How to handle difficult feedback

Shawn Healy, BridgeTower Media Newswires

Receiving negative feedback from a supervisor, judge, colleague or client is one of the more challenging aspects of working in the legal profession. We all know that we only get better at what we do with practice and constructive feedback on what needs improvement.

In a perfect world we would get constructive feedback from trusted sources who would allow us to learn and develop in the most supportive environment possible. The harsh reality is it is rare to get constructive feedback in such a way.
Most often the feedback we get feels more negative and less constructive. So how can we respond to feedback in the best possible way?

First, it is important to break down the elements of the feedback. Feedback is a message. A message is made up for three important elements: the source, the delivery and the content.

The source of the feedback is the specific person giving you the message.

How you respond to the feedback is going to be heavily influenced by what you think about that person (is he/she fair, harsh, kind, critical), how you feel about the person (do you like him, respect him, fear him) and how you think the person feels about you (do you think he supports you, feels threatened by you, dislikes you).

Your opinion of the person can be due to your longstanding relationship with him, your last interaction, or how that person reminds you of someone else in your life (a positive or negative association).

Tip: If you are getting feedback from someone who you have a less than supportive relationship with, ask yourself what you would think of the feedback if it was coming from a trusted friend instead.

The delivery is how the message is delivered, including the tone, the timing, the location and the method.

If the delivery of the message is flawed, the content of the message can be completely lost. If the delivery sounds sarcastic, it will be received very differently than if it sounds sincere.

We imply intention and emotion to the tone of a message. If the message is delivered through non-verbal means (via email, letter, etc.), it is very easy to imply a tone that matches your emotions at the time you first read it.

Tip: Pay attention to how you are responding to the delivery of the message and think about how you would receive the content of the message if it was delivered in a most preferable manner.

The content: We would like to believe that, as rational and logical beings, we would respond primarily to the content of the messages we receive.

Yet this is not the case most of the time. As human beings, we are much more likely to respond quickly to the source and delivery of the message. Focusing on the content takes practice and effort.

In order to do this, we must ask a few questions.

• What is the content of the message?

• Is the content accurate?

• Is the content helpful/constructive?

Tip: By separating the three elements of the message you can focus on the helpful content, while not allocating too much time to the source or delivery.

The best way to handle difficult feedback is to separate out the source and delivery of the message, identify what elements of the content are helpful to you, and respond to the source of the feedback as if that person has in fact offered you something valuable.

By not responding in-kind, you shift the power dynamic in the interaction and have more control over how future interactions unfold. Practicing this response can lead to a positive outcome for you no matter which scenario you find yourself in.

Worst case scenario: The source of the feedback meant it to hurt you and wants to start a fight. By receiving the valuable aspects of the feedback and not responding in-kind, you benefit from the content and thwart the person’s end goal.

Best case scenario: The source of the feedback meant it to help you but was unaware of how the delivery came across. By receiving the valuable aspects of the feedback and not responding in-kind, you benefit from the content and maintain the positive relationship that the source has with you.

It’s probably as close as you are going to get to becoming a Jedi master. You win either way.


Shawn Healy is a licensed clinical psychologist on staff with Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts. He also writes and presents on a variety of topics germane to the practice of law. He can be contacted at