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The most effective (and most loving) way to give negative feedback


It's called a feedback sandwich, and it's useful everywhere from the office to the living room.

I love getting positive feedback. And I mean, love it. Words of affirmation are my primary love language, so positive feedback on anything from a good workout design to a stellar French braid in a 12-year-old’s hair gives me all the feels.

Exactly like that.

On the one hand, this is a blessing for the people who love me because it doesn’t take much to make happy. A few words of affirmation can flip my mood like a switch.

But on the other hand, it’s kind of a curse … because the drawback to loving positive feedback is that I hate (and I mean HATE) negative feedback.

It’s not really about pride — I don’t think I’m always right or perfect by a long shot. The problem is that I internalize negative feedback as readily as I internalize positive feedback — it feels like a criticism of me as a whole, rather than a criticism of my limits or weaknesses.

However, learning to adult comes with learning to accept negative feedback and even use it to my advantage. Over the last few years, I’ve learned that the absolute easiest way for me to hear criticism is by hearing affirmation first — a formula that The StartUp calls “the feedback sandwich.”

The process is as easy, and tasty, as it sounds:

  1. Deliver praise that confirms the positive values a person perceives about themselves and their place in the organization.
  2. Sandwich feedback that could be taken as negative in the middle.
  3. Top it off by reiterating the earlier praise or by explaining how acting on this feedback will reinforce their positive values.

This formula shouldn’t be limited to the office environment, either — in fact, I’ve often found that negative feedback far is easier for me to hear in a work setting than in a personal setting. Even the most scathing review by a camper or colleague won’t send me into the depths of despair the way a slight criticism from my mom or sister will.

My theory is that this is precisely because personal relationships are just that — personal. I prefer my business partners to like me as a person, but I won’t crawl into a hole and die if they don’t. I’ll just keep on going, aware that professional relationships aren’t the be-all and end-all of my life.

But relationships with my family are another story. They are the be-all and end-all of my life — they’re the people who matter the most to me, which means their opinion of me (both positive and negative) matters the most as well.

Interestingly, in writing this post I’m realizing that my father has actually always used the feedback sandwich formula. After years of building companies as an entrepreneur, it’s probably hardwired into him to deliver feedback in the most effective way possible, which is doubtless why his negative feedback never feels like negative feedback to me. Rather, it always feels like “constructive criticism,” with a special emphasis on the “constructive” part.

While I can’t start demanding that everyone I love begin giving me negative feedback in sandwich form, I can start using it myself. The next time one of my kids needs some serious feedback, I’ll be sure to start with the positive, ease into the negative, and then end with a reiteration of the positive. This method is not only the most effective, but it seems pretty clear to me that it’s the most merciful and loving as well.

And pairing correction with mercy and love is the best way to be a parent — and a person.

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