Romeo, Juliet and Zombies

Romeo, Juliet and Zombies
If you think this title is riffing a best selling book riffing a famous play, then you would be right. But this is what this article is all about – how to get someone’s attention when they are faced with difficult choices and need to make a useful decision. When clients are emotionally aroused, their own preferences for making sense of their world may filter out potentially helpful information, and you as the professional may be challenged to get your message across. Using new tools from the exciting world of NLP and Neuro-science, this paper explores how you can overcome the filters other people may unconsciously use to block your messages.

Zombies ahead!

One day I was out for my morning run. I must confess I hadn’t been for few days and was feeling it as I ran up the path in Mt. Victoria that would take me home via the Town Belt. It was then that I saw this new piece of graffiti with the words ‘Zombies ahead’. This caused me to reflect on my teenage love of Zombie movies and the way Zombies would stagger towards you chanting “Brains! Brains!” As I often have my most creative thoughts whilst out running, I started thinking about what happens in our brains when we feel fear or stress, and what might be the kinds of things we can do to assist our clients when they feel that way.

The Brain as a Social Organ

Recent research in the field of neuro-science has made some startling discoveries when it comes to how we perceive social pain. The invention of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) machines means that science can now show us the changes in the brain when humans are subjected to different situations. Brain scans using fMRI machines reveal that the same neural networks are activated in humans when we feel social pain such as rejection, as when we feel actual physical pain. While it is almost embarrassing to give such a ‘once over lightly’ to such an exciting and complex field as neuro- science, I will, however, try to summarise some of the major findings, and how I use this information to provide clarity and compassion when working with my coaching clients.

Donning a SCARF

The study of the brain as part of neuro-leadership by David Rock and others, proposes a model to explain both what activates these neural networks and why we respond the way we do. It is called the SCARF model.

Each dimension of the SCARF model describes one of the five domains of human experience which can activate a reward or a threat response in social situations.

“Wearing it”

By this point in the paper, you may be understanding why people respond the way they do during dispute resolution. When any of the dimensions of the SCARF model are triggered, this leads to a powerful emotional effect, which is multiplied when several domains are triggered by one event. The emotional effect is described as Fight, Flight or Freeze response.

What this means for working with clients

In preparing to work with clients, we can take action to minimise the likelihood of triggering or at least anticipating, the Fight, Flight Freeze response, by considering how has their current situation impacted on their Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness or sense of Fairness. Certainly if a client feels triggered in any of those domains, we can do what we can to increase their sense of wellbeing in each of these areas, such as boosting certainty by being clear about the process we will follow.

However, sometimes clients arrive to our sessions, already in Flight, Flight or Freeze mode. What can we do then?

From my coaching and facilitation experience, the answer lies in using language in a way that gets past their filters and helps them think more clearly.

My background in using coaching and facilitation tools as part of conflict resolution comes from the world of Neuro-Linguistic programming, or NLP.

I am very interested in how we can use words and phrases to get our message across when people are in a highly emotional state and unable to make the best choices for themselves.

Filters on our world

Some of the ways we can understand how others like to process information can be observed by the words they use. Processing information requires each of us to have ‘filters’ so we can take on some information and filter out others, so our brains don’t get overwhelmed with information coming in all the time.

It is useful to understand the filters other people have to make sense of their world, so that we can motivate them by presenting useful information that passes through their filters.

Two easily recognised filters

1. Away From and Towards Motivation
When you think about what is important to you in life, you may think about goals you want to achieve, and what it will feel like when you achieve them. Or you may think about what you don’t want in life, and how to prevent or ‘move away from’ having those things you don’t want.

Useful phrases for helping people take on information and change:

Away From preference: ‘In order to avoid these problems, you could consider….’ Towards preference: Here is what you will achieve…

Both Towards and Away From preferences: ‘Here are the goals it will help you reach, and just as importantly it will help you avoid…..’

2. Match and Mismatch Filters
People who filter for similarities (Matchers) will, on meeting someone for the first time, look for clues that will remind them of other people they already know. People who notice what is different about this person compared to what they know about themselves and others are called Mismatchers.

Certain jobs play to the strengths of Matching or Mismatching. For example, Matchers may enjoy and perform well as Coaches or Personal Trainers because of their strength in goal setting.

Lawyers, Accountants, and Radiologists may excel at noticing how the person or situation in front of them is different or out of alignment from what they expect, which plays to their strength of Mismatching.

Just general conversations between Matchers and Mismatchers can sometimes lead to misunderstandings, or feelings of conflict, when it is merely an example of different filters in action.

How this plays out in conflict situations is that people with a preference for MisMatching will quickly disagree with statements made by the mediator and by the other party. People with a preference for Matching may initially accept other people’s views of their behaviour. This can lead to conflict situations being prolonged or exacerbated because of a Matcher’s reluctance to disagree with the other party, until the situation becomes intolerable for all concerned.


We each have our own tools and experience when it comes to working with clients. These language patterns in no way supersede your individual knowledge base, but rather are ways to either reignite the conversation for a person in Flight or Freeze modes, or help the client experiencing Fight to re-engage in a more useful way.

I have found my coaching clients come to me with a range of issues, but the one thing they have in common is a longing for social connection. In the heat of the moment, I find that the most useful thing I can do is to help my clients ‘reclaim their brains’.

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