Feedback in Relationships

I had to deliver some staff development today on the concept of feedback in the classroom (please try to restrain your disappointment at not being invited:) ). As I was moving through the material, my monkey mind was making connections to how we give and receive feedback with students and how it relates to feedback in relationships. So even though you missed my presentation this morning, I’ll still share my thoughts with you and feedback and its role in our relationships. Only now the professional dress has been replaced with yoga pants:)

Feedback is Meant to Improve, Not Shame

There’s a TED talks video by Rita Pierson we always watch at meetings where she talks about putting +2 on a child’s paper rather than -18. That’s because the purpose of feedback is to improve, not to punish or shame. Feedback should never be delivered in anger or in frustration. It’s deliberate. Conscious. Careful.

In a relationship, any criticisms or advice delivered in a heated moment will not be received. If feedback is shared in public in a shaming way, no positive change will occur.If your purpose is to make your partner feel badly, you’re bitching, not providing feedback.

Your first responsibility in a partnership is to change yourself – your perceptions, your actions, your responses. Yet there will be times where you need to work to shape your partner’s actions for the betterment of the pair and feedback is a critical component of this. Before you speak, make sure your intentions are to improve, not to shame or blame.

Climate Comes First

The first goal of any effective teacher is establishing a classroom culture where students feel safe and secure and feel comfortable taking risks and making mistakes. If this climate is not present, any negative feedback tends to lead to defensiveness and shutting down. But once this climate is built, students know that you care about them and they are much more receptive to feedback, even if it is negative.

Relationships are no different. We need to feel safe in our partnerships. We need to trust that it’s okay to not be perfect and that a single mistake won’t mean that we’re kicked out. It’s important to establish a relationship climate where both partners feel comfortable voicing their concerns and receiving feedback from the other.

In the classroom and in relationships, building a positive and safe climate takes time. Trust doesn’t occur overnight; it comes from a pattern of action and response. Energy put into developing this environment goes a long way. Brock and I put quite a bit of effort into this early on (using candles as a signal) and that preliminary work has since paid dividends (and the candles have been in retirement for the last year and a half or so).

Goals Must be Clear and Shared

In the classroom, it’s not fair to give students feedback on their progress when they do not know or understand the goal they are trying to reach. Teachers use a variety of methods to communicate learning expectations to the students so that not only do they have an idea of where they are relative to where they need to be, but they have a clear picture of the ideal destination.

We know how important communication is in relationships and how easily misunderstandings can spiral out of control. Just as it’s not fair to berate a student for failing to achieve some mysterious goal, it is unfair to a partner to expect him/her to read your mind and then react with negative feedback when he/she doesn’t make strides to the goal you had in mind.

The learning goals for my classroom are constantly changing (thanks Common Core and meddling politicians!) and goals in relationships are often as malleable as curriculum. It’s important to continually touch base and ensure that the relationship-related goals are clear and shared.

Feedback Should be Formative, Not Only Summative

Teachers divide learning activities into two categories: formative and summative. The former describes the activities that occur during the learning process, such as practice and quizzes. The latter applies to the culminating event, such as an exam or project, where a student is expected to demonstrate mastery of a concept. Effective feedback occurs during the learning process so that the student can shape his or her actions towards the stated goal. It’s not fair or effective for the first feedback to be received when it really counts.

So, as that relates to relationships, don’t do what my ex did. The first time I knew there was a problem in the marriage was when he left with a text message. If there had been formative feedback along the way, there may have been an opportunity to change. There’s often a balance in relationships – sometimes you need to bite your tongue and avoiding bringing something that is minor or fleeting. And you also need to address any issues before they build to a level that destroys the partnership.

If the point of feedback is to improve, make sure that it’s given along with a chance to make the improvements. Otherwise it’s not feedback, it’s just a bunch of red x’s and a big, fat “F.”

Address the Actions, Not the Person

The fastest way to alienate a kid is to attack their person, to imply or state that they are “stupid” or “no good.” They will quickly live up (or actually, down) to the claim. Teachers have to be careful to address issues the kids can control – study habits, practice, etc. rather than things they cannot – learning disabilities, sub par schooling, etc.

We all have innate tendencies and backgrounds that we cannot control. When those are attacked, we shut down as we internalize the message. When you are giving feedback to a partner, be careful not to condemn areas they cannot change or that are an inherent part of who they are. Focus on the actions and behaviors that are transient and reworkable.

Feedback Should be Specific and Actionable

Students don’t grow when they receive a failing grade on an assignment with the implied message “you suck at this.” It’s overwhelming and they give up. Instead, they improve when they are given specific and actionable feedback that addresses one or two areas at a time with recognition given for progress along the way.

Baby steps work for relationships too. Don’t flood your partner with a laundry list of feedback. Start small, focus on one behavior. Acknowledge improvement, no matter how small. Be clear and specific. When the intent is clearly stated, it’s more likely to happen.


Just like with teaching, feedback does not only flow one direction. Be open and receptive to your partner’s feedback. Assume that their intent is to make you better.

And remember, we are all still learning. Always.



Thank you for sharing!

3 thoughts on “Feedback in Relationships

  1. livebysurprise – Liv is the pseudonym reformed divorcee and single mom - now married, coparenting and working mother of three. She's been featured on ScaryMommy, HuffPost Divorce, The Mid and More at
    Liv says:

    So true – provide positive, actionable feedback…it’s so much more helpful, and you’re more likely to be listened to.

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