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One Easy Way to Give More Effective Criticism

It was back at the university that I first came across this technique for improving the way you criticise.

Whenever we had done an exercise in writing, editing or something like that we used this method.

After some Googling I’ve discovered that in English it’s called the Sandwich-technique. It’s divided into three steps.

But before you use it to criticise it might be useful to stop and think for a few minutes. Ask yourself:

  • Is this something worth bringing up?
  • Is there really a problem?
  • If there is, then is it really that big of a problem or just something I have magnified in my mind?
  • Maybe I’m just feeling angry/down/sour and want to get express those feelings by lashing out?

Think about those questions. Often when you slow down and think about if for a few minutes you discover that there may not really be a need to criticize.

The Sandwich Technique

1. You start by listing the positive things about the essay, project etc.

2. Then move on to giving the negative criticism. Remember to make it constructive criticism and that you keep the critique directed as much as possible towards the task rather than the person. Unconstructive criticism and personal attacks are pointless and a waste of everyone’s time. So here you list the negative aspects of the paper, speech etc. and what specific things you think could be done to improve these weak points. Be clear about it or people might leave not knowing what to improve. Rather than seeing this section as a place to where you can pour out the negativity see it as a section where you recommend and in specific way explain what could be improved and provide suggestions on how to go about doing that.

3. End on a positive and encouraging note. Highlight what’s good about the speech or project and positive points about the people who made it. Be honest though, just praise what you liked. A sandwich of made of Insincerity+Negative criticism+Insincerity is worse than just giving your negative criticism straight up and people can smell it from miles away.

This technique is not only useful when you are doing some heavy and deep criticism for hours on end. You can use it in your day to day life too to convey a small complaint or something you think could be improved.

For instance if your complaint is for your boss/teacher, just start with bringing up how well work has gone so far. Or how things have improved. Or how things are running more smoothly and pleasantly than before.

Then give your complaint/recommendation. Your boss/teacher is already listening after you gave her/him the positive criticism. Keep it brief and get to the point. Otherwise s/he might stop listening. It’s also good to try and avoid using negative words such as problem as this can send the other person in a defensive mode.

End with encouragement, with how solving this could improve the workplace, increase efficiency and productivity, raise the level of happiness in the workplace even more. If you can, giving a reason to fix this that improves the situation of your boss/teacher is always a powerful motivator for him/her to get the issue handled.

Why should you use this technique?

  • It’s effective because it doesn’t put the criticised in too much of a defensive or awkward position. S/he’ll often be more receptive to your criticism if you start on a positive note than if you just blurt out your negative thoughts.
  • It ends on a positive and constructive note. This does less damage to the relationships between the one criticising and the critiqued. Ending a meeting just when you’ve delivered negative criticism is not a great or kind idea. We all know how bad and discouraged we can feel after receiving criticism. The future of that relationship could get damaged.
  • It’s fun to give honest positive praise and encouragement to people. And we probably need more of it. Much of the world seems to too easily get stuck in a rut of complaining, nagging and criticising and forget the positive things about people and their work. Don´t limit praise and encouragement to situations where you need to say something negative though.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Sam

    It might work well when the criticism is given as a feedback of a face2face meeting. Do you think this works well in email communications also? There are few instances in which the recipients start replying their emails after reading half email. What end up happening is … they get all pumped up with the comments mentioned in the middle and fail to even read the whole email and end up sending hurting or angry replies and then when the sender points it in the response that he had covered those in the last few sentences, it is already late spilling all the bitter words. I wonder how to handle that.

  • Great tips about the “sandwich technique”! It’s funny the things you remember, but my mother (an entrepreneur herself) has always told me that this method is directly responsible for her ability to handle tough situations and criticize properly. It’s led me through some rough times, too.

    Keep up the great work! You’ve got a great blog. 🙂

  • rene

    I think this method works well when done face-to-face, and have used it many times; however, doing it via written communication is more risky unless both parties know each other well. Since only about 7% of any message is conveyed in words, and written communication is entirely words — people tend to read the words with their own infections based on their feelings at the moment and how they feel about the other person.

    There are two ways that might help the email mishaps. One is to state upfront: I have three things to share with you. Another way is to simple number the things you want to share (people tend to look through an entire list).

  • Nice article, and I agree with rene above that it’s very different via email. What would you suggest if after all your best efforts at politeness the person still gets offended?

  • Brett: Thanks. I´m glad to hear that you and your mother have found good use of the sandwich-technique.

    Sam and Rene: I agree that using this technique via email is quite a bit different than using it face to face. I like Rene´s two suggestions for getting someone to read the the whole email. Especially the one about stating upfront that you have 3 things to share.

    Albert: I would try to analyze what had gone wrong in that interaction. See what words I had used and how I had used them. As Rene said: words are only 7 % of communication. So perhaps even though my words were polite my tone had maybe been a bit aggresive during the interaction. Then I´d try to change this part for the next time I was to critique. However, sometimes someone just gets offended and perhaps there is little you can do about it. They might just be very sensitive at that point in time due to, for example, problems at home.

  • I would add to be encouraging(praise) in a stronger voice when you make the comments. You are definitely on the right track with this. I think that is the single most important thing we can do for others…and it’s alot more than just words. It does involve awareness, insight, communication, understanding, risk, courage, I could go on and on. Who knows what tragedy could next be avoided if we take the time to encourage our fellow sojourners on the oftentimes tough path of life.
    How to encourage

  • Thank you for your comment, Kay G. You make a good point about the importance of encouragement.

  • This is a very good approach. Toastmasters, a non-profit organization, http://www.toastmasters.org , which has as it’s goal to improve communication skills worldwide recommends this sandwich approach as one way of giving feedback for communication projects. I use it all the time. I thoroughly enjoy your entries and am glad I’ve subscribed to your RSS feed. Keep up the good work!

  • Nicole

    I am a couple of years late but here is my feedback to this tip….

    1 – it confuses people. After using this with various staff members for years we all sat down and figured out that we were “not consistent” with our messaging and that is why the ‘negatives’ never got solved. It came across as “too nice” since it started and ended with praise AND 2/3 of the conversation was then praise.

    Personally my rebuttal to this is that we should be mature enough to HEAR both and incorporate both back into our work. But alas above is what the overall concensus was and we retrained to NOT use this method.

    2. younger generation. Sorry but the young people “hear what they want to hear”. So by having the positive at the start and beginning they “shrug off the middle point” thinking “ah well it was just one point amongst 3 (or more)”. So, again, due to how this is used and misused I tend to want to cut the crap and just be straight up – “There were some points you did well, but we really need to talk about XYZ as a concern…….” and then give it to them. Perhaps I am jaded but seriously trying this exact technique and others that include “positivity and motivation” just backfire with the young people.

    And, I am 28 but have been in my career for 9 years……….. So I’m not slamming ‘young people’ but really they have a much different mindset and it is very annoying.

  • I know deep down that if I make people feel valuable they will see my input as having value. But in that moment when they are just hands-down, across-the-board dead wrong, I sometimes can’t stop myself from letting them know how incredibly wrong they are. When that happens, my ability to influence them vaporizes on the spot, and I’m left dealing with the response I created by making them wrong.

    I think this is the most consistently counterproductive thing we do in business and, I suspect, in our personal lives too. It may be the foundation of communication breakdown.

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