At the heart of all legal business development is the barrister-client relationship. COVID-19 restrictions forced our interactions – the lifeblood of relationships – into the virtual space. The focus on grappling with the technology meant that we tended to overlook the differences in how we forge and manage virtual relationships.

Before COVID, though, we managed to develop rapport in digital environments (eg over the phone) with vulnerable and physically distant clients. Even online, relationships will go through the same stages: acknowledgement; understanding; acceptance; respect; trust; and bond.

Although barristers’ clients are often referred, and so elements of respect and trust may already be there, this doesn’t mean that these earlier stages can be ignored. It is also useful to remember that our beliefs can change the way we interact and alter the outcome; if you believe something will be more difficult, you will make it so.

Engage in small talk

Relationships are about emotions. So how do we achieve emotional connection in the digital space? We often get straight down to the law – omitting the settling small talk when we used to meet clients in reception, walking them to the meeting room and pouring them a cup of tea. Ask social questions and re-introduce the humanising element, showing an interest in your clients beyond their legal situation, eg you might remark on what you see on the screen behind them, such as their art or books.

Be more human

Shaking hands is an important social ritual and touch is incredibly powerful at creating a bond. What is a digital alternative? Remember that you are more than a barrister. You build rapport by sharing information and finding similarities. Be authentic. Show some vulnerability, perhaps by indicating that you would prefer meeting in person or that you struggle with the technology. Build a bridge with your humanity. Early psychologist William James said: ‘The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.’ Use empathy and emotional intelligence to connect.

Maintain visual contact

Norm Friesen, an educational technology researcher, observed ‘Four weird things that happen when you videoconference’:

  • Eye contact is lacking – camera and display are never in the same spot.
  • Looking awry – You are on screen all the time so doing anything other than looking at the camera may create a poor impression.
  • Feeling watched – You can feel like you are under surveillance or scrutinised.
  • Squelching voices – You may have to check whether others can hear you and the sounds you make are undirected.

If you are too close or too far from the camera, expressions can’t be seen. The advice is to be at eye-level about three feet from the camera. Don’t look down on your camera – people may perceive this as being aloof or arrogant. If your own image distracts you, turn off your self-cam. You might try physically anchoring before a meeting starts; exercises to stretch, breath and use space to help you to be more present. And as we typically use eye contact to signal that it is someone else’s turn to speak, you may have to ask people for their comments.

Observe non-verbal communication (NVC)

The camera focuses on our faces – so people’s hands, arm movements and posture cannot be easily observed. The vast majority of meaning in interactions is conveyed by NVC and screens mean we are cut off from this vital information.

You can make an effort to convey interest, warmth, energy, enthusiasm and other positive emotions through facial expressions, posture and gestures. Speed, pitch and tone of voice will also have an impact. When we have rapport, we match people’s behaviour unconsciously and this mirroring also occurs in our brains. We need to be alert to what the other person is communicating with their NVC and also what we are unconsciously conveying.

Advice from body language and presence experts is to avoid being ‘stoic, non-moving robots’ (see Harvard Business Review, ‘Does Virtual Presence Still Matter at Work?’ 6 April 2021, Christine Liu). People are often too focused on what they are seeing – and forget about what others see.

Modern manners in the age of Zoom

Much has been written on Zoom etiquette and a great example is an article by Pilita Clark (Financial Times, 26 April 2020, ‘A guide to modern manners in the age of Zoom’). Key points included:

  • Don’t be a Zoom bore – keep contributions brief.
  • Learn how to use the mute button – to avoid feedback and background noise.
  • Don’t interrupt – prepare an agenda and keep track of who has spoken.
  • Don’t be a broadband snob – be patient when others experience connection glitches.
  • Upper wear does not equal any-wear.
  • Keep the camera on – use grid view so you can see everyone.
  • Ignore the occasional child or cat.
  • Invite carefully – avoid pointless participants and be aware of time zones and international differences.
  • Ignore the ring light – this may make participants look different to their in-person selves.

Build trust in virtual meetings

Trust is distinct from distrust, which takes place in the older part of the brain and has a stronger effect on decision-making. When the older part of the brain is activated it shuts down the collaborative part of the brain by evoking the emotional ‘fight or flight’ response. Distrust may occur in virtual meetings due to the following reasons:

  • misunderstanding – it is harder to interpret social cues online.
  • distance – the virtual space emphasises the distance between you and makes it harder to find similarities.
  • dishonesty/deception – a research study found that slow signals cause the speaker to appear to hesitate which is considered a sign of dishonesty.
  • safety – some feel apprehensive about legitimacy or security online.
  • lack or loss of information.

You can improve the success of virtual meetings with preparation:

  • Pre-meeting: send an agenda and advance information; be consistent – ensure your digital presence matches your brand and the real you; create familiarity by finding similarity – research people’s interests beforehand.
  • During the meeting: accentuate social cues – ensure gestures can be seen; slow your speech – enunciate clearly; maintain eye contact – look at the camera (not the screen); engage in cooperative conversations – understand rational and emotional needs; show curiosity – ask questions rather than make assumptions; confirm you are listening – repeat back their words.
  • Post-meeting: show commitment – spread your time across multiple meetings; keep clients committed – get them to agree, write down details or accept actions; reciprocate – find something to send to them.

Being on Teams or Zoom is draining. So take regular breaks. And remember that you can always pick up the telephone instead.

Fixing broken relationships

Nearly all relationships experience some form of difference, disinterest, disagreement, divergence, difficulty or disruption; this is a normal part of the human condition. The many reasons why relationships break down include misunderstandings, disappointment, loss of trust, being let down, arrogance, loss of respect, being judgemental, one-way traffic, personality clashes, jealousy and rivalry. Perception is key. In the virtual space there’s also distance bias – the tendency to favour people who are closer to us in time and space.

Often, we are aware of a relationship issue but avoid a confrontation. So, it gets worse. If we act on early signals, we can prevent a full-blown relationship breakdown.

Where a relationship is going wrong, consider the causes of the problem. Do this from the perspective of the other person. Use empathy, although there is no substitute for asking: ‘What went wrong and how can we fix it?’

There are particular types of problematic relationships, for example in the drama triangle where people get stuck in roles such as persecutor, victim or rescuer; in triangulation – where two people are set against a third person; or where, as transactional analysis suggests, someone behaves in a way that moves a person out of their adult, rational state into a more emotional one associated with their parent or child state.

Remember there are many strategies to deal with conflict including capitulation, humour, mediation, collaboration and negotiation. Barristers will often focus on rational negotiation methods and miss or avoid the emotional elements. Be aware of how you feel and behave when others express anger. And be alert to whether the anger you witness is masking another emotion – such as fear.

Where there has been a problem, there needs to be positive action to repair the ruptured relationship:

  1. Listen actively – don’t interrupt or get defensive, repeat back what is said and summarise perceived issues. Only 40% of what people hear is retained so pay attention.
  2. Use empathy to see things from their perspective – and validate their emotions.
  3. Ask questions in a caring manner – get to the source of the issue and check you have all the information.
  4. Apologise without blaming – often this triggers an immediate instinct to forgive.
  5. Ask: ‘What would be an acceptable solution?’ – work with them to find a solution.
  6. Solve the problem.
  7. Check back that they are happy.

If you need to make an apology, there are five parts:

  1. A specific definition of the offending behaviour – show that you truly understand what you are apologising for.
  2. Acknowledge the behaviour caused harm – perhaps by repeating back your understanding of the emotion you have caused.
  3. Statement of responsibility for the behaviour and harm.
  4. Statement of regret.
  5. Commitment to avoid repeating the behaviour.