Skillful Feedback

Skillful feedback helps parenting partners unite. 

In 2012, I wrote an article called How to Give Skillful Feedback for a popular online journal. Now, parenting in the 2021 post-pandemic world, I wanted to update that advice as it pertains to parents.

Serving as an attuned, present, “mirror” for your partner and children is a tremendous gift. When you offer feedback skillfully, others begin to feel seen, known, and secure.

Unfortunately, the “norm” for many parents is less-than-skillful feedback. Poorly-given feedback can lead to rupture, fighting and bickering. When an attempt to offer feedback leaves the receiver feeling hurt or attacked, or the giver feels like a tyrant or nag, those are signals to seek improvement in how you give and receive feedback.

Examples of unskillful feedback between parents:

“I wish you wouldn’t shame him for having a potty accident,” could be heard as, “Why are you being such a jerk to our son, you are damaging him!”

“Could you please be more patient with her at homework time?” could be heard as,”What is wrong with you, you are ALWAYS SO impatient!”

So, how can loving parents help one another be their best selves…. without damaging their 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.

When you want to give feedback, it could be knee-jerk criticism, or a “withhold” that comes out under pressure, or something we simply don’t yet know how to express. Feedback brings up our stuff!

Often some kind of nervous system activation builds up before you give feedback, and that may bring up your defensiveness even as you speak.

The problem 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.

What can you do to improve your feedback delivery? 

Here’s what skillful feedback looks like for parents:

  • The giver is centered and grounded… a hard thing to do when you’re short on sleep and patience–but it’s essential. 
  • The giver has already discerned, “what is the purpose of this feedback?” and asked the question, “is this feedback truly in the best interest of my partner?”  Discernment is a skill developed over time, with practice. The important point here is to be sure that the feedback is truly something for the interpersonal space and not just about you. 
  • 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. It’s so important to be loving and lead with care. 
  • The giver uses a non-threatening tone, and shows that s/he cares without being patronizing. If you find your tone slipping… ??? 
  • The giver is respectful, caring, and non-shaming. The feedback is given in private and is not dramatic. Having complaints is a natural part of “doing relationship,” but complaints about behavior and criticisms about personhood are a ‘no-no’ for healthy relating. In fact, Criticism represents one of Dr. John Gottman’s “Four Horsemen,” along with Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling. These four behaviors have been shown to predict divorce if they are not resolved, and Criticism is by far the most damaging of these predictors. 
  • The giver goes slow. Feedback must be given in digestible bits. Did you know that a person can rarely hear more than 2 sentences of negative feedback before getting defensive? For example, when you see your partner putting the diaper on backwards or packing an unhealthy school lunch don’t launch an attack and clean it up later… take a breath, say one grounded sentence with a gentle start up… Ex. We had talked about packing lunches without sweets, I’d like for that to happen, etc. 
  • The giver checks in with the receiver to see how the other is doing.  Can the receiver handle more, or is that person full? It’s sometimes unadvisable to give a lot of feedback you have for someone at once. 

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. If that feels far away for you, consider reaching out for help. When you heal yourselves as individuals and as a couple, you also ratchet up your skills as parents. This kind of careful, mutual attunement is the key to healthy relationships.

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.

What can you do to improve your ability to receive feedback?  

The ability to listen and not react is a skill necessary in a relationship.

Communication is hard! It can be really hard to ask for what we want and it can be even harder to receive feedback about what someone else wants or needs from you.

Often a partner’s request can feel like criticism and we don’t even realize that we are feeling defensive until we are already yelling. It’s always a challenge to be on the receiving end of someone’s feedback, even if it’s constructive or given skillfully.  When such feedback is coming from your partner, it can be the most vulnerable.

Serve as a mirror for your partner, and receive your partner’s reflection. These are some of the greatest gifts relationships give us. It is natural to want to please your partner; you care about what they need, you want to be of benefit. Both partners can help the other to see their blind spots and change habitual ways of relating with the world.

Of course, it’s helpful if both partners know how to give feedback skillfully, without being judgmental or attached to the outcome.

Instead of becoming triggered and reactive when your partner gives you sincere feedback that you feel attacked or utterly collapse, see it as an opportunity for tremendous growth. If you can learn to listen and skillfully hear what your partner is trying to say, you will be able to use your relationship as a vehicle for self-discovery and transformation.

It’s common to hear your own story when your partner speaks, to overlay meaning onto what you think you heard your partner say and use it as proof of your own “badness.”

For example, if your partner says: “I need space.” You may hear the words: “I don’t love you anymore.”

Yet if you are able to hear feedback without taking it personally, you will be able to hear the neutrality of the content without having a charged or even visceral reaction that renders you unavailable, hurt or shut down.

Perhaps your partner’s request for space is an attempt to express his or her own need for self-care so that they can be available to the relationship once they decompress or integrate. Give them the space to express their needs.


Keep these points in mind if your partner is giving you feedback:

The ability to listen and not react out of fear, hurt or defensiveness is a skill necessary in a relationship.

Just like when you are giving feedback, you need to be in a grounded space in order to hear feedback.

Remember that no one is obliged to meet your needs. It is your job to advocate for your own needs with regard to pacing and quantity of feedback.  If you have heard enough and need to take a moment, you need to convey that to your partner.

Discern these questions for yourself, before you respond: 

  • How am I feeling?
  • What is my truth?
  • What did my partner’s request bring up for me?
  • Is the request valid?
  • Can I meet their need?
  • Do I want to fulfill my partner’s request?

A need to be right can get in the way of your ability to be in partnership.

Remember that your partner likely feels vulnerable too.  When you realize that you are both out of your comfort zones, you can eliminate any pettiness or bickering.

If something feels unclear, ask for clarification. Asking your partner, “Can you say more about that?” goes further than reacting before you fully grasp what your partner is trying to say.

Don’t equate vulnerability with being bad or wrong. It can feel the same, but if you make a distinction you will not be gripped with unnecessary shame or fear.

If you are grounded and can listen and take in feedback, you can accurately appraise if your partner is giving feedback in a constructive, loving way. If they are not, and they are open to learning, you can teach them!

It’s a skill, a practice. Be open to learning, falling down and getting back up.

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If you’d like to learn more about giving conscious, constructive feedback, check out the Fulfilled Family Fellowship program.




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