As a means of giving constructive feedback, the compliment sandwich has come under fire. The idea is to start with a compliment about something someone does well, then deliver the negative feedback, and end on another compliment, so as not to offend the person on the receiving end. More often than not, what ends up happening is that feedback gets sugarcoated and lost in unrelated compliments, rather than delivered with compassionate directness, ultimately making it unclear and unproductive.
Instead of using such a convoluted method to get someone to change a habit, try what Guy Winch, Ph.D., a psychologist and author, calls a complaint sandwich. Winch coined the concept in his book The Squeaky Wheel and explained it at The Aspen Ideas Festival, hosted by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. At the festival, Winch explained that “we are afraid to voice complaints, and for good reason: It often doesn’t go well” — yet that doesn’t mean we can’t reshape our tactics and feel good when giving and receiving feedback.
The two sandwiches are similar, but with one key difference: In the latter, your first positive statement should be a compliment very closely related to the situation at hand, and the second positive statement should be a call to action that describes the positive benefit of improving the behavior. For example, if you’re addressing a co-worker who constantly misses deadlines, you might highlight how much you appreciate their diligence or attention to detail even when working under time constraints. And your complaint itself — or the “meat of the sandwich” — should be lean, or “in other words, all you need is the one incident to make your point,” Winch says. Listing every instance your co-worker made a mistake will only alienate them more, so it’s best to stick to the most recent incident.
So it might sound a little like this: “I really appreciate your attention to detail, even when we are working on a strict deadline. You were a day behind on this last project, though. It would be really beneficial to our whole team if you could prioritize our most pressing deadlines and get those projects in on time.”
Here are four reasons why this encouraging and empathetic method is the one you should use:
It’s the epitome of compassionate directness
Unlike the compliment sandwich, the complaint sandwich uses positive rhetoric in a relevant, straightforward way. Instead of beating around the bush and offering unrelated or over-the-top compliments, the positive statement (or first slice of “bread”) applies to the situation and serves as a transition into the conversation rather than a distraction. This is a perfect example of compassionate directness because it allows you to deliver feedback in real time in a way that is sensitive to your listener’s feelings.
It focuses on the present rather than the past
Sometimes, we get caught up in past grievances when giving feedback. This practice is largely ineffective and can make your listener resentful or even ashamed. The complaint sandwich is a forward-looking formula that will ensure neither you nor the recipient are left ruminating on past events that can’t be changed.
It’s specific in its approach
It’s all too easy to be vague when giving feedback, simply because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. The truth is, though, that honing in on details will help you deliver actionable advice that ultimately encourages a growth mindset. If your listener knows exactly where they went wrong, they can turn the mistake into a learning experience.
It motivates your listener to take action
The complaint sandwich makes it clear that something needs to be changed. Rather than leaving your colleague unsure of the next steps they should take — because they are caught up in a confusing mix of positive and negative feedback — they have a better idea of how they should course correct. And to take your complaint sandwich to the next level, you can work with them to devise a new goal and strategies that could help them achieve it.
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