What is the Sandwich method to present bad news?


By David Joel Miller

Some ways to deliver bad news are better than others.

How to deliver bad news.

How to deliver bad news.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com

If you need to give someone bad news – can you do it in a way that leaves the relationship intact? We all have times when we need to give someone bad news. Putting off that news may seem like the kind or safe thing to do but eventually, it needs to be done. Delaying the bad news only makes it harder.

The sandwich method of requesting change.

One highly effective way to tell someone bad news without inflicting relationship damage is called the sandwich method. In the sandwich method there is a statement about what you value in the relationship, then the request for change, followed by a statement of support for the person you have asked to change.

Here are some examples of how the sandwich technique could be used to good effect. First in a work setting and then in your home life. In both cases, the bad news is coupled with a request that the other person change something.

A supervisor has to tell a worker to change.

The supervisor discovers he has to have a talk with an employee about their errors in using a new computer system. This is a common problem in most places that use computers. Some people learn new systems faster than others. Systems keep changing. A few people just never seem to get it.

The common but wrong way to deliver criticism.

The supervisor calls the employee in and chews the employee out.

Bob (or Mary, fill in any name here) you work is awful. You are hopeless, the worst person in the whole department. If you do not stop making all these computer errors I will need to write you up. Repeated failure to fix this problem will result in your termination. This is the last time I will talk to you before I start the process to get rid of your worthless rear end.

Has the supervisor been clear? Maybe. How does Bob feel about this now? Motivated to fix things? Maybe. But Bob is not likely to go out of his way to do much beyond the minimum to get by. And Bob will probably carry a resentment towards this supervisor from now on.

How the sandwich technique can help motivate others.

In the sandwich formula, the “bad news” or complaint is placed between two positive messages.

Supervisor calls Bob in and starts off with a review of the things Bob does well. “Bob I really appreciate all the hard work you do around here. Your work on the project last month was great. There is one area I need you to work on though. Your error rate on the new computer system is really high and management is emphasizing that we need everyone to get up to speed on using the new system. Is there anything we can do to help you improve your accuracy on the new system? I know all the times you have pitched-in in the past and feel sure you will find a way to get proficient on the new system.

How might Bob feel now? Is he more willing to try to improve his computer accuracy? Why doesn’t every management person use this method if this is so effective?

There are some management people who feel all workers are lazy, but then there are employees who think that all managers are unreasonable. There is a temptation when things go wrong to take our frustrations out on others. Beating someone up, standing over them, and threatening them may get the work done in the short run but as soon as the supervisor’s back is turned the effect wears off.

Using the sandwich method allows the message to come through, we need you to change or fix this, but it also conveys the message that the person receiving this bad news is still valued as a human being and that you want to cooperate on making things better.

How to ask for change from your child.

Your child brings home a test with an “F” grade.

You might “set this child straight.” Let them know that poor school work is unacceptable, that if they want to ruin their life you will not be a part of this. That no child of yours will be allowed to be this stupid. Say something like “I can’t believe you are such a moron.”

Is this likely to be helpful? Did it work with you? A few of you are saying yes this kind of treatment jolted you into working harder, but most people who experience this kind of treatment get discouraged and give up trying. Especially if they had studied and failed the test anyway.

The sandwich method would involve telling the child that you love them and are proud of them. That most of the time they do great things. That this score is disappointing to you and you expect them to study more and improve that grade. You would end this sandwich with some support and saying that you know that they are a good child and that you are sure they will put in the effort and do the beast they can. Something added like that you love them no matter what grade they get would also be helpful.

Both interactions, hopefully convey the message “you need to study more and improve that grade” but in one the emphasis is on the child not being OK while in the sandwich method you are inserting the message “improve your work” in this subject area with other messages about the child being a good person and you liking them regardless. You are also expressing your belief that the child can succeed.

Does it bother you to give out compliments?

Some of you are thinking “I shouldn’t have to compliment people to get them to do what they are supposed to do.” No, you shouldn’t. But then you don’t have to say please and thank you, but those social graces, being nice to others makes interactions between other humans a lot more pleasant. Encouragement is effective and beatings, verbal or physical, stop working after a while. No one likes a person who tries to motivate by abuse. Besides making you more likable the sandwich method is more effective in motivating people to do things.

Tell someone that they are worthless and they live down to that label. Give them hope and self-respect and most people will make every effort to make the people who support them proud.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books

Consider using the sandwich method to deliver bad news.

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One thought on “What is the Sandwich method to present bad news?

  1. Pingback: Being verbally blunt can be a good or a bad thing. | counselorssoapbox

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