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Feedback is constructive information you can use to identify problems you need to correct and strengths you can build on. It can also give you new ideas that will revitalize your practice. But getting feedback, even when you asked for it, can still be fraught with anxiety. (“What if I hear something negative? What if I have to revamp everything I’m doing? Tell me again — why am I doing this at all?”)
If you’ve decided to seek out feedback, and have identified your goals, audience, timing, and methods for getting that feedback, you’re halfway to the finish line. (See “How to Ask for Feedback.”) To get the rest of the way there, you need to know how to receive the feedback you’ve asked for. Knowing what to do with the information you get will help relieve some of your lingering doubts about the wisdom of this whole endeavor.
Feedback won’t do your practice any good if you can’t (or won’t) hear it. The biggest obstacles to receiving and using feedback are ego and resistance to change, but those can be speed bumps instead of roadblocks if you approach them with the right attitude. So, before you even get the first responses to your requests for feedback, take some time to do an attitude check.
First, do you have a tendency to take people’s opinions personally — negative as attack, or positive as affirmation? If you do, refocus your attention on your goal instead of on your ego as you listen to what people are telling you. (Yes, it’s easier said than done, but it gets easier with practice.) You’re not getting feedback to punish yourself or to build yourself up — it’s about your practice, not your feelings. Resolve not to get defensive, even if you completely disagree with what you’re hearing or if it feels like a personal attack. You can sort out the noise later.
Second, is your knee-jerk reaction to change, “But I’ve always done it this way”? If it is, you’re not alone — it’s common for many lawyers, from solos to members of the largest firms — but it makes it hard to hear feedback that suggests you need to do something differently. Underlying “I’ve always done it this way” is the assumption that “this way” actually works. Assumptions, though, are useful only if they’re true, so try viewing feedback as a useful challenge. If you hear things are working, great — keep doing it “this way” and build on those strengths. If something is not working, though, why are you still doing it?
Once you’re more open to receiving feedback, the next question is how you actually take it in.
1. Approach it with an open mind. If you go into a new case believing you have all the answers, you’ll be blind to information that doesn’t fit your preconceptions, and that limits your effectiveness. The same thing happens with the feedback process. For example, if you’re a newish lawyer seeking feedback on your brief writing skills, the lawyer reviewing your work may recommend that you restructure your argument section in a way contrary to everything you’ve learned before. Instead of resisting this information because it doesn’t match your preconceptions, ask questions — you may learn that the judges in your jurisdiction respond much better to certain arguments, so you’ll want to highlight those arguments in your brief.
2. Listen more than you talk. You are gathering information, not conducting a cross-examination. Ask your question, really listen to the answer, and ask follow-up questions based on what you hear. With clients, you might ask, “When you first contacted our office, was there anything you liked or didn’t like about how that contact was handled?” Maybe the client was bounced from staff member to staff member, and that was frustrating. Ask more questions to find out why it happened and how it was resolved. Or, you might learn the receptionist was so friendly and helpful that the client was put at ease immediately — find out what the receptionist did or said, so others can use those skills as well. Regardless of who you’re talking to, leave room at the end of your interview or questionnaire for great ideas you wouldn’t come up with yourself: “Is there anything else you think would help me do a better job?”
3. Separate constructive information from noise. Unintended shrieks from a sound system are feedback, too, but they don’t add anything useful to the audio. Similarly, whenever you solicit information from people, you will get some information that isn’t constructive. It might be completely off-topic, or it might be flattery, an angry rant or some other information that can’t be used effectively. Use the definition of constructive feedback as your filter: It identifies a problem to correct, a strength to build on, or a new idea or perspective that hadn’t occurred to you before. If the information you get doesn’t do one of those three things, it’s probably noise.
4. Begin a new cycle. Implement the changes instead of relegating the information to a stack on your desk. Take all the feedback you’ve gotten, identify the common themes, and work out a plan to make changes in line with those themes. If you’re lucky, you’ll get more good ideas than you can implement at one time. Create a place to keep those ideas, and schedule a time to revisit them.
So far, we’ve assumed that you’re the one looking for and getting feedback from other people. But what if you’re asked to give feedback? In the next post in this series, you’ll see it’s not so intimidating.
Mary Taylor Lokensgard is a recovering attorney with over 15 years of experience in private practice, including plaintiff’s personal injury litigation, estate planning and administration, and elder law. She’s now working as an independent writer, and she tweets @marylokensgard.
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