The Importance of Receiving Feedback

A friend and I were visiting recently, catching up over tea about the various and sundry ongoings of life – work, family, the coming holidays, our opinions of the new season of NBC’s “Grimm”, a local favorite, filmed as it is on and around our city streets. Not having seen one another for a few months, there was a lot to share. At one point, we talked about the challenges of making time for family amidst the demands of our professions, and she was reminded of a somewhat unpleasant exchange she’d had with her eldest many years prior.

She and her husband were driving home from dinner with their oldest son, then in his 20’s, in the backseat. Though she didn’t recall what provoked it, her son began to recount a list of ways she’d fallen short as a parent, emphasizing in particular that his younger brother got more of her time and attention growing up. Although this didn’t align with her own impressions, she did her best to listen and acknowledged that she was sorry for whatever she’d done that made him feel that way. While I suspect no one said it aloud at the time, had I been there, I might have felt compelled to revise and transform Neil Armstrong’s most famous utterance: “That’s one damn big step for a parent, not to mention all of humankind…”.

The act of receiving feedback in close relationships may appear mundane, but I believe it borders on the monumental. It is hard to be criticized, to hear that we have somehow failed a person who matters, often deeply. Our instinct may be to defend, deflect, disagree. But as we allow others to make complaint, to tell us where we misstepped, we learn about the ways in which we have undercut safety in the relationship. And in the very act of receiving input, we are taking the first step towards creating or enhancing the safety the other desires.

I don’t have the years of parenting experience that my friend does and I have no children of my own. I can only imagine what it must have felt like to be in her shoes (or seat) during that car ride, let alone to have the presence of mind to offer her son apology. The closest I’ve come is my stepdaughter once telling me, on the way home from school after her weekend with her mom, that I ask too many questions; knowing the intent of my questions when reconnecting is to show my interest in her life, her critique certainly caught my attention, but it pales in comparison to the apparent barrage my friend received.

In letting her son be heard, despite the discomfort she must have felt, my friend was communicating that his viewpoint mattered, that she could stand to tolerate his critique as part and parcel of being his parent. Although she may have missed the mark in his eyes many years ago, she was creating safety in the present by making room for his feedback. This is how safety in a relationship overall increases and, importantly, how unwelcome behavior (like a verbal retelling of perceived shortcomings) from a relationship partner can begin to subside.

When a relationship partner – child, partner, colleague, etc. – does not feel heard or validated, by our responses in action or word, the behavior in which s/he engages to deal with the resulting insecurity is often unpleasant. He or she may act out, withdraw, yell, cry, or create conflict in passive aggressive ways. Yet often, we tend not to realize the connection between the undesirable behavior and the underlying lack of security, and in responding solely to the behavior, we may never see or be able to address its root cause.

For example, my husband and I started to argue last Friday about whether to go out for dinner. He wanted to stay in, not deal with traffic or the bad weather, and suggested we go to the grocery store to get food to make at home. I was adamant about going out and as he dug his heels in and got more resistant, I got up from the couch where we’d been seated and started to raise my voice, offering a litany of reasons for my position: that it was our first night of the week without parenting responsibilities; that we cooked each night prior and he’d gotten to decide on the meals; that it has long been our routine on Fridays since we started dating; and, perhaps most important in that moment, that I had been working all week on a big presentation and needed the opportunity to relax and have an evening out. I was certain of the power of my logic and could not believe he remained unconvinced!

Although I suspect it was not evident to my husband in my justifications, the issue underlying my increasingly strong reaction was a wish/need to be taken care of by him – I was tired from my work efforts and anxious about the pending talk and I wanted him to show his support by spending time relaxing with me instead of our doing more work by food-shopping and cooking. My need for sensitivity from him was heightened by other stress and his reluctance felt to me like a discounting of this need. Still, what my husband saw and felt was my distance, irritation and anger. I didn’t have the words in the moment to say “Please take care of me: I’m tired and stressed and being out for dinner with you gives me comfort and safety”, a request he likely could have better heard and supported.

At the same time, my husband gave me feedback about my raised voice, saying that he didn’t want to listen to any more of my “yelling”, a depiction that seems legitimate to him and dramatic to me. Although he knows it’s my propensity for the decibel level of my words to go up when we are disagreeing and I am frustrated, he (understandably) finds the behavior objectionable. He tends to not want to continue the conversation, which inevitably only makes me more mad! He also dislikes when I remove myself physically, as I did in getting up from the couch and “making my case” standing 10 feet away. Of note, these responses on my part – a raised voice and increased physical space – are my attempts (generally unconscious) to deal with the decreased safety his resistance creates for me in the moment. But that’s an awful lot to ask anyone, let alone someone without a background in developmental psychology, to understand. Indeed, as evidenced by my behavior, even those of us with that training have a hard time recognizing it in the moment!

If he could put into words what happens to his sense of security with me in those moments, I imagine it would sound something like, “I feel unsafe when your voice is raised and I shut down in self-protection in response. I wish you could just keep sitting next to me and talking instead of getting upset and moving away”. Because we have enough history together for me to know this latter message is probably the essence of what he is conveying when we argue, I was able to hear him when he complained about the volume of my voice and to infer that moving back towards him and speaking more calmly about my need for some support would probably be a better approach. Perhaps not surprisingly, soon after I did so, our argument resolved as we found compromise: I would drive and deal with the traffic, bad weather, and parking so that he could better tolerate my need to be out with him; it may have also helped that he feels more at ease having an IPA at the restaurant if I do the driving….

Of course, things don’t always go this way and we have times when we get mired in the disagreement; I suspect most couples (and other relationships) do. It is effort to see and hear another person’s unpleasant behavior as an underlying request for more safety and security. But underlying issues of safety and security, both presently and in the cumulative span of the relationship, are always at play in our interactions; it is our ability to see (or not see) them that inform whether we improve their quality in the moment as well as overall, or whether the situation and the relationship move towards distress and deterioration. Our openness to seeing, hearing, and even looking for feedback about our part in creating and maintaining safety and security in a close relationship is a powerful tool, one we should deploy readily with all those for whom we care.

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