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Legal Practice Management

Practice Innovations: What to do when you’re on the receiving end of a difficult conversation

Kendra Brodin, Esq., MSW  Founder and CEO of EsquireWell

· 6 minute read

Kendra Brodin, Esq., MSW  Founder and CEO of EsquireWell

· 6 minute read

The most successful law firm partners handle feedback with grace. Here are 4 strategies for navigating difficult conversations with clients, partners, and leaders

Despite the adversarial nature of the legal profession, it’s human nature to dislike conflict — especially when it comes in the form of criticism. Receiving feedback can kick emotions into overdrive, and every feeling from anger to disbelief and even a sense of failure can be wrapped up in the way we perceive it.

While all of these reactions are normal, remember that critical feedback is not personal; it’s integral to business. It’s critical to our legal practices and the business of running a law firm that we are always learning, growing, and developing, especially if a particular behavior has a negative business impact. The key is to understand the situation objectively, try to resolve the issue, and then move forward. With shifts in the way we communicate, feedback can be a great gift to many senior-level attorneys.

Certainly, receiving difficult information can be a challenge. When you handle a negative situation graciously and calmly, however, your demeanor and professionalism will be noticed and appreciated. More importantly, you the gain the ability to pivot in the best direction possible for you and your organization.

Communications strategies

With that in mind, here four tips that may prove useful the next time you find yourself at the receiving end of constructive (and possibly uncomfortable) feedback.

1. Stay engaged in the conversation

It’s common to tune out feedback — and even mentally map out the counterargument before hearing someone out. That’s why many of us shut down or become closed off when presented with negative information. When this happens, we give off nonverbal cues through facial expressions and body language that show we’re not engaged in the conversation. Yet, this is a guaranteed way to rapidly escalate the conversation from constructive to destructive.

Because a conflict cannot be resolved until the situation is understood and addressed, it is important to stay open and actively listening. That way, you can be part of the solution and help everyone find a way to move forward. Keep your face neutral, your arms uncrossed, and your mind open.

2. Keep emotions out of it

Shock, anger, and embarrassment are all common reactions to bad news or criticism. In fact, many people may experience an entire range of emotions when presented with negative information at work. And while these reactions may be considered normal, unfortunately, they only serve to escalate an already negative situation.

By remaining calm and emotionally regulated, you can maintain a professional presence and offer solutions to help determine the next steps.

If you feel the conflict has arisen from misinformation, feel free to make that correction — but stick to the facts. Making excuses or placing blame will only cloud the issue and make it difficult to make headway. Further, it may seem like you aren’t taking responsibility but are instead throwing others “under the bus.”

3. Ask to reconvene

Not every conversation has to be resolved in a split second. Take a break and ask to reconvene once you’ve had a chance to review the details. Separating yourself from the situation will allow time to regulate your emotions, process the information, and start to come up with productive solutions or next steps. And if you have to share the bad news with others, taking time to review the situation can be even more important.

Your ability to remain emotionally regulated and handle feedback well will make it easier for your team or clients to model your behavior and provide a more straightforward path forward for everyone involved.

4. Look for the positive

As unpleasant as it may be, try to remember that constructive criticism, negative feedback, and difficult conversations are all key opportunities for growth. Each time you find yourself at the receiving end of bad news, try to see what you can gain from the situation.

For example, if the issue comes from a client, take time to listen and ask questions. The client may appreciate your openness to their feedback and your desire to improve. If you’ve hit a challenge within your firm’s partnership, having an open conversation will help you build trust and develop the relationship, as well as maintain a healthy work culture for others.

If your client is leaving you for a new firm, ask them why. If they’re committed to moving on, they still may be able to offer insight that will help improve your engagement with your other clients going forward. Being receptive to critical feedback will help establish you as a highly respected lawyer within your field, as well as one who is always trying to be responsive to their clients.

If the bad news comes internally, work together with your colleagues to see if they can share their suggestions on how they could have handled the situation differently. Use these scenarios to strengthen your relationships internally, possibly gaining information that may help you in the future.

Importantly, don’t be afraid to ask for constructive insights from both higher-ups and junior members of your team. Each perspective can contribute knowledge that helps create and refine best practices for your firm.

Responding with grace

When you respond to challenging feedback with grace and open communication, others will come to see you as a confident and emotionally intelligent person — one that they will be more likely to seek out in the future. You will also help create a psychologically safe work culture in which people aren’t afraid to give constructive feedback.

Remember that no one gets to the top without facing conflict multiple times throughout their career. What sets the best professionals and leaders apart is the way they handle these uncomfortable situations.

So, the next time you find yourself in a difficult position at work, remember to stay engaged and open to discussion, separate yourself and process your emotions, and accept feedback with grace and poise. These tips will help you navigate tricky situations confidently and allows you to continue growing and developing your key relationships internally and externally.

Receiving constructive feedback professionally and with grace is one step towards building communication and strengthening relationships among your colleagues and clients. For more on how internal collaboration can enhance your firm’s standing in clients’ eyes, check out our recent Thomson Reuters Institute Insights podcast.

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