Entering Softly

arms-wide-open-1457804The Right Hemisphere and Coaching

Ah, the two hemispheres of the brain, something we are endlessly fascinated with here at Your Coaching Brain. While it is true that, on a day to day basis, we use both hemispheres for most of what we do (yes, even music, math, art and logic), it is equally true that each hemisphere pays attention to the world in a very different way. The right focuses on the big picture, the relationship between things, and meaning. The left gives us the ability to understand and attend to pieces and parts. It is concerned with both the details and process.

The right hemisphere is also attuned to that which is novel, unique and heretofore unexplored, and as such, all new information comes to us through our right hemisphere. Conversely, the left deals with what it already knows, the representations (re-presentations) of things already noticed and brought into awareness by the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere’s role is as an interpreter of reality, not an experiencer. They each have their uses—and their limitations.

One limitation we need to think about has huge implications for coaching. In order for the client to shift to somewhere truly new, to have an experience of transformation, we must get them into their right hemisphere. All learning starts here—with what we don’t know, haven’t noticed, and are yet to experience. However, we also want to be sure the session is practical and useful for the client, and is, of course, what they want, all of which are more left hemisphere concerns.

And thus a conundrum. On the one hand, traditionally as the session begins we ask the client what they want from today’s work and how they will know they have gotten that. We may ask them to think about the measures and markers that they have, indeed, had a useful session, thus activating their practical left hemisphere and asking it to sort through what it already knows.

On the other hand, current understanding of the brain shows us that often what needs to occur is in the realm of what the client “doesn’t know what they don’t know.” The right hemisphere is where we will find that amazing “aha” that can turn the coaching in a whole new—often much more powerful—direction. This is the part of brain that pays attention to the “still small voice” of what is unknown and undiscovered.

And so, I have come to enter coaching sessions softly. I do ask, what do you want to focus on today, but I generally refrain from getting too “granular” with specific outcomes,* because (usually) I intentionally want to activate the open, learning part of the client’s brain. I want them to enter into today’s coaching from a place they do not know, instead of moving around the pieces and parts they have looked at before. Once we have looked and explored in a wide, open way, there is a time to narrow things down, make plans and look to measures. This focusing in is also an important part of coaching–it’s just not always the best place to begin.

Perhaps it feels a bit more in control if you have a clear, specific, measurable goal for every coaching session, which makes the left hemisphere happy (and yes, as noted in my footnote, there are times when this makes sense). The right hemisphere, however, doesn’t care that things be linear, predictable and measurable, because its focus is a greater integration of the whole. And ultimately, I would argue, this is what really matters in coaching.

*a notable exception is if the client has already, perhaps in other sessions, done enough exploration and they really at this point just need to make a plan.

 

Thank you to Iain McGilchrist for his amazing book The Master and His Emissary, and the new documentary, The Divided Brain. McGilchrist spent over 20 years synthesizing wisdom from philosophy, history, art and neuroscience to help us understand the real difference – and challenge – of the two hemispheres of the brain.

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Why Am I Taking Your Money?

I am going to out myself here. But first, a little context. I’ve been a coach for 14 years. I teach coaching. I teach advanced coaching. I write about coaching. I analyze the neuroscience of coaching. I can demo any coaching process or skill in front of a writing-a-check-1-1239268-1599x1196room with practically anyone and have it work. Usually masterfully. And I still have the occasional client where, to be honest, no matter what I do, they just need someone to listen to them, and it doesn’t really feel like coaching.

I have turned myself inside out over this. I have berated myself, gotten coaching and advice from my peers and mentors, tried everything short of tap dancing with a trained elephant, and still, it comes back to, they just need someone to listen to them.

And so I do that. I end up mostly just listening. And as I talk with experienced coaches from around the world, I find that many of my colleagues often confess to the same. There are some clients who need, more than anything, a non-judgmental ear and place to verbally process.

Often these are clients who, for whatever reason, have nowhere in their lives where they can say everything they are thinking or feeling without filters. It may be because they are in the public eye, at a high position in a company, or simply because they aren’t surrounded by any curious and open people. Or they are intensely verbal processors who have to speak–a lot–in order to know what they think and how they feel.

For the brain, just the process of speaking to an open ear is highly valuable. In the book Supercoach, Michael Neill gives thelamppost-1375555-1279x1661 example of being coached by a lamp post. Imagine, he advises, that someone heads home from work every evening and stops to talk to a lamp post on his way, unburdening himself from the day’s issues and problems, and speaking out loud possibilities and options for tomorrow. The lamp post doesn’t talk back, give advice, or do anything. It’s just there. And the person, by developing the habit of talking to the lamp post, begins to find his life improving. He feels less burdened and a bit more in touch with what is possible. The process of speaking his ideas out loud even triggers new thoughts and insights.

Now add to that the fact that we as coaches, even at the most basic level, do so much more than the average lamp post. We listen with both our hearts and our minds. attuning to what they are saying (in a sense, feeling it with them), and responding thoughtfully and non-judgmentally. This sort of listening tends to elicit what neuroscientists refer to as a “towards” state in the brain, where it is open and receptive. This is in sharp contrast to an “away” state, where your brain basically says, let’s get the heck out of here. We can easily activate an away state in others by being critical, giving unsolicited advice (especially in a judgmental and/or superior manner), or being actively distracted while another is speaking.

When the brain is in a “towards” state, it is more receptive and creative, learning and remembering much more. Insight can happen, where disparate neural networks find each other and connect, causing “aha” moments. The person is emotionally open and actually sees more of what is going on–literally–because the visual processing centers are activated.

And again, even with those clients who just need to be listened to, the truth of the matter is we are usually actually doing much more. It may not feel like coaching at its best, but we are probably also at least:

  • Asking powerful questions designed to have them reflect more deeply;
  • Helping them focus and organize their thoughts;
  • Underlining and highlighting key things that they are saying so that the client is more aware;
  • Bringing it to a “so what” so that they have a new way of moving forward;

So let’s all give ourselves a bit of a break when this happens, and stop the little voice that says “why am I taking your money?” It happens. Sometimes because the coach needs more skill, and sometimes because maybe, just maybe, this is what the client needs.

Although I do need to add, as I often tell my coaching students, that of course these are not the clients I would want to submit for my ICF credential assessment. It’s not best practice in coaching, it’s not the full potential of what coaching can be and do, it’s not what we are capable of as coaches. But sometimes, it’s what happens, and it’s ok.

The Neuroscience of Co-Active Coaching

Hello everyone! Today I just want to share a link to a new white paper where I explore neuroscience links to the Co-Active Coaching model. Co-Active Coaching and the Brain walks through the four cornerstones, three principles and five contexts (whew) of Co-Active Coaching.

Even though this paper looks specifically at the coaching model taught by the Coaches Training Institute, there is much in it that is applicable (and hopefully useful) to all coaches.

I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I loved writing it!

Warmly,

 

Ann

 

 

 

Status and Coaching

Guess what, gang? Our brains are programmed for status. We seek status, we evaluate status, we constantly compare our status to other people’s. We feel good (our brains release the happy chemical dopamine) when we feel we have more status than others, and feel bad (and even eat and spend more) when we don’t. If I feel my status is somehow threatened, it can (and often does) kick up what Daniel Goleman calls an “amygdala hijack” — that state of being when we are flooded with chemicals that make us desire nothing more than to fight or flee. Not a good prescription for learning.

How does this relate to coaching? Well, I think it is more proof that we are optimizing the brain in our profession (and as we teach leaders and managers to be more “coach-like” and use these skills). Coaches approach their clients from the fundamental view that we are NOT the experts or the teachers, but that our job is to help people find their own answers within. This helps flatten out the issue of status, in effect taking it off the table in the relationship. As a coach, I don’t need to prove that I have more knowledge than my client. As a client, I don’t need to prove anything to my coach. We are co-equals who have designed a relationship in service of one of us.

At CTI, we have a phrase that we use, and I have come to love over the years. We hold our clients — and actually, everyone — Naturally Creative, Resourceful, and Whole. Having lived with this view for over ten years now, I think it may have helped reprogram my brain (at least a little) around the issue of status. I have come to see the real truth in these words, and when I view people and myself this way, it somehow isn’t as compelling to evaluate my own relative greatness or smallness relative to them. This is, I think, a very good thing.

🙂