How do you ensure that your coachees are getting the most value, support, and challenge from your coaching sessions? Before you even start asking questions and engaging in a coaching conversation, neuroscience can help you! The purpose of this paper is to outline six easy strategies that you can deploy to enable the best brain state to aid cognition, decisions, and creative thinking for your coachee and yourself.
A viewpoint based on the latest research from neuroscience and the author’s expertise as a coach for over 15 years.
Using the latest research from neuroscience to assist coachees to find their own solutions to the issues they face ensures they take ownership and are more motivated to take action.
The paper takes key elements from the latest evidence in neuroscience and applies them to the practice of coaching.
Bamber, R. (2019), "How can neuroscience inform our coaching practice -- six strategies to facilitate an optimal brain state in coachees", Development and Learning in Organizations, Vol. 33 No. 4, pp. 13-15. https://doi.org/10.1108/DLO-01-2019-0007
Emerald Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited
I first trained in what is now called brain-based coaching skills over 15 years ago, and while I have actively learnt different coaching methodologies and am familiar with many others, research from neuroscience has demonstrated that having basic knowledge about the brain will enable a professional coach, whether working in private practice or employed in the corporate environment, to increase efficiency, results, and the overall effectiveness of the coaching engagement.
Following are six strategies to enhance your coaching skills, which you can implement immediately:
1. Minimize threat, maximize reward
The human brain is focused predominantly on survival, and therefore anything that could threaten this promotes a lot of attention and neural circuitry. Threats are “louder” in the brain than potential rewards, which explains why we experience stronger emotional responses to negative situations than positive ones. According to Dr Evian Gordon, the brain is wired, reflecting its organizing principle to “minimize threat, maximize reward” (Rock, 2009).
The prefrontal cortex (PFC) and limbic system work like a seesaw in the brain. If the brain senses a threat, it arouses the limbic system. The human body then prepares for a “fight or flight.” Digestion shuts down and blood is sent to extremities (we may have to run) as energy and resources are drawn away from the PFC to what is considered more important at the time: dealing with the potential threat to our existence.
This is designed to protect our survival: an animal could decide that we would make a tasty lunch! Today, most daily stressors will not be this severe; however, the system still activates as if reacting in prehistoric times. When we have “gone limbic,” we cannot think as effectively as when we are in a calm, “towards” or reward state of the brain.
A coachee arriving at his/her session in a threat (away) state is because of a limbic response in his/her brain; he/she will be anxious, will feel disengaged, and will have narrow, tunnel vision. From his/her current physiological or mental point of view, he/she will not be in the optimal state to trust his/her coach or to think and reflect on all the essential components of a successful coaching session.
To be able to be at our best, i.e. when we want to think, design, decide, be creative, engage, and collaborate with others and enjoy brain-friendly peak performance(for example, a powerful coaching session)it is useful to ensure that any limbic activity is taken care of and dampened down first.
Knowing this, as the coach, you can mitigate limbic activity in the following ways:
2. Focus on the brain’s social drivers
First, help the coachees increase their autonomy around their coaching so that they feel more in control and responsible for the outcome. For example, have them choose a neutral, favored place to meet. Ask them how they would like to sit. Sitting side-by-side rather than opposite each other lowers your status (as the coach, you are considered an expert) and raises the coachees’.
In addition to autonomy, status is a key social driver in the brain, and when an individual perceives his/her status to have decreased, it can contribute to feeling threatened. No two brains are alike, so some people are more affected by particular social drivers than others.
Starting and ending the session on time not only suggests your reliability and professionalism but also reflects the brain’s need for certainty. If elements become uncertain, the limbic system will be activated and the coachees’ cognition is likely to be negatively impacted. Ensuring certainty around the logistics and structure of the coaching engagement means that the PFC will be unencumbered in its cognition. Nevertheless, too much routine and sameness will disengage the brain (and the coachee!). This is because of the brain being astute to novelty. Something new could be a threat or a reward, so the brain will attend to this curiosity to check.
3. Proactively disengage the limbic system
In coaching, we are 100 per cent focused on the client; however, ensuring that both the coachee and the coach are in an ideal state for coaching will help to create an even more successful outcome. At the start of every coaching session, my coachee and I complete the following quick verbal exercise to ensure that both our brains are optimized for cognition:
Say what is in the background (in one short, succinct sentence only) and label the emotion/feeling that is connected with it. Keep going until you are clear of any background “distraction” in your mind and ensure that you remember to state the emotion each time.
This emotional labeling strategy dampens the emotions (the limbic system) and brings the PFC (thinking part of the brain) back in line. Neuroscience research indicates that naming the emotion “puts on the brakes” in the brain, activating the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and calming the limbic system, i.e. arousal is reduced (Torre and Lieberman, 2018).
N.B. Avoid waffling and talking at length about what is in the background, as this will reinforce the emotional experience in the brain: you get what you focus on!
4. Enhance strengths rather than fix problems
If an employee feels that he/she has been singled out for coaching because his/her performance is lacking or if he/she or his/her organization views coaching as “fixing problem people,” it will sabotage the start and, potentially, the entire coaching relationship.
Rather than fixing problems, a brain-based coach will aim to help their coachee enhance their strengths, which is much more positive. This not only feels better to discuss but also is effective for the brain! Acknowledging your coachee for their successes and eliciting their own positive feedback guides future behavior, as “the brain’s reward system is activated as a result of such praise” (Lieberman, 2013). With the feel-good neurochemistry flooding his/her brain, your coachee is far more likely to repeat the behavior to enjoy the same feelings again.
5. Create trust
Reflecting its hardwiring for survival, the brain will automatically categorize people as either friends, and therefore as those being in the in-group, or prospective foes (out-group). Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, “our brain’s default response is to treat all strangers as belonging to the out-group” (Radecki and Hull, 2018). Therefore, focusing on establishing and creating trust and intimacy (International Coach Federation core competency 3) at the start and throughout the coaching engagement must not be underestimated if you wish to develop a brain-based coaching relationship.
Oxytocin in the brain promotes trust and empathy and a feeling of being in the “in-group.” However, withdrawal from social situations can occur when we are feeling stressed, and high stress inhibits oxytocin (Zak, 2017). As it is possible that your coachees may be experiencing stress, helping them to increase their levels of oxytocin will be useful to the coaching – and for their general well-being.
6. Generate thinking and insight
The brain-based coaching skills approach reflects what I term pure coaching: the coach is facilitating the thinking and ideas from the client. They are not telling them what to do, i.e. adopting a directive leadership style. Neuroscience has shown that when a person finds the solution for himself/herself, he/she takes ownership and is motivated to take action. This works for children too.
In conclusion, deploying these six strategies will help to facilitate an optimal brain state for your coachees, irrespective of whatever their cultural background. Using humor and actively focusing on making the session a rewarding experience for your coachees’ and your brains will enhance success.
Lieberman, M. (2013), Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Radecki, D. and Hull, L. (2018), Psychological Safety, The Academy of Brain-Based Leadership.
Rock, D. (2009), Your Brain at Work, Harper Collins, New York, NY.
Torre, J. and Lieberman, M. (2018), “Putting feelings into words: affect labelling as implicit emotion regulation”, Emotion Review, Vol. 10 No. 2, pp. 116-124, available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1754073917742706 (accessed 11 January 2019).
Zak, P. (2017), “The neuroscience of trust”, Harvard Business Review, pp. 84-90.
About the author
Rachel Bamber is based at Brighter Thinking Limited, London, UK. She is an expert in using powerful, brain-friendly strategies to deliver peak performance. Prior to setting up her executive, leadership, life coaching, and training business, Brighter Thinking Limited, Rachel led and developed sales teams in consumer media (Express Newspapers plc, BBC Clothes Show Live, BAFTA). Rachel has trained thousands of professionals in brain-based coaching skills, in six continents. She is the first person in the world to be awarded a Postgraduate Diploma in the neuroscience of leadership.