As I brought up in my previous article, ‘A Course Mandated Experiential Group For Therapists‘ criticism can be hard to swallow. People still feel attacked when eating the criticism sandwich, so what can we do?
No one really likes receiving criticism. It always hurts, by how much it hurts is the aim of giving it effectively. Ideally, everyone would offer criticism in the least painful way they can. Thus, this article will attempt to offer some insights into how to do this.
Where To Start With Criticism
I guess the best place to start would be why you want to offer criticism in the first place. If you’re wanting to offer your criticism for any other reason than to be helpful, offering insight, or to resolve a problem, then you should probably just keep your views to yourself. Because that’s just destructive criticism.
Destructive criticism is, without a doubt, destructive. Its intention is to make the person on the receiving end feel bad. It’s an act meant to demean someone, to discredit and hurt them. However, constructive criticism is meant to be a way to present criticism without the other person feeling personally attacked: thus protecting their self-esteem. But does constructive criticism do that? It’s certainly easier to handle such criticism, but it can still cause a little pain.
As previously stated in my ‘A Course Mandated Experiential Group‘, it’s best to offer your criticism in a one-to-one situation to avoid the receiver running the risk of feeling publicly humiliated. Obviously, this will be determined by the kind of criticism you’re giving them. For example, in an art class, the teacher may offer you some tips/advice on improving your artistic piece, which would be fine to do around others if handled in the correct way.
On the flip side to that, if you felt someone’s behaviour towards you was unacceptable, then taking them to one side where you can discuss it properly would be the preferred method to resolve the problem. They’ll be more likely to engage with you and be willing to change in this one-to-one encounter. If it was brought up in front of people, they’ll most likely feel like they’re being attacked, and the desired outcome won’t be achieved: change.
Maybe it would actually be better to ditch the term criticism altogether, and instead frame it as constructive feedback: it has better connotations. It’s been suggested that criticism is given by the criticiser for their own sake, whereas constructive feedback is given for the sake of the receiver.
Thus, if you care about your partner (this post can also work as additional tips for my previous post, Tips For Maintaining A Relationship: According To Twitter) then you’re intent is to help them grow as a person, rather than just stating their something you don’t like about them. Although, often, theirs probably a very fine line between the two in some situations.
So, for the rest of this article, we’ll be looking at this through a constructive feedback approach because of its healthier connotations.
Don’t Make It Personal
Theirs a couple of things you can do here. First, it’s important to remember that it’s often not the content of what you’re saying that causes the harm, it’s the way you say it. Also, remember, don’t let your message get lost in translation by tying yourself in knots trying to be too tactful.
Secondly, criticism by its very nature is basically personal. Thus, the aim is to give constructive feedback rather than criticism. By that, I mean you specifically talk about a certain action, behaviour, etc., rather than criticising their whole sense of self and personality. In short, you’re not judging them as a person. Your intention is to provide constructive feedback so they can make improvements.
The Sandwich Method
A common approach to giving constructive feedback is to use the sandwich method, which I brought up in my previous post. Basically, this is where you wrap your constructive feedback with some positives. You start by giving them a slice of positive feedback, then you deliver your constructive feedback, and then end with another slice of positive feedback. This makes the criticism sandwich easier to swallow.
The criticism sandwich is so well known now that it pretty much lacks sincerity. Because of that, a lot of people know they’re being manipulated, which makes the exchange lack genuineness.
It was a well-intended method, and it did/does soften the blow. However, because it’s so well known, it’s not as useful to use on adults. Although it could still have its uses for delivering constructive criticism to children.
Unlike children who won’t have experienced this method before, or at least not that often, adults familiar with this method will see exactly what you’re doing. This means they’ve effectively been trained to expect what’s coming. If you know what’s coming, then the only thing the person hears is the criticism, meaning they won’t take the constructive feedback in the way it was intended.
People brace themselves for the pain when they know it’s coming, making them defensive. On the flip side to that, it’s also been suggested that even if the person wasn’t preparing themselves for the criticism part of the sandwich, they might forget the constructive feedback and only remember the positive comments you wrapped it up in.
Although the latter is probably less likely if you’re suffering from depression. In short, this model should be used wisely and not too often.
What are your thoughts on the criticism sandwich and its effectiveness? Did this method actually lead to you making changes? Should we stop dishing out those criticism sandwiches? Let me know in the comments section below.
Change: From You To How
Criticism can be constructive when it is framed appropriately, hence moving towards a constructive feedback approach. Thus, avoid resorting to accusations or making derogatory comments, and instead talk about how constructive feedback could benefit them if they made the changes. Basically, instead of saying “you” need to do this, you’re showing them “how” it could help them.
For example, if your partner is a skin picker, rather than saying “you need to stop picking your skin” you instead say something like “how about you carry a stress ball to keep your hands busy so you don’t hurt yourself with your skin picking?”
See how that’s a better way to deliver a message to your partner, that feels less like you’re disgusted by the things they do, and rather showing concern instead.
Be Specific And Ground Your Constructive Feedback In The Behaviours
Often, criticism is given in too vague a way. For example, being a “team player” is a vague comment: what do you actually want them to do?
Constructive feedback should describe the behaviour(s) that you think needs addressing. Thus, if you want your friends/family/partner(s) to be more supportive of you, don’t just tell them to be more supportive, explain to them how their behaviour hasn’t been supportive and then open up the discussion into how they could better support you.
People are unaware of how to best support someone with mental health conditions and don’t know how to broach the subject. Thus, this will be a good way to get it all out in the open and improve your relationships.
Lead By Example
As the saying goes, a leader must lead by example and walk their talk. If you want a child, friend, family member, or partner(s) to do something in a particular way, then it’s best to show them by using yourself as an example.
Obviously, how you go about showing them is also important. Don’t just tell them that the way they’re doing something is wrong or stupid and that they should do it the way you do it, and then show them.
Remember, you’re trying to help them grow and change for themselves, not yourself. Thus, for example, you could say something like “let me show you how I deal with stress because I’ve found it really useful for helping me manage mine.”
Showing someone something, when done in the right way, will normally mean the receiver is more open to adopting the new behaviour. Plus, if you’re someone like me, I learn better through examples and practice, due to the problems I have with my short-term memory: thanks dyslexia.
Criticize Your Own Behaviour First
Think of this as being adjacent to leading by example. Because that’s basically what you’re doing. You’re showing them that you can relate to the receiver(s) of your constructive feedback by sharing your own experience.
Using the stress example again, you can talk about how badly you managed your stress before you found something that worked for you, and thus you’d like to share that thing that worked for you in the hopes it might also work for them. Alternatively, you could also use your example of how you have struggled with stress to get them to consider ways to manage their stress better.
This method for delivering constructive feedback avoids the feeling that someone might be looking down on the receiver. All you’re doing is offering helpful suggestions based on your personal experience.
It’s also a useful method to use to help mend a rift caused by an argument, whereby you admit your fault/role in the situation. This allows you to talk about what you feel you’ve done wrong, and what you hope to do differently in the future, and then bring in the other person(s) to do the same, and talk about what you hope they’ll also do differently.
Using A “Straw Man”
Sometimes it can be useful to use the third person, or a fictional person, as an example to make your point. So unlike using your own personal experience as an example, because you might not have a personal one in which to use, you could use a story of a famous person or just a made-up person.
That way you’re still showing that other people can make the same mistakes as them, but can also change: it makes the situation a little easier to swallow.
Maybe not as easy to use in a romantic relationship, but in other situations like friendships and the workplace, this method could be useful.
Prepare The Recipient For The Constructive Feedback
When you’re intending to give constructive feedback, it’s important to first have an outcome in mind. If you don’t, then you might not get the outcome you were hoping for. Worse, you might not deliver constructive feedback in the way best suited to achieving your outcome.
After you’ve done that, you should then prepare the receiver(s) for what you’re about to say: it sucks to be blindsided. This is a bit of a cliché, but telling the person(s) that you “need to talk” is at least a heads-up that a difficult conversation is needing to be had. Although it might be best to phrase it a little better than that, saying something like “I really need to talk to someone about something important that might be a little uncomfortable to discuss.”
Instead Of Giving Orders, Ask Questions
It’s ok to offer suggestions, but at the same time, you need to let the recipient decide what they’ll do with your suggestion(s).
So you could start off by saying, “have you considered trying…” to set up your suggestion(s), then make your suggestion, and then finish by saying “what do you think?”
This way, the receiver(s) feels like their opinion at least matters to you, which will make the constructive feedback more likely to be accepted, rather than being rejected due to their defences coming up.
Furthermore, asking questions allows for creative discussion to take place. They might not accept your suggestion, but they could get inspiration from your suggestion to try something different.
For example, going back to my skin-picking example whereby it was suggested a stress ball be carried to keep their hands busy to avoid picking at their skin. They might dismiss this idea because they’d have to constantly carry a stress ball around with them. But they could come up with a more practical solution based on your suggestion, like wearing a bracelet that they could fiddle with instead.
Use Emotional Intelligence
People often say things in anger, which they later regret, whereby they attack the receiver(s) with pure criticism rather than offering constructive feedback. To help avoid this, consider what your emotional state is before you attempt to deliver your constructive feedback.
Consider your emotional state before delivering constructive feedback. Otherwise, the exchange could be seen as an attack, which will backfire on you. Take some time to understand how the constructive feedback you need to deliver impacts you personally and the receiver(s). Managing your emotions beforehand will lead to a better outcome of constructive feedback.
Build A Bridge, Don’t Burn One
As I’ve said before, the purpose of offering constructive feedback is to help the receiver(s) grow. So keep the conversation on topic and don’t make it about them as a person. Make this exchange about support and working together to reach the desired outcome.
That said, there are times when burning a bridge is better than trying to build or maintain one. Your mental wellbeing is more important than trying to mend something that’s far too broken. I know I’ve had to burn some bridges in my time because people became too toxic to keep in my life. They were unwilling to engage in a discussion about changing, let alone being willing to change.
As I’ve said before in my previous article, I’ve seen firsthand how destructive “I” statements can be. But that could be due to how they were used, rather than all “I” statements as a whole. Hopefully, this will provide a better way of using them.
Unless you’re trying to heap compliments and praise on someone, ‘you’ based statements come across as hostile. Such statements will be processed as destructive criticism, and they are very unlikely to lead to any worthwhile change.
Examples of ‘you’ statements:
You never come home on time!
You think we should wait for you to come home late before we eat?
Why can’t you…
Why can’t you be more considerate?
In contrast, I based statements, if used right, go like this:
I get really upset when…
I get really upset when you don’t at least tell me you’re going to be late.
I struggle with…
I struggle with mental health problems and I’d appreciate it if we could be more supportive of each other. Can we talk about how we can make this situation better for both of us?
It might seem insignificant, but a very important part of communication is stuff like body language, and this includes your tone.
The tone you use when delivering your constructive feedback will affect how the receiver(s) will process it. If you’re coming across as angry, it’ll be seen as an attack and their defences will come up. But if your tone is a caring one, then it’ll be seen as such.
Asking For Permission To Criticise
This might sound like a strange way to go about it, but it can work. Instead of telling them, you need to talk about what you want to offer constructive feedback on. You ask them if it’s ok to talk about what you want to give constructive criticism on.
For example, “I’ve noticed some changes in your behaviour that I’m a little concerned about, do you want to talk about it?” This then gives the receiver(s) the choice to accept your offer to talk or not, to open up to you, and to allow you to offer your constructive feedback.
Basically, this method is to make sure all those involved in the constructive feedback are aware that this is a two-way street. Thus, when you bring up the constructive feedback you want to talk about with the receiver(s), you also provide them with the same chance to discuss something they’d like to provide constructive feedback on as well.
It’s all about it being a shared process of give and take in order to improve your relationship. Your desired outcome shouldn’t only be attainable through a loss for the receiver(s).
This has the added benefit of avoiding future issues because you made it an exchange between people who respect each other’s needs. It could also make you aware of stuff you might also need to work on making the relationship work better.
In short, we’ve all received criticism and know it can be hurtful to hear, so remember that receiving criticism can be painful. So when providing your constructive feedback, do it from a stance of respect for the receiver(s). We’ve all been on the receiving end of it, so try the best you can to make it the least painful experience possible.
If you can, try to create a situation whereby the receiver(s) can come up with their own solutions before you offer your constructive feedback. That way, you might not have to offer it at all.
However, if you do still feel the need to offer your constructive feedback, then ask the receiver(s) how it should be handled. This allows them to feel like a useful part of the discussion.
Don’t Be a Dick
Words we should all live by, and which don’t need an explanation either.
Writing this has made me realise just how many of these methods my partner and I use, especially my partner. So I can personally account for how effective they are because my mental and physical health problems are a lot for someone to handle: I can barely handle them myself.
Well, that’s the end of my post. As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, feel free to offer your advice and tips on delivering constructive feedback in the comments section below as well. If you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
8 thoughts on “The Hard Truth About Eating The Criticism Sandwich”
I agree with a lot of your points in this post, when I was a college student, we had alot of peer feedback sessions and we always used The Sandwich Method as we thought it was much nicer way to give someone feedback.
Have you moved on from the sandwich method?
Great post! I have to agree with What’s in my wonderland. We used to do the same in university wherein we marked each other’s practice papers or we got together for group projects. I always tried to use this method when working with others in anyway. I don’t like to offend or annoy anyone, so often don’t like critising because I know there is plenty about myself to critise, but sometimes you can’t avoid it. In those instances you try and be as constructive and compassionate as possible.
I’m kinda similar. I have an extremely over critical inner voice that is the bane of my life causing me great misery. So I prefer to keep this critical voice in my head where it can only hurt me, and try to avoid being in situations where I have to give criticism when I can
I didn’t know that’s called a sandwich method but we stopped doing it after a while. Also, I agree with you, don’t make it a reason for you to make things worse with accusations and stuff but instead, turn it into constructive feedback.
I wish more people would try something different to the sandwich method
Knowing how to deliver constructive feedback is so important. You give great advice on being fair and empathetic. This post was so informative on the appropriate way to give feedback. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you for your kind words