Handling Constructive Feedback Like a Professional

Handling Constructive Feedback Like a Professional


One of the more difficult things to get used to when you are working in a law firm (or other corporate) environment is the idea of constructive feedback.  No matter how constructive the feedback, it can feel offensive, or off-putting.  Instead of energizing or motivating us, we spend a few moments crafting reasons we never really liked the messenger of the feedback in the first place, and then we get on with our lives without thinking much about how the feedback, if taken in, may actually have made a difference in our careers.  In short, (forgive me for generalizing) our Type A/perfectionist personalities can't handle it.

If this sounds even remotely familiar, here are five easy ways to deal with feedback so that you are not only reacting in a professional, appropriate manner, but you are taking in the feedback and maximizing the benefits:

1. Take A Moment

When someone approaches you with constructive feedback or criticism, take a moment, even if only in your mind, to prepare yourself for the interaction.  Take a breath.  Keep calm.  Maintain a pleasant disposition.  The way you handle the feedback will say a lot about the type of practitioner you are, even if the work you did was sub-par.    

2. Imagine The Feedback Is Being Delivered to Someone Else 

Easier said than done.  But here is the idea.  When we are not so intimately involved in a situation, we tend to see it for what it is.  Often, constructive feedback is delivered in a fairly reasonable manner, sometimes even in a sensitive manner (not many people enjoy criticizing others).  But, when the feedback is delivered to us, we can't help but feel that it is personal, and thus we get defensive, construe the interaction as negative, and analyze it from this now-colored point of view.  If your colleague in the next door office reports to you that a partner told him his written work product needs a bit of work, you might just think that his written work product needs a bit of work (and not that the partner is malicious, hateful, or out to get him).  Try to apply the same perspective when the feedback is directed to you.  (As a note, I am fully aware that there are people out there who do enjoy barking at others and making them feel small - luckily, these people are in the minority and we generally know to take their feedback with a grain of salt.)       

3. View Feedback As An Opportunity

We may not be comfortable with people telling us when we have done something incorrectly, but we should all be comfortable with taking advantage of career opportunities as they are presented to us.  Anytime you receive constructive feedback or criticism, you should be thankful.  Welcome this feedback as an opportunity to further your professional and personal goals.    

4. Take Notes

I have said this before: the best attorneys I know take copious notes, whether in meetings, educational programs, client pitches, or otherwise.  I see no reason to argue.  And, in the context of getting feedback, taking detailed notes serves two purposes.  First, it allows you some distance from the situation.  For a time, you are simply collecting information. In the aftermath, you will go back and review your notes (see #5), but, as the feedback is coming in, your role as notetaker is to gather the information as completely as possible, so it can be used later.  Second, it ensures that you are in fact taking in all of the information so you can properly assess it later.  Conversations that center on constructive feedback, absent note-taking, can often become bigger, more terse, and less constructive if we are going off of memory alone.  The feedback is lost and all we hear is criticism.     

5. Reflect Back

In the aftermath, make a genuine, honest effort to reflect back on the feedback.  What can you learn from it?  What points do you agree with?  What points do you disagree with (And, more importantly, does the disagreement matter?  Is the feedback valid anyway, even if you believe there was some misunderstanding or some element that was overlooked?  I find that we spend a lot of time defending ourselves in these situations, often in ways that don't actually change the essence of the feedback.)?  Above all, how will this feedback make you a better practitioner, employee, and colleague?  Identify (i.e., write down!) five ways that the feedback has helped you grow.  It's hard to stay hostile for long when you can visibly see how this one small experience has moved the needle for you and your practice

Desiree Moore is the President and founder of Greenhorn Legal, LLC. Greenhorn Legal offers intensive practical skills training programs for law students and new lawyers as they transition from law school into their legal practices.  Ms. Moore is also an adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and was an associate at the law firm of K&L Gates. She can be found on Twitter at @greenhornlegal.