How to Offer Constructive Feedback

Everyone acknowledges the importance of feedback. Without feedback, it is difficult to fix mistakes and develop new skills. Yet, we are often terrified of feedback conversations. The giver of the feedback might be concerned of coming off as negative and judgmental. While the receiver of feedback often internalizes the feedback as a personal critique of themselves. Teens are especially sensitive to be being perceived as “the bully” or to attacks on their esteem.

In this post we will learn:

  1. Why the “sandwich method” of feedback is ineffective
  2. How to frame a feedback conversation
  3. Non-Judgmental language for feedback
  4. An activity for modeling proper feedback techniques

The Sandwich Method

The sandwich method is perhaps the most classic form of feedback. The giver starts off with a positive remark about the receiver, then provide the constructive feedback, and then conclude with another positive comment. The theory is that the constructive feedback will be softened by the surrounding positive feedback. However, one of two things typically occur:

  1. The receiver focuses purely on the positive feedback and ignores the constructive feedback in the middle.
  2. The receiver ignores the positive feedback because they know all that matters is constructive feedback in the middle and they wonder why you can’t just be straight with them. Let’s be real, no one eats a sandwich for the bread.

So why do so many people use this method? Because it makes them feel better about themselves. The positive feedback at the beginning provides a warm-up to get them started and then the feedback at the end makes the giver feel better about just having given the constructive feedback.

What’s a better way?

Developing a proper mindset

The feedback giver (“giver”) first needs to ask themselves the following questions:

  1. Why am I giving this feedback? What do I hope to achieve? These questions ensure that the feedback is actionable and about helping the receiver build toward the future and that you aren’t just blowing off steam at someone.
  2. Am I separating between the person and the behavior? Make sure the feedback is about something the person does and not the person themselves i.e. You are on your phone in meetings vs you never listen.
  3. Do I want what is best for the other person? If the answer is yes, you can partner with the other person to help build toward the future. If the answer is no you probably shouldn’t be giving them feedback.

If you (1) want what is best for the person, (2) are offering feedback on their behavior, and (3) are providing a suggestion to help them build toward the future, then you don’t need to be scared about the conversation or hide behind anything. You and the other person share something in common: you both want what is best for them, and you are going to work together to make that happen!

Framing the conversation with non-judgmental language

Now that you have the proper mindset, how does the conversation start?

Here are examples of non-judgmental conversation you can use:

  • I noticed…
  • I wonder..
  • What do you think?
  • What if…

Each of these statements are value-neutral, invite the other person into the conversation, and allow for the other person to offer their own interpretations of events.

For example:
You only made eye contact with half of the room and you alienated the other half. Next time pick out two spots on the wall and alternate between them.

Compared to:
I understand that in your presentation you tried to inspire the audience. I noticed that during your presentation you only made eye contact with half of the audience. I wonder whether that impacted the connection with the other half of the room. What do you think? (After a conversation between the two). What if next time you picked out two spots on the wall to alternate between?

How different do those sound? Which one do you think is more likely to be heard by the recipient? Which one is more likely to invite them into a conversation about how to improve?

The proper mindset combined with non-judgmental language and concrete feedback can make these conversations and meeting positive and growth oriented rather than fear inducing.

PRO TIP: “I noticed” allows the receiver to offer their own version of reality in case they noticed or felt something different. If you don’t both agree on what happened then you don’t have a basis for the rest of the conversation.

PRO TIP: “What if” allows the receiver to offer their own suggestions for fixing the suggestion. As opposed to the giver mandating one solution, now the receiver can offer their own ideas for fixing their behavior and feel much more empowered in the process.

What does this have to do with teens?

In meetings and conversations, teens can often be reluctant to offer honest feedback because they are worried about being perceived as negative. Or, teens might not offer ideas at all because they know they might get torn apart. Setting clear expectations in your meetings with teens can help allay both of these concerns.

With these rules in place, I would then role play with the teens and practice using the non-judgmental language.

  1. Act out a meeting of your teen board where one person is presenting and the audience member when asked for their opinion can only answer “It’s terrible. You have to fix ____” Ask them how the presenter felt and the likelihood of the employee accepting the feedback. Get them to articulate the need for a positive mindset, personal vs program, constructive suggestions for the future.
  2. Establish the ground rules:
    • Focus on programs/behaviors not people. It’s not personal.
    • Use non-judgmental language
    • We all want the best outcome for everyone.
  3. Teach them the non-judgmental language for offering feedback.
  4. Ask for a volunteer to give a presentation and then a volunteer to give feedback according to the new model. At first, it will be awkward for them and their will probably be lots of laughing and giggling because it will feel forced and something they are not used to. As the facilitator, make sure to provide feedback on their feedback (and make sure to use non-judgmental language!) Keep going until they start to internalize the messages behind the activity.

PRO TIP: Using improv games and the language of “Yes, and…” as opposed to “Yes, but…” can be another fun way to introduce the importance of building upon other people’s idea and bringing positive energy into the conversation.

If you have any feedback, let me know at

Marc Fein