“Hey, Elizabeth,” the guy said, “I wanted to tell you that I really liked your check-in with that group today. That was a good question.”

“Um, thanks…” I responded. Even though I was receiving a compliment, something was off in his tone and I could sense my guard creeping up.

“Yes, it was very good. We could really feel the group coming together,” he continued. “However…, um…,” he hesitated, “in the afternoon….”

Oh, I could see what was happening here: he was serving me a feedback sandwich. I hadn’t ordered one, but here it was: heavy, and dripping with unsolicited “constructive” criticism, wedged between two thin, dry compliments.

Photo by Francis Mariani

“…it’s just a bit of feedback I thought you could use… Oh, and that’s a really nice dress!” he concluded weakly.

“Um, thank you,” I mustered, “I’ll take your feedback into consideration when designing the next work session. See you next time.” I walked away flustered, as I wiped the bitter taste of unwanted feedback off my lips.

Now, I like to pride myself on being someone who can handle criticism, feedback, and tough issues. “Give it to me straight” could be my tagline. “Courageous conversations” is one of the keywords on my Percolab business card. I do not shy away from what is difficult. My eyes might sting with tears if something hits close to home, but I am a learner first, and I figure I can always get stronger and better.

But this feedback sandwich upset me. I wasn’t ready to receive it, I felt patronized, and misunderstood. And I had the distinct impression his feedback was about him, not me or the meeting. In case you’re curious, the feedback was a list of activities he liked or didn’t like. While I am always happy to hear about how people experience my process design, there wasn’t anything in his feedback that I could use to make my design better.

Four easy steps to building a better feedback sandwich

1) Consent

First of all, ask permission! If you wanted to offer someone a sandwich would you just shove it down their throat?


(And if your answer is yes, please message me privately: we need to talk).

A few weeks ago, I accosted my colleague. I wanted to talk to her about a decision she had made that affected the whole team. I wasn’t upset about the decision itself (it was a good decision), but I was livid about the team not being consulted for this specific type of decision. When I saw her arrive, I walked right up to her — before she even took her coat off — and told her what I thought. No hello. No how-ya-doing? No, hey-can-I-talk-to-you-about-this-thing? Within minutes of delivering my little diatribe, I felt like crap. I knew I had not handled that well. She just look stunned. A little later that morning, I learned that moments before I cornered her she had found out a family friend had died.

Good job, Elizabeth,” I thought, withering a little inside. I might as well have thrown a hot smoked meat sandwich at her and drizzled mustard down her blouse.

So, if you are offering to feed someone a sandwich, ask them first: “Would you like a sandwich?” And if they say no, don’t give it to them. That’s all. The same goes for feedback.

2) Preference

Then you gotta get a little more specific: what kind of sandwich are you offering? Do you only have the one pre-wrapped sandwich? Do you have a whole pantry at your disposal and you just absolutely want to feed this person? Do you know about their preferences and if they have any restrictions? What about allergies?

At one of our team retreats, another colleague led us through a workshop on giving feedback. One of the questions he asked us to reflect on was “How do you like your feedback?” And the diversity of responses threw me off guard: “Bluntly,” said one. “In question form,” said another. “Please be gentle,” said a third. And on and on: nine different answers for nine different people.

Asking someone how they want their feedback is kind and respectful. If that seems too open-ended, maybe you can try: “This is the kind of feedback I have, would that be useful to you?” Kind of like, “I have grilled cheese sandwiches, would you like one? I made them with gouda!”

3) Intention

Let’s get back to the basics: why do you want to give feedback in the first place? Is this about you sharing your opinion, or, do you really want to contribute to this person’s growing and learning? Do you have extra sandwiches that you need to get rid of, or, do you really think a sandwich would benefit this person? Does it look like their blood sugar is getting low and they need a boost? Have they commented about how hungry they are? Have they been eyeing the buffet table?

I flush a little when I think about all the times I thought I had useful feedback to give when really I was just being an obnoxious know-it-all. I wanted to show how smart I was, or trot out a new theory I had just learned, or flex a little authority. In short, my attempt at “feedback” was really my ego seeking attention.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of being clear about the intention behind what you are giving feedback about and this is where it can get a little tricky. For instance, if my intention while facilitating a group was to get them to brainstorm and someone gives me feedback about how there were no decisions made… not helpful. However, if they get that my intention was to brainstorm and their feedback is that they felt the instructions were unclear and their group was confused, then that is something I really need to work on. And just to be sure you get the other’s person’s intention: ask! Something like, “Hey, what was the intention behind that speech.” Or, “I understood your speech like this _______. Was that what you were going for?

Being clear on our intention is essential if we want our work to have impact out in the world. I recently slammed into the importance of intention while taking a writing class with inspiring local writer and communications expert, Adriana Palanca. I was going to miss one of the weekly classes as I had to go give my own workshop on collective intelligence practices in Quebec City. I decided to submit a writing piece anyways and get some useful feedback from the group (my piece would be read out loud and commented even in my absence.) So I lovingly crafted a detailed description about the quality of movement in the “dance shows” my five- and seven-year-old children like to perform in the living room. How they move their arms, how they spin each other around, and how gentle and careful my son is with his little sister.

Except. Oh, dear.

Apparently… I wasn’t quite clear on my intention and my classmates interpreted my piece to be about a sexy romp between two adults on an orange couch. They were mortified when they realized, four paragraphs in, that I was writing about my kids.

I got my feedback from Adriana in ALLCAPS that week. Thankfully. I need to know if people are getting what I am trying to do. And if my intention and impact aren’t lining up, then please, by all means, give me something to work on. Just make sure I’m ready and willing to digest it. Boy, did I happily (but embarrassingly) accept that sandwich!

4) Be specific and add a pickle

One last thing, be specific. Don’t give me a “meat” sandwich. Ham and cheese on toast is much clearer. Mortadella and provolone on warm ciabatta, even easier to identify. The clearer and more specific your feedback is (like, “Elizabeth, make sure you say that you are writing about small children dancing in the first line”), the more useful it will potentially be for the person receiving it.

And if you want to add in a pickle to make the intention-wrapped sandwich a little tastier, focus on what you think they are specifically doing well, not just what you like. It’s the difference between: I liked the sandwich OR those caramelized onions really brought out the tartness of the apples and the richness of the brie in that wrap.

In short:

  • Figure out why you want to give feedback in the first place. (Hello, ego, is that you talking?)
  • Ask if they want to hear your feedback. And if they want it right now.
  • Ask what kind of feedback would be useful (or if they want the kind you have).
  • Check to make sure you get the intention of what you are offering feedback on.
  • Be clear and specific.
  • You can always compliment my dress.

And if someone gives you a feedback sandwich when you aren’t hungry? Be gracious. Smile and nod and take a bite. You can always spit it out later.

Thank you to Adriana Palanca for schooling me on the importance of intention and for the wonderful feedback process in your class. Thank you to Ezra Bridgman, for the awesome editing. Thank you to Meghan Gilmore and Lisa Rollins for the feedback!

I owe each of you a sandwich. I’ll even let you pick what kind.

Methodologies and tools: