Publish date: 03 March 2023

A boss once told me that my colleague was the “smart one” and I was the “nice one”. She is, so I wasn’t offended, but I didn’t take it as a compliment either. 

My agreeableness has, at times, felt like a barrier to my professional development – particularly my avoidance of difficult conversations and potential conflict. Fortunately, I have worked with the same trusted core team for a very long time, and I have become comfortable with more direct communication. In fact, we now enjoy challenging each other regularly, and I think we are the better for it (although my feedback on fashion choices seems to have fallen on deaf ears).  

In my years working in the legal industry, I have come to realise that I am certainly not alone in avoiding difficult conversations. This continues to surprise me, mostly because we are in a profession filled with confident communicators and advocates who themselves crave constant feedback on their own performance. I had assumed that delivering feedback would be an innate skill for many legal professionals, but perhaps the longstanding hierarchies, the competitive nature of the profession and focus on the individual over team success in the past, has led to this reluctance. 

In his podcast, No Bullsh!t Leadership, Martin G. Moore lists five ways to view feedback to overcome your fear: – 

  1. You have a duty of care to your people to provide competent leadership, direction and feedback, and this should outweigh your discomfort in giving it. 
  1. You cannot get results from a sub-par team and you cannot develop one without coaching, challenging and confronting people to be their best. There is a real cost in putting your head in the sand and not addressing problems. 
  1. Your people deserve the opportunity to improve. Don’t rob someone of their ability to progress in their careers. Also, when it’s difficult to acquire talent or during difficult economic times, isn’t it smart to invest in cultivating the talent you already have and getting more from your existing team? 
  1. Everyone knows the strong and weak performers. Failing to deal with an issue demotivates others and kills culture. You will risk losing good people. 
  1. If worst comes to worst and you need to let someone go, you need to be super confident that you have done everything you can to help them. It helps you sleep better at night. 

As I continue my trial-and-error journey to overcome conflict avoidance, I have compiled a list of tips for delivering feedback: 

  • Ask if the person wants the feedback and let them opt in. If they agree, they are less likely to be defensive. 
  • Give context and explain why you think they would benefit from the feedback. It needs to be purposeful, solutions-focussed and not just a list of complaints. 
  • Give thought to the receiver (their cultural background, personality, prior professional and individual experiences) and communicate with this in mind. 
  • Avoid the feedback sandwich of sneaking negative feedback between praise – either the positives will drown out the message or they will sound insincere.  
  • Be humble and admit to your own mistakes. Ego has no place here. 
  • Encourage open conversation, be curious and openminded, but stay on track. Listen and you might learn something helpful and see a situation from another perspective, leading to better decisions and outcomes. 
  • Be open to receiving feedback about yourself and foster a culture of constructive feedback. It should not only be delivered top down, but side to side and bottom up, and actively pursued on a regular basis (don’t wait for the yearly performance reviews to come around). 

Rather than seeing the interaction as a potential relationship destroyer, any difficult conversation can be an opportunity to build a relationship based on trust and mutual respect if the feedback is delivered with compassion and kindness – so maybe it’s not scary after all? 

At the end of the day, a trusting culture will enable these growth conversations to be undertaken in the spirit intended – to aid in our quest for constant improvement. 

As published in My Weekly Preview, Lawyers Weekly, Australian Lawyers Alliance and HR Leader.

Kelly Phelps
Kelly Phelps
Chief Executive Officer & Partner
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