Communication is one of the biggest issues in any relationship and perhaps one of the most crucial aspects of communication is how to give effective feedback about something that’s bothering you. Too often, we end up shouting at one another, each blaming the other for poor communication and not listening. But it doesn’t have to be like that.

What is effective feedback?

Let’s think about feedback here as something that you say about someone else’s behaviour, including both what they said and what they did. It’s usually designed to lead to some change in their behaviour. For that feedback to be effective, it must be heard, absorbed and then acted upon.

There are whole courses devoted to giving feedback in the context of a management relationship, so why is it so hard to give effective feedback in a personal relationship? It doesn’t have to be. By adopting some simple rules, you too can give effective feedback to your partner in a way that will be easy for them to hear.

Rule 1 It’s about what you did

This is perhaps the most important rule of all in giving feedback. You need to focus on the behaviour, this means that you should not make any comment about their personality, for example, one that implies that your partner is or is not a particular type of person. It should only be about their behaviour.

Consider the difference between:

“You are a selfish horrible person” and “You are behaving like a selfish horrible person”.

Neither is exactly something that anyone wants to hear, nor would either be described as positive, or the recommended way to give feedback! But the first statement implies that there is no possible change, and you really dislike them. This is presumably not true, or they wouldn’t be your partner. You are just upset with them at the moment.

The second, on the other hand, says “I know you are a fundamentally nice person but really, what you just did was not acceptable!” It is, therefore, much easier to hear and act upon.

Rule 2 It’s about me, not you

You have no idea what your partner meant to achieve by what they said or did. All you know is the effect that it had on you. Equally, unless you tell them, your partner has no idea what effect their behaviour had on you.

Your feedback should therefore focus on what exactly they said or did, and what effect it had on you. You might say, for example,

“When you went out, and left me clearing up the other night, it made me feel taken for granted.”

“When you sent me those flowers, it made me feel really valued.”

You are not saying that your partner was right or wrong, only how it made you feel.

Rule 3 It’s very specific

The more specific you can be about the behaviour, the easier it is for your partner to change it. Suppose you say:

“Everything you have done this week has made me feel really cross.”

This makes it sound like the problem is with you, not them. Also they wouldn’t know what they could do in order to make you feel better.

Suppose instead that you say:

“It makes me cross when you leave your shoes in the middle of the floor.”

You might be having a bad week, and at any other time you could deal with the shoes. This might be the first time that you have ever mentioned this particular habit in a 10-year marriage. But right now, your partner knows exactly what to do to improve the situation.

Rule 4 It’s about what’s just happened

The best feedback is immediate, or at least broadly in the same time period. It really doesn’t help anyone if you decide to rake up things that bothered you a year or even a month ago. Focus on the most recent behaviour, and deal with what’s happening now, not what happened then. The sooner you can do it, the better. However, do consider the next rule first!

Rule 5 It’s given at the right time

We can probably all identify the wrong time: when one or both of you are stressed or angry, or when you’re tired, or hungry, or in a hurry to go somewhere else. All of these make it harder both to give calm and careful feedback, and to hear and respond to it positively.

Yes, there are times when you feel that feedback can’t wait. You really want to shout.

Don’t.

It really won’t help anyone. Count to 10, and take a deep breath to calm yourself down before you say anything. Never try to give feedback when you’re angry.

Instead, wait until you’re both more relaxed and ready to talk: at the weekend, perhaps, or in the evening. It will still be timely and recent. It’s important to make sure that you turn off the television, or ask your partner to put down their book or phone. Signal your intention, otherwise you may find that you’re repeating yourself, which is not going to be good for your calmness.

Developing a skill takes time

Finally, remember that giving effective feedback is a skill, and any skill takes time to learn and develop. You won’t become expert at giving feedback immediately. But you can immediately become better, just by following these simple rules. If you keep them in mind whenever you want to comment on your partner’s behaviour, you should soon find that communication between you has improved.

This was first published in the May 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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