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November 20 2020

How to give and receive feedback in 4 easy steps

Legal Career Tips

James Bosson

James Bosson

Two female colleagues discussing important feedback matters

How to give and receive feedback in 4 easy steps

Only two things in life are certain; taxes and professional feedback.

Okay, maybe that isn’t quite how the famous saying goes – but it’s still a good point. Regardless of your job title or your position in a company – sooner or later you’re going to have to deal with feedback. Whether giving it or receiving it, there’s no denying the importance of this inevitable aspect of professional life.

Fortunately, earlier this often overlooked topic was the subject of this month’s Junior Lawyer Lunch, in collaboration with Crafty Counsel and LexisNexis. Sharing their insights on the art of giving and receiving feedback was Mel Nebhrajani – Legal Director at the Department of Health and Social Care and Rob Povinelli – Talent Development Manager at Dentons, as well as Flex Legal’s very own Sophie Gould.

We covered a lot of great stuff in the call, which we’ve summarised the art of giving and receiving feedback into 4 easy steps:

1) Understand the human psychology of feedback

It’s perfectly understandable to be fearful of giving or receiving feedback. Nobody likes to hear that they’ve done something wrong, just as nobody likes to tell a colleague that they’ve done something wrong. Understanding the background psychology of why feedback is such a hard topic is essential if you’re looking to master it. This was contextualised fantastically by Rob when he explained that the limbic system of the human brain (part of the “mammalian brain”) hasn’t evolved much and is still hard-wired to perceive danger in the same way it always has. Our hunter gatherer ancestors had the same reactions to mortal danger as we do to social danger. If you’ve ever felt complete dread about professional feedback before – your hunter-gatherer ancestors felt the same way when Saber Toothed Tigers were lurking about the underbrush!

2) Practice to minimise the fear of feedback

It’s all well and good to know that the same parts of the brain perceive mortal and social danger, but how can we use this to stop our Tiger-level sense of fear in its tracks? First of all, the right environment can help! You want your colleagues to feel accustomed to sharing feedback so it shouldn’t come as a total system shock. Nurture a work environment where mutually constructive feedback conversations are a routine practice. These conversations don’t have to take long, but the more you have them the more habitual and easy they become. Secondly, recognise that feedback needs to be mutual. Everyone should have a chance to share their view uninterrupted and collaboratively identify how things can improve. Remember – you’re trying to solve problems as a team, not drill into the mistakes of a single person.

3) Find the right phrasing for the conversation

When grappling with feedback, it’s important to remember that the way you frame the conversation goes a long way. Subtle tweaks in the phrasing and terminology you use can have a surprisingly large impact! As touched upon above, think of the conversation as an opportunity to solve working problems together. One of Mel’s suggestions to do this to try and deliver of ‘feed-forwards’ instead of ‘feed-back’. This really resonated, as it shifts the balance of the conversation away from dwelling on mistakes that have already been made, and instead draws more focus on a collaborative conversation about what can improve in the future next time. It might sound small, but focusing on what’s ahead not only reduces the difficulty of having these conversations, but hugely benefits the long-term effectiveness of a team over time.

4) Ask lots of questions

Having a conversation where feedback is discussed is one thing, but how do you make sure everyone involved can take something away? Easy - ask lots of questions, wherever possible. If you’re on the receiving end of some feedback, and you don’t understand what’s being communicated to you, then make sure you do! Ask questions, figure it out, and come away with clear, actionable points. Conversely, if you’re on the giving end of feedback, make sure what you’re trying to communicate has come across. Ask the other person if they can repeat it back to you, or make sure you ask for their thoughts. Everyone should know exactly what has been discussed, and exactly what should be done differently next time? If you’re struggling to have a feedback conversation in a general way, try being more specific. Think of it like this: instead of “Can I give you some feedback?” try something more along the lines of “Can we put our heads together and discuss how we can do this specific task more effectively?

So there we have it: 4 steps for mastering the art of giving and receiving feedback. It’s a daunting task that often goes overlooked as an area for improvement and mastery, so hopefully this post has provoked some thought for you about how to navigate this tricky topic. You can also sign up to December’s Junior Lawyer Lunch by clicking here.

Additional resources:

Ted talk by Joe Hirsch ‘The Joy of Getting Feedback’. This 8 minute talk delves more deeply into the idea of ‘feed-forward’, and covers the speaker’s personal journey from being terrified of receiving feedback, to loving it as a tool for personal development.

‘5 top tips for coping with professional mistakes’. Making mistakes is inevitable, but what should you do once you’ve made them? This blog post from last month’s Junior Lawyer Lunch shines a light on how to better cope when this unavoidable part of any professional journey.