Tuesday, July 14, 2015

SCARF - the social needs of the brain

During our Advanced Cognitive Coaching course last week we did a lot of work on deep structures (beliefs, values, assumptions, identity).  We also did a reading adapted from David Rock's Your Brain at Work, which helped us to realize how important it is to take account of the way our brains impact our thinking.  One thing that we do not want to do, during coaching, is to provoke anxiety, sadness or fear.  The acronym SCARF helps us to remember the social needs of the brain during coaching.  SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.

Status - our importance to others, which is critical to our sense of wellbeing. While your brain cannot re-experience physical pain by remembering it, this is not true of social pain, which can be experienced over and over again.  In fact just having a conversation with someone of "higher" status can trigger negative responses, especially in organizations/schools where there are many people who are seeking status.  In a coaching conversation, therefore, it's important to be aware that giving answers or solutions can trigger strong status threats because it gives the person giving the feedback (the coach) a higher status than the coachee.  This is also the reason why a coach should not be an evaluator, as this can also decrease autonomy and relatedness in the coachee.

Certainty - our ability to predict the future.  Our brains want certainty and like being able to predict what is likely to happen, and this is one reason why change is difficult to implement.  Our intelligence is based on our capacity to gather data and make predictions about the future and our brains are unconsciously monitoring millions of environmental cues to help meet our need for certainty.

Autonomy - our ability to control events in our lives and be self-determining.  In fact the control we hold over our lives determines whether a stressor is seen as a threat.  Having choices increases our sense of both autonomy and certainty, which is why in coaching we will ask questions using tentative language and use plurals that imply choice.

Relatedness - our feeling of safety with others.  Our brains are quick to assess whether a person is a friend or a foe, and if the cues are unclear we tend to default to seeing someone in a negative way, which our brains react to as a threat.  On the other hand our brains release oxytocin when feelings of relatedness are strong, leading to increased trust.  Relatedness also corresponds to status as when status is threatened, relatedness is reduced and threat is increased causing stress.

Fairness - our perception of fair exchanges.  We learned that a sense of fairness may well be the most important of all the elements of SCARF and that it is as critical to wellbeing as food and shelter. In schools and other organizations fairness can be a source of threat or reward.  When a person perceives s/he is being treated unfairly there is a strong response in the limbic system of the brain, whereas when fairness is present there is an increase in oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin that lead to more activity in the prefrontal cortex - which leads to more thinking and decision making.  Fairness also supports a greater willingness to connect with others.  In places where there is a lack of fairness, collaboration is unlikely to be successful.

One of the things we did during our course last week was to work on a case study.  While up to now we have considered the states of mind of the coachee, we are now starting to see how focusing on the deep structures and the social needs of the brain can be even more important things to consider in our coaching conversations.  For me, I'm certainly going to pay more attention to these, in particular to people's need for status and fairness, in my conversations in the future.

Photo Credit: henna lion via Compfight cc

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