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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Compliment Sandwich

Law professors spend a lot of time assessing the work of others and giving feedback on that work.  We give feedback as part of scholarship workshops, as part of hiring and tenure reviews, and as part our interactions with students, just to name a few situations.  Some law professors are really incredible at giving feedback.  Others less so.  Perhaps because of the wide variation in styles and effectiveness, I’ve had a number of conversations with other law professors on the most successful ways to give feedback on another’s work.

One model—a model that I prefer—is what a friend of mine calls “the compliment sandwich.”  The basic idea is to situate your criticism between an opening compliment and a closing compliment.  Sometimes the compliment is nothing more than a quick aside before and after lengthy criticisms—a compliment about having chosen an important topic to begin, for example, and a compliment about how you think the paper adds to the field to end.  The “bread” in that compliment sandwich is very thin—“almost more like a cracker or a pita, than real bread,” my friend joked.  Other times the criticism is negligible next to the compliment—kind of like a finger sandwich:  mostly bread with just a tiny bit of filler.  But you get the basic idea—like a sandwich, criticism is easier to consume and digest if it is wrapped up in something that is both neat and agreeable.

I have been thinking a lot about the compliment sandwich recently because I’ve heard a few people speak negatively about those who are too quick to compliment others.  There are, for example, a handful of law schools and law professors who seem to eschew any positive comments at workshops as a point of pride.  Instead, the feedback delivered is uniformly critical, and the tone of the criticism can be extremely negative.  The decision to be only critical in feedback seems intentional—they seem to eschew compliments and focus only on the problems with a person’s work because that is what “serious” people do.

Most recently, I had an exchange with a lawyer named Scott Greenfield on Twitter about a similar topic.  I was defending the idea that people ought to take more time to praise people’s decisions—especially the decisions of those who ordinarily make decisions of which we disapprove.  One example that I gave was President Trump.  I think that Trump has made some laudable decisions to grant executive clemency.  He has also made a number of other horrible decisions with which I strongly disagree.  But I think it is important for me to express approval of the clemency decisions.

Greenfield disagrees.  He wrote—first on Twitter and then on his blog--about the drawbacks that he sees with “promiscuous praise.”  Of course, to use a pejorative word like “promiscuous” indicates that disapproves of whatever is being described.  But Scott helpfully elaborated to say that:

[T]here are many who praise too often. They praise anyone because the outcome is agreeable. They praise their friends to show support. They praise the banal. Sometimes they praise the dumb, even the flagrantly wrong, if it serves a goal they prefer.

Offering encouragement by way of praise has become a ubiquitous tool, particularly in academia, I still have flashbacks about being “instructed” when teaching cross-examination to law students that all criticism of their work had to be prefaced by praise. What if they did nothing praiseworthy? Come up with something. Make it up. But under no circumstances could there be criticism without praise preceding it.

This was taken for granted as the preferred pedagogical means to get students to accept the criticism. Without praise, they would feel they were being attacked. With praise, they were encouraged. But this had two side-effects, that it cheapened praise to the point of meaninglessness, as it was given constantly, often effusively, for the most trivial things. “It was wonderful how you didn’t drool when you began cross!” Except the words, “When you stood up to cross, your demeanor was very professional. Well done!”

As I read Scott’s argument I saw that he was criticizing the compliment sandwich.  And so I want to defend the practice.  Because I like the compliment sandwich.  For one thing, it is polite.  And call me old fashioned, but I like being polite.  And I especially like it when other people are polite to me.

Another reason that I like the compliment sandwich is because I think that people are more apt to listen if you begin and end what you are saying on a positive note.  This is separate from just being polite.  It is about beginning and ending about what is good about the project, rather than what needs to be changed.  Now Scott thinks that there are costs associated with this point of view.  As he explains using the example of what he saw at law schools when instructing students on cross examination:

The praise was, for the most part, empty and cheap. It was unilluminating. But it had two negative side effects. First, it bred students who were praise-dependent, who needed validation, even if they realized it was empty. Second, anything that wasn’t praise was seen as an attack. It became difficult, if not impossible, to explain to some students why their compound, open-ended question wasn’t good, because what they heard was “you’re stupid and a failure.”

I don’t know if Scott is correct that too much praise can lead people to (a) need more validation, or (b) be incapable of accepting criticism.  Those seem like empirical questions.  But I wonder whether his concern is really about the quality and the substance of the compliments, rather than practice of including compliments as a precursor to criticism.  Because it is true that a “thin” compliment in the compliment sandwich doesn’t add much in the way of substance.  Instead it seems like a pro forma gesture more than anything else.  But maybe the approach should be to ensure that the compliment serves a substantive purpose, rather than to scrap the idea of the sandwich all together.

Which reminds me of a conversation that I had with another friend about giving feedback on work.  She insists that it is just as important to tell people what they are doing well as what they aren’t doing well.  Especially on early drafts, when people are trying to decide what direction to take their project in, it is important for them to know what seems to be working and why.  Since she and I had that conversation several years ago, I’ve tried to follow that advice.  Personally, I’d like to do a better job focusing on why certain things work well.  Just as I also try to, when giving criticism, offer some thoughts on how to correct what I see as the problems.  Those types of comments—why something works, why it doesn’t work, and how to improve—are much harder than simply pointing out flaws.  Saying that something is bad is much, much easier than trying to explain what might make it good.

Spending at least some time talking about what makes a project good could also help to avoid giving comments that are really about what paper you would have written, rather than comments designed to help the person write a better version of their project.  I think a lot of us fall into this trap when giving feedback:  We often think about what we would have writtenor what we think is interesting.  But those sorts of comments are sometimes far less helpful.  And I think this concern applies not only to professors writing articles, but also to other situations, such as giving students feedback on a trial skill:  There are lots of different ways for lawyers to be successful in the courtroom.  Taking the time to compliment a student on what he or she did well will help the person giving feedback focus on the particular courtroom style that the student seems most comfortable with.  Then the person can give criticisms designed to help the student master that particular style, rather than the style that the person commenting happen to like best.

There is one last reason that I’m going to continue to try and focus more on praise than on criticism:  Criticism is just too easy.  Especially for law professors and lawyers—critical thinking is one of our major skills.  It is basically our job to listen to what someone says and try to identify reasons why that person is wrong.  And I think that skill has some unfortunate side effects.  I think that it is hard to turn that part of our brains off, which makes us kind of unpleasant to be around.  We love to tell people why they are wrong, inconsistent, illogical, etc.  And I think it may also cause some of us—or at least me—to take a much more negative approach in life. 

So I’m sticking with the compliment sandwich.  I’m going to focus on making the compliments less perfunctory and more meaningful.  And I’m going to try and look more closely for the positive things that people say and do.  If, for no other reason, the past couple of years have shown me that there is really no bottom when it comes to the awful things that people are willing to do and say in this world.  The bad will always be right in front of me—so I may as well seek out the good.


Posted by Carissa Byrne Hessick on March 20, 2019 at 11:45 AM in Carissa Byrne Hessick, Life of Law Schools | Permalink


Carissa, thanks for the helpful reply. I see a lot of agreement in our general approaches to these issues. We agree that the context of the questioning matters; that it's essential to be polite; that it's often helpful to praise what is good; and that it's essential to press on or what is weak. I suspect the challenge is more figuring out how a particular comment would be received by a particular audience in a particular context.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Mar 22, 2019 4:07:18 PM

It is gratifying to see so many people respond to this post, and on Twitter. My colleague, Rachel Gurvich, for example, has a great thread that uses this as a foil for how to best deliver feedback to students: https://twitter.com/RachelGurvich/status/1108452455724077057

But I wanted to take a few minutes to respond to some comments both here and elsewhere on the challenges of including positive feedback in a faculty workshop setting. First, I think we need to distinguish between different types of workshops: There are intensive paper workshops, and there are also the far less intensive workshops that are often held at lunchtime once at a week at law schools. For sake of brevity, I’ll refer to the first type of workshop as an “intensive workshop” and the second as a “lunch workshop.”

Second, as several people noted, the norms at different workshops often differ. For example, many intensive workshops have a norm of everyone reading the paper. And some lunch workshops have a norm that the audience participation is supposed to be in the form of a question, rather than a comment. Importantly, the norms differ not only based on the type of workshop, but also the individual workshop itself. For example, there are several schools where the expectation is that the audience read the paper for a lunch workshop. And many have perfected the skill of packaging a comment as a question.

Ok, now let’s turn to the substance of some comments. Howard and a few others noted that Danny had a rule about no prefatory positive comments at PrawfsFest! (I take Bridget’s comment about not using the word “foreplay”.) I’ll note that some of us had a hard time observing that rule, and that at least some attendees would openly and repeatedly flout it. If I recall correctly, Howard’s characterization was correct—it wasn’t necessarily a rule against saying what was good in the paper, it was instead a rule about throat clearing. But Howard also links that rule to Michael Risch’s comment that the assumption is “anything unsaid is good.” Michael, Howard, and others seem to agree that the positive comments about a paper merely take up valuable time that could be better spent “on the negative stuff.”

I want to push back on the underlying premise that positive comments aren’t useful (or aren’t as useful) as negative comments. As I said in the original post: “Especially on early drafts, when people are trying to decide what direction to take their project in, it is important for them to know what seems to be working and why.” But I want to take this further and talk about not only what the presenter gets out of comments, but also what we commenters get out of the process. You see, writing is hard. It’s not enough to have a good idea—you have to be able to package and express that idea in an effective way. And there is no single formula for how to do that. When we comment on papers—especially when we think deeply about what is succeeding, what is not succeeding, and what seems behind that success or lack of success—we teach ourselves how to write better papers. Leaving the good “unsaid” often leads—I think—to leaving the good unappreciated and unexplored, both for the commenter and for the author. Figuring out what we are doing well not only signals what we shouldn’t change, but it also helps us identify more broadly things that work so that we can use that knowledge for future projects.

Now, I think that I may be partially to blame for the assumption that positive comments aren’t helpful. For one thing, I called them “compliments.” For another, I lauded the compliment sandwich for among other reasons, the fact that it is polite.* But the original post also said that positive comments should be more substantive, and not merely a pro forma gesture.

Which leads me to the concern expressed by a number of people, including Orin, that we simply do not have time in workshops for positive comments. Here, I think that it is useful to distinguish between intensive workshops and lunch workshops. While intensive workshops differ in formats, most that I attend have enough time for someone to offer both positive and critical comments. Faculty workshops are, of course, different. The interaction is much shorter, and so the time allocated for members of the audience to speak may not allow for multiple thoughts/comments.

That said, I think that even in the lunch workshop format, we could be much, much more attentive to how we ask questions or offer comments. To use Orin’s example about the work that seems derivative of other works, I have seen that sort of question/comment offered in very different ways—from “This is an important area, and I’ve enjoyed reading a number of the articles that you cited, but I was hoping you could spend a little time now emphasizing what your particular contribution is and how it should cause me to rethink my reading of those other articles.” To “Is there anything new here?” or, (even worse in my mind) “This article doesn’t offer anything new.” The first is not only more positive, but it is more likely to generate an answer of substance.

* Frankly, I’m surprised by how many people on Twitter characterized being polite as a negative character trait that keeps you from knowing where you stand with someone or keeps people from expressing their true feelings. Politeness is not the same thing as disingenuousness.

Posted by: carissa | Mar 22, 2019 3:43:08 PM

I've already commented below, but one more thought occurs to me: I think one difficulty with this question is trying to figure out when criticism crosses the line from fair to mean and when praise crosses the line from generous to insincere. I think we can all agree that fair and generous is good, and that mean and insincere is bad. But one person's fair comment can be another person's mean comment, and one person's generous comment can be another person's insincere comment.

For example, imagine a reader's true and honest reaction is that an article is terribly weak and unoriginal. The reader thinks that the author is just repackaging 100 other articles and trying to pass it off as something new. Now we're at the workshop, and it's the reader's turn. Imagine the reader begins by saying this: "Thank you for presenting this very interesting article. I learned a lot! It's such an important issue, and I love the passion and energy you bring to the debate. It's really just a wonderful and heartening thing to see. I did have one question, though, and I super interested to hear how you might respond." The reader then says that the ideas in the paper seem very similar to that of other prominent articles, ad asks the author, in effect, what is new here? Is that opening compliment generous and supportive, a good thing? Or is that opening compliment false and insincere, a bad thing?

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Mar 21, 2019 5:16:33 PM

I totally appreciate the humor of the "no foreplay" characterization of the notion that it is not necessary to precede a question or a comment with a compliment at a colloquium, conference, presentation, etc. On the other hand, I think the phrase is an unnecessary sexualization (applicable to and for men and women equally, to be sure) in a professional context. I'm in favor of calling the rule something like, "Ask your question or give the feedback without delivering a compliment first." Granted, not as catchy as "no foreplay." But of course, "be kind" is always good advice, too, separate and apart from whether any compliment (or foreplay) is involved.

Posted by: Bridget Crawford | Mar 21, 2019 4:05:22 PM

But a Chicago-style compliment pizza wouldn't be deep-dish.

Posted by: Pablo | Mar 21, 2019 12:24:08 PM

In many settings a full compliment sandwich is surely too much bread. A compliment pizza (start with a base of praise, then pour on a layer of criticism and top with a sprinkling of actual question) seems a better food analogy for, say, a workshop situation.

Posted by: Pablo | Mar 21, 2019 12:15:00 PM

Sorry, sent too soon.

The compliment sandwich is basically the only advice I remember from reading Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People." It struck me as good advice then and now.

The reason that it's good advice is because the compliment helps the criticism go down more easily. In other words, if you want people to hear your criticism and take it seriously, compliment them first. It helps them understand that you're on their side and interested in their success. And ending with a compliment after a dose of criticism reminds them of this.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Mar 21, 2019 12:00:53 PM

The compliment sandwich is basically the only advice I remember from reading Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People." It struck me as good advice then and now.

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Mar 21, 2019 11:57:12 AM

Carissa, this is a very interesting post.

I'm somewhere in the middle on this, I think, at least if we're focused on the practices at live workshops (which are different from those of written comments). As with most questions of norms, I think the answer may depend in part on the audience for the comments. In some circumstances, with some audiences, starting with a compliment is a way of expressing friendship and establishing good faith and good will that can make the criticism to follow more palatable. In other circumstances, with other audiences, starting with a compliment can come off as a waste of time and even as condescension, suggesting that the speaker doesn't think the author is mature enough to accept the real reaction on its merits. The meaning of the sandwich depends on the norms of the group, I think, making the compliment sandwich useful in some circumstances but not useful in others. Or at least it means that to me.

The audience-dependence is related to disagreements on the purpose of workshops, I think. If you assume the purpose of workshops is only to help the author improve the paper, then overly positive comments can risk coming off as waste of time. They're essentially throat-clearing until you get to the valuable help -- the suggestions for how the paper can be improved, which requires discussing its flaws. On the other hand, if you assume the purpose of the workshop is in part an expressive exercise for the author, in which the author is sharing the author's ideas through a kind of performance, then positive comments are important ways of validating that exercise and expressing support for the author. I suspect some of the difference in norms reflects different senses of the purpose of workshops.

Thanks for the interesting post.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Mar 20, 2019 6:59:24 PM

Dan had the "No Foreplay" Rule for Prawfsfest!, which was less about crowding out positive comments than about crowding out positive pablum ("I really liked your talk" "I really like this paper") and forcing the commenter to get to the meat of comments (good and bad) and questions. I think Michael is basically onto the same idea with "if it's unsaid, it's good."

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Mar 20, 2019 6:13:55 PM

Expressing appreciation and encouragement is helpful and valuable, especially when it is specific and meaningful. It deserves a place of prominence in any classroom or organization. That is separate from the question of whether or not the sandwich is a good way to give critical feedback.

It isn't. It may be well-intended, but there's no evidence that the sandwich helps the recipient digest the critical feedback. The value of the sandwich is that it tends to help the *giver* of feedback feel better about delivering a hard message. It then has the unfortunate consequences of making it that much harder for the recipient to discern the giver's actual message, and eventually priming the recipient to see praise as a disingenuous lead-in to more critical feedback.

A better approach is just to deliver feedback regularly and transparently, clearly saying what you actually mean, whether positive or negative. You can proactively build an environment in which feedback can be given and received in a spirit of generosity and growth. Appreciation, praise, and encouragement should be regular features of any professional setting if you have competent and well-intentioned colleagues and students. In such an environment, critical feedback that is specific, actionable, and delivered as a way of improving the performance of the feedback recipient goes down just fine. There's no need to try masking the message with faint praise.

For more on why we should abandon the sandwich, see https://bestpracticeslegaled.albanylawblogs.org/2019/02/28/the-feedback-sandwich-a-bad-recipe-for-motivating-students-learning/

Posted by: anon | Mar 20, 2019 3:45:50 PM

This conversation reminds me of an anecdote recounted in Bruce Tulgan, Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials (2009):

"An experienced nurse-manager in a busy hospital told me she stopped a new young nurse from administering the wrong medicine by intravenous drip to a patient. The manager pulled the young nurse aside and explained emphatically how serious a mistake she almost made. 'I explained that this is how patients die unnecessarily. I told her, "You need to check the wrist bracelet, then the patient's chart, then the charge list, then the IV bag. Then you need to check them all again."' Before she was finished, the young nurse interrupted her. 'Actually, you are doing this conversation wrong,' she told her boss. 'You are supposed to give me some positive feedback before you criticize my work.' What did the manager respond? 'Okay, nice shoes. Now about that IV bag....'"

Posted by: Grumpy | Mar 20, 2019 2:26:50 PM

At my old firm we used to call this the "wish sandwich."

The only point I'll add is that it takes time to compliment - in a limited workshop setting, too much complimenting squeezes out important critical (and not in a bad way) discussion, just as too much nitpicky discussion can squeeze out other important comments. Related, among a few close friends, we are very clear up front when we review each others papers that we only comment on the negative stuff, and assume anything unsaid is good. This works because a) we trust each other, and b) the cost of not hearing the positive yields the benefit of someone who doesn't have to take the time to write the positive and thus will read your paper, quickly and every time you send one.

Posted by: Michael Risch | Mar 20, 2019 1:35:56 PM

Thanks, Jeff. That's really interesting. And I agree with you that 4:1 praise to criticism isn't the correct ratio for faculty workshops. Maybe I'd flip the ratio for workshops: Say 1:4 praise to criticism.

Posted by: carissa | Mar 20, 2019 1:14:34 PM

Carissa, that accords with a precept I recall from the business world, particularly in how one handles dealing with people whose work you supervise - namely, a ratio of 4:1 between praise and criticism. I went online just now, and that seems still to hold.


I suppose the difference between a workshop and the manager-managee situation are the bounds. As the linked piece notes (and to some extent taking Scott Greenfield's point), if you praise too much you aren't believable. And if you don't praise enough, why are you employing the person?

But it ought to hold, say, among faculty colleagues. If you can't offer enough praise, why is the person good enough to be on your faculty? And if you offer too much, your credibility as a complimenter suffers.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Mar 20, 2019 12:58:51 PM

Very interesting, very important. You have it. Stick to it indeed. Suggests that you have high emotional intelligence. Yet, it would be worth to note:

One method for being demanding and at the same time, eliminating the fear that students may feel attacked by your remarks or criticism, is one method I call:

" The collective anonymity ". You can run a conversation, to the whole class, as introduction ( as you do probably anyway, presenting yourself and the academic material ).In that stage, no one may suspect that you have any personal business with him. So, you prepare the ground, and suggesting ( let alone in law studies ) :

That you are tough. You have high expectation. You don't hang around. You are very demanding. For their own sake and future. You grant notes for results, not for efforts. Sweat shall spare blood and tears.

By that, you may of course, wash the brain of students, as it starts. Without any negative personal implications. By that, you may spread future potential damage, while criticizing harshly their work.

So, compliments would be perceived as unexpected bonus, while sticking to demanding standards, with more than reasonable positive atmosphere.

There are many others, but, we won't stay young here no more.


Posted by: El roam | Mar 20, 2019 12:56:48 PM

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