The Poop Sandwich: Effective Communication Skills for Not-So-Good (or Even Bad) News

The Poop Sandwich: Effective Communication Skills for Not-So-Good (or Even Bad) News

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effectively communicating

One of the most difficult tasks is telling someone something they don’t really want to hear. It’s no fun breaking bad news to someone. Whether you work for a business and need to talk to a client, you’re a teacher and need to talk to a parent, or in your personal life need to talk to anyone you have a relationship with, there is a simple formula for communicating information that the other party would rather not hear. Learning this skill is valuable for your success in the workplace and in your relationship.

Enter the poop sandwich, or feedback sandwich, technique. To help people hear the not-so-nice or bad news, you need to sandwich the negative in between something positive. Doing so lowers the person’s natural defenses that rise when confronted with bad news. It establishes you as an ally who is in a position to help them.

Effective Communication: A Case Study

Case in point, check out this message I received from my son’s 1st-grade teacher. Y’all, my kid is a handful. He’s sweet, but he’s “spirited” and has his own ideas about how and when things should be done. The problem is that his ideas are pretty much the opposite of anyone else’s ideas at any given time. His 1st-grade teacher, though, is amazing. She understands his willfulness and has maintained open communication all year with me. This is probably the 15th or so message about his behavior – good and bad – I’ve gotten so far this year. Mrs. 1st Grade Teacher is a masterful creator of the poop sandwich.

Mrs. 1st Grade Teacher starts out with a really positive note. David is finally doing some morning work and getting on task. We’ve worked on this all year. She continues that he is doing good – the operative word here – for him – in the afternoon too. She even has some fun little certificates from the dollar spot that she gives out for an extra special reward so he can “surprise” us with how well he’s doing in math. She’s established herself as an ally with us and is looping us in to be able to praise him as well.

effectively communicating

Feedback Step 1: Find the Positive

The first step to communicating something not-so-nice is to find the positive in the situation. Take a step back from the situation and consider what is going right or working well. There has to be SOMETHING you can say. Try not to make it too fluffy or disingenuous, and stick to the context of the conversations. The more concrete and specific you can be in your positive note, the better.

Here comes the poop in this poop sandwich. David, like a lot of 6-year-old boys, like to horse around when he’s not supposed to. Somehow he “accidentally” poked his friend in the eye with a carrot stick. There were no injuries and David apologized, but this isn’t good behavior and, consequently, he lost a point in his classroom tally for his choices. As a mom, my first instinct is to defend my kid.  But because Mrs. 1st Grade Teacher and I have this established communication and relationship, I know I can trust what she’s saying, even if she wasn’t there to witness the incident.

Imagine if she had launched into this message right here, without any of the good stuff. While she’s simply conveying information to me so that I can address it with my kid, without any of the positive background, this could read as confrontational or judgemental. When you tell someone something they don’t want to hear, their defense mechanism is generally to discredit or blame the messenger.

effective communication

Feedback Step 2: The Negative

When you’re breaking bad news or communicating negative feedback, it is important to be as concrete and to-the-point as possible. Call out one or two specific things that are the issue of concern and stick with that. This is not the time to criticize, complain, or make subjective statements. Stick to the facts, just the facts. Notice that Mrs. 1st Grade Teacher didn’t say something like, “David misbehaved in the cafeteria today, he can be a difficult kid,” instead she told me specifically what the issue was. She didn’t criticize or complain about him. She objectively stated the mistake.

effective communication

Mrs. 1st Grade Teacher ends the message with a short note about the next steps – working with David about what’s going right in the morning so his afternoons are better. She thanks me for my attention to this and closes with wishes for a good weekend – short and sweet.

Feedback Step 3: Ending with a Plan

Wrap up your feedback with how you’re going to move forward together to make a positive difference. Again, this isn’t time for fluff or false promises, but it serves as another opportunity for you to establish yourself as an ally and partner in the work. What would be the ideal outcome of the situation you’re in? Offer to start there and help bring that into reality.

Alternatively, you can also offer another point of praise. If you do so, be careful, the person may hear the praise and miss the feedback you just gave them. People tend to hear the last thing you tell them, especially when it’s something they’d rather hear. If you end with praise, make sure it doesn’t soften the negative so much that there’s no action taken to improve.

And there you have it! A simple format for delivering feedback or news when it’s not what the other person really wants to hear. Practice makes perfect and developing this skill is critical to your success as a leader. To help you remember, I’ve made a worksheet for you to keep as a notes page as you prepare to implement this strategy!

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I’m Amy. My husband, Keith, and I have two littles – David, age 6, and Avonlea, almost one, plus 2 cats and an old lady dog. I’m a school district leader and recently finished my EdD in school improvement and educational leadership. When I’m not working, I love to read, cook, and spend time with the family.

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