The Compliment Sandwich: How To Give Constructive Criticism Without Hurting People’s Feelings

A good friend will tell you when you have spinach stuck in your teeth or when your pick-up lines are too cheesy to be effective. But, a great friend will offer you unsolicited feedback when you are heading down the wrong trail.

It is often difficult to give our friends honest feedback, even when they ask for it, because we love them and we do not want to hurt their feelings. If a friend is in a rough place, the last thing we want to do it make them feel crappier about themselves by pointing out things they are doing wrong.

Do you have a friend that you want to talk to, but feel uncomfortable being completely honest? There is a simple way to gently and effectively tell a friend what they need to hear (not what they want to hear).

It is called, The Compliment Sandwich.

When your friend is not hungry (interested in reality or hearing an alternative point of view), feeding your friend a bag of radishes (the bitter truth) is not going to make your friend eat (listen to reason). However, sneaking in some veggies between two bowls of ice cream will give your friend the satisfaction of indulging their discomfort while providing useful sustenance. Plus, your friend will not pull away from you, but will continue to trust your support.

So, anytime you need to say things to a friend that make you feel awkward and potentially risk their feelings, just prepare a Compliment Sandwich and hand-feed it to your friend.

The Recipe

The Compliment Sandwich has three main ingredients:

  1. The top bun (a compliment)
  2. The meat (the thing they need to hear)
  3. The bottom bun (a compliment)

For example, say you have a friend named Downer. Recently, your group of friends stopped inviting Downer to parties and dinners because Downer has a bad attitude and brings negative energy into every room. Downer thinks everyone is being a big jerk and blames the group. You like Downer, or at least you remember how Downer used to be much happier, and so you want to say something; but, you do not want to hurt Downer’s feelings or make the situation awkward for anyone.

So, you meet Downer for a beer at a laid back pub. You talk about this and that, then Downer mentions that everyone in the group is being a big fat jerk.

Enter: The Compliment Sandwich.

You casually say…

Option 1: The grilled cheese

“Yeah, I noticed that you haven’t been around. You know you’re so outgoing and have really interesting things to talk about, but I wonder if people are taken aback by your delivery. [Give Downer a friendly smile like you are reminiscing on something silly you two did as kids, but do not pause.] Compared to the rest of the group, you’re a lot more blunt, and you’re not afraid to talk about all the negative things going on in your life. Maybe the group just isn’t used to that, you know? I know I have to hold back whenever I start to talk about [insert common topic here] because I know nobody wants to hear it as much as I want to talk about it. It’s no big deal, though, it’s just part of being a group. Hey, maybe you should invite everybody over to your place next weekend. You have an awesome backyard, and you can teach us all how to play bocce. It can be a chance for us to practice not barfing [insert your common topic] and sob stories all over everyone. [Give a friendly smile and chuckle.] Whaddaya say?”

Option 2: The cold cut

“Yeah, I think there’s a reason for that.¬†You know you’re so outgoing and have really interesting things to talk about, but I wonder if people are taken aback by your delivery. [Give Downer a friendly smile like you are reminiscing on something silly you two did as kids, but do not pause.] Compared to the rest of the group, you’re a lot more blunt, and you’re not afraid to talk about all the negative things going on in your life. But honestly, lately I’ve noticed that you’ve been pretty harsh and seem to have only negative things to say about your life; and it makes me a little worried about you. I mean, I know how strong and independent you are – I really admire that about you – but, everybody needs to lean on a friend at some point. That’s what we’re here for, you know? It’s not fun to hear one of your good friends talking negatively about their life so much, but we care and we want you to be happy. So, is something going on?”

Notice the difference between the two approaches. Option 1 was softer and avoided mega-confrontation, but stated the issue and provided a solution. Option 2 cut to the chase and dug a little deeper to the underlying issue.

Personally, I am a fan of Option 2 because it attempts to get at the root of the problem, not just the surface. Option 2 is riskier and may provoke argument or awkwardness; but if you really care and want to see your friend happy, put your uncomfortable feelings aside and help-a-buddy-out.

ACTION

Your turn! Is there someone in your life who seems to be straying from who they are or who they say they want to be? Maybe it is just a phase, or maybe it is a cry for help. Although we are all responsible for ourselves, it helps to have friends that will pick us up and set us straight when we can not see our own reality. Be that great friend who takes a risk to confront people you love when it is painfully obvious there is something wrong. Offer your loved one in need a Compliment Sandwich and follow-up so that your friend trusts that you are reliable.

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