Monday, November 29, 2010


Do you know SARA like I know SARA? Chances are the answer is no, especially if we are of a different gender.

SARA is an acronym that we often use to portray the relatively predictable pattern of emotional responses that people feel when an event happens to them that they are not expecting, or when they receive disconfirming feedback. What does it stand for?

  • S: shock or surprise
  • A: anger or anxiety
  • R: rejection or rationalization
  • A: acceptance

Think about the last time that you experienced a situation or received information that did not fit your view of what you thought would/should happen. Chances are that you progressed through SARA in some form or fashion.

  • Shock/surprise: Perhaps you felt surprise or some level of amazement/shock that what happened just happened.
  • Anger/anxiety: Because you were caught off-guard, you might have experienced some level of frustration, discomfort or worry regarding what the event or information might mean.
  • Rejection/rationalization: In an effort to try to reconcile the information with what you believed should have happened, you might have tried to “explain away” the disconfirming information. This is where we often look for excuses or “reasons why” things happened the way they did. We will often try to find information that casts us in the best light (which usually aligns with our self-perceptions).
  • Acceptance: After some time—and time seems to be the biggest variable between men and women—you reached a state of acceptance. You told yourself, “it is what it is,” and you were ready to take action and move on accordingly.

When processing or receiving 360-degree feedback, we encourage clients to recognize that these levels of reaction are perfectly predictable and normal. We also invite clients to see that Acceptance typically comes after the previous stages of turmoil or internal bargaining.

Research conducted by Dr. Barbara Annis, expert on Gender Intelligence, suggests that men and women routinely move through these stages at different speeds. Men tend to view unusual or surprising situations as problems to be solved. If a problem can be solved, men tend to value taking action and moving quickly to solve the problem. If a problem can’t be solved, men tend to move into a state of Acceptance: realizing that they can’t change the current situation, it makes the best sense to let it go.

Women, on the other hand, tend to spend more time in a rumination phase. Instead of being able to move as quickly into Acceptance, women tend to stay longer in the state of Rejection and Rationalization. They wonder what they could have done differently, or worry about what happened in the situation and what the possible consequences are, and cycle through this thought pattern for a longer period of time.

As much as I wish this were different, I had a conversation with my honeybunch, Dave. We discussed a hypothetical situation, as well as real situation that I had recently experienced. In both situations, I was stuck in a “rumination” phase; I was debating other possible reasons or rationalizations for what had happened. However, in both situations, Dave’s reaction was “If you can’t change it, just move on. Don’t beat yourself up. Why spend more energy trying to wonder what happened?” He admitted that he would likely spend 30 minutes processing a situation that I might spend up to 3 days worrying about.

So, what can we learn from SARA and how the two genders work through these phases differently?

  1. Recognize that SARA is a natural and normal “map” of the territory, which explains how humans react to new events or disconfirming information.
  2. Acknowledge that men and women react differently to situations; neither reaction is better than the other, but the two genders do tend to deal differently with situations.
  3. Men will treat new information as problems to be solved; if they can’t be solved, they will “let it go” more quickly.
  4. Women tend to stay longer in a rumination phase, recycling through what could have happened and what actions were taken.
  5. Both approaches add value. In some situations, women can learn from men to more quickly accept the situation and just “let it go” if it cannot be solved. When women tell their stories of what happened, men can acknowledge that this is the way that women process to make sense of their situations.
  6. Women seek understanding, while men tend to value action.