How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Coach
Coaches are change agents. As a coach, some of the ways you support clients in creating lasting change is by helping them build mindfulness, self-awareness, self-motivation, resilience, optimism, and self-efficacy.
“Neuroscience, the science of the brain and nervous system, is the field coaches and counsellors are working in with every client they meet, whether they recognize it or not. It's our clay.”
If you’re good a what you do and your clients are achieving their outcomes, why would you need to learn about neuroscience? Because “neuroscience, the science of the brain and nervous system, is the field coaches and counsellors are working in with every client they meet, whether they recognize it or not. It's our clay.”
“all mental processes, even the most complex psychological processes, derive from operations of the brain”
In a groundbreaking article entitled “A New Intellectual Framework for Psychiatry,” Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel (1998) wrote that “all mental processes, even the most complex psychological processes, derive from operations of the brain” (p. 460). And “specific alterations in behavior are reflected in characteristic functional changes in the brain” (p. 460). So not only does the brain drive mental processes, but changes in behaviour also alter the brain.
A knowledge of neuroscience can help coaches improve their understanding of clients’ experiences and behaviours and of how they can best support them in their change process. It can help them to develop tools and strategies that are consistent with the principles of brain functioning, and therefore brain friendly, rather than brain antagonistic.
Seven Principles of Brain-based Coaching
In 2005, Nydia Cappas, Raquel Andres-Hyman, and Larry Davidson from the Yale University School of Medicine outlined seven principles of brain-based psychotherapy. These same seven principles apply equally to coaching, because both professions deal with supporting clients to create change.
1. Genetics and Environment Interact in the Brain to Shape the Individual
Both nature and nurture modify the structure and function of the brain, and therefore behaviour. Since each of us has had somewhat different experiences and environments, each brain is unique and together with genetic makeup, make up the biological basis of individuality. (Kandel, 1998, p. 465)
2. Experience Transforms the Brain
New experiences change the brain by either strengthening or weakening neural connections. In addition, the brain is capable of neurogenesis, that is the birth of new neurons, throughout the lifespan. And these new neurons are associated with improved memory and neural plasticity.
3. Memory Systems in the Brain are Interactive
Memories are not static, but rather they are constructed at the time of retrieval depending on the method used to retrieve them. Our sense of self is developed from our autobiographical memory. These autobiographical memories are constantly being revised: we extract new information from old memories, fill in the gaps, and use imagination to reinvent ourselves.
4. Cognitive and Emotional Processes Work in Partnership
Memories, emotions, and feelings are interactive. Feelings are the meaning we give to emotions and they are processed in different parts of the brain from emotions. This is why we confuse sadness with anger and anxiety with fear, for example.
Emotional arousal can affect cognitive functioning and memory storage by activating the amygdala. Understanding their neurocognitive interaction can serve the coaching process, by exploring the meanings given to sensations and reactions as a way to influence decision-making, for example.
5. Bonding and Attachment Provide the Foundation for Change
During infancy, the interpersonal connection between care giver and child modifies brain circuitry that can affect future emotional regulation and relationships. However, the brain circuits involved remain plastic throughout life so that the rapport between coach and client can help the client change these brain connections and improve emotional regulation. In fact, caring relationships in adulthood can modify circadian rhythms, speed recovery from illness, and lead to other positive physiological effects.
6. Imagery Activates and Stimulates the Same Brain Systems as Does Real Perception
Mental imagery uses the same neural pathways as does perception. When coaches use the miracle question, a technique for envisioning a different life, it may be as successful in evoking change as the actual experience because of these common neural pathways.
7. The Brain Can Process Nonverbal and Unconscious Information
Unconscious processes have a great effect on thought, feeling, and action. Our experience prior to an action can influence subsequent choices. And information processed unconsciously can still influence the coaching process.
In short, neuroscience can inform coaching practice in many ways. A knowledge of brain science can help coaches understand their clients’ experiences and behaviour more accurately. It can provide coaches with additional, brain friendly, tools and strategies to help their clients effect change. And knowledge of neuroscience can give coaches confidence that their theories and practices are valid.
How do you think neuroscience could help you be a more effective coach? Would it help you understand your clients better? Do you feel it would give you more confidence and credibility?