Listening Levels and the Brain — Level Three

The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift. 

~Albert Einstein

Today we start with a story from Nietzsche:

There was once a wise spiritual master, who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, the bounds of this small domain spread; and with it the need to trust implicitly the emissaries he sent to ensure the safety of its ever more distant parts. It was not just that it was impossible for him personally to order all that needed to be dealt with: as he wisely saw, he needed to keep his distance from, and remain ignorant of, such concerns. And so he nurtured and trained carefully his emissaries, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious vizier, the one he trusted most to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s temperance and forbearance as weakness, not influence, and on his missions on his master’s behalf, adopted his mantle as his own – the emissary became contemptuous of his master. And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.

There is a new book out by Iain McGilchrist called The Master and his Emissary, which explores our divided brain (for more on this as it relates to coaching, see my post Come On Over to the Right Side). McGilchrist’s take — and I wholeheartedly agree — is that the right brain, with its connected, global focus is truly the master, while the left brain, with its more analytical focus, is its emissary. Or should be, at any rate. In our society, as Einstein notes, we have turned this around.

In my coach training, I was taught that the third level of listening includes the first two levels. When I was reading about McGilchrist’s book it dawned on me: I was taught the proper relationship of master and emissary. Level Three listening is global and takes in everything — that which is being said and that which is not said. It takes in everything going on around the conversation as well. The dog barking, the phone that cuts out or becomes full of static (I live by a railroad track. The trains only go by twice a day, but always at just the perfect time to underline something happening in the coaching).

Level Three is when we soften our focus into right brain dominance and take it all in. And here’s an interesting fun fact for you: you may have heard that we have neurons in our heart and our gut. Talk about an embodied brain! Anyway, we do. But here is the thing — these neural pathways send their information to the right hemisphere, not the left. This is why it comes to us sort of vague and out of focus. Or why we get an image or a color or a sound. This is the language of the right brain, not words. And it’s why we need the left brain — or Level Two listening — to help.

I love this line in the story: It was not just that it was impossible for him personally to order all that needed to be dealt with: as he wisely saw, he needed to keep his distance from, and remain ignorant of, such concerns. In order to take in all the information the right brain takes in, it can’t possibly focus on all the small details. It needs the help of the left brain to do this.

Stay tuned for my next musings on this–how all three levels dance together.



Listening Levels and the Brain — Level Two

I want to start this blog post out with a poem:

why poetry?

Helen Keller said
she came alive
when she learned her first word
Anne Sullivan traced it in her palm
over and over
while the wetness splashed around them
from a chaotic background of everything
jumbled and banging together all at once
came one thing
alone and distinct
and she, the girl, the being
was there
her conscious life
now possible

we need distinctions and clarity
we need to know where one thing starts
and another ends
we need to shape our amorphous feelings
into some sort of understanding
poems are our Anne Sullivans
tracing something
again and again
on the contours
of our mind

~Ann Betz; more poems online at my website: Eccentric Spirit


While this poem is titled “why poetry” it could just as well be called “why Level Two listening?” When we listen from Level Two we listen carefully for specifics. We listen to another’s words and look for what we need to pull out from the background so it can be distinct, clear and understood. It is a pointed, present, focused listening.

In other words, at Level Two, we listen with our Left Brain.

The brain, as I am sure you know, has two hemispheres. It’s because as humans we walk upright and have a lot to process. The walking upright means our heads can’t just keep growing and growing to accomodate a larger and larger brain, so our brains, unlike most other mammals, specialize by hemisphere. The big picture is that the Left hemisphere is basically about separateness while the Right is about oneness (for a bit more see my post Come on Over to the Right Side). Things like language and emotion and creativity, long thought to be “in” one hemisphere or the other, actually overlap into both, although they are dealt with very differently. The Right hemisphere sees the big picture but not the details, the Left sees the details but not the big picture. Thank goodness we have two hemispheres! In my next post I’ll look more deeply at Level Three listening (spoiler alert — it’s the Right hemisphere…) but for now let’s focus on Level Two.

Which is a great segue, because that is what Level Two is about — focusing. Our left brain pulls out the figure from the background. When you do a word search puzzle, your left brain is what finds the particular word in the sea of letters. The right brain would only be able to see a bunch of lines and — here’s what’s really important – wouldn’t be able to make meaning of them. In Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED talk and book, My Stroke of Insight, she talks about having a stroke that took out much of her left brain. When she needed to make a phone call, she couldn’t recognize the numbers. She had to match them one by one from a business card in order to make a phone call, an long and painful process. The numbers had no meaning.

When we listen at Level Two, we listen carefully for what is important and distinct and meaningful for the client. Sometimes this is a bit like doing a word search as they pour out their lives to us. And often when we reflect back “what we heard” such as a key value, longing, or frustration they are amazed and ask us how we got that from what they said! And then, in the coaching relationship, meaning and understanding emerge for the client, as well as goals and forward action. (see my post on Forward the Action, Deepen the Learning.)

Level Two is a valuable tool in our coach’s tool chest. But that is what it is, really, just a tool. Even Level Two is held within something bigger — Level Three.

To be continued……. 🙂

Listening Levels and The Brain — Level One

Listening…. perhaps the most important part of coaching, and one of the first things we learn. I remember what a revelation it was when I took my first class at the Coaches Training Institute and they taught me how to listen. Like many of you, it had never occurred to me that there were actually different ways!

At CTI, we call it Level One (it’s all about ME), Level Two (it’s all about the other person, what they are saying) and Level Three (it’s all about everything). In my next three posts, I am going to look at what I think is happening in the brain at each level, and why ALL THREE are absolutely critical for coaching, including (and perhaps especially) Level One.

Level One — It’s all about ME. Me, do you hear me? ME!

I love teaching people about Level One. Understanding that much of human conversation is two radio speakers blasting the “me” channel at each other can be such an eye-opener, and often just this piece of information changes people’s lives. And one of the blessings of my own life for the past ten years has been hanging out with fellow coaches, who know how to be truly curious about another person. How to actually listen. What a relief. It’s what our clients come to us for, and for many of them, it is a transformational experience to actually be heard, perhaps for the first time in their lives.

Level One listening is all about running things through your own filters, judgments and opinions, and no good coach, no matter what coaching school they trained with, does this. Coaching is all about helping the client find their own answers, and you can’t do that if you are only listening from Level One, where all you are doing is mapping what your client is saying on to your own experience.

But there is a way Level One is part of the coaching dance. When I was taught about Level One listening, my instructors said something interesting, which was “you have to use your own Level One to inform your listening.” They also told us that Level Two included Level One, and Level Three included Levels Two and One. To be honest, I had a hard time understanding that, as do many new coaches. It’s a paradox of sorts. My thinking was: “I can’t coach from Level One, but now you are telling to use Level One? To include it somehow? Can’t I just get rid of it altogether? That seems so much easier! I will manage it, push it aside, and sort of try to step away from my own ideas, opinions and personality in order to be of service.”

But here’s what is interesting about Level One from a brain perspective. My instructors were right — you have to include it. We never get away from Level One. In fact, if we did, we would not understand anything at all. This has to do with the fact that many of the neurons in our brain are “multi-modal.” That is, they fire if we do something, and they fire if we watch someone doing something, if we imagine something, and if we remember. Same neurons. Many of you have probably heard the saying “the brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and imagination.” (It’s so well understood that many athletes use visualization techniques to improve their performance, and there is vast evidence it works. They are strengthening their neural pathways by imagining the action just as they would by doing it. In fact, better — because they can imagine an even better performance than perhaps they are doing.)

But what does this have to do with Level One listening? Well, as neuroscientist Jerome Feldman, an expert on how the brain understands language, puts it: “if you cannot imagine someone picking up a glass, you can’t understand the meaning of ‘Someone picked up a glass.'” We have to actually imagine what we are being told in order to understand it. We simply have to run it through our own experience. In neuroscience terms, we “simulate” things in our own brain in order to make them meaningful.

We are simulating others’ experiences in our own brain all the time, but because much of our imagination and memory is not conscious, we aren’t aware we are doing it. Our brains are meaning-making machines. Anything anyone says to us we automatically and immediately try to understand through our own mental simulation. If you say to me “I kicked a ball” the motor neurons for kicking a ball just fired. In fact, they fired as you read that sentence. You are not conscious of this, but if we had you in a brain scanner it’s what we would find.

I’ll wrap this up by saying that as coaches, we can’t help but listen from Level One all the time — and we wouldn’t want NOT to. It’s a gift.  The key is to be skillful with it. To develop our ability to discern what is understanding and what is judgment. And then coach from curiosity. In Level One, all you are doing is responding from your own experience. It takes the other levels in harmony with Level One to truly coach.

There’s No Way Out But Through

Hello friends — Today I am reposting a blog from my sister site, BEabove Leadership. It’s not so specifically about coaching, but it is about moving through things, so I thought it would be of interest here as well.

So high, I can’t get over it
So low, I can’t get under it
So wide, I can’t get ’round it
I gotta go through the door

– Lyrics from the gospel hymn Rock My Soul

I have been thinking a lot lately about the deep problem of heavy, dark, difficult energy. The emotions of anger, sadness, despair, guilt, grief and fear. It fascinates me how we deal with them — or don’t. I recently heard the lovely Mario Martinez talk about his work with Tibeten lamas, refugees in living in India. Apparently, there is a high incidence of diabetes among the lamas. And it’s not the change in diet. Other Tibetan refugees don’t have the same problem. Mario explains it thus: Buddhism puts a lot of focus on forgiveness, and rightly so. But our body always knows the truth. And when we forgive without first allowing ourselves to be angry, the body has to deal with this knowledge. In effect, it says, ok, we are going to bypass anger, no problem. In order to do this for you, I’ll release endorphins. The cumulative effective of these endorphins is that is messes with our ability to deal with glucose effectively. Thus, repressed anger can lead to diabetes.

The Tibetan lamas have seen their country raped and pillaged by the Chinese. Their holiest temples have been burned. Of course they would be angry! But Buddhism says send love, so the anger gets repressed. And this is just one example. In Catholic priests and nuns, they have found a high incidence of cancer of the prostate and reproductive organs. Repression of natural human emotion once again.

Many of us on the spiritual path do this. We want so badly to be loving and accepting that we don’t even allow ourselves to feel what is there as part of our very human experience. It feels bad to be present to these human emotions, so we quickly bypass them for happier or “more appropriate” thoughts. It would be awfully nice if this worked, but it doesn’t. The body always knows, and will hold that energy for you if you don’t allow it to move.

In our experience at BEabove we have noticed two benefits to developing an ability to “go through the door.” One is an increase in health, as outlined above. The other, and perhaps even more important, is a spiritual deepening. The hardest thing there is to do is be present to your own emotional state, and yet doing so seems to be a critical factor in raising one’s vibration — or, in our language, level of effectiveness.

We realized years ago that people tend to do two things with their “below the line” emotions. They INDULGE in them by being victims or perpetrators, acting out, and ramping things up. Or they AVOID them by repressing the sensations in various ways. Distractions are a wonderful way to avoid (work, shopping, alcohol and other drugs, smoking) as is simply saying “I WILL be positive. Everything is ok.” Neither of these work, and the neuroscience proves it. Ramping up (INDULGING) replays the incident over and over and strengthens the neural pathways and releases a toxic soup of fight or flight chemicals. Suppressing (AVOIDING) increases the blood pressure of the avoider and those around her. It also has the endorphin effect outlined above.

So what do you do? One thing–be present. Be aware of what is without judging it. Allow the emotion and be curious. And if you can’t be curious yourself or need some help staying out of AVOID-INDULGE then get a good coach or trusted friend who can help you simply notice. Noticing allows the energy to move. Vent your anger for a bit but don’t take it out on anyone, and notice how it feels to be angry. Notice your sadness and grief. Cry. But above all, be present to what is.

We avoid because we don’t want to become angry, sad, bitter people, and we don’t want to hurt anyone. We want to love. We indulge because we want to be honest and truthful. Our motivations are above the line. But it doesn’t work so we have to find a more powerful way, a middle path. And when we do, when we face our inner darkness boldly and lovingly, something moves. And when it moves, it heals, and we are never, ever the same. We can be present with all of ourselves and thus all of others as well, which makes us even more powerful healers, lovers, and friends.



Energy in Motion

when energy is allowed
to move as it desires
there is nothing
we can’t live with
and integrate into
an unfolding understanding
of ourselves

when energy is held back
repressed or limited
in its expression
it travel to our organs
and cells
using our willing bodies
to sing its song

I know this not from science
but from life
I know this from grieving
what did not come to pass
from allowing myself
to feel the exquisite pain
of unrequited love

I know this from noticing
anger bubble and boil
feeling the molten lava within
and letting it erupt
into poetry

I know this from
the fullness of joy as well
from watching my arms
move to embrace
those I love
without restraint
no matter what the culture
context or rule

I know
that what is
allowed to move
will heal
with astonishing
and grace

~Ann, December 2011

For more of Ann’s poetry, including poems from her new book Coaching the Spirit, we invite you to visit the Eccentric Spirit website.

Come on Over to The Right Side

…of the brain, that is. Albert Einstein once said “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” 

I love this because more and more I am learning that the key is not one side of our brain or the other, but how we honor and use them both. And the reason I called this post “Come on over to the right side” is that generally, in Western culture we do a pretty good job of using our left hemispheres, but could probably use some help maximizing our right.

But before we go there, a bit of background might be helpful. As most of you probably know, the brain is divided into two hemispheres, connected but separate. Unlike most other mammals, whose hemispheres are mirror images of each other, we evolved to have different functions located in different parts of our brains. The theory is that in order to do the more and more complex thinking required as we evolved (and still have heads small enough to walk upright) our brains needed to specialize. Thus different sides took on different functions.

It used to be that we thought of the left brain as the seat of logic, language and linear thought, and the right brain as the home of emotion and creativity. But recent studies have found it’s a bit more complex than that. We actually process language and thought in both hemispheres. And our emotions and creativity are far too complex to say they are housed in one half of the brain or the other.

Still, there are differences. The left brain takes a very specific, focused, separate view of the world. It finds Waldo in the picture, and keeps us focused on one voice in a noisy restaurant. It’s good at focusing on one thing intently and closely. It can attach specific language and labels to things. The right brain, on the other hand (pun intended) takes the world in broadly and with a soft focus. It sees things as interconnected. It is aware of everything all at once. It is taking in massive amounts of information, but not necessarily focusing on any one thing. It also takes in information from neurons in our heart and gut. But it doesn’t have the left brain’s ability to assign labels and language and pull out what is important.

We get all sorts of information from the right hemisphere which needs to be sorted and labeled before we can use it. And herein lies the problem — because it’s all a bit hazy and undifferentiated, we don’t know what to do with what the right brain knows. So we tend to simply ignore it. When I am explaining this to my clients (especially those who tend to dismiss things like intuition and emotion as being non-essential to leadership and effectiveness) I tell them this is like ignoring half your team. It’s a team that is looking at everything, but doesn’t know exactly how to tell you about it. So you have to help them, and you will get really valuable information when you do.

As coaches, we can sometimes have challenges convincing our more “left brain” clients to trust us when we see that what is needed is what we might call a “right brain” coaching technique. I’ve found that simply educating them about the two hemispheres can help. I tell them that the most effective people are those who have found ways to integrate the two sides of the brain. And then I offer to take them through a coaching technique that will expand their brain’s capacity. I mean, who wants to use only half their brain?

The rational mind is a faithful servant. It makes meaning and enables us to focus. But the intuitive mind is a sacred gift. It brings in things we don’t rationally understand at first, amazing richness of potential insight and understanding. As coaches, we do some of our greatest service when we help our clients integrate these two halves of their brain.

Can I Please Have Some Certainty Here?

Ahh, certainty. The brain loves it. Being uncertain tends to make us feel threatened and kicks up our fight or flight response, releasing adrenalin and cortisol, while knowing exactly what will happen and what to expect gives us the feeling of being in control, which activates the reward centers in the brain, releasing happy chemicals like dopamine.

What does this mean in plain English? Well, it’s why we feel more nervous about the unknown and happier with the known. I recently had the opportunity to do some teaching in Japan, where I had never been, followed by Turkey, where I had been earlier this year. As I was preparing, I noticed that I had a fair degree of anxiety about going to Japan, and nothing but excited anticipation about going to Turkey. While both involved travel in foreign countries where I did not speak the language, thinking about the two aspects of my trip was completely different. In Japan, I had no real idea what to expect about anything, while in Turkey, I had previous experience to draw on and thus felt more certainty and control.

And the truth is, it’s difficult to be really certain about anything these days. (Or perhaps ever — Heraclitus said in about 500 B.C.E. “Everything flows, nothing stands still,” and “You can’t step into the same river twice.”) But there is a way we can be extremely helpful as coaches. The way I see it, our need for certainty and control can be better, and more helpfully, understood as the need for the feeling of certainty and control.

I can’t even count the times I have had clients say to me “I don’t feel like I have any control,” as if it were a rare occurrence in human existence, rather than business as usual in most organizations. And often, they are accurate. They may not have any real control or certainty about anything, either because their higher-ups are not willing to share information, or because no one knows. So as coaches, what we can do is help them focus on what they do have control over and what they do know when facing the unknown. And the good news is that this is all our brains need in order to calm down and be productive again (see The Goldilocks of the Brain for why this is so important to effectiveness). We don’t need to actually be in control of everything — a complete impossibility — we just need the experience of having some control and certainty about something.

As I was preparing for my trip and expressing anxiety about Japan, one of my coach friends asked me a great question. She said “Well, you might not know much about traveling in Japan, but what DO you know about your ability to travel in foreign countries?” This stopped me in my tracks and refocused my thinking. I have traveled all over the world, by myself, for many years. I know many things about travel. Mostly I know I love it and I always have a great time. I am absolutely certain of it.

And you know what? It turned out to be true. I had the time of my life in Japan (and Turkey), as usual. Which brings me to one more quote:

“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.”

~Michel de Montaigne

Does Coaching Change the Coach’s Brain?

I haven’t seen studies of this yet, but I wonder if experienced coaches have developed certain aspects of their brains from using them more in their practice? There is evidence that giving birth and caring for children changes the brain in ways that support bonding, attachment and nurturance. I wonder if working as coach does this as well? It’s widely understood that good psychotherapy is often a kind of “reparenting,” enabling our neuroplastic brain to repattern itself. (Sorry everyone, don’t mean to equate coaching with therapy, but their are strong overlaps and parallels in terms of the sort of connection and empathy we have with our clients.) Does this mean that coaches and therapists own brains develop in areas related to empathy, nurturing, and connection?

Anecdotally, coaches do report that their empathy and intuition seems to increase the longer they practice. Since I began teaching basic neuroscience and coaching a year ago, I have asked more than two hundred coaches from probably 20 different countries what they think is different in their own brains since beginning to coach. One of the main things they report is that their intuitive “hits” with clients have become more frequent, faster, and more accurate the longer they have been coaching. And I don’t mean the longer they have known a particular client. Experienced coaches report their intuition improving, even with brand new clients.

Experienced coaches often tell me they feel that many times they know and understand a new client almost immediately. Certainly some of this may simply have to do with the broad context of understanding of human behavior we have developed over the years. There are only so many ways human beings tend to operate, and obviously, we draw on this. But the development I am pointing to is more than a general understanding. It is the ability to “see” a metaphor that is perfect for the client (“How did you know that otters are my favorite animal? You are so right, I AM an otter!”) or feel their emotions in our own bodies so that we pick up on the most subtle sadness or dissonance (stay tuned for more on this down the road when I bring in Mirror Neurons). Surely there must be something happening in the brain.

Another aspect that is common among my more experienced colleagues is that they report heightened sensitivity overall. Many find that strong emotions, loud noises, and conflict is harder to take the longer they work in the field. This used to baffle me – I thought we would develop more immunity to unpleasantness, but it seems that we perhaps are simply developing more and more overall sensitivity.

The fabulous scientists at the HeartMath Institute ( did research on which resonant field tends to dominate in a pair of people. They found (much to their chagrin) it was the negative energy which “won.” In other words, the more negative person brought the positive person down, rather than vice versa. Their conclusion was that open-hearted people who have done huge amounts of work on developing themselves tend to naturally be more positive. And at the same time, this work has also made them more sensitive, more permeable to others and the world.

I’d love to hear about your own experience with how you think your brain has changed since becoming a coach!

The Goldilocks of the Brain (Your Pre-Frontal Cortex)

“This bed is too hard, and that bed is too soft, but the little bed is JUST RIGHT,” said Goldilocks, as she lay down and fell asleep. But then the bears came in….

A Quick Intro to the Pre-Frontal Cortex  — and how this relates to coaching

First of all — what is the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), anyway? Well, this part of our brain plays a role in many important “executive functions,” or high-level thinking such as:

  1. Pursuing goals and thoughtfully guiding our actions;
  2. Dealing with things that are conceptual rather than concrete;
  3. Encoding important memories and retrieving appropriate memories so they can be used to inform current decisions;
  4. Helping us to make thoughtful decisions, use our insight, demonstrate good judgment, and be flexible;
  5. Understanding what what others are thinking;
  6. Monitoring errors;
  7. Understanding what is real vs. what is imagined or remembered; and
  8. Allowing us to delay gratification[1]

When I heard Yale professor Amy Arnsten liken the PFC to the character Goldilocks, in that it needs to have everything just right in its chemical environment in order to function optimally, I knew I would never forget it. (Metaphor is such a great teaching tool. I’ll have to devote a blog post just to that sometime, but for now, let me just say that it really does help us remember things.)

Here’s how it works technically: being tired, bored or unmotivated releases very small amounts of catecholamines (hormones produced by the adrenal glands) such as dopamine and norepinephrine, while being stressed creates a massive and constant flow. The ideal state is that of being alert and interested, in which case short bursts of catecholamines are released in response to stimulus in the environment.

In both the case of too little catecholamine activity and too much, the effect on the PFC is to put it in a state of distraction, disorganization, forgetfulness, and lack of inhibition, while the perfect amount of catecholamine release enables the person to be focused, organized and responsible. In other words (I find this fascinating) too little engagement and too much stress both take us to the same ineffective place. In order to be at our best, we need to be in balance. PFCAs coaches, we often see both sides of this continuum. I myself have worked with many leaders who have become disengaged (often due to working for other leaders who are themselves overloaded on catecholamines due to stress and are thus leading in a reactive way) and are hanging on in an organization fueled only by either loyalty to the mission or fear of not having another job. One brilliant, dedicated leader I have been coaching told me that she simply gave up at one point when her boss made one more uninformed decision and overrode her authority. She stopped caring and said she knew she had lost her edge and literally felt stupid. She felt she wasn’t making decisions well and was wondering what value she brought to the organization. Quite possibly a case of too few catecholamines.

On the other end of things I have no end of stories of leaders who have become swept away by stress and also lost their focus. A particularly poignant example was a young employee of one of my clients. She came in strong, interviewed well, and showed huge promise. But once she started, she became almost paralyzed by fear of not living up to her potential. This was exacerbated by the high standards of her work group and pressure from her parents as well. She confided to my client that she wasn’t sure she could think any more—her brain had become “fuzzy,” and she wondered, just like my other client, whether she had any value at all. Most likely too many catecholamines going on in her brain.

As a coach, it can be really helpful to know about how the PFC works so you can be aware of what might make a difference for your client. In the first instance, we focused on her values and vision, which helped her find a bigger context for engagement. For the young employee, my client tried some different strategies to help her learn to cope more effectively with stress, and they eventually reached a mutual understanding that the position was not a good fit. It was a classic — and very humane — example of coaching someone out of a job, and the employee left on good terms.

Fun fact to leave you with: “Normal” for women tends to be perfectly in balance, “normal” for men, a bit to the side of too few catecholamines. To me, this explains why often men tend to perform better under the pressure of competition, while for many women, this extra stress makes us less effective. And it’s all a continuum of course.

[1] The Mental sketchpad: why thinking has limits, Amy F.T. Arnsten, Ph.D.

How Coaching Changes the Brain Part II

Thinking about others, thinking about self…..

Interesting neuroscience tidbit: we use the same area of the brain to think about others as we do to think about ourselves. We feel their joys and pains in the way we feel our own. We understand their motivations, frustrations and triumphs as we understand our own.

What does this mean for coaching? Well, if we think about others using the same part of the brain as we use to think about ourselves, our ability to understand others is directly correlated to our ability to understand ourselves. Thus, to be effective parents, leaders, teachers, friends and partners, we need to truly understand ourselves. Research on parenting has found, for example, that adults who had troubling childhoods and experienced “bad” parenting, of course tend to be poor parents themselves. But if these adults develop the capacity for self-reflection, they can transcend their own negative experiences and be warm, nurturing and effective parents. By developing the ability to reflect on themselves, they are more likely to respect their child’s emerging developmental needs and reduce the times the child has to use more primitive defense mechanisms.

We simply can’t put ourselves in another’s shoes if we don’t understand ourselves, because we can’t think about them effectively. If the part of my brain that I use to think about myself is weak, disorganized and undeveloped, if I don’t know how I feel and why, then I actually can’t think about you with any coherence either. And if I can’t do that, how can be a good friend, an effective co-worker, a loving partner or parent?

At its most basic level, coaching powerfully increases our self awareness and self-reflective capacity. As coaches, more than anything, we help our clients look at their lives. I often joke about that feeling of hitting the jackpot when our client says to us “Oh, now that’s a good question!” (YES! Dopamine rush, I did it!! I can do this coaching thing. Whew.) This is because it makes them stop, and think, and reflect, and begin to understand themselves better.

My neuroscience studies have shown me that this understanding isn’t just beneficial to to the client, but is crucial to the world they engage with, and thus, benefits us all. In Nepal (and most yoga classes) they greet and leave with the word “Namaste,” which roughly translates to “The God in me sees the God in you.” To really do this, to see this in another, we need to see it in ourselves first.


Stress Reduction through Coaching

Stress is, if not one of the main reasons people come to coaching, certainly something that comes up with almost every client. I once heard the amazing (and now deceased) Dr. Paul Pearsall talk about having a balanced, healthy unstressed heart. His conclusion — it is perhaps impossible in today’s world unless you live on a remote South Sea island.

In neuroscience geek world, we use the term “emotional regulation” for what is basically, the ability to deal with stress. And as I read through the literature, it dawned on me that this is a huge amount of what we do with our clients. We help them not only “emotionally regulate” in the moment of our conversation, but we also help them build skills for more competency in this area. In order words, we help them become more resilient and capable in the face of day to day life.

So let me walk you through what neuroscience seems to show are the most effective tools for dealing with stress, and how we most typically do this through coaching. In order of effectiveness, we have:

#0. Suppression – actively push feelings aside, pretend, “never let them see you sweat.” This one is not effective. At all. When people do this, they not only raise their own blood pressure, they raise the blood pressure of those around them. Don’t do it. All together now: “Suppress Suppression!” 🙂

#1. Naming the emotion. As coaches, this is often how we start when someone is dealing with an emotional challenge — we ask, “What’s going on?” We reflect what we are hearing, often teasing out deeper understanding for the client. The challenge of this strategy (as anyone who has worked with human beings for any length of time knows) is that people often don’t know what they are feeling. As coaches, we help them understand and name through metaphor, by using our own intuition, through body sensations, and basically, any tool we have. Over time, we help people develop competence in this area so that they have more words and understanding of the vague sensations within (I’ll talk about this more when I get to Right Brain/Left Brain).

I want to note that simple naming is far different that what I call “ramping it up,” which is what tends to happen in more day to day conversations, as our friends chime in with their own outrage. “He did that? Really?? You must be so mad!” etc. As coaches, we may allow a bit of venting, but then we redirect to more helpful strategies. I didn’t even put ramping it up on this list because it is faaaarrrrrr below suppression — when we indulge in this sort of dialogue we re-experience the emotion and create an even stronger neural pathway for pain and negativity — see my blog post How Coaching Changes the Brain for more on neural pathways.

Oh, and according to the research, it’s the most effective when you have people write down how they are feeling. A great “off the call” tool to teach our clients.

#2. Controlling the environment so as not to encounter stressor. Interestingly, this may sound bad at first, but it is actually quite effective if you can do it. And we help our clients do this all the time. For example, we might explore options with them to get rid of a 60-minute commute. Or help them see they can make boundaries with an in-law. As coaches, many of us (myself included) have designed our lives for a more peaceful experience. I dislike office environments with fluorescent lights and people asking me for things all day long. So I am a coach and trainer, I often work at home in my pajamas while hanging out with my cats, voila, stressor controlled.

The reason I have this near the bottom of the list when it actually works so well (and some scientists argue is actually the most effective strategy) is that relying on control is probably a losing proposition. We simply can’t (and shouldn’t try) to control everything and everyone so as not to bug us. And the feeling of needing to be in control when you can’t be actually causes more stress. Still, it works great when you can do it.

#3. Values and Purpose – Focusing on personal values and purpose can be a powerful way to shift focus, engage the higher brain, and of course, reduce stress. When we ask a client questions like “What is really important to you in this situation?” Or  “What values do you want to honor?” Or even, “what values are NOT being honored here?” they often need to pause to consider. In other words, they can’t answer in an automatic way, but must recruit additional brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex in order to thoughtfully answer the question. This tends to help the brain produce GABA, a factor in reducing stress.

#4. Reframing – finding an empowering way to look at the issue. Yes! A classic tool of coaching, which I have found in pretty much every coaching school. At CTI we call it Balance Coaching and it is highly effective at moving people from a place they are stuck, and often stressed, to a place where they begin to see they have options and choices. The act of reframing (also known as taking a new perspective or reappraisal) also invites the pre-frontal cortex to the party, calming down our stress responses (see Values, above).

#5. Mindfulness meditation, being present to body sensations, focusing on gratitude/love. The number one, hands down, most effective solution to any neuroscience challenge. Stress, creativity, improving memory, being more emotionally intelligent, I kid you not. In my neuroscience class, we now just wait for it. “And new studies of meditating monks have shown….” again and again.

As coaches, I believe we absolutely help our clients become more “mindful.” Even just a good coaching conversation brings people present into the moment and makes them pay attention to what is going on, rather than putting their attention on regrets from the past or worries about the future. At CTI we have a particular tool we call Process coaching, where we take our clients deep into what they are experiencing, right here, right now. It can be almost like a guided meditation in dialogue, as we walk with them through a metaphor, or help them put their body sensations into words. It’s powerful, and can release old patterns and issues that have been stuck for years, simply by helping people be present.

While any one of these strategies is scientifically shown to reduce stress, we have found that doing them in order is particularly helpful. It seems to be that each one can help bring the brain to a state where it is ready for the next step.