My wife, Diane, is detail-oriented, disciplined and precise when it comes to finances. I tend to be … well, “creative” when it comes to money. (Using the word creative in the same sentence as money never turns out well.) Early in our marriage, I procrastinated paying the bills, robbed one budget category if another was low and regularly incurred late fees.
Since I was the only one working outside the home then, I wanted Diane to see me as a good provider. She would ask if we had enough money to buy something, and I’d always say yes. I didn’t want to disappoint her, so I pretended everything was OK.
But it wasn’t. We never talked about it until one of us was frustrated or angry and couldn’t keep it inside any longer. Diane would question my actions, and I became defensive. I accused her of not trusting me, and she felt as if I didn’t care.
Through that process, we discovered a communication principle that relies on not giving feedback when emotions are high, and, instead, waiting to develop a plan when we’re both calm and in a good mood.
When two people are emotional about something, logic goes out the window. After the emotions have subsided, it’s possible to have a clear, rational conversation about the same issue.
Diane and I needed a way to give feedback to each other without the other person feeling attacked. Fortunately, we learned a strategic process that we’ve used with success for many years.
Start with a strategy
To make feedback a natural part of your relationship, develop a plan for how you’ll make it happen. Find a time when you’re relaxed and free to explore each other’s perspectives without defensiveness or pressing issues to derail the discussion. Then talk about what you both need to make regular feedback a safe, effective communication tool.
Ask each other these types of questions (and add your own):
- When are the best times to give you feedback (for example, early morning, late at night, over coffee)?
- When are the worst times (for example, when hungry, stressed, tired, in a hurry)?
- What do I say that makes you feel defensive? How can I keep that from happening?
- How do you want me to let you know I’d like to give you feedback?
- If one of us starts giving feedback at a bad time, how can we phrase the need to postpone and reschedule?
- How can we share our perspectives without getting into opinions?
- When either of us is feeling emotional, what should we say and avoid saying?
Listen carefully to your spouse’s responses without critiquing or challenging what he or she said. Ask questions for clarification if needed. Don’t try to steer the conversation; just listen for the sake of understanding. Your husband or wife will feel the safety to continue sharing. Then share your perspective in the same way.
Write out your strategy after you’ve agreed on it. Then post it somewhere where you’ll see it frequently. When one of you wants to share feedback, start by reading through your plan together before talking. Besides reminding you of your agreed-upon strategy, it will remind you to be intentional about how you communicate.
An effective plan gives you a foundation for having your spouse receive your feedback. Then when you’d like to share feedback, keep these suggestions in mind:
- Deal with issues quickly. The longer you wait, the more difficult giving feedback becomes. Wait until the first emotion passes, then find the best time to approach the subject with grace.
- Check your motives. Are you giving feedback because you’re frustrated or because you genuinely want to see your spouse grow?
- Avoid distractions. Put your phone out of sight and turn off all media.
- Show respect. Never make shaming statements like, “Why didn’t you think about that first?”
- Find common ground. You could say something like, “I know we think differently, but let’s figure this out together.”
- Focus on the action, not the personality. Instead of saying, “You’re so inconsiderate,” say, “When you did this a couple of times this week, here’s how I felt.”
- Thank your husband or wife for letting you share. These conversations can be risky and hard, and you don’t want to hurt him or her.
Ephesians 4:29 (NIV) says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Wholesome means “something that’s good for you.” When giving feedback, choose words to encourage your spouse rather than tearing him or her down.
Why won’t my spouse listen to my feedback?
Your spouse might get defensive when you give him or her feedback for a number of reasons:
- You’re pointing out something that your husband or wife knows is true but has been covering up for years.
- You touched a nerve in a particularly sensitive area.
- You didn’t deliver your feedback well.
- You picked a bad time to bring it up.
- You don’t have all the facts, and he or she knows it.
- Your spouse isn’t accustomed to feedback.
One overall reason encompasses all of these: low trust. If you don’t trust someone, you won’t be open to receiving feedback from him or her.
The more you trust someone, the more open you’ll be to receiving feedback from him or her. When you know your spouse has your welfare as a priority and that he or she isn’t trying to fix you or coax you to simply meet his or her expectations, your spouse creates a sense of safety.
Persuading someone to accept your feedback isn’t just about phrasing things in the right way (though that’s important). It can’t be about your being right and wanting the other person to change to your way of thinking. That’s guaranteed to be met with resistance.
Feedback is simply a mirror you hold up so your husband or wife can see what others see. You’re not prescribing a course of action; you’re just showing your spouse what you’ve observed that he or she doesn’t already know. Then he or she can decide what to do about it. Genuine change comes when your spouse decides how to act, not when he or she just follows your instructions or advice.
Feedback is a valuable tool in your partnership. It’s a way of learning about yourselves and each other from someone who cares about you the most.
My wife gave me feedback in the early days of our marriage, but I didn’t want to hear it. When we started following these principles, we grew closer because of our dialogue. We stopped feeling threatened and learned how feedback could become our best tool for becoming better individuals, which made us better together.
Today, she handles our finances, and we’re both happier.