Comfort Challenge #5: Use the Criticism Sandwich

If you try this comfort challenge, please share your experience in the comments below! I’d love to read them. It’s always a hilarious and valuable exploration of getting more comfortable with discomfort.

Here is the original text of the challenge from The 4-Hour Workweek:

Chances are good that someone—be it a co-worker, boss, customer, or significant other—does something irritating or at a subpar level. 

Rather than avoid the topic out of fear of confrontation, let’s chocolate-coat it and ask them to fix it. 

Once per day for two days, and then each Thursday (M–W is too tense and Friday is too relaxed) for the next three weeks, resolve to use what I call the Criticism Sandwich with someone. 

It’s called the Criticism Sandwich because you first praise the person for something, then deliver the criticism, and then close with topic-shifting praise to exit the sensitive topic. 

Here’s an example with a superior or boss, with keywords and phrases in italics.

You: Hi, Mara. Do you have a second?

Mara: Sure. What’s up?

You: First, I wanted to thank you for helping me with the Meelie Worm account [or whatever]. I really appreciate you showing me how to handle that. You’re really good at fixing the technical issues.

Mara: No problem.

You: Here’s the thing. There is a lot of work coming down on everyone, and I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. Normally, priorities are really clear to me, but I’ve been having trouble recently figuring out which tasks are highest on the list. Could you help me by pointing out the most important items when a handful need to be done? I’m sure it’s just me, but I’d really appreciate it, and I think it would help.

Mara: Uhh . . . I’ll see what I can do.

You: That means a lot to me. Thanks. Before I forget, last week’s presentation was excellent.

Mara: Did you think so? Blah, blah, blah . . .

If you try this comfort challenge, please share your experience in the comments below! Id love to read them. Its always a hilarious and valuable exploration of getting more comfortable with discomfort.

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 500 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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34 Replies to “Comfort Challenge #5: Use the Criticism Sandwich”

  1. Hi, when I was a team manager in a call centre for many years, this was a method we were encouraged to use. It works well for some. It doesn’t work well however on me or other experienced colleagues who know what’s coming and are aware that you’re using a device on them. I would rather you just get straight to the filling. Know your audience and watch their reaction to best understand how you are making them feel.

    1. I’m working on this:

      1. Someone *should* do or not do something (obviously!).

      2. Clean up my thoughts *first* (one way: Judge-Your-Neighbor Worksheet – Byron Katie).

      3. Decide how I want to show up with that person (for me, this would rarely be using a technique that was designed to control a person’s reaction–they are entitled to their own reactions to whatever I have to say).

      4. Notice my discomfort and make space to process it (this generally feels yuck to me).

      5. Communicate.

  2. Hi Tim,

    Offtopic to the challenge, but given your reach, I wanted to flag to you Folding at Home. Like SETI, they use distributed computing power to solve problems, and they’ve tacken on COVID-19: “simulating the dynamics of COVID-19 proteins to hunt for new therapeutic opportunities”.

    https://foldingathome.org/news/

    Kind regards and stay safe everyone,

    Stephanie

  3. Critical sandwich did not work on me either. Me too, I was aware of the technique and was therefore waiting for the real reason of the meeting and when it came, I was just stunned (because it was a blasting and also, more importantly, was based on hearsay that was totally groundless). I stayed stunned for days after and will never forget the awful experience with that particular boss. I left a few months later and then, she was stunned! Karma!

  4. Hi Tim,
    Thank you for the tip and reminder!
    Just curious as to why you chose the name “Mara” in your example? … it’s such an unusual name.
    Thank you also for your weekly newsletters. I look forward to them each week!

  5. In my opinion, the bread can’t be flattery or it’s worse. If you can only find one genuine praise, the sandwich should be open face and if none, just hit them with the meat.

  6. John Tierney was on the Jordan Harbinger show and suggested to skip the sandwich and get the bad news out of the way first, then praise. The thinking is while it’s easier for the person giving the criticism it’s actually harder for the person receiving it. I’m gonna give both a try.
    JS

  7. Ahhh…. The old shit sandwich we called it…. Feels manipulative

    Read alternatives to the shit years ago… Can’t remember the source… If you have actual praise to give give it, but segment it from the constructive feedback we call criticism.

    Comfort challenge… Be brave enough to provide feedback without putting it in a sandwich. Create an environment of respect where people can provide feedback and that it comes from a good place. I only use the word criticism when there’s no ultimate improvement purpose behind it and it’s solely meant to put someone down.

    I haven’t listened to the episode yet and you guys might already touch on this… Still have a number of episodes in queue but will get to this one soon enough.

    Thx Tim for all that you do and put out into the world… Huge fan

  8. I don’t think this is a great practice as a manager. (We call it the “feedback sandwich” and it’s a practice we tell our managers to avoid.) While it’s harder to deliver constructive feedback without it, using the sandwich dilutes what is important and the often the most helpful feedback that will improve someone’s performance.

  9. Agree with the folks commenting – be genuine and empathetic and head straight for the middle. People will appreciate this more and when you genuinely have praise for someone it feels better delivered on its own rather than around critical feedback.

  10. We were taught this in the Air Force but it was called a Plus Sandwich. Start with the positive, mention the issue and finish with a positive. It works when the “Pluses” are actually genuine and sincere, though.

  11. Anyone know of an online community for Soloprenuers living/striving towards the 4hour work week lifestyle and active in sharing practical advice, like custom CRM solutions to fit your business, how to select/monitor a virtual assistant, sourcing manufactures, all the good stuff.

  12. From an emotional intelligence perspective, this is very unwise. You can end up training the other person’s brain to expect criticism after the good and they will brace themselves for the criticism and not hear the good. The criticism also activates the amygdala and fear, even with the nice stuff on the front end, and what is said after the criticism may possibly not heard at all because of the person’s fear activated by the criticism.

    For many years, I have been teaching people not to do this Sandwich thing. Better to say to them – I have something to talk with you about that might be difficult to hear. I have confidence we can discuss it and a plan to handle it, with everyone coming out well on the other side. (Not saying use these exact words, don’t be formulaic about it). End the conversation with social persuasion and encouragement. This teaches, builds and supports the person’s self-efficacy.

    1. “It is always easier to listen to unpleasant things after we have heard some praise of our good points.” – Dale Carnegie – “How to Win Friends and Influence People”

      Over 30 million copies sold and #19 on Time magazine’s list of most influential books of all time.

      You might disagree, but I wouldn’t consider this technique “very unwise”

  13. I thought this was gonna be a video about something that would make me more comfortable, like a stress management thing lol. That wouldn’t be very Stoic though I suppose. Thanks Tim!

  14. I use this all the time: at work, at home, and even sometimes in social situations. We all need to be appreciated and supported, even on the receiving end of constructive criticism.

  15. Skins need to be toughened. My fear is that the veiled “criticism” would be lost in all that gooey bread. My thing is to correct employees directly, explicitly, and without emotion. If they do something praiseworthy, by all means, say it and say it publicly. Consistency over time will help them learn that correction is not the end of the world…until it is.

  16. Tim,

    Thank you for introducing me to the Conscious Leadership Group. After picking up the book, at your suggestion, I spent the last year participating in a monthly CLG Forum and it has helped me immeasurably.

    In his book, That Will Never Work, Marc Randolph refers to this practice as delivering a “shit sandwich!”

    Thanks also for shining the light on responsible practices here in the time of COVID. I am doing my best and have been enlightened through reading your words.

    J

  17. I don’t do this, I have tried it in the past but I find I hate it when people use it on me so I don’t use it on others. I respect a more direct approach. First I ask the person how they think the project/task went. (just in-case there are mitigating circumstances). If they admit it went bad I ask them(never tell them) why and what they are going to do to fix it. If they think it was good but it really wasn’t then I explain the standard or level I am expecting. I am never rude or angry in my approach and I get results. I am recently retired but the teams/crews I supervised turned into some of the best in my industry.

  18. Tim, Ben Horowitz was on your podcast. He once called that way of giving feedback the shit sandwich. Kim Scott, btw you should invite her to the podcast, explains it a bit more in her book Radical Candor [Moderator: link removed.]
    You can also have a fast look here [Moderator: link removed.]

    I hope you get to know why it’s bad and correct this post as you have a big audience and it’s not good to spread this way of giving feedback.

  19. Simply no.
    The meat gets lost and whenever feedback is given, people are waiting for the meat anyway.
    Practice constructive feedback giving instead and get to the point – which is actually subjective (I perceived / felt / thought) which no-one can argue with. Then it’s up to them to act on it or not.
    And then make sure you over-deliver and reinforce with positive feedback often (min 4-1 positive to negative ratio).
    Finally – only one feedback item per go.

  20. I’d prefer a more straight forward approach. People see the sandwich coming from a mile away and the disingenuous nature of it negates the positive feedback and renders the delivery man a bit smarmy.

  21. I have a variation of the challenge- deliver the bread regularly, adding the meat only when needed. The reason the challenge fails in so many cases is that, in the real world, many times the only positive engagement with the supervisor is corrective. So those who’ve been around a while know it’s coming and are insulted by the disingenuous approach. For this to work, the, “Thanks for that,” has to be its own message. In other words, if the only time you bring doughnuts in for the team is on the day layoffs are announced, skip the doughnuts.

  22. My take is that the two compliments are just as much for the benefit of the speaker as for the listener. It’s easy for me to forget, when I’m voicing my criticism to someone, that I’m ultimately trying to engender better cooperation and get us all playing a positive sum game. If you (reading this comment) are able to do that effectively and consistently without using this sandwich technique, then I think that means you’ve leveled up, and that’s great.