Brain friendly facilitation

I’ve been doing some research* into the practical value of learning about how our brains work for leaders. We’ve involved different levels from Executive Directors of a global engineering business through to senior regional managers in one of the UK’s High Street Banks. One of the consistent themes in the feedback is the value of David Rock’s SCARF model to help managers plan future projects, mergers, processes and other challenges. It can also be a valuable tool for managers or facilitators planning one off sessions or a series of interventions.

The SCARF model provides a shorthand about stimuli that create toward or away responses in our brains. Toward responses make us more likely to be open to ideas, collaborative, positive, focused, creative and resilient. Away responses (“fight or flight”) make us more anxious, susceptible to distractions, and they reduce our capability to remember things and perform at our best. If we want good meetings we want people in Toward states.

SCARF stands for:

  • Status: feeling important relative to others, improving oneself, responding to challenges, getting better
  • Certainty: predicting the future, knowing what is going to happen
  • Autonomy: controlling how things get done
  • Relatedness: feeling connected, safe with others
  • Fairness: fair exchanges, equal treatment.

Meetings often can put people into situations where many of these work in a negative direction (e.g. senior people holding court, unclear objectives and agendas, lack of control, mixed with people we do not know and some people getting disproportionate amounts of air space).

Using SCARF provides a scientific basis for planning how to establish a more productive working climate in the group quickly. We could:

  • Invite people to share past successes and achievements (status)
  • Provide extensive up front information about attendees and desired outcomes (certainty)
  • Work together to confirm agendas and establish the decision making processes we will apply (autonomy)
  • Provide extensive opportunities to connect, minimize input and maximize discussion (relatedness)
  • Ensure equal air space and use techniques to draw out quieter participants in safe ways (anonymous voting, gradients of agreement, etc.) (fairness)

Some of this appears common sense and affirms what we may instinctively do anyway. Some provides useful ideas and challenge into the planning process. This really just scratches the surface into ways we can achieve full participation, mutual understanding, inclusive solutions and shared responsibility.

*Working with Hilary Scarlett we analyzed the impact of learning about Neuroscience in BAE Systems, Lloyds Banking Group, BIS and Orbit Housing Group. David Rock developed the SCARF model and Sam Kaner et al defined key facilitation goals in the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making.


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