Feedback conversations: make it a snack not a sandwich


I just read a really interesting article by Roger Schwartz showing that the “sandwich” approach to giving feedback undermines the effectiveness of the conversation.

The sandwich approach says that if you have a piece of negative feedback to give someone, then you should sandwich it between two positive pieces of feedback because that makes it more palatable for the listener.


Mr Schwartz argues that when you do this, you alienate your listener because

  • very often the listener prefers to get “just the meat and no sandwich”: they quickly work out that the positive feedback is not entirely genuine.
  • you might be tempted to delay giving the negative feedback until you can discover some positive feedback to put with it. This is a bad idea because feedback works best when it is given quickly.
  • hearing the positive feedback, and knowing the system, the listener senses that negative feedback is coming up, and therefore they tense up while you are giving the positive feedback, waiting for the inevitable  “however…..”. This increases anxiety, which is the exact opposite of what you intended.

He also points out that the feedback sandwich is what he calls “unilaterally controlling” – in other words, you are attempting to influence others without telling them what you are doing: you are “influencing others without being influenced in return” as he puts it.

The feedback sandwich has an even more problematic effect, in my view. It requires the feedback giver to draw their own clear line between “positive” and “negative” feedback. It puts them firmly in the position of judge or accountant, setting out the positives and negatives in their own mind, before they engage with the listener. This damages the relationship between the giver and the receiver of feedback, and makes the conversation nerve-wracking.

I also think that, for all the reasons given above, the tension makes the positive feedback almost impossible to hear. The positive feedback becomes, exactly as the metaphor suggests, the bread of the sandwich: simply a carrier for the “really important stuff” – which is the negative feedback. Thus the negative feedback is given prominence, and the positive feedback is not heard.


  • avoid the use of “feedback sandwiches” – do not cover negative feedback with positive
  • give feedback snacks or canapés : frequently, in small tasty bits,  without bread or filler!
  • give facts, give your impressions, don’t try to work out what’s “positive” and what’s “negative” – just tell the person what they are doing and what effect it’s having on you, or what effect you observe in others
  • make sure you give lots of positive feedback, unmitigated by any negative: real pure compliments are good
  • equally, give bits of negative feedback without any “sweeteners” – assume your listener is a strong healthy adult

If you want feedback

  • ask “what did I do, and what effect did it have?”
  • don’t ask “what did I do well, and what did I do badly” – this puts the other person in the position of judge
  • when you receive unwelcome feedback, say thank you and pause, and receive it as a gift. Try asking “say more about that”
  • when you receive a compliment, smile, accept it (not very British I know), say thank you and believe it
  • don’t ask for feedback unless you really want it, and are prepared to accept it

Have you given anyone a compliment today? How did they take it?

Have you received a compliment today? How did you take it?

Categories: Conversations which work, Learning, training, and enhancing capability

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