Feedback sandwiches and Real Options

Esther Derby writes great advice on giving feedback. I’m intrigued by her closing comment:

Praise sandwich tends to erode trust in the feedback givers intentions, and once that’s gone, there’s not much chance any useful information will get through.

I think it depends on how a feedback sandwich is used. I tend to use it to make a safe space in which I can share feedback with people without them feeling like the world’s just been cut out from underneath them. I find it helps me phrase feedback in a very positive, constructive manner.

This is not, to me, the most effective feedback sandwich, despite adhering to any rules I might previously have given:

“I learn a lot from pair-programming with you, but you sometimes take the keyboard from me when I’m trying to type. If you could please ask me before you do that, it would help me to learn and I’d feel less frustrated. I’d like to pair with you more often and I think it could be fun.”

So, here’s how I’m using the feedback sandwich now (all other rules of giving effective feedback also apply).

I value this…

Whenever someone gives me some advice or criticism, it makes me want to change things so that I’m more effective, or so that the problem is fixed.

For instance, a graphic designer gave me some feedback on my new business cards. “You need to revisit the whole card,” he told me. “Change the shape, add some texture. Put in a tag line, something catchy that people can remember you by.”

Well, I’m not a graphical artist! Nor am I pretending to be, so the feedback didn’t really get me down. I knew I couldn’t get new business cards ready in time for the conference, nor can I really afford the services of a graphical artist right now. I thought to myself, “I could just give out my email address; that’s worked for me before. I don’t really need to take my business cards to the conference.”

Then it occurred to me much later that perhaps that wasn’t the artist’s intention. So I asked him: “Would it be better for me not to take the cards at all?”

“Oh, no! That’s not what I meant. They’re fine, I mean, they’ll do the job if that’s what you want. I just wanted to give you some help to improve them.”

“Fantastic!” I smiled. “So, what do you like about them?”

“I like the colour scheme, and the symbol you’ve chosen – the big red moon – is very powerful.” And then he described the things he liked about the card.

Without anchoring the things that I value, I am in danger of losing them altogether. If I bring up someone’s annoying behaviour when they pair program with me, they might just stop pair programming. If I suggest a different way of solving a problem, they might stop thinking of themselves as problem-solvers. The human mind has this dangerous way of abstracting generalisations from particular situations, and confidence can be easily knocked! Even in the situation with the business cards, where I didn’t really feel depressed by the feedback, I was in danger of throwing away valuable work.

So, I can anchor the things I value; things that might change as a result of what I’m about to say.

“I learn a lot when I’m pair-programming with you.”
“I love the solution you’ve come up with.”
“I really like the colour scheme and the icon.”

And…

The next bit of the “feedback sandwich” is the trickiest. It’s always tempting to put the word “but” or “however” in here! The word “but” has the impact of negating the first part of the sentence. I’ve heard this example a lot:

Mum: Well, he’s ugly, but he’s rich.
Daughter: Yes, Mum. He’s rich, but he’s ugly.

See what I mean?

Even the act of thinking “but” tends to lead me to phrase it unconsciously. So I’ve been trying to replace it with the word “and”. Like “should” in BDD, this leads my brain to go a different way. Instead of thinking of how to phrase the negative advice in a way which is palatable, I find myself phrasing things very differently.

“I learn a lot when I’m pair-programming with you and I’d like to learn more.”
“I love the way you’ve solved this problem, and I’d like to build on that.”
“I love the colour scheme and the icon, and I think there may be some ways of making them stand out.”

This has led me to new ways of providing feedback. I can even talk to managers now!

“Thank you very much for letting us try out this Agile stuff! It’s great; I’m having fun. I really like the lightweight documentation, and I’d like to try and work out how to align that aspect of it with the reports you asked me for. Can you help me?”

I don’t always need to criticise the behaviour that’s causing me problems in order to suggest changing it. Thinking about the last part of the feedback sandwich, and using that to work out what goes after the “and…”, helps me work out what to say.

…I want this.

There’s some place that I want to get to; some goal that I want to achieve. NLP’s well-formed outcomes can help here, or if you’re a software developer, think about the SMART technique for writing tests. How will you know that you’ve got to the place that you want to be in? What will you see? What will you hear? What will you be doing – or not doing – differently?

“I learn a lot when I’m pair-programming with you and I’d like to learn more. Would it be OK if I typed sometimes? I think I learn faster when I’m actually doing the typing myself.”

“I love the colour scheme and the icon, and I think there may be some ways of making them stand out. Perhaps if we had something textured, or cut into a different shape, that would catch people’s attention.”

“I love the way you’ve solved this problem, and I’d like to build on that. Maybe we could assign responsibility for this bit of the code to another class. I think that would make this class simpler, and then we could write some tests to describe its behaviour so that other people could use it too.”

“Thank you very much for letting us try out this Agile stuff! It’s great; I’m having fun. I really like the lightweight documentation, and I’d like to try and work out how to align that aspect of it with the reports you asked me for. Can you help me? I’m looking for a way to try and use the data that’s up on the walls and the project board to make this easier.”

Even when there’s some particular unpalatable behaviour that really does need to stop, this can help.

“I learn a lot when I’m pair-programming with you and I’d like to learn more. I’m finding it tricky because when I’m typing, you sometimes tell me what to type before I’ve had a chance to think through the problem myself. If I could have a bit more time to think things through I think I’d understand the domain more quickly, and if I’ve got it right then my code should make sense to you. Please let me know if it doesn’t.”

Even when it’s really unpalatable behaviour.

“I love that you have so much energy. It really comes out when I’m sitting next to you pair-programming, and you throw your arms in the air and wave them, and it makes me feel really energized too. Unfortunately when you do that, there’s an unpleasant smell… is there anything that can be done to change that? I really like some of the new Lynx fragrances, and my friend rates Right Guard; something like that would smell nice.”

Provide options

I like the feedback sandwich because it sits very well with GROW, in which we move to our Goal from our Reality, looking at Options and selecting a Way Forward. Reality is the current behaviour that we value (not the problem!) and the Goal is where we want to get to.

In the examples of feedback I’ve given above, I’ve provided multiple options, or left an opening for them. Even when there’s only one option that can realistically be taken – nobody’s going to say “no” when I ask for more time to type code without having a back-seat driver telling me what to do – I’ve phrased it in a way which makes the other option available. Using words like “maybe”, or asking questions like “What do you think? Can you help me?” can invite other options, things that we haven’t thought of.

There’s safety in these options. By providing them, and allowing the coachee to make the choice, we’re saying, “You have the power here. You get to make the choices.” All I’m doing is sharing a place that I want to get to with you, and leaving it up to you to decide how to get there. You can ask me for help if you want, and even give me feedback if there’s something that I can do that might make a difference.

I was reading this article which starts with an assertion, “old commented-out code is an abomination”. That makes me wince, because an abomination is something hateful, wicked or shamefully vile, and what I see is someone learning! That’s not vile at all; it’s a wonderful thing, and I heartily encourage it. Instead of insisting that the code is deleted, I might suggest trying it out, and seeing which one works best. I might even talk about the benefits of deleting the code. Creating it as an option, instead of “the only right way”, will allow Alphonse to feel safe trying out other things, too.

(Incidentally, the way that the feedback is given in the scenario with Alphonse isn’t very safe. Giving feedback in private is usually better than giving it in public.)

Big thanks to Chris Matts and Real Options for helping me see the similarities between GROW and the sandwich model, and fitting Options into it. I’ve found it’s worth paying to create Options, and I might sacrifice some related feedback I want to give, or my idea of “the right way to solve it”, in order to do so. This has been very effective, and I find it a very natural way of giving feedback now.

Why don’t you give it a try?

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4 Responses to Feedback sandwiches and Real Options

  1. Jim Arnold says:

    Hi Liz,

    [I was going to prepare a feedback sandwich, but just can't stomach it!]

    This is an interesting read (and topic), *but* something really bugs me about this style of communication. I prefer people to be direct with me; I would go as far as saying I respect them more for being direct. When I talk to people who try to edge around an issue in this way I come away feeling either patronised or unsure what it was we were discussing.

    It all sounds a bit passive aggressive to me. That’s not to say it can’t be effective in some situations, but you should be prepared to be more direct with people who value that approach.

  2. liz says:

    Hi Jim,

    Chris Pollard has a great style of feedback he refers to as “Atkins” – the sandwich model without the bread. We’ve agreed that it’s very effective if the stuff that’s valued has already been stated, or if you have great rapport with the person you’re talking to and they can ask questions about the feedback freely.

    So, by the time I get know an individual to work out that they’re the kind that prefers direct feedback, we’ve probably already stated the stuff that I value anyway and got it pinned down. In that case, yes, I am sometimes direct.

    This model can do some magic though. A lot of the time when I use it people don’t even notice that I’ve just given them some feedback. They say “That’s pretty cool!” and try out one of the options, or think of their own. For me, that habit of self-improvement is more powerful than any feedback I could give.

  3. Jonathan B. says:

    Hi Liz,

    I really like your dive into this issue. I think this is a topic that should be taught to high schoolers. It’s too late in life to be learning this now!

    In any case, I have a suggestion for how to possibly improve the unpalatable behavior example:

    “I love that you have so much energy. It really comes out when I’m sitting next to you pair-programming, and you throw your arms in the air and wave them, and it makes me feel really energized too. If we could just deal with one thing that’s distracting me a little, it’d mean we could keep the energy going. And please don’t be embarrassed and feel free to let me know what I can do also … but I really think it would help if you could try some of the new Lynx fragrances, and my friend rates Right Guard; something like that would smell nice.”

    In this case, the use of “Unfortunately…” seemed to me a lot like the negating “But…” example that you provided earlier in the post.

    -Jonathan

    • liz says:

      You’re right, Jonathan, that’s much better! I’d probably go further. There’s still a “but” there. Since it negates the previous part of the sentence, we could say something like, “I know this might be embarassing, but…”. I’ve learnt a lot more about language and the way it affects our subconscious since I wrote the post, and I believe doing this would mean he would be *less* embarassed as a result. Nifty!

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