The Mental Model that Can Help you Communicate More Mindfully (Especially During Times of Crisis 😷)

6 minute read

Our unplanned experiment (via COVID-19) in switching great swaths of the workforce to 100% remote is underway, and has brought with it the need to adjust norms and expectations, including ones around interpersonal communication.

For example, it’s a lot harder to read body language and social cues from a distance (no matter how great your webcam is). And this is not just adjusting to working from home, it’s adjusting to working from home during a frightening global pandemic which means working under abnormal levels of stress, anxiety, and distraction.

Toss in the fact that few of us have much practice observing our own emotions and state of mind—or know how profoundly they can affect our behavior and performance on the job—and it’s hardly ideal conditions for doing your best work.

As one practical way to cope, lately I’ve found myself leaning heavily on a fantastic framework I picked up from David Rock’s Your Brain At Work (getAbstract summary here). The book is full of powerful tools for understanding the neurological reasons we act and feel the way we do on the job, but one stands out for how it helps better understand your own reactions to circumstances, as well as how your words and behaviors affect others. He calls it the “SCARF” model, and the acronym is short for five dimensions that strongly influence our state of mind:

  1. Status. Do we feel valued and important?
  2. Certainty. How sure are we about what’s going to happen next?
  3. Autonomy. How much control do we have over our circumstances?
  4. Relatedness. Do we feel good about and close to the people we’re engaging with?
  5. Fairness. Are we and those around us behaving and being treated fairly?

Think of each as a scale from -10 to +10, with 0 being a neutral state. If something increases our feeling along one of those dimensions, the reading goes up, it feels good, and we want more of it, generating a “toward” response. On the other hand, if something reduces our feeling along one of those dimensions, we can quickly dip into negative territory, triggering an “away” response that increases anxiety—and often with it the “fight or flight” response ingrained so deeply in our lizard brain.

The dimensions of the SCARF model in action

How does this work in practice? Here’s one example: remember when we all used to fly places all the time? You’ve likely experienced the dreaded tarmac delay. Alongside all the quotidian inconveniences of travel, why are those so uniquely infuriating? Let’s look at the experience along some of the dimensions of the SCARF model:

  • Status. Even if you have the airline’s version of “status”, it’s not going to get you home any faster than anyone else who feels trapped like cattle on the plane.
  • Certainty. When will you take off? Will you take off? Will it be 10 minutes or 2 hours? What’s going on?
  • Autonomy. Do you have any control over the situation? Unless you’re a member of the crew, probably not any. The seatbelt sign is on, and you’re stuck.
  • Fairness. What did you ever do to deserve this? Why you, why this flight, why now of all times?

With those four meters all firmly in the red, all we’re left to work with is the sense of Relatedness we get by commiserating with our fellow prisoners passengers by complaining about the situation!

A better way by applying the SCARF model

Imagine yourself again on that same flight. You’ve just pushed back from the gate, and while taxiing toward the runway the plane stops and the pilot comes on the intercom, and this time she says:

“Ladies and gentleman, this is your captain speaking. First off, on behalf of the entire crew, I want to thank you for being our passenger tonight. Our job is getting you where you need to go safely and quickly, and we take that job very seriously…” (Status)

“Unfortunately because of some bad weather back in Boston, we’re not going to be able to take off for a while. Right now I hope it will be a brief delay, but there’s no way to know for sure. What I can promise you is that I’ll come back on this intercom at least every 15 minutes to give you an update, even if that’s just to say there’s no update…” (Certainty)

“It’s frustrating for us too when this happens — we’re just as eager to get back home to our families and friends as all of you…” (Fairness)

“As you can see the seatbelt sign is on, so it’s important that you stay seated and buckled in while we wait. But we know you weren’t expecting this delay either, so if you really need to use the lavatory, please ring your call button and we’ll do our best to help you out. And while we can’t start our beverage service until we’re up in the air, we’d be happy to bring you a cup of water if you’re thirsty, just ring that call button.” (Autonomy)

Nothing has changed about the circumstances — you’re still sitting on that tarmac indefinitely and there’s nothing really that you can personally do to change that. But you can imagine you and your fellow passengers feeling a lot less stress and anxiety this time around.

Applying the SCARF model at work

The SCARF framework is useful in two directions:

  1. Better understanding your own responses to words, actions, and circumstances
  2. Better understanding (and influencing) how others respond to your words and actions

Understanding yourself

If you notice yourself feeling anxious, frustrated, angry, or scared—or just like you want to leave the room—take a deep breath and see if you can identify which of the SCARF dimensions is at play. Do you feel treated unfairly? Like things are out of your control? Disrespected? The mere act of labeling our emotions can help engage the more rational and logical parts of our brain.

Chances are, you’re more sensitive to some of those dimensions than others. For example, maybe you get really upset when you feel like you’re not being treated fairly. Knowing that’s how you respond can help you identify when it’s happening while it’s happening (and you can do something about it).

(Yes, I know, I know, we’re all pretty anxious and scared these days, and that’s a good opportunity to use the SCARF model to think through which aspect of this pandemic thing is weighing on you the most—is it the uncertainty? the lack of control? The act of observing and labeling our emotions is often enough to moderate them. BTW it’s notable how many of us are actively compensating by trying to maintain or even increase our sense of Relatedness by baking together, playing games, and extra Zoom calls with friends and family.)

Understanding others

The other great way to use the SCARF model is when planning an important conversation with others. Beforehand, take a piece of paper and write the letters SCARF in a column down the page. Now think of one or two things you could say to the person that would increase the person’s feelings along that dimension.

You don’t need to say all of them, but this way you’ll have some talking points at hand that can help raise the odds of a positive outcome. As a bonus, spending a few minutes writing positive things down about the person you’re about to talk to will put you in a very positive frame of mind about that person!