I first trained in what is now called brain-based coaching skills over fifteen years ago and whilst I have actively learnt other 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.
Here are six strategies to enhance your coaching skills that you can implement immediately:
1 MINIMISE THREAT, MAXIMISE 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 organising principle to “minimise threat, maximise reward” (Rock, 2009).
The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) and Limbic System work like a see-saw in the brain. If the brain senses a threat it arouses the limbic system. The human body then prepares to ‘fight or flight’. Digestion shuts down, 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 their session in a threat (away) state is due to a limbic response in their brain: they will be anxious; feeling disengaged and have narrow, tunnel vision. From their current physiological or mental point of view, they will not be in the optimal state to trust their coach or to think and reflect – all 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 e.g. 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 this in a number of ways:
2 FOCUS ON THE BRAIN’S SOCIAL DRIVERS
Firstly, help the coachee 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, favoured 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 coachee’s.
In addition to autonomy, status is a key social driver in the brain and when an individual’s perceives their status to have decreased; this can also contribute to feeling threatened. No two brains are alike, so some people are affected more by particular social drivers than others.
Starting and ending the session on time not only suggests your reliability and professionalism, however it also reflects the brain’s need for certainty. If elements become uncertain, the limbic system will be activated and the coachee’s cognition is likely to be negatively impacted. Ensuring certainty around the logistics and structure of the coaching engagement means that the pre-frontal cortex will be unencumbered in its cognition. Nevertheless, too much routine and sameness will disengage the brain (and the coachee!). This is due to 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% focused on the client; however ensuring that both the coachee and 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 optimised 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 labelling strategy dampens down the emotions (the limbic system) and brings the pre-frontal cortex (thinking part of brain) back online. Neuroscience research indicates that naming the emotion ‘puts on the brakes’ in the brain, activating the Ventrolateral Prefrontal Cortex (VLPFC) and calming the limbic system i.e. arousal is reduced (Torres and Lieberman, 2018).
N.B. Avoid waffling and talking at length about what is in the background, as this will re-enforce the emotional experience in the brain: you get what you focus on!
4 ENHANCE STRENGTHS, RATHER THAN FIX PROBLEMS
If an employee feels that they have been singled out for coaching because their performance is lacking or if they or their organisation views coaching as “fixing problem people” this 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, it is effective in the brain too! Acknowledging your coachee for their successes and eliciting their own positive feedback guides future behaviour, as “the brain’s reward system is activated as a result of such praise” (Lieberman, 2013). With the feel-good neurochemistry flooding their brain, your coachee is far more likely to repeat the behaviour in order to enjoy the same feelings again.
5 CREATE TRUST
Reflecting its hardwiring for survival, the brain will automatically categorise people as either a friend and therefore as being in the in-group or prospective foe (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 wellbeing.
6 GENERATE THINKING & 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 themselves they take ownership and are more 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, whatever their cultural background.Using humour and actively focusing on making the session a rewarding experience for both of your brains, will enhance success even more.
Rachel Bamber PgDip, PCC
M. Lieberman (2013) Social Oxford: Oxford University Press
D. Radecki and L. Hull (2018) Psychological Safety USA: The Academy of Brain-Based Leadership
D. Rock (2009) Your Brain at Work New York: Harper Collins
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 [pdf]
Zak, P (2017) ‘The Neuroscience of Trust’ Harvard Business Review, January-February, pp. 84-90
A version of this article was first published in the journal, Development and Learning in Organizations (April 2019).
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: An International Journal, Vol. ahead-of-print No. ahead-of-print. https://doi.org/10.1108/DLO-01-2019-0007