How to give better feedback: using the SBI model for success

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When people disappoint us, instead of addressing issues head-on, we’re often quick to create stories in our heads. We make assumptions. And left unaddressed, assumptions can lead to misinterpretations and strained relationships.

Without taking the time to have challenging conversations, we’re unlikely to move forwards. Trouble is, as humans we tend to avoid conflict and never want to offend. That’s where the SBI feedback model — otherwise known as Situation-Behavior-Impact — can help.

But first, what is SBI?

Regardless of whether it’s at work, socially, or at home, giving feedback isn’t easy. It can cause anxiety for the person delivering feedback, and defensiveness for the person on the receiving end. The SBI structure assists people to have these conversations successfully. 

SBI helps the giver of feedback to focus on specific situations, actions and behaviours rather than the person or their attributes. This means feedback is objective, and because it’s not personal: there’s less chance of offending others. 

It’s something Catherine Bowyer, executive coach and human behaviour specialist, says can help take emotional reactions out of conversations. 

‘I find many managers don’t like delivering ‘negative’ feedback because they might upset the other person,’ she said. ‘SBI allows the feedback giver to be more objective. It’s less likely for the receiver to take feedback personally because they can separate what they did from who they are.’

 


How does it work? 

Putting the SBI model into practice is simple and easy. It operates in three steps. Firstly, clarify the situation. To do this, be specific about the situation in which the behaviour occurred. For example, it’s better to say, ‘during our conversation yesterday…’ rather than, ‘In previous conversations…’ Being specific helps to avoid confusion. 

Then, describe the behaviour observed. It’s important to describe observable behaviour, without including opinions or judgments. For example, saying, ‘you said something incorrect,’ is more objective than ‘you weren’t acting with integrity. 

To describe behaviour without opinions, Catherine recommends being as impartial as possible. She often asks clients, ‘if you were to video record your team member doing this behaviour, what would you see them doing on the recording?’ 

‘It helps them separate who the person is (or who they think they are) from what they are doing,’ she said. 

Finally, explain the impact the person’s behaviour had. Describing the result of the behaviour helps others see the practicalities of their actions. 

How can SBI improve behaviour? 

Before we jump to conclusions about why people act the way they do, it’s important to ask why. The extended SBII model includes an additional step  — intention. Asking others about their intent helps us avoid misconceptions. Clarifying intent also means understanding the other person’s perspective. 

Begin these conversations by asking what a person hoped to achieve or why they did what they did. Understanding others perspectives is useful when giving direction for improvement and it can spark the beginning of further coaching. 

To ensure that feedback is useful, Catherine also recommends discussing both actions and consequences. She recommends stating the actions you’d like the other person to take as a result of the feedback. Then discussing the consequences that will occur if the changes aren’t implemented. 

The result 

When we clearly articulate feedback using the SBI or SBII model, we’re less likely to cause offence. And tangible, practical feedback allows others to change their behaviour. 

‘The SBI structure helps the receiver have a better understanding of their behaviours, and what they can do to improve or change them.’

Regardless of the situation, giving feedback is never easy. But without discussing issues, we’re bound to wind up misinterpreting others’ intentions. SBI offers a safe structure to speak, understand, and listen — something we can all use from time to time.

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