Meme Partners | Handling Tricky Conversations
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05 Jun Handling Tricky Conversations

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I learned about the SCARF model at a Coaching and Mentoring course recently, as a tool to improve interactions by reducing perceived threat.  The basic idea is that the brain responds to social threats in the same way (and sometimes with the same intensity) that it responds to physical threats. That’s to say, our brain has largely the same chemical reaction when we’re challenged in a business meeting as when we come face to face with an angry bear.  Generally speaking, this does not improve interactions between colleagues.

David Rock has done a lot of work and built a consulting practice helping businesses to ‘operationalise neuroscience’.  He offers a summary of the thinking in this article from 2009:
Click here to see David Rock’s article “Managing with the Brain in Mind”

“Data gathered through measures of brain activity, using fMRI and electroencephalograph (EEG) machines or gauging hormonal secretions, suggests that the same neural responses that drive us toward food or away from predators are triggered by our perceptions of the way we are treated by other people.”

In the article, he also lays out the SCARF model, which proposes 5 ways to decrease perceived threat in our interactions. I’ll crudely oversimplify them below and recommend Rock’s article for the real thing!

  • Status: avoid triggering egos, they make us wildly less productive.
  • Certainty: be clear and consistent and try to offer handholds of certainty even in the messiest situations. Too much uncertainty makes us panic.
  • Autonomy: give people choices and a chance for real input. If you micromanage or box us in, we shut down.
  • Relatedness: social connection significantly improves interactions – make time for it in your organisation. Us and Them is a killer.
  • Fairness: humans are wired to prioritise fairness. We feel “more satisfied with a fair exchange that offers a minimal reward than an unfair exchange in which the reward is substantial.”


For me it’s a neat checklist: 5 things to think about as we prepare for a tricky conversation or plan major organisational change. Quite useful outside work too.

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