My Partner & I Do a Formal Retrospective Every Year, and You Should, too.
In July 2015 I met Ty Smith on the dating app Hinge. I was an executive assistant for John Battelle at NewCo (while performing as an actress on nights and weekends) and he was an Android Tech Lead at Twitter. I honestly had no idea what an engineer “did” at that point. I knew that they rolled into work around 11am, wore headphones, and they really liked Patagonia. I didn’t have a concept of what “coding” was, nor had I ever seen or touched it.
Flash forward to a year later (a few short months before starting at Hackbright Academy)- Ty Smith had the idea to do a “Relationship Retrospective”. He felt it would be a healthy way to review the positives, negatives, and action items of our relationship over the past year. Additionally, as a soon-to-be junior engineer, he thought it would be a good idea for me to experience a retro and learn the format for future reference.
So, we did it! I remember feeling ridiculous at first, thinking “are we really that couple?” 🙄. I remember smiling and appreciating all of the wonderful fantastic things we experienced as a couple during our first year of dating. I also remember getting upset about some negatives that came up and feeling very vulnerable giving and receiving feedback. But I have to admit…
…doing a relationship retro is probably the best thing you can do in a healthy, adult relationship.
Let me preface this by saying my partner and I have a very open channel of communication. This is alarmingly different than every previous relationship I’ve ever had up until this point. When something is on our minds, bothering us, or needs to be addressed, we talk about it immediately. A stark contrast to the men I dated in the past where we would let problems fester; eventually resulting in a very emotion outburst or fight, and ultimately ending in a break-up.
Look, I’m no relationship professional (nor do I claim to be), but I can say that communication is the key to the healthy relationship (romantic or otherwise). I see a lot of examples of this in movies and romcoms. Anyone else get super annoyed by that part of Shrek where if Fiona had just said “Hey, so I’m an ogre when the sun goes down…” they would have been able to resolve things much faster? Ok, sure, then it wouldn’t be an interesting movie, blahblahblah, but it’s true. I had the same issue with The Big Sick; great movie, but if Kumail’s character just said “hey, so my parents are really weird about this arranged marriage thing, and I think we should talk about it”, well… no spoilers, but I think they would have been a lot happier. Also, can we talk about how great Ray Romano was in that movie? But I digress…
Open and honest communication has removed all the what-ifs from my mind that used to take up an incredible amount of space. This is mainly due to the fact that I’m not constantly worrying “does he still like me?”, “are we going to break up?”, “am I bothering him?”, and “is he cheating on me?” as I constantly did in previous relationships. It’s my personal opinion that if you have any of these concerns, and you do not feel comfortable talking about them with your partner, you should GTFO of that relationship. I spent way too much mental energy on this type of anxiety in the past, and had gotten to a point where I was rationalizing that those feelings were valid/normal/expected. But again, I’m not a professional. I’m just a gal who hopes to pass a nerdy relationship technique along to you.
I often talk to friends, acquaintances, and coworkers who mention their relationship woes, and it makes me feel exhausted 😳. I remember those feelings, and I never want to feel them again. So here’s my 2 cents:
If you are in a relationship where you live in constant fear of getting emotionally hurt, breaking up, or being cheated on, and you do not feel comfortable addressing these issues with your partner, get out of that relationship. Right now. Your future self will thank you. 💁🏼
We chose this one, but there are many others. Feel free to do your own research to see what works best for you. Typically, 6 Thinking Hats works best with more than 2 people (since it is best practice to have a nonpartisan person moderate it) but we seem to have made it work.
So, without further ado, let me break down the key takeaways from this very valuable experience we have now participated in for the past 2 years:
There Should Be No Surprises
Ever notice that during the weeks your co-workers/managers/leadership team are filling out 360 feedback forms, tensions and emotions seem to run high at the office? These used to freak me out, too… until I realized that these feedback processes are meant to be a formal way of documenting the feedback, not a way to point out all of my flaws. When doing a retrospective, none of the feedback should be a surprise. This is where open and honest communication comes into play; it’s better to have these insights throughout the year, not at the end of it. I’ve been fortunate to have some fantastic managers in my developer evangelist career so far (shout-out to Dan Garfield and Ryan Goldman) who are both great at giving constant, actionable feedback throughout my career. Your retrospective should be a review, not an explosion of critiques, frustrations, and pent-up aggression that you’ve been saving for the past 365 days.
Receiving Feedback is Hard, yo.
I’m planning on writing a whole separate article about this eventually. But, feedback is hard, yo.
Here’s the thing- learning to give and receive feedback is an incredibly valuable skill in any industry, career path, or life in general. As an actress, my career was very feedback heavy. Be it about my abilities, looks, auditions, or even getting notes at the end of a run-through of a musical. It wasn’t uncommon to get a note such as “Chloe- that choice you made to have your character cry at the end of Act 2… never do that again. And also, the lighting stage left is very unflattering- go stage right instead”.
I grew up watching my father, Frank Condon, give rehearsal notes from a very young age. As a director, it’s your job to make sure the actors are staged, directed, and put in the best light (literally and figuratively) for the run of the show. Having worked with many directors over my 20+ year career in theatre, I learned the following:
Good directors give honest feedback. Bad directors only give compliments.
Additionally I learned:
Good actors take feedback. Bad actors protest and justify their “choices”.
This has been glaringly apparent to me in 2 situations. One where I watched my father give notes to an actress, to which she justified/rebutted every line of. The second was watching a co-worker give pushback on every single note given to him after asking us to watch a presentation he was planning on giving. Aggressively disputing feedback to people you asked it from (and often times whose job is it to give feedback) is just about the biggest middle finger you can give to someone in that position. They have taken the time to give their input and insight, and giving feedback is just as difficult as giving it (I’ll get to that in a moment). You may feel vulnerable being told that what you did wasn’t right/could have been done better/could use improvement. But here’s the thing: you don’t have to apply all of it (or any of it). An “interesting, thank you for that insight” response is much better than a “well, actually I did that because…” response.
Here’s how one of my favorite drag queens Jinkx Monsoon deals with feedback:
Giving Feedback is Equally Hard, yo.
Giving feedback is truly an art. As mentioned before, receiving feedback can be a very vulnerable experience (especially when that feedback is negative). Luckily, retro formats (such as 6 Thinking Hats) are great at structuring giving (and receiving) feedback in a digestible way for us. Much like a “compliment sandwich”, retrospectives are made in such a way where we are able to go over the positives, negatives, areas to improve, and overall feelings. As mentioned before, 6 Thinking Hats is best done with a nonpartisan moderator, but for the sake of privacy/the intimate issues that often times come up in relationship retros, I would advise against that.
Take time to prepare your feedback, and be mindful of the way you deliver it. Frances Frei of Uber says there are only two kinds of effective feedback that will help achieve results: positive reinforcement and constructive advice (you can read more detail about that here). This last anniversary, we took about a week to marinate/collect our thoughts for our most recent retrospective and came to the table with notes (honestly, it may have been longer, because we were traveling so much this July and had to push it off- oops! 😬). There are some dangers to giving feedback on the fly; you may touch on some emotional/triggering subjects that you will likely want to think through before saying them. Make sure you have the right words to say what you mean.
There Will Be Homework
When you finish your retrospective, you’ll have some actionable items you’ll walk away with that will require some homework. But don’t worry- some of it is fun homework! Here’s a couple examples of some from our most recent retro:
- Create list of people we want to spend time with, then make sure we get regular events scheduled.
- Get in shape and keep each other accountable.
- Calling out bad posture all the time (look into wearables).
- Chloe to limit social media.
- Identify some local trips we’d like to take and plan them.
- Do some classes together.
As you can see, action items can be things you need to work on together or individually. Additionally, some are a lot more fun that others. Don’t feel like you need to tackle all of these at once, as these action items are meant to be worked on throughout the year. For example, we have taken a couple of classes together but have yet to formally sit down and plan our local trips, find a good posture wearable, and I’ve yet to drag Ty to the gym with me in the AM every morning (although, he’s gotten me to adopt the keto diet, so we’re getting there!). So, no need to get upset if 2 months have passed and you’ve only chipped away at some of these. Just make a note to check in on your action items every couple months to monitor your progress.
This Seems Like A Lot of Work
I imagine there’s going to be quite a lot of people who read this and think “um- no thanks, that’s too much work”. That’s cool, I hear you. It is a lot of work, and it requires a lot of attention from both you and your partner.
Paying attention, giving feedback, and being receptive feedback is one of the greatest gifts you can give your partner. At the end of the day, the people we choose to have a longterm relationship with are unique to any other relationships we have. Sure, you’re romantically involved with them, but it goes beyond that. We can’t choose our families, we don’t (in most cases) get to choose our coworkers, neighbors, baristas, presidents, fellow students, creepy dudes we get stuck with on the bus, etc., but our longterm romantic relationships are the one thing we get to say “I choose this person“. By that logic, shouldn’t we make it a habit to invest time in making our relationship succeed?
I’d like to end with a quote from one of my favorite movies this year, Lady Bird in which her Catholic high school advisor gives feedback on one of her college essays:
Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately, and with such care
Lady Bird: I guess I pay attention.
Sister Sarah Joan: Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love and attention?
If doing a retro with your partner is something you do, or plan to do going forward, I’d love to hear your thoughts! I leave you now with my favorite picture with Ty Smith: