Giving skillful feedback, or being a mirror for your partner, is one of the greatest gifts of intimate relationship. It enables both partners to feel seen, known, secure and cared for. But sometimes the exchange that takes place in an attempt to offer feedback can leave the receiver feeling hurt or attacked, and the giver, like a nag or a tyrant.
“I prefer when you kiss me this way”, can be heard as, “I don’t like the way you kiss. You don’t satisfy me.” Or “I really hope you will change your eating habits so you can lower your cholesterol” can become, “You are fat and unlovable as you are”.
So how can loving partners learn to navigate the risky terrain of helping one another be their best self without harming the other person or damaging security in the relationship? The first step is to understand what could be causing your best intentions to have ineffective, or even painful outcomes. Then you can learn to practice new skills with communication and vulnerability.
Here’s an important thing to remember: when you want to give feedback, there is often anxiety before you give it, about how the other person will take it. Basically, you might get defensive before you speak.
The problem with this is that your partner is likely to perceive this defensiveness as coming out of left field — and experience it as more of an offensive attack. This, of course, is the opposite of what you’re trying to do when you give feedback. Keep that in mind, and start to focus on what you can do to improve your delivery.
Here’s what skillful feedback looks like:
- The giver is centered and grounded
- The giver has already discerned, “what is the purpose if this feedback?” and asked the question, “is this feedback truly in the best interest of my partner?”
- The giver recognizes the level of risk to the receiver. The feedback could be hurtful, or embarrassing, or cause shame or pain. Skillful feedback may bring up all those things, but it’s done in a way that’s healing.
- The giver uses a non-threatening tone, and shows that s/he cares without being patronizing.
- The giver is respectful, caring, and non-shaming. The feedback is given in private and is not dramatic.
- The giver goes slow. Feedback must be given in digestible bits.
- The giver checks in with the receiver to see hoe s/he’s doing. Can the receiver handle and more, or is s/he full?
- Good feedback should be a positive experience for both the giver and receiver. Done skillfully, there will be healing, learning and integration for both partners.
Remember that if you have a fear of giving feedback in your relationship, it is not about your partner, but about you. Giving skillful feedback in a caring way is your opportunity to work with your own vulnerability. You are being vulnerable when you show you care enough to offer your partner a reflection.
Also keep in mind that learning to give feedback is a practice — and it will likely get messy. But when you and your partner learn to navigate the mess, and repair any unintentional hurt, it will bring you even closer together.
May you delight in the balance of skillful practice and joyful play in your relationships.
Lesley Glenner, MA