Creating healthy relationships

3 steps to express yourself without conflict

April 5, 2016
Posted by Karen Strang Allen

It can be hard to know how to deal with your kids when they’re pushing your buttons. Or what to say to your ex when you disagree about something. Or how to tell a friend you don’t like something she did.

You want to speak your truth and have the situation get better. But you fear if you do it will upset the other person and create conflict.

So today, we’re going to look at a simple 3-step way to express how you really feel without creating conflict.

This approach is often called the “sandwich” approach, because you sandwich your constructive feedback (difficult message) between two positive messages, making it easier for the other person to digest. It also makes the person less likely to become defensive, because you are also acknowledging what they are doing well (what’s working), and giving them a chance to participate in the solution.

Tip: Before you even begin, I recommend taking some deep breaths, ensuring you’re calm, and thinking about what you want to achieve.

Elements of a feedback sandwich

This is my own personal spin on the feedback sandwich. I like to call it the “Lots of let-us sandwich.”

1. Begin with agreement – Your first slice of bread should be something you can both agree with. Explain your overall goal for the interaction (ideally a goal you both share, like “I really want to improve our relationship”).

Tip: Avoid having a harsh/angry tone or closed off/aggressive body language. Instead, be open and positive. Allow that you may be misunderstanding something.

2. Present your feedback constructively – The filling for your sandwich is the constructive feedback you want to provide. Calmly explain what the issue is:

*Butter the bread – Describe factually the situation that is troubling you (as if you’re a news reporter…recount the events as objectively as possible).

*Add meat – Explain how the situation makes you feel (using “I” statements…like “I felt like you didn’t care about my safety when xyz happened”).

*Sprout new ideas – Describe how you would like things to be different.

*Try a new ingredient – Invite them to explain/respond/share their perspective.

*Add “let us” – Brainstorm solutions together. Ask for what you need from the other person.

Tips: Hold the pickle! 🙂 It’s important not to use a “but” between the opening statement and the feedback, or you’ll negate the positive sentiment you expressed before (use “and” instead…“I really value our friendship and I want to talk to you about something”). It’s also important to avoid blaming or insulting by using “you” statements or over-generalizing (which will cause anyone to become defensive), like “you’re so lazy, you never do xyz…”. Be sure to own your feelings and perspective by using “I” statements.

3. End with appreciation and encouragement – Wrap up your sandwich by adding another slice of positivity. Note something you appreciate about the other person. This allows them to mentally recover and shows you have faith in them, despite the issue at hand. (It could be as simple as that you appreciate that they took the time to listen to what you had to say, or that you really value their friendship and look forward to your next get-together.)

Ideally the thing you compliment the person on is related to your issue. Tony Robbins suggests beginning with one of these three phrases:

*I respect…
*I appreciate…
*I agree…

Tip: Your compliment must be genuine. Don’t say something you don’t mean, as the other person will sense it. Find something positive to focus on…or if you’re really stuck, try painting a vision of the terrific results from the change you’re asking for.

What a feedback sandwich tastes like

My kids were recently driving me nuts with their fighting. While they used to get along really well, now that they’re 8 and 10, they seem to be constantly bickering. So here is how I constructed my feedback sandwich for them:

1. First slice of bread (agreement) – I love the close relationship you share. You’ve always been good at playing, laughing and sharing together. I really hope you are always close and kind to each other!

2. Filling (constructive feedback) – I’ve noticed you seem to be fighting a lot lately. Have you noticed that too? (Nods.) I feel upset when I hear you fighting so much. It’s really loud and hurts my ears. And it bothers me that you are being mean to each other. I grew up in a home with a lot of fighting, and I really want our home to be a safe, happy place. I would really like you to be nicer to each other, and to talk to each other without yelling or name-calling. What do you think? (Both agree it’s a problem.) What do you think we can do to solve this problem? I’d like to hear some ideas from each of you about what you think you can do to improve this situation. (Both take ownership of their role in the fighting and give their ideas for improvement.)

3. Second slice of bread (appreciation and encouragement) – I really appreciate that you’re both willing to make some changes. I know you are really kind-hearted kids and can remember to be that way with each other. (Smiles and hugs.)

It was amazing how well this technique worked. I have no illusions that my kids will never fight again, but things have improved, and now the door to communicating about it again is open. And we feel better now that we’ve each had a chance to feel heard about what is bothering us.

You may need to adjust as you go, depending on who you’re dealing with. And I always recommend ensuring everyone is calm and in a positive frame of mind before beginning. But the feedback sandwich really is a useful communication tool that tastes better to most people than a sour grapes salad!



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About the author

Karen Strang Allen

Karen is a love and empowerment coach for single women. Widowed at 22 and separated at 35, Karen’s mission is to help single women feel great about who they are and create a life they love so they attract their dream partner. 

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