How to make difficult conversations easy with the SBI Model

Jonah Larkin

Did you know that the human brain is 7 times more likely to remember something negative than positive?

If you were living 20000 years ago running around the Savannah, you had better remember where the large cats like to hang out, lest you become feline dinner.

Though modern humans live in much less dangerous environments, the same principle of a bias towards negativity applies.

It's called postive-negative asymmetry by scientists and is why you're more likely to remember the sting of a rebuke more than the joy of praise.

That's why humans shy away from difficult conversations.

There's a lot at risk when you have to tell a romantic partner, business partner or anyone else that you're not happy with where things are at and you'd like it to change.

What if they say no?  What if they get mad?  What if they leave you?  What if you lose the deal?

The human mind spins into a well of paranoia and can bog you down in the POSSIBLE outcomes instead of moving forward.

This negativity bias protects us from getting kicked out of the tribe, which, 20000 years ago, could mean death.

No wonder it's so challenging!

But fortunately, there's a simple way to significantly increase the chances of having a difficult conversation go well.

It's called the Situation-Behavior-Impact feedback model.

Unless you are a trained communicator, there is a really good chance you'll speak in generalities because the brain thinks that way for pattern recognition purposes.

Most people, when they need to have a difficult conversation, will say something like "Hey!  I'm always cleaning up after you in the kitchen."

Starting a conversation like that will almost certainly result in the other party responding defensively because they will remember the one or two times in the last month they cleaned up after themselves ;)

That's why it can be really helpful to set up a little context before you dive in.

You might say, "I'm feeling (agitated, angry, whatever emotion your feeling) and I'd like to clear that up with you.  Are you open to conversation about it?"

You've just asked the other person for permission to engage with them.  This prepares them so they don't feel caught off guard or blindsided.

The first part of the SBI model is to describe the situation as closely and as accurately as you can with location, time and actions.


Example: "When I walked into the kitchen this morning to make breakfast.."


Example: "The dishes hadn't been done and there were dirty plates and pans on the counter...."


Example: "Which caused me to feel angry and frustrated because I thought we had made an agreement to clean up immediately after a meal"

The above conversation is likely to go much smoother than saying something like "There are tons of dirty dishes in the kitchen and you never clean up after yourself!"

The second example will create more blowback as the target of such a remark may become super defensive.

The goal of difficult conversations is to get your needs met WHILE simultaneously getting the needs met of the person you are in relationship with.

The SBI model can be a starting point for any difficult conversation because it raises the chances of the other party listening to you without getting defensive.

You can also extend the SBI model by asking for the other person's intent after you've described the impact.

This allows both parties to understand the gap between the INTENT of someone's actions vs. their IMPACT.

You could ask the person "I'm wondering what was going on for you?"

Many arguments stem from innocent misunderstandings, so when you understand someone's intent you can begin to unwind what if any conflict there is.

So go and practice the SBI framework and make your difficult conversations not only easier but more satisfying for both parties.