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Build better relationships with this coaching model

It is rare in coaching conversations that the client is alone. The impact of relationships that exist between the client and others around them is usually quick to surface. Relationships matter and, as such, many coaching tools focus on exploring them. In this article, we are going to share a coaching tool that can be used to improve both collaboration and be harnessed to influence others.

The neuroscience

The model we are going to share with you is SCARF (Rock, 2008). Rock explains the accepted social neuroscience that led him to create this model. First, much of our motivation for social behaviour is linked to minimising threats or maximising rewards. This links back to our brain networks which are used for our primary survival needs. In other words, our responses to reward and threat are to be found in our primitive ‘reptilian brain’.

What does all of this mean? It means that our responses are fast, they are reflexive and they are, for the most part, nonconscious. Given its origins, our amygdala is more tuned in to threats to our survival, than for seeking out rewards. Moreover, many studies have shown that when our amygdala is triggered, we are much less likely to engage and learn. Rock explains: “There is a strong negative correlation between the amount of threat activation, and the resources available for the prefrontal cortex (Arnsten, 1998). The result is literally less oxygen and glucose available for the brain functions involved in working memory, which impacts linear, conscious processing.”

The bottom line? If we want to perform at our best, or we want the teams we are in – or lead – to work at their best, then we need to ensure that we minimise the threat of any social interaction and maximise the reward from it. The SCARF model, used in coaching, can help us to do just that.


The SCARF model is an acronym intended to help capture the factors that trigger reward or threat in social situations. They are things that are regularly experienced in relationships. SCARF is a way of bringing to the conscious something that would otherwise be hidden.

The triggers identified in the model are:

S is for Status. This means our relative importance to others. When we feel that our status is threatened, we go into fight or flight mode. This could occur when someone is giving us advice, or micromanaging us. It could also occur when someone suggests we are ineffective (cue the giving of feedback). This is important to understand and manage.

C is for Certainty. Our brain seeks patterns and familiarity. It craves certainty because it enables it to predict the future. This is why change can be difficult for many. We can be triggered by not knowing what is going to happen. Many will have been familiar with this feeling when we entered the Covid Pandemic. For many this trigger was permanently on. We can manage this by increasing communications around change. We can break things down to help with expectations.

A is for Autonomy. This is about agency and our ability to influence outcomes. Again, this is threatened when we are micromanaged or controlled. The more freedom we give others, the more this is converted into a reward. We might think about this, for example, in the context of workplace flexibility. The more flexibility we give people to choose where to work, the more autonomy we provide them.

R is for Relatedness. We can understand relatedness by going back to the origins of these triggers. This is about identifying whether someone is a friend or foe. It happens quickly and it is about how safe we feel with others. We can increase how we relate to others by sharing something that we might have in common. Spending more social time with team members can help increase relatedness too. This is a key element when we think about diversity in teams.

F is for Fairness. We find fair exchanges intrinsically rewarding. This trigger will be a threat where we perceive there to be different rules for different people. Companies that talk about values but don’t act on them can trigger a threat response because it isn't seen as fair. Increasing transparency and communication is key to reducing this threat.

Using the SCARF model: self-awareness

Emotional Intelligence starts with Self-Awareness because this in turn leads to Self-Management. If we understand what our triggers are, and which of them are the most important to us, we can start to manage the situations where these show up differently. We can notice and step out of our nonconscious, better controlling our emotions.

How can individuals do this in practice?

Think about situations where each of the elements of SCARF has been triggered for you. What happened? What did you notice? Do you think there is an element that is particularly important for you? How does that impact your relationships? These are the sorts of questions a coach might explore with you, but they are something that you can spend some time reflecting on yourself.

Using the SCARF model: social awareness

Once you have increased self-awareness you can then focus on others. Think about which of the elements of SCARF might be triggered in others in your dealings with them. With this knowledge, you are better able to empathise and move towards relationship management. Both of these are also fundamental elements of emotional intelligence.

An example of SCARF in practice:

Sam, a Partner in a professional services firm, has a high need for Status. This means that they seek roles where they take control and lead. This could be triggered by conversations where this is challenged, for example when a business development professional is giving feedback received from a presentation, which is less than favourable. Sam has received some coaching and has noticed a pattern. They are aware of this trigger.

On receiving feedback next time, they feel something bubbling up. They want to argue that the feedback isn’t fair. [Self-Awareness] Before they speak they realise that these emotions come from their status being threatened. They take a few breaths. With that, they are able to better receive and absorb the feedback. [Self-Management]

Later, Sam is giving instructions to one of their team members. They notice that every time someone gives this associate instructions they get defensive. They wonder whether autonomy is a trigger for them. [Social Awareness]. The next time Sam has some work to give the associate, they try to provide them with more scope to tackle the problem in their own way. They don’t give as detailed a list of instructions. The associate is smiling. [Relationship-Management].

To find out how our training and coaching packages can help your teams collaborate better, with tools such as SCARF, get in touch.


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