Communication Kata 1 – SCARF

SCARFnewSCARF 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 BrainNotFriend2was: “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.


Brainwriting – Brainstorming Introvert-style

Introvert vs Extrovert thinking styleHave you ever encountered a group meeting; brainstorming, retrospective or other variety that was simply dominated by an outspoken minority? This often happens despite the best intentions and efforts of the meeting chairperson or facilitator. The result can be a fairly predictable set of proposals that rarely stretch any boundaries. In his book “Think Better” Tim Thurson calls this unfortunate result “braindrizzle”.

The likelihood of this dilemma is higher self-organizing teams where a facilitator role is absent. And the risk of skewed participation in a mixed group of introverts and extroverts in this case is even greater. Recently, project management consultant Johanna Rothman said, “It only takes one extrovert to kill a team of introverts.” How then to ensure the best thoughts of all team members are aired?

Not everyone is comfortable with the open outcry methods of traditional brainstorming techniques – least of all, those of us who prefer some time for reflection. “Brainwriting” – the silent cousin to “brainstorming” – is an important and useful technique that gives everyone equal opportunity to contribute their thoughts. It overcomes the “social disadvantage” on the part of introverts by ensuring the loudest (or most glib) voices don’t prevail in a group discussion. The added time to reflect on suggestions is a boon to introverts without stifling extroverted inclinations to be heard. We can easily adopt this process without cost or strain.


Real Conversation – Part 1

Earlier this month, I spoke at the excellent Ragan Corporate Communications Conference, in Chicago.  My topic? Real Conversation – the most powerful business tool your organization will ever use.

One of the topics I tackled was how to convince leaders and managers to pay closer attention to conversation in the workplace. People found it useful, so I thought I’d share it with my regular readers. So here – in two installments – is the Reader’s Digest version of that section of my talk.

Making the Case for Face-To-Face

OK. Here we are, face-to-face, because that’s the way human beings were meant to communicate. We’re here to have a conversation about conversation. More precisely, we’ll discuss ways to get authentic, productive, valuable, human conversations going on in our organizations, instead of the same old bla bla bla – or worse – silence. It’s a quest organizations have been on for a long time.

I recently read a story from the 1950s. Before he founded WL Gore & Associates and started making GoreTex, Bill Gore, worked for chemical giant DuPont. He observed that there were only two places at work he ever heard a meaningful conversation. One was on task forces, where people have a clear and important short term purpose. The other was the car pool. In the car, everyone was equal, everyone was smart and the conversations were brilliant. Unfortunately, when they reached the parking lot, everyone straightened their ties, put on their work faces, stepped into the hierarchy and – conversation over.


Communication Sinners – Are You One?

I have invested far too many hours, this weekend, trying to sort out a communication mess.  A member of a volunteer board, on which I serve, has, effectively punched the rest of us in the head.

We probably deserve it.

There are sins of commission and sins of omission. Both forms are present on both sides of this particular communication mess.

The sin commtted is that of  working up a good sense of outrage, sending off the e-mail equivalent of a nuclear attack on the entire world, and sitting back to watch the explosion.

I confess.  In my younger, stupider days, I committed that very sin, myself, though on a smaller scale (and using cleaner, crisper, clearer language).  I loved being outraged and articulate about it. Later, I became a journalist, and was paid to commit that sin.

In the situation this group faces, today, it’s the sins of omission that are more disturbing.