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Wrapping SCARF around COVID-19 (#ITWS5)

Coaching models. There are loads of them, and all with their merits. However, at the end of the day they are just models, frameworks on which to hang a coaching conversation. Their value is in whether they support meaningful self-reflection for clients and their coaches, as well as meaningful conversation between them. It is about how they encourage people to challenge, or be challenged on, their current way of doing things. In the end, it is about how they show people towards a more purposeful way of doing things.

David Rock’s work on understanding the triggers to our defence response in socially threatening situations is more of a way of thinking. Called SCARF, it identifies five significant triggers that activate our time-honed defence response. These triggers are Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. If we feel ‘under attack’ in relation to any of these areas we often act in a programmed manner that has physical, mental and emotional dimensions. The physicality might be in a muscular tension, a flush, a lump in our throat. The mental consequence tends to be that we lose our powers of reason. Emotionally we may tend towards more powerful emotions like anger, fear and frustration.

If you would like to know some more about the SCARF model and how it can be used to increase your self-awareness, resilience and rapport building have a look at the video resource I co-created with Know You More through this link. There is an associated worksheet you can use to capture your own reflections. However, what I am interested in now is how SCARF plays out in our COVID-19 social distancing world.

Clearly for some people COVID-19 is having a very direct and extreme impact. Loss of life, the grieving by those who have lost their loved ones, and the challenge of caring for the sick and dying are situations whose understanding goes beyond thinking about our response to social threat. However, for the majority of us, in our various states of isolation, there is a sense of confusion, discomfort and lack of motivation that might be illuminated by thinking about SCARF. After all, there is always learning to be had from understanding how we are responding to a particular situation.

The SCARF model uses the word trigger to capture that short, sharp experience which is the activator to our defence response. Even though the consequences of reacting to that trigger might be long lasting, the trigger itself is short and sharp. With COVID-19 my sense is that the activator is more like a tap that has been switched on, and which is staying on. Drip, drip, drip, maybe even a trickle, perhaps a flow. There is a constant challenge to our defence response which has the impact of draining our energy by having us on a ‘high level of alert’ all of the time. We are not built to function at ‘high alert’ over long periods of time! At best it is exhausting and at worst it can impact on our mental health. The video mentioned above encourages a view that the way to manage our SCARF response is first to notice that it is happening. Having noticed we can move to choosing a more purposeful behaviour than following that first defensive impulse. This may still be of value in the ‘running tap’ activation of SCARF so I thought to notice what was going on for me under each of the five of Rock’s headings.

Status is an interesting concept. I claim to myself that I am not bothered by it, yet a change in my working circumstances often leaves me unsettled, even if it is a planned transition. Certainly, going from being an employee to being self-employed some years ago was surprisingly uncomfortable even though it was something I really, really wanted to do. I realised eventually that this was to a degree because my status in the world had changed. As an employee at a University my title, position and experience conveyed some status that I recognised and apparently valued more than I was aware.

Overnight this changed. Being self employed meant that my internal measurement of status needed to change. I needed to recognise my own value and be aware of and celebrate evidence of my success. I also revisited something I had learned about myself in the past. The fact that I allowed my work to define me. In doing so I put myself at risk of losing my sense of self, simply because of a change in my work. Now I try and identify with what I see as my main purpose and use this as an anchor for any sense of status. In that way if work changes my sense of self, part of which is a sense of status, is not put at risk.

COVID-19 has changed work for everyone: losing jobs, losing clients, being in furlough, changing ways of working. It’s a global scale ‘kick in the status’. The flow of the SCARF tap might be reduced if you think about how your purpose identifies you, not what you do for a job.

Now then, Certainty. When push comes to shove the vast majority of us prefer to know what is going to happen. In some regards it relates to how our brain scans our environment all the time looking for difference in the sensory data it is taking in. Difference in the first instance relates to a potential threat which will need to be dealt with. Lack of difference, another way of framing certainty, is much easier to deal with all round! COVID-19 has actually created short term certainty by removal of our normal liberty. We get up every day, go out only to shop or for one form of exercise, stay 2 metres away from everyone. We are careful with our hygiene and do the necessaries to survive and, if we are fortunate, we don’t get ill. The next day we get up and repeat….

Looking further into the future is much less certain. The world is full of ‘What if….?’ questions that form in our own minds, or which are raised in the minds of others, often amplified by the (social) media. For every ‘What if….?’ we create our own unique narrative as a possible vision of our future, all based on our preference for more certainty. It’s great to be able to create these narratives, and then make them real, if they are purposeful for us and those around us. It’s of less value if the narratives are based on unhelpful beliefs that we so often confuse with facts.

In filling our minds with future possibilities we often neglect to concentrate on the ‘What is…..?’ question. We become less mindful and less effective and dealing with the hear and now. For me I cannot shut down the ‘what if……?’ thinking entirely but I do choose to concentrate on ‘what is…….?’ as best I can. I do what I can do now to the very best of my ability and within the limitations imposed by our COVID-19 world, knowing that in doing so I am positioning myself well to manage and of the possible futures we are facing. Or that is at least what I try to do!

Then comes autonomy. I don’t respond well to boundaries being put around me. I like intellectual, business and personal freedom. Most of us feel that way, maybe to different degrees. Just as in childhood when we might be told by one of our parents not to do something there is a powerful urge to go and do whatever has been forbidden! In fact, the compliance with isolation and social distancing has been amazing which is a testament to people’s understanding of the threat we face. Even so, there is an emotional cost to keeping in line within these boundaries. Perhaps it is helpful just to notice and acknowledge that cost to ourselves and to others in moments when the sense of constraint becomes too much?

Relatedness is about how we connect with other people. Do we understand our position within the group or team and how we relate to each of the individuals in it? Anyone who starts a new job will know of the concern you have in the early days while establishing connections at work, as you establish your sense of relatedness. It is the same for the team that you join too.

Promotions within teams have an impact on a sense of relatedness. A lack of clarity can definitely lead to a sense of stress and anxiety that might focus on one relationship while rippling out to impact on many others. COVID-19 has driven a coach and horses through our sense of relatedness. It has separated us from our working groups, sometimes for good. In other situations people have been reconnected by virtual means – even this is a different relatedness dynamic.

We find ourselves challenged in our isolation in our home for all sorts of different reasons. We might have lost any sense of relatedness through being alone, we might be finding that we need to adjust our ways of relating to partners, to children, to housemates. As a social animal our relatedness is very important to us and one of my ‘what if….?’ questions is about how we return to a time where we do not see each other a potential pathogenic threat. You can already see the essential social distancing translating into something much darker - one person seeing another as a threat simply by being to close. People are shying away from each other even though nowhere near the 2 metre exclusion area. There is talk of the new normal (what a ridiculous phrase) being a world where touch will be eradicated from many social situations. Not a world I want to live in!

Coming back to the here and now I try and make sure that every interaction I have with someone counts positively for both me and them. For the same reason as mentioned in relation to certainty (see above) this will at least position me and my relationships to pick up strongly with the relatedness we are used to starts to return.

Fairness is perhaps the most recognised of these five SCARF triggers and yet is the most subjective. My version of what is fair is not going to be the same as yours. I am guessing that all of us as children have said ‘but that’s not fair’ in a plaintive voice. I don’t think I have said it out loud too often as an adult, but I will admit to that plaintive voice echoing around in my head from time to time!

Dealing with a sense of fairness is part of the how we manage ourselves through any period of change, including one associated with grieving. There will be a sense of how the world seems to be against us, in particular. Whether it is or not our choice of response is important. Making the wrong choice might actually influence the world to be against us!

So far, I am lucky enough not to have been ill and my family are all managing in their different ways. Is that fair when others are suffering? My coaching business has grown successfully for several years yet COVID-19 comes along and puts the brakes on. How fair is that? Even as I write that question I feel a stab of self-pity!

Perhaps the thing to acknowledge about fairness is that it’s a comparative activity. Is it fair that I am treated like this when others are not? The last bit of the sentence is sometimes unspoken yet the meaning is nearly always hanging in the air. How would it be if we were all better at taking responsibility for our own actions, for the choices that we make? Then fairness becomes a challenge relating our own choices and actions against the outcomes that arise from them. Can you see that as being a better place?

I am really not sure what I set out to do when I started writing this apart from adding it to my collection of In Touch With Sense (#ITWS) series that I promised myself I would write during the COVID-19 lockdown period. In truth, the process of writing was my purpose. As it happens though something has occurred to me as a result of writing. I find myself wanting to be fairer to myself.

Like most of us I have been feeling something of an internalised emotional roller coaster over the last few weeks. Thinking out loud about the SCARF triggers has been helpful to me. Recognising them as an open tap, constantly dripping an influence that keeps my defence response on a higher alert even than normal is useful. Ironically, it is something that I might have offered as a thought to a client but had not stopped to think about that drip, drip, drip and its influence on me.

So yeah, there’s a lot going on for all of us. There is value to noticing our own responses, SCARF and otherwise. There is value in being fair to ourselves as we notice our responses. And there is an opportunity to make choices that will make the best of the challenges we are facing.

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