The Shit Sandwich: #1 Communication Tool for Any Relationship

If you’re inclined to read this article,  chances are you already know that healthy communication is the foundation of any relationship. Whether it’s your bae, boo or boss, communication can feel like a complex web of intonation, body language, sarcasm, and satire. Despite the nuanced complexities of interpersonal communications, one simple skill can improve your communication exponentially. The Shit Sandwich.

The  ‘Something Nice’

We know from the research of John and Julie Gottman, founders of the Gottman Method of Couples Therapy, that one of the major predictors of divorce is an element of communication they call the “harsh startup.” It’s the idea that when people start conversations in a manner that is perceived as aggressive, the other person immediately feels defensive. Defensiveness can quickly lead to interpreting words and actions through a negative filter. Generally speaking, most folks are only able to hear the first few words and the accompanying tone before their fight or flight responses kick in and they are busy crafting a retort. More often than not, conversations that begin harshly result in the other person being unwilling or unable to listen. If they do hear your words, you will most likely encounter a negative reaction by the third or fourth word in. The “cure” for this is to intentionally start discussions in a complementary fashion. You can think of this as the bottom slice of bread, or the foundation of the Shit Sandwich: Start off by saying something nice, so the other person is ABLE TO HEAR WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY.

For example, I drive my wife crazy with what she calls my “nutty professor-isms,” the absent-minded things I do when I’m not paying explicit attention to my actions. After learning the Shit Sandwich, my wife now starts her conversation with “I love your nutty professor-isms, but….” Because she’s prefacing with a personalized statement of love and respect, I can actually listen to her request instead of the age-old habit of defending my absent-minded in the first place. The statement “I love your nutty professor-isms” is a double winner because it references “I” instead of “You. Try and be mindful of the “you” statements or backhanded compliments in disguise. Steer clear of starting off with statements such as;  “You know, I think you could be amazing at…” or “You’re usually good about this, but…. “These type of passive aggressive statements are like a fart in the car and can set the conversation down the wrong path.

The ‘Shit’

The shit in the Shit Sandwich is the unpleasant thing you have to say. You’ve already come in soft on the startup, so typically the other person is actually listening. If you are requesting someone do something, phrasing it as a question can be helpful, however, it can get dicey if you are proposing solutions. If you’ve got some shit to say, say it. Be direct and kind in your selection of words and tone, but get to the point.

The ‘Other Slice of Nice’

This is the follow up to the original Something Nice statement. There may be hints of defensiveness or feelings of criticism spilling over from the Shit, so this is where you can really wrap it up with a positive intent. A few simple, genuine sentiments can really take the edge off.  

For example:

Hey babe (cute, you are coming in soft!), you know I love your inner nutty professor (something nice), but it really pisses me off when you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing (the Shit). It’s just that I love you and I get worried you are going to hurt yourself! (Other Something Nice). Would you mind in the future slowing down and really being mindful when you are stressed out? (Optional: Potentially helpful solution)  

Remember, too many words can muddle your position, or worse, make the person feel they are being talked down to. Serve your shit sandwich with compassion and allow it to digest. If you need to toss out a side of helpful solutions, proposing them as questions help the other person feel part of the collaborative change process. Be aware of solutions that sound like demands. In general, the follow up is optional, so when in doubt, leave it out! Good luck!