SCARF is a concept developed by David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute and popularized in his book, Quiet Leadership. It’s a good way to take stress out of a conversation. That’s useful, since a person in stress doesn’t think clearly.Sometimes, our brain is not our friend.
There’s a busy and primitive part of it, the amygdala, always scanning for changes in the environment. It interprets all change or discomfort as danger, which made sense when the User Guide for Life was: “Eat or be eaten.” When the part of the brain concerned with survival takes over, the “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in automatically. The part of the brain that processes information and makes decisions is all but shut down as the body involuntarily prepares for trouble.
The theory suggests there are five elements of a relationship or situation that can derail any conversation if they are missing or out of balance. The more we can do to provide them, the more likely the other person is to feel safe in the conversation and able to think clearly.
You won’t be surprised to learn that SCARF is an acronym.
STATUS – “Where am I in the pecking order?” Our brains are always on the lookout for evidence of where we sit regarding power, authority and influence. That’s residue from an earlier time, one that held greater risk of getting clobbered. We feel safer when we sense that our status is equal to or greater than the folks around us. Neuroscience suggests that our brains react to a threat to our status the same way they do to a physical threat. The brain doesn’t differentiate. So if you “outrank” the person you’re talking with – you’re their boss, professor, parent, etc. – the very fact of talking with you is stressful because your status is higher than theirs.
What can we do to balance the status? Recognizing the gap is the first step. You might move the meeting from your office to a neutral place or a place where they are comfortable. A conference room, a cafe, their office or go for a walk. You might draw their attention to a fact that raises their status. “I need to talk with you because you have experience with this project.” “Your job gives you a closer look at [whatever], so I value your thoughts.” “As a member of this team, your work is important to our success.” Make it something real – they’ll smell inauthenticity.
Holding a good conversation is the best way to instigate change for the better. People hear what’s going on, issues are aired, confusion is cleared up, everyone goes away happy, and change goes smoothly.
On what planet?
While humans are naturally wired to communicate, we’re not all set up to do it well. You don’t have to look very far to find an example of miscommunication that leads to waste – wasted time, wasted effort, wasted energy, wasted goodwill.
Fortunately, there are some key behaviours we can learn and practise that will increase the chance that our communications will be heard, understood and acted on. We call these “Communication Kata.” They’re named after the exercises practitioners of martial arts, such as Aikido and Kung Fu, repeat, over and over, until they become instantly available to them when needed. They don’t have to think, “Now I move my right hand here and raise my left foot so many inches.” They focus on strategy. “Now I kick my opponent in the back.”
Similarly, learning and practising these communication kata makes these techniqes of effective interaction available whenever you’re in conversation. You don’t need to think about the process, you can focus on the content. Think of it as “Tongue Fu.”
We’ve presented these Communication Kata at conferences (Agile 2013 and Agile Tour Montreal). By popular request, we share them here on the blog.
Communication Kata 1: SCARF
Communication Kata 2: Share your intention
How to prevent the over-commitment that leads to overwhelm
This article first appeared in our newsletter in 2003. Still true!
It’s a small yet powerful word, one with big consequences. It’s a word that can improve our lives and make us more valuable to those we say it to – those we want to help in this world.
At the end of a week in which I – and the feelings I was experiencing – seemed to be on a non-stop rush from appointment to commitment to obligation to ordeal, I stopped to reflect on what was making me feel so beleaguered.
I examined my “To Do” list, and highlighted the things I really wanted to do. Almost all the highlighted items had fallen (or were they pushed?) to the bottom of the page. Activities that were important to me had, for months, languished, ignored and forgotten, beneath activities that other people wanted me to do. Ouch!
It had something to do with my reluctance to use the word “No.” A little reading and a lot of reflection showed me:
- That NO is not a dirty word
- How to say NO without feeling guilty
- And why saying NO increases the value of the things we say YES to.
How does it happen?
I’m getting lean. Alas, this is not about my body. It’s something I’ll call “lean communication.” I’m not about to preach on short sentences and plain words, though that can be part of it. I’m convinced that good communication reduces waste.
In manufacturing, the concept of “lean” describes practices that use fewer resources to provide greater value to customers. Anything customers don’t value enough to pay for is considered “waste,” something to eliminate. Lean practices originated in manufacturing in the 1940s, when Taiichi Ohno introduced them at Toyota. Over the years, they’ve been adopted and adapted in many contexts, including lean startups and lean software development.
When I look at the ideas I use with my communication coaching clients, I see a lot of overlap with lean principles, particularly those set out by the Lean Enterprise Institute. I’ve paraphrased them, but you can find the original version here.
1. Establish value from the customer’s perspective
This is my top tip for communication. I never tire of sharing it because it works so well. The audience for any communication might be considered your “customers.” The more you can make your communication about them and their needs, the more likely you are to be listened to, heard and understood. Whether you’re addressing one person or 100, in conversation, in presentations, in broadcast or in writing, you can almost never go wrong if you explain your point from the perspective of your audience. You make people care about your message by answering their question, “What’s in it for me?” (WIFM) That’s the value will it have for them. When you talk about anything they don’t value – no matter how much you love it – you waste your time and theirs. (more…)
A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I was a television reporter. The radio people, with whom we shared a newsroom, called us “vidiots.” Were we insulted? No way! We wore the title with pride.
As someone in the business of face-to-face communication, I know I should be using video to share ideas. But memories of a world where smart professionals looked after shooting and editiing make me reluctant to wade into the land of do-it-yourself TV. So I was delighted to be invited to Video Space Camp, a full day of learning, brought to us by Vidyard. (It’s an amazing company I think of as “YouTube for real business.”)
There’s no way to capture a full day’s learning in a blog post, but here are the highlights, as seen through my lens. (more…)
I have no idea why they call it “camp.” It’s held in summer, there are games and it’s fun. But you’re unlikely to get a sunburn at Agile Coach Camp. And there are no spiders – though we did build a web – literally and metaphorically.
The weekend attracts people whose role is to help introduce new ways of working, primarily in software development. Communication is at the heart of the work of the agile coach as he or she helps teams work in more human-centric ways. Coach camp invites them to bring ideas and questions to discuss with colleagues in a conference framework called “open space.”
The French term for “attend” is “assister.” At ACC, participants truly do “assist.” We’re not watching a presentation; we’re part of a dialogue. I am rarely in a situation where so many people are listening carefully to what others are saying. Nor did anyone seem to be trying to impress anyone. (This crowd may be hard to impress.)