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Law Practice Magazine

The Leadership Issue

Giving Feedback with Emotional Intelligence

Kendra Brodin and Kelli Lynn Dunaway


  • EQ plays a crucial role in managing the complexities of giving and receiving feedback in a leadership role.
  • The absence of constructive feedback in professional settings can lead to imposter syndrome and hinder individual growth.
  • Understanding the SARA cycle associated with receiving feedback is vital. Leaders should be patient and empathetic when delivering feedback, allowing individuals to process.
Giving Feedback with Emotional Intelligence Trade

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Feedback can be one of the hardest things about being a leader. Whether giving feedback or receiving feedback, feelings are involved, and having to manage feelings (your own and the feelings of others) makes the feedback process more challenging. Using emotional intelligence to understand, prepare for and work through the feelings that arise around feedback can result in transformative growth.

The emotions related to feedback cause us to put up walls. If we’re giving feedback, we don’t want to hurt feelings so we’re often not candid enough. If we’re receiving feedback we don’t like, our defenses can go up as we try to manage our hurt or embarrassed feelings.

Because these feelings seem so hard to manage when giving feedback, oftentimes lawyers don’t give feedback at all. The most common way lawyers avoid giving feedback is to simply stop working with a particular lawyer or other professional. Another form of avoidance is to rely on “checked boxes” in an annual review (i.e., marking “satisfactory” or “on track” without providing further detail). Either way, we can be doing a lot more to help the people around us grow and improve their skills. 

Exit interviews, surveys and our experience repeatedly show that lawyers and legal professionals feel they aren’t getting enough feedback. They aren’t getting praised for what they’re doing well so they know what behaviors to repeat. They’re not receiving constructive feedback about what they can do better. This results in a vicious cycle that creates and perpetuates the high levels of insecurity and imposter syndrome reported by lawyers at firms of all sizes. And at the end of the day, lawyers can’t change, grow and develop their skills without feedback.

Without input from others, we just don’t have a realistic view of our performance. We make false assumptions about our abilities. And while there are certainly times we’ve all been guilty of overestimating our abilities, it is more likely that we believe we are underperforming when we don’t have feedback to prove otherwise.

We become suspicious, worried and fall prey to fear that we’re failing. Wasting time on these kinds of feelings hinders our abilities to perform and improve. This is especially true for women and people of color who consistently report higher and more severe cases of imposter syndrome.

By providing ongoing and consistent feedback to others about what they are doing well and where they need improvement, we are not only helping them create a more realistic view of their performance, but we are also building their trust in us as leaders, which in turn motivates our people to continuously improve their own performance. This energy and dedication to continuous improvement leads people to maximize their own potential and consistently deliver top-quality work and customer service.

What Is Emotional Intelligence?

According to Daniel Goleman, the American psychologist who helped bring the theory of emotional intelligence (EQ) into the mainstream, there are four primary elements to EQ: empathy, self-regulation, self-awareness and social skills.

When we can improve our EQ, we are better able to give feedback to others. Why? With greater EQ, we have the skills to give feedback in ways that are more likely to be received, integrated and implemented.

With higher self-awareness (knowing how you feel and how you are making others feel), you can monitor how your body language, tone of voice and way of speaking may be making it easier or harder for someone to receive your feedback in the way you intend. While your intent when giving feedback should always be to help, support and develop another person, if your body language and tone of voice come off the wrong way, the recipient won’t receive your feedback in the way you intended. With strong self-awareness, your intent and impact are more likely to align.

When you have higher self-regulation (the ability to manage your own emotions), you are less likely to get “tripped” by someone’s reaction to your feedback. Even if the person receiving the feedback gets defensive or angry, the feedback giver can remain regulated and emotionally in control when they have higher levels of self-regulation. This helps the feedback meeting to stay on track and the feedback giver to remain cool, calm and collected (yet empathetic) if the receiver of the feedback becomes emotional.

One of the primary facets of EQ is social awareness or empathy (you can put yourself in someone else’s situation or position). When we have greater empathy, we can read the emotional and physical cues of others. When we are giving feedback, we can see how that feedback is landing with others. Do they agree or disagree with the feedback? What is their emotional response to the feedback? Anger? Embarrassment? Sadness? With empathy, you are more likely to pick up on the cues someone is giving as to their reaction to your feedback, and you can ask follow-up questions to come to deeper mutual understanding of what is or isn’t working and next steps.

If your relationship management and social skills (your ability to communicate with others, manage change and build consensus) are high, you can articulate your feedback well and choose your words appropriately. After you give the feedback, you can ask thoughtful, open-ended questions. You actively listen, showing that you are engaged by paraphrasing reflectively and nodding when appropriate, leaning in and maintaining eye contact.

It’s always important to know why you are giving feedback and have a clear sense of its importance. Ideally, you are invested in the growth and development of others, and you can use that as a motivation when you become hesitant to give thorough, candid feedback. When you are motivated by a compelling why, you are more likely to give feedback and do it well.

Here are three specific ways to bring emotional feedback to your feedback conversations:

  1. Be sure to be specific and objective in your feedback. Instead of generalizing and saying things like “You always do this wrong” or “You never ask questions,” give specific examples about what needs to improve and where a person fell short of expectations. This helps them see exactly what went wrong and understand what to do better next time.
  2. Bring a little vulnerability into your feedback. What can you share from your own experience, challenges or growth path? How did you learn certain things the hard way? Try to humanize yourself and normalize the feedback you are giving when appropriate to the situation. It will make the feedback feel less punitive and more focused on development and growth.
  3. Remember to focus on the behavior, not the person. Try saying: “This brief needed greater attention to detail as it had a number of typographical errors” instead of “You are lacking in attention to detail” or “You are a sloppy writer.”

SARA: The Feedback Cycle

Something else to keep in mind is SARA, a cycle everyone goes through when receiving feedback. First there’s the shock of the feedback that can hit like a punch to the gut. Then, there’s the anger at being presented with information about ourselves that we don’t like. Then, there’s resistance where we argue with ourselves about how it’s a mistake, how there’s some misunderstanding and how the feedback doesn’t apply. And, finally, there is acceptance, when we start to recognize that maybe there’s some truth, and maybe we can do better.

For some people, the SARA cycle lasts a minute or two. For others, it can take upwards of a week. Be aware of the SARA cycles around you. If you know you’ve got someone on your team who will take a week to process your feedback, offer them space after you deliver the news, and ask them to come back when they’re ready to talk about the next steps. Be prepared to follow up if you don’t hear from them, but make it clear you expect another conversation when they’re ready.

Even if the person receiving the feedback has a quick SARA cycle, it’s okay if they are upset and still want to talk. Sit with them through that. Ask (gently) what is bothering them. You may receive some valuable feedback about yourself, your colleagues and your firm that could lead to positive change, and they will feel seen and heard.

Remember, even if you are typically a feedback giver, you also have your own SARA cycle. When you receive feedback, be mindful of how you progress through the SARA cycle, and work to receive feedback with EQ by not taking the feedback personally, looking for ways to improve in the future and staying emotionally regulated.

Tips For Preparing and Delivering Meaningful Feedback

Here are some best practices for leaning into your EQ when delivering feedback:

First, don’t give feedback when you’re angry, stressed, overwhelmed or not emotionally regulated. Wait until you’re calm and have had time to fully reflect on the situation and prepare yourself to give feedback in a thoughtful, intentional way.

Second, be specific about the facts of the situation. What specific action, behavior or work product was problematic? Avoid over-generalizing and be prepared to give specific examples of where the work product did or didn’t meet expectations and why.

Third, focus on the facts, not the person. By staying focused on the facts of the situation, you’ll avoid making personal comments that can cause unintentional hurt, future awkwardness or employment-related issues. For instance, if an associate turned in a written memo that was full of errors, your feedback should be something along the lines of “the memo you turned in had a number of misspelled words, grammatical errors and different fonts in different sections,” not “you’re sloppy.”

Articulate why this action, behavior or work product was a problem and the impact it had on you, your team or the client. Using the same example above, it might be because you had to spend your entire weekend rewriting the memo so it met the client’s expectations.

Next, be explicit about how things need to be different moving forward. Using the same example, “I expect future drafts to be polished and ready to go to the client.”

Finally, ask them what they’re going to do to ensure that this mistake doesn’t happen again. By putting the future back in their hands, you lead them to not only acknowledge the mistake, but to create a solution that works for them. By determining their future action themselves, you helped create accountability for their follow-through. You may need to do a little coaching to help them come up with strategies to ensure that mistakes or performance issues don’t happen again in the future but try to allow them the first opportunity to articulate the changes they will make.

Being able to effectively give and receive feedback with EQ is an essential skill for any leader who wants to bring out the best in their people.

If we regularly take the time to provide positive feedback, we will build confidence in our people and trust in our teams, and others are more likely to take our constructive feedback seriously because it’s balanced with positive feedback and reminders of which behaviors are worth repeating.

When we do give constructive feedback, we need to balance promptness with spending the time and energy necessary to think through the feedback, the emotions the feedback will elicit, and how we’re going to be specific, actionable and constructive in our delivery.

If we can begin building habits for regularly giving positive feedback, it won’t be as hard when the time comes for more constructive conversations. With the planning and preparation tools we’ve covered to give feedback with EQ, you’ll better position yourself and your people to hear, learn from and act on the feedback you give.