What’s the best way to tell someone what you think?

Thumbs Down Have you ever had that awkward moment when you meet a friend for a night out and you think the outfit they are wearing is hideous? Or have you had a colleague at work ask you to look over their precious report and you really don’t think it’s that great? Perhaps your young son has done some homework that he’s proud of, but you know that it is not going to make the grade. How do you criticise someone without hurting their feelings? 
Sometimes it is impossible to give criticism without causing upset, but there are ways that you can lessen the blow.


Before you say anything, pause. Give yourself a little space to get inside their head and see things from their point of view.  Are they pleased with their achievement, or are they doubtful and genuinely seeking candid criticism? Remember that whatever the outcome, on some level they mean well and want approval. Who doesn’t? How would you feel?

What is the benefit to them of your input? Will they gain from it? Is it even relevant to them what you genuinely think? Honesty is the best policy and you may not feel it is your place to comment on others’ fashion sense for instance because it is such a personal thing. On the other hand getting a better grade in school may be worth a frank conversation.

The Feedback Sandwich

If you feel it is appropriate or helpful to give criticism, then you may find this structure useful. It’s called the ‘Feedback Sandwich’.

  1. Top slice – Find the positive
    Whatever the final outcome or product, a lot probably went into doing it, and there will always be some things that are worthy of praise. It might be that you can see what the overall drive was, or you may see some sparks of inspiration. It could be, when you consider it that in fact a huge amount of what was done is actually very good.  Draw attention to the positives. Be absolutely genuine about this.  Don’t just pay lip service. Make the person feel they did something well.  Even if it is just their overall intention.
  2. Filling –  Deliver the criticism constructively
    Now you can tell them what you think is wrong. Do it gently and simply with no unnecessary adjectives.  Make sure you use the word ‘and’, not ‘but’.  Focus on just one or two things and tell the person what can be done to improve, not what is wrong.  If you say her dress is ‘too drab’, she is likely to take more offence, than if you say ‘… and I prefer you in bright colours’. If the report is far too long you could say ‘and maybe you could write a summary, or drip feed it so busy people have time to read it’. Sometimes the best way is to actually ask them a question: ‘How can you make this part of your homework even better?’
  3. Bottom slice – Give the overall positive feedback
    End the feedback with another overall positive statement. Again, don’t be half-hearted about this.  Give a big picture positive. You can build in optimism about how the changes you have both come up with will make things even better.

sandwichGiving feedback this way is not always going to be taken with a smile and a hug but using this approach is likely to make things a lot easier than jumping in with both feet and knocking someone’s confidence.

If you’ve had a great experience of using this technique with others, why not write your example in the comments below?

Robert Sanders is a therapist and life coach, supporting people in their present and helping them create their future.

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