My Best Neuroscience Argument for Coaching

Lately I have been pondering how to answer the question “Why Coaching?” from a neuroscience perspective, in the simplest language possible. What are the key points that are most helpful for people to understand? So here it is, what I would say if you started talking to me at a cocktail party and asked “Well, what’s the argument for coaching from the point of view of neuroscience?” (Not that anyone ever asks me that, but a girl can dream.)

man thinkingHmm, I’d say. There are probably three main things. One, the brain is neuroplastic and can change. Coaching is one of the best ways to facilitate this change — and it is very very hard to do it on your own. Two, we tend not to be fully integrated as human beings. Coaching helps us integrate many aspects of ourselves, which makes us much more effective. And three, we are highly programmed for reaction. Coaching helps us create and choose instead of being run by our reactions. Now let me break this down a bit:

1. The brain is neurosplastic and can change. All of our well-worn habits and behaviors have created what my friend Jeff calls “wagon wheel ruts” in our brains. The more we use a neural pathway, the more developed it becomes. This is great news when you are learning a new instrument — every time you put your fingers on the strings or the keys, you strengthen the pathway for that motion and you do generally get better if you practice. It’s also what keeps us stuck. If I have a pathway for not speaking up in meetings (most likely based on an early survival skill) and I have been using it for years, that wagon wheel rut is going to be pretty darn deep. This is one reason it is so hard to change on our own, no matter how much we understand that a certain behavior is not helpful or effective.

Working with a coach helps form new neural pathways, and there are many strategies we use: we ask clients to take a new perspective, we have them vision a different future, we help them look directly at issues rather than avoiding them. All of these are ways to create new potential neural pathways that can, with practice, be developed into default habits and responses. We also provide a structure for accountability (we all know that we’re much more likely to do something when we have made a promise to another and we know they will follow up) so that the actual practice, the doing, takes place. Which is what actually forms the new road for the wagon wheels. (See my post on neuroplasticity for more.)

2. Coaching helps us integrate ourselves. We’ve been taught to compartmentalize, to shut off emotion (or sometimes not to be so rational). We have learned to act differently at work than at home or with friends. We all too often walk around not really knowing who we are, what we want, or how we really feel. Our brains are a bit like musicians all playing in separate practice rooms. We go to this room to listen to Mozart, this one for some dance tunes, etc. The tools and skills of professional coaching gets the brain linked up so it is more like musicians playing a symphony together. For example, when we work with a client on metaphor, we are using a tool that helps the right brain communicate effectively with the left, and we help build the connective tissue between the two hemispheres. When we have the client focus on their body sensations, we are helping them build integrative fibers in areas of the brain associated with empathy.

There is actually very little that we do that does not help our clients integrate in some way. And what we are learning about human effectiveness points to the symphony of integration as key. (Also see my most recent posts on integration and the right and left brain for more on this topic.)

3. Coaching helps us create and choose. This is another big one. We are, as you all probably know, programmed for fight or flight. Our reptilian brain, also known as the limbic system, was the earliest part of the brain to develop evolutionarily. It’s run the show for a hundred million years, and its pull is strong to keep us alive. When we have “gone limbic,” as one of my clients puts it, our brains and bodies are being pumped with adrenalin and cortisol — which are designed to have us NOT THINK. Seriously. (See the Goldilocks of the Brain for more on this.) If a saber-toothed tiger is coming at you, you don’t actually want your brain in charge. You want your feet to move and you want to be stronger and faster than usual, even if it means you are tired afterwards.

So fast forward to 2012. No saber-toothed tigers, just annoying emails, long lines in the grocery store, whining kids and too much traffic. Our limbic systems are pumped up when we don’t need them to be, and in this state, we aren’t able to really think, create, or choose. Coaching helps the client move out of the limbic area and into the upper brain. (See Coaching and Stress for  the many ways we do this.) When the upper brain comes on line, it literally releases a substance called GABA which calms down the limbic system.

And because of the previous points — neuroplasticity and integration — the more we help our client move out of limbic reaction and into conscious choice and engagement of the upper brain, the easier and more natural it becomes for them. They begin to do things on their own such as take a new perspective or breathe and be present. Sometimes they say to us “I hear your voice in my head,” or “I ask myself what my coach would say.” I don’t think this is usually dependency. I think it is a way they are building strength and rewiring their brains more effectively.

There are many many more reasons coaching is effective from a neuroscience perspective, but at least for today, these are three main ones. Let me know what you think!



16 responses

  1. Thank you Ann for materializing the intangible, that makes us artisan, I like that. And next time I go to a cocktail party I’ll know how to break the ice.

  2. Great post, as always, Ann. Just curious. Have you read Shelley E. Taylor’s, “The Tending Instinct: How Nurturing is Essential to Who We Are and How We Live”. She counters the “flight/fight” response as only one possible response among women. She contends based upon her research that in the face of stress, women tend to bond and tend to their relationships rather than fight or flee. Here’s an article you might find interesting:

    • Thanks so much! Quite an important point and I really appreciate you making it. There are many areas of brain research and assumptions that are made from a male point of view without every questioning whether there are gender differences. It is really fascinating about oxytocin being released as a response to stress — I definitely did not know that. It really makes sense to me personally that after my initial “whumpf” of adrenalin in a stressful situation, the first thing I want to do is find a friend to talk to!

      Much love and appreciation,


      • fascinating. that makes some interesting arguments about governing and leadership. I just wanted to throw into the mix however that as a woman that I still tend to prefer isolation over bonding with some of my most fearful reactions. could be due to trauma in my case…what are your thoughts on that?

      • Hi Rebecca, I am not sure what your question is? Isolation is definitely one of our human survival strategies. We all have our reactive favorites, in my experience. My son is a “fight” reactive type. Everything amps up, he looks for someone to blame. I am more of a “flight” reactive type myself. I prefer to go away, calm down, and then deal with things when I can think straight. Some people may be more “freeze” types where stress just shuts them down completely. Does this help or did I misunderstand you?

  3. Thanks Ann… and for those of you who want more (easy to understand) insight on how the brain works, David Rock’s book Your brain at work does a fabulous job of breaking things down. He also has a couple of other books, Quiet Leadership and Coaching with the Brain in mind that really help enrich the coaching conversation.

  4. THANKS so much for that …i truly feel that humanity is running their life according to their past and lingering that in to their present and future .. being so unconscious of their habit of unconsciousness of themselves and their surrounding and really losing them selfs … i recently came in to this world of coaching and found my calling and myself in a big way and reading this gave me MORE answers to the WHY … thanks . .KNOW What

  5. Thank you Ann,
    I discovered your blog today and have read “Whoosh”, “Stress Reduction Through Coaching” and now this!

    You are making a very valuable contribution. It is always important to understand the science underpinning coaching: how it works and, more importantly, to support our understanding and BELIEF that we CAN change!

    I have subscribed and am looking forward to enjoying more of your articles.

    in appreciation,

    Ruth Hadikin

  6. Pingback: My Best Neuroscience Argument for Coaching | Choose The Path

  7. Pingback: My Best Neuroscience Argument for Coaching

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