There are many ways for 'difficult conversations' to go wrong, and the more of the following practical tips you put into practice, the better the outcome is likely to be:
- Make sure the recipient feels valued as a person. Feedback from associates tells us that they appreciate it when partners and senior lawyers take the time to get to know them as individuals, and to listen to and respect their opinion. If you have created a relationship of mutual respect and interest, you have a good foundation for helping people perform at their best. As part of the feedback conversation, make sure you mention something you appreciate about them – make it sincere, specific and succinct. It can be as simple as 'I really appreciate how hard you have been working' or 'I've noticed how willing you are to offer your help to others on the team'.
- Let them know that you have some feedback you believe will help them improve their skills or performance. Feedback given with positive intent is always more effective than criticism that comes from a place of annoyance or lack of respect. Notice your own feelings and manage them well. Introduce the feedback as being intended to help them succeed.
- Make your feedback succinct and crystal clear. Work out in advance how you're going to give the feedback and stick to it. Give the recipient time to digest what you've said. Make sure the feedback is about the action or behaviour that you want them to change, not about them as a person.
- Listen with genuine curiosity to what the recipient has to say. 'Tell me more' is a great response. Often we assume we know what the other person is thinking, or what their motivation is. We don't. Be curious.
- Ask questions which encourage them to take responsibility for the solution. There may be occasions when you simply need to tell someone what you want them to do differently, but there are many times when the person is better placed to come up with a solution, and they will be much more bought into it if they do. So allow them the chance to suggest ways to improve or to resolve the problem. Ask coaching questions to encourage their thinking.
- Finally, share your own experience, ask good coaching questions, and offer practical ways to help them learn and improve. Give examples of how you have learnt and developed in a similar situation, and offer to help in any way you can – but only after they have had the opportunity to think about what they can do themselves to improve.
I've often encountered lawyers who shy away from giving developmental feedback to a good overall performer because they feel it will land badly or damage the relationship. Following these steps will ensure you both walk away not just with your self-esteem intact, but with an even stronger working relationship.