Since even before Dale Carnegie’s day, it has been common knowledge among climbers in the business world that aptitude will only get you so far — the key to success is in managing relationships. For a long time, the self-help industry appeared to have the market cornered on offering tools for cultivating better interpersonal relations. But modern neuroscience indicates that mastery of interpersonal dynamics (sometimes called ‘emotional’ or ‘social’ intelligence’) is actually a teachable skill set. “Skills of Exceptional Lawyers–Social Intelligence and the Human Dimension” a relatively new addition to Berkeley Law’s course catalog, seeks to help law students harness these powerful skills.
The course, now in its third year at Boalt, covers a wide range of interpersonal skills including body language and facial expression recognition, the art of “difficult conversations,” rapport-building, conflict resolution, decision-making, and cultivating meaningful self-awareness.
“I want more students to understand that the human side of being a lawyer is where the challenge — and the fun — really is.” Jeffrey Newman, Boalt lecturer and senior partner with Farella Braun & Martel in San Francisco, says his own life experiences and his interest in neuroscience motivated his desire to launch a course at Boalt designed to equip new lawyers with a toolkit for managing relationships and cultivating greater self-awareness. “The difference between a good lawyer and a great one is all in how you read people, communicate, and how you build trusting relationships. These skills will produce lawyers who are better at what they do, and happier to be doing it,” he said.
Newman’s course is co-taught by Leslie Chin, a lecturer and expert in interpersonal dynamics who facilitates related courses at Stanford Graduate Business School and at USF School of Law. Chin says her sessions are organized as hands-on “workshops” and that her goal is to create “a safe and comfortable environment in which students can practice social interactions that can be…a little awkward.” Chin says she believes these skills could have a major impact across the professions. “It’s counterintuitive that the more you attend to relationship needs, the more efficient you become. But the more options you have for resolving conflict and engaging others, the more time and energy you have to leverage your professional talents productively.”
While Chin and Newman both urge that the learning and adapting of more effective interpersonal skills is a lifetime process, they say that many students have noticed significant improvement in many areas just in the course of the semester. “Students say that of all the courses they’ve taken, this is one they use after graduation and recommend to others,” said Chin.
Sasha Shaikh, a 3L at Berkeley Law, took the course in Spring 2012 and says the course had a major impact on her professional outlook as well as her personal life. “At first, I was skeptical — I did not expect to actually improve my human dimension skills over the course of one semester; however, I found that my skills improved dramatically. I also learned a great deal about myself in the process, such as recognizing the aspects of myself that I am capable of changing.”
Asked to offer a preview of the skills covered in the course, Newman said, “It’s a class about learning to be self-revealing, learning to read other people better, and adjusting social distance by paying attention and being vulnerable. We focus on learning better ways to give and receive feedback and how to have an honest two-way conversation with someone about an awkward or difficult topic. And the goal is to use all of this stuff to grow in a career and be happier.”
Students interested in taking the course should mentally prepare for a classroom environment that is unique from traditional courses in many respects. “Students should be willing to take risks, to share scary or uncomfortable things, to try out new behaviors, and of course to strictly respect the confidentiality of others in the class,” says Chin. “Most of all, they should care enough about their classmates and themselves to be honest.”
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