The Power of the Positive Sandwich, Delivering Difficult Discussion

“Life is like a sandwich – the more you add to it, the better it becomes.”
~Author Unknown

Politicians know it. Salespeople really know it. Even new parents know it, or quickly learn it.
What is “it?” To deliver something distasteful, wrap it up in something good!
Martin Luther King, perhaps one of our era’s greatest orators, knew this when, in his I Have a Dream speech, he said, “…the architects of our republic wrote… a promise that all men… would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted… I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” Note how before chastising America
for its shortcomings, he praises our founders’ intent and then closes with the promise of how good it could be if we follow that lead.
I call this approach for delivering difficult, but necessary news, the “Power of the Positive Sandwich.” John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century English aristocrat, knew a good thing when he ate it. He popularized what is today called the “sandwich” by placing difficult to consume meat between slices of bread, thus allowing him to continue playing cards while eating. Similarly, we can maintain, and even enhance, many of our social interactions by carefully wrapping potentially unpalatable, but necessary, messages with praise, support, and useful information. However, just like the good Earl discovered, not all sandwiches are created equal; some go down better than others.
OK, so you want to deliver some difficult news, but you’re experiencing angst over what I call “the scary conversation.” You feel certain the recipient will be unhappy at the least, and quite possibly angry, disappointed, sad, or frustrated. No one likes these feelings, so up until now, you’ve done what many of us do – repeatedly avoid the conversation by going to your nearest safe place, be it a bar, shopping mall, or your office. In your mind, you’ve built up the gravitas of your message to where it now stands as a fortress. You’d like to think the need for the conversation could magically disappear, or there’s that outside chance the other person will read your mind and be the one to bring up this “scary” subject.
The reality is, the problem won’t likely go away, the other person can’t read your mind, and even if that were possible, he or she is likely as scared as you to address the issue. Therefore, you must take action, but the good news is, you’re not alone in that desire to resolve the issue. In that I mean, the message you have to share is probably already known, or at least suspected at some level, by the other person. I consistently maintain that there’s nothing like the truth; it works like magic to free our authentic selves! The goal here is to acknowledge the elephant in the living room so both parties can more forward honestly, openly, and with confidence.
However, you can’t just blurt it out. As Leonard Maltin said, “Timing in life is everything.” Actually for you as the conversation initiator, the better advice is – in addition to timing – consider place, stress level, mood, and content regarding your message. Here’s a guideline on delivering a successful Positive Sandwich:
Your Message: You need to “frame” the conversation. Here I advise “start with the heart and end with the heart.” In terms of a Positive Sandwich this means, open the conversation with love, insert the potentially challenging information, and then conclude with love. Imagine the bottom piece of bread as the base of your message. It contains the love, admiration, and/or respect you feel for the other person. If you currently don’t feel any of these, then remember the positive aspects that brought you into the relationship in the first place. This is especially important for close relationships, such as a friend or business partner. Next, consider the meat of the sandwich as the “scary conversation” – the part you fear won’t go well. Lastly, the top slice of bread comprises a positive statement to complete the conversation and bring resolution to the issue.
Preparation: Be sure you are really ready. Connect to why this conversation is important to you. You may want to prepare a script. This can be done formally by writing your message down or verbally crafting it in your head. Practice for awhile and then perform a final “dress rehearsal” shortly before delivery. This means, as closely as practical, get to the location you intend to deliver the message (see below), and literally go through your discussion, step-by-step, acting out likely reactions and your responses. It may help to obtain support from a friend or call your coach for a last minute pep talk! It’s also useful to remember that this is not easy. Instead, learn to be OK with being “good enough!”
Setting: Generally, a neutral setting such as a coffee shop, park, or even the telephone, will allow for the widest variety of outcomes, and the opportunity to end the conversation quickly, if need be. The key is you want to make sure you allow sufficient time with limited distractions and interruptions, so you won’t feel overly anxious or rushed.
Delivery: Shortly before you begin, consider relaxing through meditation, deep breathing, yoga, walking, or some other form of exercise. The rhythm and physical exertion will expend emotional energy and calm your mind. And right before you dive in, pause for a few beats. This will help you collect your thoughts, get rooted with your feelings, and reaffirm your desired outcome1.
When starting, you may want to protect your message by asking the recipient to “hear you out” before responding. Then, move through your message’s sandwich layers with a slow and even pace. Be sure to pause as needed, use “we” language (“We’re not working well together”) versus “you” language (You’re the cause of our problems”), and acknowledge the other person’s feelings. Make eye contact when speaking and look down or away while the other person is digesting. When he or she begins to speak, give your full attention and stay relaxed. Pay attention to your, and the other person’s, tone of voice and body language. Although your difficult message shouldn’t be anything particularly new, it may still surprise the other person. Be sensitive and respectful. Resist any temptation to blame or complain. Stop or slow way down if the other person is upset. Leave space for silence.
Wrap Up: After discharging your message, provide love once again by suggesting ways you can both move forward – individually and/or together. A sincere offer to stay connected may allow for a new and beneficial relationship dynamic to emerge.
Two things that I say almost every day when working with clients, is “It’s all about relationships” and “It’s all about love.” To this end, the Positive Sandwich is an amazing tool that will infuse more love into all your important relationships! I also say, “It starts with you.” The first and most important relationship on which to use this tool is YOU! Practice a difficult conversation with yourself. Play the Devil’s advocate to see how you can best frame your message and get at your truth. This may be tough at first, but as James Garfield reportedly said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.” We are often initially miserable as we confront our truth but once embraced, the truth sets us free to be our unique and authentic selves in the world. And that, I think, is the promised-land we all seek – for ourselves and for relationships with others.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

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