The Smile Sandwich is a positive way to give constructive criticism. Think about any smile you’ve ever seen. The happiest ones turn up at the ends, creating a “U” shape, right? That’s the “structure” of a smile sandwich. You start with something “up” (some positive observation about the person), then give them your piece of criticism (the low point of the smile), and finish with something else—another “up”, or positive statement. That way you “sandwich” your criticism between two positive statements. This takes the sting away and gives the criticism a more positive spin.

The positive statements don’t necessarily have to be related, though it might be easier to construct that way. You don’t want to spend too much time on any one part of the sandwich. Spending too much time on the first positive statement makes them feel like you’re buttering them up for something bad—a J-shaped smile. But getting into the criticism too fast creates a backwards-J smile, and all they can remember is that negative part. You want to present your criticism in a positive way, as well. Present it as something they can improve, not something they’re doing wrong—in other words, “progressive criticism”. Give them something to do with it.

The point is to turn a negative statement into an overall positive one. Read on for a more in-depth article about Sandwich Smiles!

Sandwich Smiles
Kim goes to her gym regularly, but has never received any formal training. She worries a little about how she looks when she is working out, especially when she is on the elliptical machine or lifting free weights. One day it is brought to her attention not only how she looks but how she is performing, when a trainer for the weight-lifting area at her local gym approaches Kim with some harsh criticism. “You’re doing it all wrong,” “sloppy,” and “you’re never going to lose weight that way” are repeated over and over as the trainer tries to teach her the proper way to perform leg presses, curls, and other machine-related techniques.

Kim thought she had been performing very well, following the instructions posted with each machine, and even noticing a slight change in how her clothes fit. But the trainer has made Kim feel horrible about her progress and even more self-conscious about working out. Suddenly, after weeks of developing a solid routine, attending the gym after work, Kim finds herself creating excuses to walk in the evening or work late rather than return to the gym. If only the trainer had used “nice” words or been more accepting with his body language, Kim wouldn’t feel the need to avoid the gym and could continue with her routine.

If the trainer had approached her in a friendlier manner, or even just introduced himself before launching into his critique, Kim feels they might have been able to have a real conversation, instead of the “ohs” and “uh-huhs” that came out of Kim’s mouth. His criticism may have seemed more helpful than offensive and could have actually motivated Kim to do better.

Many may consider negative words and harsh actions to be an effective form of criticism–after all, it gets the point across–but after the unhappy moment passes, what is the recipient left with? With no motivation to better themselves clients are left with resentment and ultimately any positive relationship that may have been formed has been damaged. Advice, criticism, and suggestions can often make the critic feel good, but leaves the critiqued feeling like they’ve missed something or have been verbally attacked. Getting to know your clients, know their learning style and how to communicate with them can make a world of difference in how the criticism or suggestion comes across to them.

The Smile Sandwich is a positive way to give constructive criticism by utilizing a simple “U” shaped theory. Think about any smile you’ve ever seen. The happiest ones turn up at the ends, creating a “U” shape or lucky horse shoe, the “structure” of a smile sandwich. You start with something positive or “up” (perhaps an observation about the person), then give them your piece of criticism (the low point of the smile), and finish with something else—another “up” statement. That way you “sandwich” your criticism between two positive statements, taking the sting away and giving the criticism a more positive spin.

In the following example, Joe works as a trainer at the local gym and it is time for yearly reviews. He is one of the first to be reviewed by his boss.

Example: Joe, a new initiative for the trainers this year is to push our new cardio program. Your recent reviews show that you have horrible success pushing our initiatives and it has affected your bonus this year. You need to be better at the motivational aspect of your job and get to know the customers.

Joe’s boss offers only negative criticism which results in Joe’s misunderstanding of his new job task. Joe returns to his job, angry at his low bonus, and resentful that it has been implied he doesn’t know his customers. The rest of the day he rudely asks his customers personal questions in an attempt to fix the “get to know the customers” aspect of his review. The end result–Joe is fired at the end of the day for inappropriate behavior. This is a clear example of miscommunication from the boss not taking the time to get to know his employee and only offering the negative side of Joe’s review. Had the boss been a little more clear and positive with his review, Joe may have been able to improve on his motivational skills in a proper manner and kept his job.

In the following “U” shaped example, Joe’s boss is clear and direct with his criticism, allowing Joe to fully understand and implement the appropriate changes.

Example: Joe, a new initiative for the trainers this year is to push our new cardio program to customers. You have a great relationship with the customers as is shown by our customer surveys; however your recent reviews show that motivation has been your only low point. I’ve seen you take the time to work with our new employees in addition to maintaining your current trainer duties. Take that customer knowledge and discuss with your customers the new cardio program as far as how it may help them, or if they’d considered changing their current work-out.

Think back to Kim’s experience. Words are as powerful as actions, this creates consequences for the trainer and client when those words are thoughtlessly used; the solution is to use a progressive, or constructive criticism. Rather than becoming deconstructive, tearing down the client, the trainer should look towards building a safe zone for the relationship and opening a method of discourse for criticism to be safely passed without repercussion. This may mean taking the time to add a few words to the criticism, but well worth the effort if it means a working relationship and solving the problem.

For example, picture yourself at your local gym watching a young girl, Sally, trying to figure out how a set of machines work and how to adjust the levers of the seats. Do you approach her and offer to help? Do you correct her method of following the pictures, or the order she should use the set of machines? How do you set up the correct tone of interaction without offending the young woman’s attempts?

As the trainer it is your responsibility to set-up the situation in a positive tone, this can be done several ways. One of the quickest is to say hello, make introductions and above all smile.

Example: Hi, my name is Jack and I am a trainer here at the gym. Could I help you out?

This gives the other person, Sally, the time to say “no thanks” to your criticism and also opens dialogue in a positive manner. Another approach would be to immediately help Sally to adjust the machine she is currently trying to figure out. As you are adjusting the machine, make introductions and begin explaining the machine, using only the facts. This way you are informing and not judging.

Example: Hi, my name is Jack and I’m a trainer here at the gym. Here, this is how you set the seat [shows how to move the seat] and this is how you set the weights [shows how to set the weights]. Now try it yourself [watch Sally to make sure she performs the tasks correctly]. I know the pictures can be tricky, but any time you need help I’ll be right over there [point to where you’ll be]”

By stepping away from Sally, Jack has allowed Sally the opportunity to teach herself or to come to him for help. Regardless of the form of criticism used, whether working with a visual learner or an analytical learner, trainers need to keep in mind that criticism is to examine the human nature and no one likes to be examined. Since Jack did not know what kind of learner Sally was, he allows himself time to observe and learn how he can better help her; by doing this Jack is not only educating himself, but allowing himself to be a better trainer since he will know his client.

After introductions or the initial meeting has begun, trainers should leave it up to the client whether or not to proceed forward with the criticism. Just like you don’t want to start with negative words, you don’t want to jump right in and begin telling someone everything they have done wrong. If you are a trainer who has been working with a client for a long time, you should be able to read the body language or other signs of the client to know whether it is a good time to proceed forward or to hold off on offering criticism. Again, maintaining the relationship in a positive manner is important; otherwise, the criticism may fall onto deaf ears. Remember language and politeness go hand in hand when opening critical dialogue, whether it is amongst co-workers, upper management, fellow gym members or even family.

Let’s return to Sally and Jack, since Jack is not Sally’s trainer he takes the time to observe and learns that she is not a visual learner. Jack observes that Sally has a hard time figuring out the other machines based solely on the photographs available. He decides that it would be better to show Sally how each of the machines work, rather than risk her injuring herself. Jack takes her around to each machine and teaches her how to adjust the seats, change the weight settings, and how to properly sit in the machine while exercising. Again, how Jack approaches Sally is important since she may not want Jack’s help.

Example: Hi Sally, You’ve picked some great machines to begin your workout on, but I’ve noticed you having some difficulty with the levers on the machines and was wondering if you would let me take the time show you how each of the machines work? You are doing very well.

Again, Jack lets Sally decide how to move the dialogue forward, since if a client isn’t willing to take criticism or help, then the relationship may slip into a negative manner. By allowing Sally to choose Jack has allowed her to control what he teaches and what she learns.

In many situations it is not a matter of what to teach or what the client may need to learn, but a matter of keeping the situation positive and not giving into negative feelings such as anger and disappointment. One way to ensure that criticism is always positive and constructive is to keep a list of positive advice that you can always offer with the negative, don’t offer one without the other. The Smile Sandwich effect is easy to institute using this idea and when properly offered can create a positive relationship between the trainer and the client.

Example: Tina is trying to teach a student trainer, Greg, who is still learning the proper techniques to perform a sit-up and not a crunch. She has tried to explain the method (analytical) “you’re doing great, but it’s like bending over and instead you are lying down, you’re smart, you’ve got the idea” and has demonstrated the method by laying flat on the ground and showing what angle the position should be in (visual). Greg attempts to train Tina as he would his future clients, but he still instructs Tina to perform the sit-up wrong.

She repeats her efforts over and over again, “You are really picking this up fast, but lie down and try to sit up, no don’t use your hands, and you’ve got the idea, you’re a quick learner.” A new trainer, Greg is having a hard time catching on and is beginning to resent Tina’s criticism until finally he tries the sit-up himself, this time following Tina’s directions. Tina physically stops his body at the correct angle (mechanical) allowing Greg to feel and see what Tina had explained.

In the following example Louis is a personal trainer with several single in-home clients and several in-home group clients. One of his managers approaches him one day and tells him they need to have a private discussion.

Example: The client tells him, “Louis, you are really great with words and at communicating what your clients are supposed to do; clients finds it really easy to follow your imaginative instructions. But your actions need to be worked on as many of your clients have reported feeling uncomfortable with your training methods and gestures. We love the training routines you create and feel the exercise is more than adequate for the clients. Take the great imagination to incorporate some new examples into your routine.”

Louis receives the criticism of his training methods and is given the positive reinforcement that tells him how to improve. There are no false statements, the manager and the trainer still maintain a balanced working relationship, Louis can understand the advice, and apply it to all areas of his job. The positive statements don’t necessarily have to be related, but it often makes sense to construct the criticism in a way that won’t confuse the audience.

Example: Louis’ manager could have told him “Louis I heard you had a great golf game this weekend. Listen, your actions need to be worked on as many of your clients feel uncomfortable with your training methods and gestures. We love the training routines you create and feel the exercise is more than adequate for the clients you represent. Take the great imagination to incorporate some new examples into your routine.”

It might be easier to construct the criticism by relating your statements as you don’t want to spend too much time on any one part of the sandwich. Spending too much time on the first positive statement makes them feel like you’re buttering them up for something bad—a J-shaped smile. Ultimately one of two things will happen with J-shaped smiles, either the good or the bad is forgotten and the problem that needs to be solved is left unresolved. When only the negative parts of the criticism are remembered negative feelings are created resulting in no motivation to fix the problem. When only the positive parts of the criticism are remembered the problem is overlooked or easily brushed off. Below are some examples of a J-shaped smile.

Example: Laura, you are really a great team player, willing to put in extra hours and even volunteering to work with the children here at the gym. It was great to see you working with the student swim team that was in here last week on how they could improve their cardio workouts. It’s been noticed though that you often downplay, or make negative comments about the other trainers when they are not around and this is a serious issue. You often work well with the other trainers and seem to get along with the rest of the staff.

Example: Jim, your clients really like you, understand your training methods very well, and the music lists or extra time you take in personalizing each lesson makes each client feel special. Complaints have been made about your anger issues that clients have experienced when lessons are cancelled unexpectedly and this is a problem. You’ve got a great work ethic.

Remember, not knowing the person you are offering criticism to often leads to lopsided criticism or false statements. Getting into the criticism too fast creates a backwards-J smile, and all they can remember is that negative part, the positive statements are easily forgotten. Below are some examples of backwards J-smiles

Example: Charles, previous work has been good, but the work-out created for our new client is shoddy and unbalanced, the worst presented so far. The hours you’ve put in and your dedication is amazing though.

Example: Amy, you re a great trainer, but the inappropriate clothing, multiple tattoos and the jewelry on the hands have caused some serious problems with the clients in addition to safety issues. You’re very smart and good at what you do, communicating very well with our clients.

Whether reading or listening, most audiences only remember the beginning and ending parts of communication, so make sure you present your criticism in a positive way. Present it as something they can improve, not something they’re doing wrong—in other words, give them something to do with it. Once you have motivated the individual to fix the problem, they are not focused on the negative words or actions, but upon improving themselves or solving the problem; the true reason for criticism, to fix a problem and not to make the problem larger.

Ryan, a trainer for a local college gym, must train another instructor for the summer session. After reviewing the instructor’s presentation Ryan sits down to offer the new instructor some advice.

Example: You gave an excellent presentation on the topic and will be able to speak to your students very well. However, sometimes you get really excited and speak too fast, which makes you unintelligible to your students. You know the topics very well and will be able to answer questions; I think you will be a great instructor.

Ryan is able to point out the positive aspects of the new instructor’s teaching methods without completely tearing down the work ethic and self-esteem of the instructor. His criticisms “speak too fast” and “unintelligible to students” are buffered by the positive comments of “speak to your students well” and “know the topics well.” This allows the new instructor to remember Ryan’s words as he is teaching and perhaps correct his mistakes, but not in a debilitating manner.

Lisa, an upper level trainer at global online training site is critiquing her co-worker’s new training method before she submits it to upper management.

Example: The colors are fabulous and really offset the text to bring out the message. The background could be clearer as it seems to distort the picture confusing the audience as to which pose is being trained. The layout is perfect though for the website and will draw a lot of consumer attention.

The point is to turn a negative statement into an overall positive one, albeit a truthful one as well. You don’t want to give false statements and inadvertently allow the client to be able to brush off the negative. For instance, if Lisa’s words about color and text are false, she isn’t helping but hindering her co-worker by not allowing her to fix what could become a larger problem. At the same time she needs to keep a balanced criticism, so let’s assume that there is a problem with the text and colors in addition to the background, Lisa needs to offer a different positive criticism.

Example: The layout is perfect though for the website and will draw a lot of consumer attention. The colors and text are really hard to make out, they tend to blend together adding to the unclear background which distort the picture of the pose. The topic matches the audience though, and the text, once clear, will be an eye catching part of the display allowing our audience to follow the training guide.

Now that we have some understanding of the Sandwich smile, let’s try some exercises to incorporate the technique. Make the criticism useful, humane and remember, a half-smile doesn’t make people happy. Using the good formula below try to construct some positive criticism you might use for the following situations. If your example fits the bad formula try to reconstruct your words to become positive (good formula) and if you get stuck, feel free to peek at some of the examples we have provided for each scenario.

Good Formula: Positive + Negative + Positive = Balanced

Bad Formulas: Positive + Positive + Negative = Unbalanced
Negative + Negative + Positive = Unbalanced

Situation One:

As a manager of a personal training business, it is time for yearly reviews. You have one employee, Tom, who you are considering whether or not to fire based on recent customer remarks. You have decided to withhold your decision until after the review to see if Tom’s behavior improves. You’d like to bring up the negative remarks of Tom’s unethical behavior (he has been accused of making inappropriate jokes to several of his clients).

Situation Two:

You have decided to hold a workout session two times a week in your home for you and your fellow co-workers. You are auditioning trainers for the position which entails the trainer holding one workout session with the group. You are remarking on one personal trainer who you feel had an extremely bad audition. Try to give them the negative criticism (did not communicate well with your co-workers during the session) without the trainer becoming upset.

Situation Three:

You are a personal trainer who has decided to let go one of your clients due to the implications that they may want a personal relationship. You do not want to hurt your client’s feelings, and would like to recommend another trainer for the position so that your company does not loose a client.

Below are some examples that would fit the above scenarios based on what type of learner each of the critiqued may belong.

Situation One:

Visual: Tom, you’ve had a great year in terms of numbers, pulling your number of clients from three to five and extending most of your scheduled visits to three times a week. There have been some remarks on inappropriate jokes that have occurred with several of your clients and here are some examples of the jokes the clients have referred to [hands Tom a slip of paper with the jokes]. Overall, you’ve pulled in some great business for the company and continue to be a great asset to your customers.

Mechanical: Tom, you’ve had a great year in terms of numbers, customers really relate to you; this shows in your increase of customers over the past year from three to five. There have been some remarks on inappropriate jokes that have occurred with several of your clients in relation to weight or gender. Joking with the customers is a great way to communicate, but you should stick to topics more in the entertainment or non-personal areas. We’d like for you to take a workshop with several of the other trainers to correct these miscommunication issues. Overall, you’ve pulled in some great business for the company and continue to be a great asset to your customers.

Analytical: Tom, you’ve had a great year in terms of numbers, customers really relate to you; this shows in your increase of customers over the past year from three to five. There have been some remarks on inappropriate jokes that have occurred with several of your clients. Joking with the customers is great way to communicate, but just like children get mad when their parents call them the wrong name, you customers may not like jokes that reference their weight or gender. You should stick to topics more in the entertainment or non-personal areas. We’d like for you to take a workshop with several of the other trainers to correct these miscommunication issues. Overall, you’ve pulled in some great business for the company and continue to be a great asset to your customers.

Situation Two:

Visual: [picks up and sets down cell phone] Paul, we really like your enthusiasm and routine that you created for the group. However, we felt that your communication with the group would have been better without the constant cell phone interruptions. [Picks up cell phone and mimics Paul’s action of opening and closing the phone]. The pace was well-kept and you knew what exercises you were training on, even being able to demonstrate them perfectly.

Mechanical: Paul, we really like your enthusiasm and routine that you created for the group. However, we felt that your communication with the group would have been better without the constant cell phone interruptions [Demonstrates turning off the cell phone while holding eye-contact with Paul]. The pace was well-kept and you knew what exercises you were training on, even being able to demonstrate them perfectly.

Analytical: Paul, we really like your enthusiasm and routine that you created for the group. However, we felt that your communication with the group would have been better without the constant cell phone interruptions, it was the equivalent of trying to exercise and eat at the same time, and your attention wasn’t fully here. The pace was well-kept and you knew what exercises you were training on, even being able to demonstrate them perfectly.

Situation Three:

Visual: Linda you are a great customer; you pay on time, show up early and never miss a session with me. However, personal touching and the lack of spatial relationship have caused some tension during our sessions. You also have great communicational skills and fast pace tempo workouts so I’d like to suggest one of our salsa instructors who can create personal dance-related routines such as the mamba, salsa, and cha-cha [performs a small dance routine as he mentions each of the dance] to train you for awhile.

Mechanical: Linda you are a great customer; you pay on time, show up early and never miss a session with me. However, personal touching and the lack of spatial relationship have caused some tension during our sessions. You also have great communicational skills and fast pace tempo workouts so I’d like to suggest one of our salsa instructors who can create personal dance-related routines such as the mamba, salsa, and cha-cha [performs a small dance routine as he mentions each of the dance and has Linda mimic his actions] to train you for awhile.

Analytical: Linda you are a great customer; you pay on time, show up early and never miss a session with me. However, personal touching such as the hugs and the lack of spatial relationship has caused some tension during our sessions, just like co-workers experience tension when someone says something offensive. You also have great communicational skills and fast pace tempo workouts so I’d like to suggest one of our salsa instructors who can create personal dance-related routines such as the mamba, salsa, and cha-cha to train you for awhile.

Although your examples may have been very different, there are no right and wrong answers when it comes to criticism, only how it is received. Always remember that the goal is to help the person improve and better themselves. When in doubt look at it from a personal perspective; if someone you knew was going to give you negative information, how would you want to receive it? Keep in mind that you need to relate to your client to get them to understand what you mean and what to do with the information.

Ultimately stay positive and remember good and bad go hand in hand, when giving criticism remember to include the praise in a balanced fashion. It will take practice to be able to give constructive criticism, and no matter how often you think you’ll get it right, sometimes no one is ever happy with being examined. But, just as a spoon full of sugar helps medicine go down, a smile always helps the criticism sink in.

Author's Bio: 

Matt Hackney is a young entrepreneur. At the age of 25, he owns a Publishing Company, is an author, owns a Fitness Training Studio, is a fashion & fitness model, and a professional ballroom dancer. His time and energy is devoted to bettering the lives of those around him through internship, employment, and consulting. He is based out of Santa Barbara, CA. Matt has successfully helped people lose weight for over 6 years and has traveled the world sharing his secrets to better health.