How We Get “Threatened” in Meetings

What tends to make you anxious or irritable when you interact with others in meetings at work or in your community? My sense of safety or equilibrium can get undermined when I don’t know what the purpose of a meeting is or when I get interrupted. A sense of safety is important because without it we lose our ability to think clearly and connect with others. When we do not feel safe the more primitive parts of the brain take charge and we lose access to the executive functions of the prefrontal cortex.

In “Your Brain At Work,” David Rock identifies five ways in which our sense of safety can be threatened when interacting with others. They are easy to remember because he has created an acronym for them: SCARF for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. One or more of these can be threatened in meetings. Here’s how.

A person’s sense of Status gets threatened when we interrupt, ignore, or dismiss what he or she says. Early in my career, I was often the only female in meetings with executives. Although demographics have changed over the years, I can still feel vestiges of anxiety and bristling annoyance when I think my “status” as a valuable human being has been challenged.

Conversations in and of themselves challenge people’s sense of Certainty. We cannot predict what anyone will say or do. People’s beliefs and opinions can surprise us. And, in the default process of most meetings, i.e., discussion, the situation can seem chaotic as thoughts and feelings ricochet around the room. In addition, in meetings, we often wrestle with issues that are complex and have no obvious solutions. Uncertainty abounds.

Threats to Autonomy often happen through the underlying process of a meeting. For example, at work, are you required to attend staff meetings where you have little or no say in the agenda or how the session will be run? To those of you who convene meetings: please take note that decisions about where and when meetings are held, who gets to participate and how, and who gets to make decisions are all related to people’s sense of autonomy.

When the mammalian brain evolved, safety became intimately connected to a sense of Relatedness. We found security in families and tribal groups. Here are two of the most common ways relatedness get undermined: room set up and meeting start up. At public meetings, people usually sit “theatre style” in rows facing decision makers up on a dais. One at time, individuals walk to a microphone to speak to bodies of elected officials, usually across a substantial distance. This corrodes a sense of connection among people and triggers the need to protect oneself. This might partially explain why people can sound so combative or supplicatory. And, when a meeting starts without people knowing who is in the room or connecting with them in some meaningful way they can feel unsafe.

Violating people’s sense of Fairness is more important than you might think. Even when people agree, they will not support the conclusions if they perceive the process through which they were achieved was unfair. Perceptions of fairness include whether all stakeholders get an equitable share of meeting “airtime” and believe their points of view have been heard, understood, and seriously considered; and whether they understand how decisions will be made. When it comes to fairness, how a decision is made is as important or even more important than what decision is made.

When people experience threats to any of these five elements, the amygdala or alarm bell in the mammalian brain starts ringing and triggers fear and/or anger. People can get argumentative, flee the scene, or play possum. Outside of awareness the energy in the brain (oxygen and glucose) shifts away from the prefrontal cortex to the more primitive parts of the brain (limbic region and brain stem). Once this happens it becomes difficult to access the functions of the prefrontal cortex that are essential to constructive conversation: understanding new ideas; inhibiting impulsive behavior; managing attention and emotions; and making conscious choices about what to do or say.

Ensuing posts provide tips on how to engender safety in meetings and intervene when it gets threatened.

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