Pulling for Feedback the Right Way

pulling for feedbackAs I was pushing my suitcase out of the hotel elevator this morning, the wheels caught in the gap between the lift and the floor. The handle held its ground as I attempted to lurch forward with my body weight, only to emphasize my failure to exit as it jabbed me in the stomach.  

I paused. Spun the suitcase around. And with the utmost ease, I pulled my luggage out of the lift and was on my way. I chuckled to myself. Not just at the folly of maneuvering my gear across a seemingly simple terrain, but at the reminder it gave me of a lesson on learning, demonstrated by my own simple skit – pushing harder rarely opens the door to genuine learning, as the real leverage to learning comes from creating pull. 

You Are the Constant Variable to Feedback 

This “pull beats push” concept sets the framework for the book on the topic of feedback by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone entitled Thanks for the Feedback – The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (2014). Both lecture at Harvard Law School and founded Triad Consulting. Doug and Sheila point out that however skilled the feedback giver is at giving feedback, it is still a “push model” of learning. In other words, as a giver, I decide what it is you need to learn, and then I push you to learn it. And if the receiver resists or the feedback fails, the giver just pushes more or in other directions. Little attention is paid to the feedback receiver.

Thus, it started to occur to the co-authors that the constant variable in the feedback equation is the receiver – you! The receiver is in charge of what they let in, what sense they make of it, and whether and how they are going to respond to the feedback. 

And that’s where you find the intersection to two human traits: the need to learn and grow throughout one’s life contrasted with finding acceptance and confidence with who we already are. This tension exists as the precursor to feedback, but we may not always see it or like it. So, whether it is in your job or in your personal life, being able to receive feedback is a skill. A skill that needs to be understood, and even practiced.  

Becoming a Puller 

Feedback from clients cannot be used as a productive tool unless you are open to receive it. In other words, be a puller. Seek out feedback.  

Our clients and former clients may not even know to engage in providing feedback unless you expressly open the channel of communication for them. Some may offer advice from time-to-time, but in most instances, you need to offer the opportunity to them. This allows you to show your willingness to listen by respecting their input as well as being amenable to change.  

Make this a time for client development. As you solicit their feedback on the performance of yourself and your organization, you are diving into a review of past work completed, current projects on the table, and methods of improvement for yourself, as well as proactive solutions for that client and even their industry. 

1. React with Questions, Not Statements. – You’ve got them talking, now keep them talking. This is not the time to defend your work, organization, or staff. Because most early feedback responses come in the form of generalities, e.g. “I’d like more communication”, this is the time for you to peel back that onion into a richer conversation about the relationship to explore its sources and opinions.  

2. Listening. Then, More Listening. – You listen on the front-end of client engagement (read: intake), but how much do you dedicate to listening after the fact? You first determine their needs and how to address them, in hopes of solving their (legal) problems, by listening. Do the same with feedback.  

Ask open-ended questions to expand the platform for them to give you input. If your requests for feedback are too narrow or direct, you’ll likely miss an opportunity for frank discussion. You’ll even risk a mere rubber-stamping of your services with generalities of satisfaction.

Even when you think you’ve exhausted the follow-up questions, punt to that last question of, “What have we not covered today that might help us bring better legal services to you or other clients?” or “What’s the one thing you see us doing that holds us back from providing you with the best services we can?”  

3. Filter, Debrief, Upload. – You will receive filler input that can be set aside, be it flattery or an off-topic rant. With the remaining constructive feedback, you can now figuratively put it all out on the table and sort through it. What issues were identified? What methods for improvement exist? Is change needed and possible?

Whether large or small, if you have a new process to implement, make a plan to put it into action. Then, don’t just assume the change occurred and for the better. Follow-up on the implementation internally to test its success, and engage with the client to confirm its result.  

Your personal and organizational success can depend on your ability to pull value from criticism in spite of your natural resistance to change. If you’re determined to make yourself a skilled recipient of feedback, you will have created a whole new resource for your own development, not to mention the development of your organization and our profession. Start pulling! 

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Mark C. Palmer

Mark C. Palmer

As Professionalism Counsel, Mark leads professionalism programming through the statewide mentoring program, collaborating with stakeholders from Galena to Cairo. Mark also supports the development and delivery of educational programming to lawyers and in law schools. When not in the office, you will likely find Mark and his wife busy raising their twin daughters, enjoying his passion of traveling and eating around the world, and training for his next half marathon.
Mark C. Palmer

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