive, sales manager, station manager, and corporate vice president. He was employed by several of the country’s leading media films with the majority of his career at Bonneville International Corporation in Salt Lake City. He earned his Doctorate in Communications in 2008 at the University of Utah. This presentation was based on his dissertation study “Relational Communication in Negotiation Interaction,” which presented findings not previously available in the fields of negotiation or legal communication.

How do we make deals, decide legal issues, get married, raise kids, etc.? People are complex—and it turns out, it’s not so much what we say. Every interaction consists of content plus relational cues that we don’t talk about but that are passed back and forth. The exciting news: the field of relational communication teaches how to improve our interactions by quantifying these relational cues.

As we talk, we continually share what we think the status of the relationship is. How we respond nonverbally says “here’s how I think you should use what I’m saying” and is the basis of who will have control for the next “speech turn.” Wood taught that “the key issue is control in the relationship at every point in an interaction and cumulatively over time.” Each type of speech turn has a code, and allows a conversation to be mapped, which visually demonstrates the result of assertions, questions, talking over, incomplete thoughts, etc. Sometimes we take control (“one-upping” in relational communication coding), sometimes we give away control (“one down”), and the third option is to stay level (“one across”).

Wood collaborated with Jim Holbrook of the University of Utah to understand more about the law and how speech turn mapping is applicable to lawyers. He filmed attorneys who had prepared the American Bar Association’s jockey negotiation problem. Then he transcribed each negotiation and used the coding system to look at the process of how and when the attorneys responded. He showed clips of several negotiations and their corresponding relational clue maps (tables). He found that the volunteers naturally segmented into three groups, the most successful of which—based on the end result of the negotiation—demonstrated the most leveling skills and the least one-upping. Ultimately, Russ demonstrated through his dissertation that active opposition does not equal optimal result.

Wood concluded by summarizing ways that we can use our communications to do much more than fix problems: we can develop relationships. If we handle adversarial situations with levelling techniques, almost anyone will back off (although it may require the investment of multiple conversations).

  • Be aware of your personal style. Ask yourself “how do I talk about issues?” are you always one-upping?
  • Prepare for a negotiation or communication by considering both the content and the relationship.
  • You can change an interaction instantly by deciding to interact differently.
  • Reduce stressful one-up messages by not taking the bait. Instead, respond by allowing some air into the relationship: instead of always sharing what you know and one-upping, use more levelling techniques.
  • Listen, parrot back what you heard, ask refining questions, extend topics a little longer and don’t move on too fast.

And of course, Wood encouraged us to remember that relational communication principles not only help lawyers be more effective in professional dealings, but in every other relationship as well.

By Danielle Dallas, Media Committee member and Utah Central Chapter Chair

Posted: November 29, 2017