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  • Collaborative Awareness

The Collaborative Brain Toolkit

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

The 3 Essential Elements for Us to Thrive Together

Over years of working with groups around the world, we have found three essential elements are necessary for groups to thrive.

  1. CLEAR MIND Our individual minds must be healthy—moving from judgment to curiosity.

  2. DESIRE-INNOVATION THINKING™ It is time to move beyond the dominant way of seeing the world through the lens of problems and solutions, especially when it comes to people.

  3. RELATIONSHIP DESIGN We must design our relationships rather than relying on the ways of the past or crossing our fingers.

This Collaborative Toolkit introduces you to the elements and invites you to collaborate with us to help you build a future where we are wiser together. (



Our brains have two main functions that have emerged through millions of years of evolution—to connect us for growth, and to keep us safe. We call these two neural networks the Connected Brain and the Safety Brain. The development of our society has made the Safety Brain our first and main mode of interaction with the world. In keeping the Connected Brain as a secondary mode, we restrict our creativity, productivity, and resiliency. It's time to learn how to quiet the Safety Brain, and use it to gain greater clarity, so that our Connected Brain becomes our primary mode of interaction.

Our brains metaphorically function like an enormous filing system, collecting experiences over the course of our lives. They file away everything from a scene in a movie to a friend’s laughter, in order to help us make meaning of the world.

Our brains are meaning-making machines. They take in information through our senses and use the filing system to analyze and name what’s in front of us. Does Mary’s behavior in our staff meeting or the vibe at the neighborhood party make you want to connect or protect? The files in your system determine that answer, and you are the one who gets to load the system. Nothing has meaning until you assign it meaning.

The Safety Brain

The Safety Brain has one job, no matter what it takes, to keep us safe. Typically, it is the first lens we use to see and interpret the world. It is constantly comparing and analyzing what’s happening around us to everything we know from the past to determine if even the tiniest experience, such as a teenager rolling their eyes, is a threat to our equilibrium.

This sets off the stress response system that increases heart rate and blood pressure, and turns off everything that's not essential to surviving, such as compassion and growth. It's time to turn the volume down on the Safety Brain so it is not unfavorably coloring how we see the world assigning negative bias on auto-pilot. A level of stress is a natural part of life, so learn to use Safety Brain stressful thinking as a messaging system rather than a warning system.

When we use stress as a flashlight on our filing system, we can begin to rewire the mind to pull Connected Brain files as our primary mode of interaction.

The Connected Brain

Our Connected Brain’s main job is to do everything to thrive as we meet our needs for energy, emotional connection, and growth. The Connected Brain experiences being present and can embrace people and situations without needing to fix or change them. It allows us to be in flow with what we are doing and who we are with and can more easily access our ability to design and invent a more desirable present and future.

Creativity, compassion, intelligence and productivity increase when we are calm, alert and connected. When the Connected Brain is our primary mode of interaction, we have the ability to build strong connections and our collaborations are more impactful to ourselves and the whole.

Time to Quiet the Safety Brain

Our human ancestors were built with the same stress response system of fight, flight or freeze that we use today, but they used it in short bursts in response to imminent physical danger—when their lives were on the line. This is important. Stress hormones released to help survive acute physical threats, like escaping the jaws of a lion, are not made for constant, long-term use. Our bodies can’t sustain that level of stress.

Fast forward to today’s complex social world where we constantly worry about money, pleasing the boss, or what other people think. We engage the same stress system on a daily basis, but now it is for future-focused or non-life-threatening situations. Hyper-vigilance has become our new normal. We are applying the stress evaluation and response to more and more social situations, not immediate, physically dangerous ones.

A short burst of adrenaline gives us motivation and energy for the challenges in life, but a steady stream of it just makes us run down. Framed as the much lauded problem-solution model, it is the water we swim in, and thus we are not always cognizant of its impacts. When our Safety Brain continually focuses on problems, even with the added dopamine hit of finding a solution, we give rise to chronic stress.

How To Quiet the Safety Brain

There are 5 key ways to quiet the Safety Brain. All 5 can be practiced as part of Collaborative Awareness and the Blueprint of We Collaboration Process.

  1. Create and Reinforce Positive Neural Pathways Connect positive thoughts and memories about people with whom you are in relationship through story, art or music. Run these positive neural pathways on a regular basis. The more we run the Connected Brain circuits, or any brain circuits, the more they begin to run on autopilot.

  2. Build Awareness Know what it looks and feels like when you are stressed. When we are stressed we believe that our safety is somehow threatened. The earlier you can become aware that your Safety Brain is active, the easier it will be to switch to the Connected Brain, once you know you are not threatened. Build awareness of others by learning information about what actions and reactions mean, directly from the people with whom you are in relationship. More information about the meaning behind a reaction helps us to quiet the Safety Brain. On the flip side, as we develop awareness of what behaviors engage each other’s Connected Brain we have the ability to support one another engaging in those in-flow activities.

  3. Question Your Brain Are you sure you are truly threatened? Our Safety Brain will do anything to keep us safe - even believe a lie. The act of questioning your brain and engaging curiosity takes activity away from the limbic system and diverts it to the prefrontal cortex where you have a better chance of engaging your Connected Brain. Questioning your brain is the first step towards understanding the messages that stress is sending us. When we understand the messages we have more clarity about what matters.

  4. Custom Design Your Relationships Relationships don’t need to be conducted the way our parents did, or follow old patterns that are not working any more. We have the ability to choose how we interact with one another. When we are mindful of what we are creating, it is easier to establish patterns and practices that support running Connected Brain circuits.

  5. Create a Path Back to Peace Stress will happen. Sometimes our fear takes us out of compassion and connection and into Safety Brain extremes of fight, flight or freeze. Plan for how you will return to peace after the Safety Brain is triggered. Creating this plan and writing it down ahead of time, using your most knowing Connected Brain self, gives you access to your Connected Brain even when you have been hi-jacked by the Safety Brain.

When we better know how to engage the Connected Brain, and are aware of when the Safety Brain is running on autopilot, we have the ability to consciously choose which mode of interaction we want to run and when. Desire-Invention Thinking™: Beyond problems and solutions



Every day you wake up as the creator of your life, irrespective of anything that happened yesterday, whether it was good or bad or right or wrong. As the creator, there’s a landscape in front of you.

You could approach the day, the people you interact with, from the perspective of looking at where the problems lie, or you could take stock of the landscape—which could even look like World War III—and determine what it is you desire. It is the quickest way to creating a more life-giving landscape going forward.

Collaboration Requires a New Model

  • Our world was built using Problem-Solution Thinking, which encourages the brain to focus on problems. Yet our current, more complex landscape requires us to reevaluate using it as our default mode. Collaboration requires a new model to collectively engage our creative energy: The Desire-Innovation Model. It enables groups to rewire their brains to harness group stress, rather than avoid it, and use it to accelerate purpose and progress. ​When defining the problem includes people rather than logical processes, like fixing your car, our brains become messy; one-third to one-half of the brain shuts down as we focus on protecting ourselves from others judgment and actions.

  • Problem-Solution is a necessary and useful model that comes with the added dopamine hit of certainty that we get when we find the solution. It’s incredibly seductive, so why not use it everywhere?

  • To become more resilient, we must collectively invent and build what we desire, and feeling safe and connected is required in order to authentically engage our whole brain. The Desire-Innovation Model draws on our full hearts and minds, which in turn invites others to meet us there.

When your default Safety Brain mode is on, you naturally employ Problem-Solution Thinking and spend time scanning for problems. When you shift to the Desire-Innovation Model, you zero in on what you desire and engage your energy to design or invent what you want to experience. This enables you to envision what the landscape makes possible rather than focus on fixing what’s broken.

Times of Transition

When in a time of transition, where existing structures are changing, we have an opportunity to choose, and from there, design how we transform. The crux of this choice is between trying to build a better mouse trap through improvements to Problem-Solution Thinking, or engaging Desire-Innovation Thinking which enables our whole brain to be available to connect for the best outcome for everyone involved.



The Blueprint of We is a way for people to collectively decide who they want to be together, capture it on paper, and update it as the relationship evolves and changes.

A Co-Written Design Document

Capture who you are, why you're in, and what you want to do together.

The Blueprint of We starts with a co-written design document that gives people the space to exchange information about who they are and how they work best.

  • When we have information straight from the source, rather than making assumptions, our brains engage the neural networks that build trust and lower anxiety.

  • The simple structure harnesses the innate social nature of humans and builds the skills and capacity to deliver on your desires. It is currently used in many languages and cultures in 100+ countries worldwide—from couples and start-ups to non-profits and global corporations.

  • Your Blueprint of We is a living, breathing document that evolves and changes over time to reflect the needs, agreements and design of the group.

An On-Going Collaboration Process

Don't avoid group stress, use it to make you better

  • People are messy. And when we collaborate, our messy minds interact with other messy minds. Designing healthy interactions begins by creating healthy minds. The collaboration process builds on your written design document and introduces tools to develop collaborative behaviors, calming messy minds and improving on what is already working. Through our Noise in the System Method you learn to clarify and communicate your awareness of what matters, how you operate collectively, and how those behaviors become cultural patterns.

  • From that awareness, we give you simple, daily tools to help you question, and ultimately change, the pattern thinking that causes anxiety and stress. Stress, when used as a messenger, can give you clarity of direction, ease of decision-making, and resiliency in the storm.

  • Building new patterns for ourselves and with one another, based on what we learn from the Noise in the System, creates lasting, healthier relationships. 5 Components of a Collaboration Design Document

  1. The Story of Us Share what draws you to these people and this situation.

  2. Interaction Styles & Stress Messages Who you are. How you work best.

  3. Custom Design Determine what matters most. Use it to mindfully design the what, when, why, how.

  4. Questions for Peace & Possibility Capture your most creative and compassionate selves ahead of time.

  5. Short & Long-Term Timeframes Coming back to center and expanding.

An elegant piece of furniture, beautiful product packaging, a brilliant smartphone app—all benefit from great design. Our collaborative relationships are no different. When we mindfully engage one another, we become wiser together, one relationship at a time. We Coach Organizations, Teams, Families and Couples

This Collaborative Brain Toolkit introduces you to the 3 Elements and invites you to connect and collaborate with us to help you build a future where we are wiser together. ( Call, text or email to connect and learn more.

The Center for Collaborative Awareness™

+1 847-859-9046

Asheville, NC, USA

Maureen McCarthy and Zelle Nelson, Co-Founders

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