Putting the Wizards to Work

img_1963Growing up in Minnesota, I think I got the proverbial Protestant Work Ethic deeply installed in my neural operating system. There is a part of me that feels distinctly uncomfortable unless I am being Productive And Responsible At All Times. Which can, of course, lead to a feeling of being ground into a fine powder as I try to wrestle my ever-burgeoning to-do list into submission.

So when I learned about the Task Positive Network and the Default Mode Network (covered in more depth in the link) of the brain, it was huge relief. These two networks are “anti-correlated,” that is, they almost always fire one at a time: when Task goes on, Default goes off, and vice versa.

Task activates when we are focused, paying attention to external stimuli, planning and actively figuring out how to do something. I think of this network like my team of engineers. They are hugely helpful at solving logical problems, figuring out the steps to take, planning my day productively, and so on.

But sometimes you need magic instead of engineering. And this is where the Default Mode Network can help. Here is where we have meaning, dreams, vision, insight, introspection and other people’s perspectives.

I think of the Default Mode Network as my team of magicians, living deep in a cave and highly sensitive. Whenever I look too directly at them or try to force them to work, they quit. They can only cast their spells when I am not paying attention. And the best thing is to give them an assignment and go do something else that is not task-focused.

My magicians like it when I go for a walk in the woods, drive in the car (the motion soothes them), take a shower or bath, paint, draw, listen to instrumental music, nap. And when I give them an assignment beforehand, such as “please figure out how to teach the Task and Default networks in an experiential way,” they never disappoint. (In this case, I saw an image of a river with bridges, and developed a process called “Crossing the River” to intentionally activate each network during a coaching appointment.)

We all have both of these networks, but in today’s task-driven world, the power of the Default Mode Network is often underrated. My rule is, whenever I get stuck, can’t figure something out, or there doesn’t seem to be a logical answer, take the job away from the engineers, give it to the magicians, and wait.

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 Power of Dreaming, The Power of Action

Dreams pass into the reality of action. From the actions stems the dream again; and this interdependence produces the highest form of living.

~Anias Nin

Ever wondered why some people seem to lose relationship connection when they are focused on getting things done? Or why some creative dreamers can’t seem to move anything forward? Ever wonder why you get some of your best ideas and “aha” moments in the shower or daydreaming on a walk? Well, guess what? Like many human mysteries, there is a brain explanation.

The Default Network (DMN) and the Task Positive Network (TPN) are two distinct neural networks in the brain. The DMN is a network of brain regions that are active when the individual is not focused on the outside world and the brain is Black Horseat wakeful rest. It’s called “default” because it is the network that is activated unless we are specifically engaged in goal-directed activity and external input, the realm of the TPN. Probably one of the most interesting aspects of these two networks is that when Default is active, Task is not. And when Task is active, Default is not. Part of each network’s function is to shut the other down.

I like to think of the two networks this way: imagine your brain is a horse. Task Mode is when you put blinders on your horse, hitch it up to a cart, and drive it forward. It just pays attention to what is right in front of it, and it’s main job is to DO. It’s not interested in anything that isn’t relevant to the job or task.

Black StallionDefault, on the hand, is when you unhitch the horse (your brain), take the blinders off, and let it loose in a field with nothing in particular to do. The horse, while roaming the field, finds many interesting things, often makes new connections between existing information (“aha” moments), and is able understand others and itself.

Here’s a few specifics about each network (by the way, it’s important to note that while some of the aspects below may sound similar to Right and Left Hemisphere operations, each network actually includes both):

Default Mode Network Task Positive Network
Dreaming

Envisioning the future

Long-term memory

Gauging other’s perspectives

Theory of mind (understanding others)

Introspection

Self-referential thought

DMN is spread widely throughout brain

Focus on task

Actively paying attention (external)

Goal-orientation

Reacting to and working with sensory information

Short-term (working) memory

Planning

Abstract reasoning

TPN is more concentrated in pre-frontal cortex

In today’s busy world, most of us don’t allow ourselves enough Default Mode time, and it’s important. I really saw this when I was driving across country after taking my only kid to his freshman year at college. I was using my drive as a time to listen to an audio book, which meant my brain was actively paying attention to external stimuli. And yet, I had just dropped my only son off to his new adventure, and was starting a new one of my own. I realized that I needed to process how I felt. So I turned off the book and just drove, letting my horse of a brain wander in the field. After about half an hour, all sorts of metaphors came to me — I saw taking my son to college was like the end of a really really good book. One you don’t want to end. I cried a bit over that. Then I saw that now there were two books going forward. His and mine. And we were big characters in each other’s story in these new books, but not in the way we were in the first book.

Giving myself Default Mode time really helped me integrate this big change, and by the time I got home, I felt much more ready to embark on my new life without a child at home. The “aha” moments that the Default Network gives us are precious, important, and don’t happen when we are focused on task.

I find with my clients that this tends to resonate — we probably all need a bit more intentional daydreaming in our lives. Knowing about these two networks may help convince people to let their horses loose now and then to find the flowers and other treasures in the field.

A Neuroplasticity Holiday–making new pathways in the snow

footsteps in deep snow“Neuroplasticity is a six-syllable word for hope.”

~Dr. Linda Page, Co-Author, Coaching with the Brain in Mind

Ah yes, neuroplasticity — the brain’s capacity to grow and change throughout our lives. It’s one of the most helpful and positive findings in neuroscience research in the past fifty years. We can, with focus and attention, change our very wiring. We’re not stuck with what we learned as children, took on as adaptive strategies, or even inherited.

My belief is that as coaches, creating and reinforcing new neural pathways may very well be what we do best with our clients, and why we are able to help people on their journeys of lasting change, creating empowerment, not dependency.

But today I just want to reflect human to human, on the particular challenges of the holiday season and how the concept neuroplasticity may be able to help. Like many of you, I am planning to spend a great deal of time with my family over the holidays. I love them to bits but have become more and more aware (sometimes painfully) of the habitual patterns I tend to fall into when we’re all together. Deeply ingrained pathways that go back years–fear (as the youngest) of being left out, concern that if I really share what I am doing in the world no one will care, certainty that this person will be dull to talk to or that another one doesn’t like me as much as I think she should.

And here’s the thing: none of it is planned or intentional in the slightest. It’s just habit, like a smooth, well plowed path in the snow that’s easy to walk down without effort or thought. Many (dare I say most?) of our patterns with family were laid down early in our lives, which means, from a brain wiring standpoint, that we get a double whammy in terms of potency. One, we’ve had many years to practice, and the more you use a neural pathway the stronger it becomes. Two, pathways that were created in childhood (and up through adolescence) may become myelinated–that is, coated with an electrically insulating fatty material that forms a layer around the axon of the neurons in that pathway, making it quicker and stronger.

So there we are, back with the people we grew up with, finding ourselves playing out the same habits, thought patterns and behaviors we had hoped we’d transcended. What to do? It’s time to intentionally create some new neural pathways.

It may help to think of creating these new neural pathways like making trails in deep snow. The first time you walk, it’s hard, slow and tiring. Even the next time and the next can be difficult. But at some point, it gets easier. The snow gets packed down. You make progress. The trick is to keep at it, trying your best to ignore the superhighway of habitual patterns that is beckoning. Yes, it’s the easier road, but it’s not the road to fulfillment.

Without awareness and intention, our brains (which like to conserve energy) take us down the easiest path. But with a commitment to change, we can re-wire even the deep neural structures from our childhoods. This holiday season, let’s all take one habit that is no longer serving us in our families and walk through the deep snow to more love, authenticity, and connection.

 

Inhibition and the Brain

Let me be clear. Freedom is one of my core values. Self-expression, living outside the box, taking risks — these are defining aspects of my being. Strangely, however, I am finding I have a new respect for the word INHIBITION, at least as it concerns my brain. In fact, one could say it is the brain’s ability to inhibit that allows us to live uninhibited lives of joy and freedom. Let me attempt to explain….

I’ve thought (and taught) that one of the most powerful aspects of coaching is its ability to help connect the two hemispheres of the brain, so that they can “talk” to each other. The Left Hemisphere (LH) gives voice and language to the Right Hemisphere’s (RH) intuition and sensing. The RH sends its creative ideas to the LH, who makes them practical and puts them into action, etc. It’s not that we are ever solely “in” one hemisphere (pretty much everything we do requires both), but coaching and personal development seem to make us more able to use what’s most helpful from each in an integrated manner.

While this is indeed the case, there is also something else going on that is even more dominant in the brain. The stronger the corpus callosum (the interconnecting “white matter” between the two hemispheres), the more able each hemisphere is to inhibit the other. In fact, it is much more the job of each hemisphere to inhibit the other than it is to connect with it. We exist and thrive in the tension between our LH and RH impulses.

At the extreme, the LH holds the space of rigidity, the RH, chaos. Our lives flow in between the two, ideally not becoming beached up on the dry side of rigidity or lost in the floods of chaos. Each hemisphere holds the other in check so that we can move forward. We need enough structure to keep things focused, with enough freedom to keep them moving. This is the balance all human beings,  groups, systems and organizations strive for — and often struggle with.

And so, how is inhibition key? First I want to make a distinction between inhibition and suppression. Suppression is shutting something down, trying to contain it, not allowing it to be. Suppression (whether of people or emotions) does not work. It actually creates a build up of energy (the old adage “what you resist, persists) that can explode. Inhibition, in the sense I am using it here, is not about shutting one hemisphere down. It’s about bringing things back to the middle of the river so life can continue to flow.

Let me give you a personal example of the value of inhibiting each hemisphere (by the way, as coaches, you are helping your clients do this all the time, even if you didn’t know it). Yesterday I got an email from my ex-husband saying that I owed him some money (a fairly large amount) for costs on our property in Costa Rica. This DID NOT make me happy and I experienced some negative aspects of each hemisphere in my initial response. On the Left side, I was aware of being angry and wanting to blame him. I wanted to be sarcastic and confrontational about it, ask demanding questions like “how did you let this happen?” and “why can’t you manage things better?” HOWEVER, my RH was there very quickly, reminding me to look at the big picture, asking me if that is the sort of person I want to be, and helping me remember that he is probably doing his best — after all, 20 years of knowing him has shown me his competence and integrity. (The RH understands wholeness, context, connection, and the importance of relationships.)

Now — being the complex human I am (and we all are), I was also aware of some of the negative aspects of the RH that got triggered as well. I felt hopeless and overwhelmed, wondering when this black hole of a money pit will ever sell. I felt the “poor me’s” come on as I tossed this additional bill onto what seemed like a huge (and growing) pile. And then, blessedly, my LH jumped in, telling me I had enough money in the bank to cover this expense, and that rental income from the high season would start coming in very soon. It reminded me that summer is always tough, and that someday the property will sell at a profit. (The LH understands facts and figures and brings logic to the situation. It’s also more positive than the RH.)

Interestingly, I was able to do this without suppressing how I felt at all. My RH wasn’t saying to the LH “don’t be angry,” and the LH wasn’t saying the the RH “don’t be depressed.” It was more like they were each saying to each other “come back,” each hemisphere helping the other come more to the middle, to the flow of the river.

I’d still love to sell my house in Costa Rica, and I’m not thrilled about writing the check, but you know, I’m ok. I don’t have to carry that upset with me. I have inhibited but not suppressed, and it’s a beautiful day.

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

 

 

 

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.

Namaste.