How often do you find yourself in a position requiring you to provide feedback to someone else, either for a writing project, or a speaking assignment? If you are a teacher, coach, mentor, or editor, you probably do this regularly.

Whether this is a regular occurrence, or an infrequent one, there are better ways than others to give feedback. There is, of course, the “laundry list” approach, in which you give a long list of things that need improvement. Or, there is the “sugar coat” approach, in which you simply do not tell what needs improving, instead only focusing on the positive elements.

Neither of these, however, is likely to get very far with the receiver. One is completely negative, the other insincere. How can one offer needed advice, without appearing harsh or unkind?

A few years ago, I learned a technique that has helped me incredibly. Unfortunately, I cannot recall where I learned it, whether it was from a book, or a person, so I am not able to give proper credit to this idea. It is not an uncommon approach, so perhaps you have heard of it, too.

It’s called the “sandwich” approach.

The idea behind the feedback “sandwich” is to start with something positive (the bread), add a few constructive comments about what to improve (the middle of the sandwich), and end with something positive (the bread).

When giving people constructive feedback, the idea is to tell them what worked and what did not work, or what needs improving. It is not a good approach to offer a long laundry list of things that they did wrong. It is also not the time to sugar-coat; writers and speakers and students genuinely want to learn and do better. Offering only a list of negatives or withholding anything that needs improving is not helpful for growth.

The sandwich approach couches the harder comments in between the positive ones. After all, it is possible to find something positive to commend to each person, and they need to know what that is.

A few years ago, I was tutoring a group of 7th and 8th grade students for an entire day, covering six subjects in  one day. One of the parts of the day included giving presentations on particular assignments. While it was not a speech class, we did discuss some basics about public speaking. After each student presentation, the class was to give feedback to the speaker.

On the first day we did this, I handed everyone some Oreo cookies. I taught the students the sandwich approach, but instead I called it the “Oreo Cookie” approach. The Oreo cookie was to serve as a reminder to them about how to give feedback. After each presentation, I would ask the students to name a few things the presenter did well. Sometimes, they were as simple as “great eye contact”, or “good volume”, but there was always something positive to say. Then, I would ask the class what sorts of things the presenter could work on. Responses included, “not enough volume”, or “slow down the pace”, or “more eye contact”. Then, we would close with another positive comment.

The point is that each student received what they needed to know, in an encouraging, non-threatening format.

As I coach team policy debate students in our debate club, I listen to many speeches and debate rounds, before they go to competition. The feedback they receive is much deeper than “eye contact” or “volume” (though those items to do come up!); however, this is modeling how to give feedback, so that these students grow up and do likewise.

Yet, this is a method that extends far beyond the realms of presentations and formal writing work; it has implications for communication in our daily lives.

How often can we think of examples where adults have launched into a litany of complaints or angry responses?

I think we can all agree, whether it is talking to a business about a particular complaint, or talking with a friend about something that was hurtful, the “sandwich” approach can soften a hard message. It helps to take away some of the emotion. This method also takes a hard thing and makes it doable; it divides up the task into three manageable steps. It also helps the listener to be more focused on the positive, because the natural tendency is to want to “fix” or to suggest improvements, or be distracted by something that bothered us. When we are deliberately thinking about positive elements, we will be more focused on the overall big picture of how the presentation is going, or the big picture of the challenging situation we are communicating about, rather than staying focused on the negative.

Furthermore, the message is more likely to be received well by the listener if we have found some genuinely positive things to share. Too much criticism, with nothing positive, can lead a person to shut all the feedback down and hear nothing at all.

I can personally attest that this approach has helped me to give feedback on too many occasions to count. I have used this method repeatedly, especially while giving feedback to students. When I give verbal feedback, or written feedback on a ballot, this is the outline of the approach I try to follow. I have taught it to students, and shared it with other adults. I have found that it is a teaching that persons of all ages need.

Even if we cannot change how much of society in general is going to communicate, with negative patterns, we can certainly change how we communicate. We can model a better way.

This is certainly not the only way, nor am I saying its the best way available. But it is a good place to start.

What do you think?

Question for you: So, what do you think? Will you be trying out this approach? You can even pick your favorite sandwich to explain it: Egg salad? Turkey? Tuna? Ham and cheese? You pick!