Neuroplasticity–the brain’s ability to grow and change–is fundamental to the power and possibility of coaching. As coaches, we help our clients recognize old, unhelpful patterns and “rewire” our systems for the sort of personal and professional accomplishments, impact and fulfillment they desire. As coaches, there are (at least) seven key things critical for coaching to have a maximum impact. Many of these you may already be doing as a coach, others you may want to bring into a more intentional focus in order to make your coaching even likelier to help your clients grow and change.
We learn and change best in safe, supportive relationships. Feeling socially connected diminishes stress and can even reduce inflammation, while feeling judged or “less than” others can create fight or flight responses in the brain which inhibit learning. Additionally, when we feel we are being heard and understood, it increases the connective neural fibers in our brains—fibers that are crucial for bringing together disparate areas for increased cognitive function.
2. Personal Relevance
The dragon we know is better than the dragon we don’t know. ~ Chinese Proverb
Learning involves change, and change, by definition, involves risk, so it is always easier to stay where we are than to risk what we don’t know and haven’t yet experienced. All change begins with a desire for something, and this desire must be bigger than the “dragon we don’t know.” Older neural pathways will continue to easily pull us towards old behaviors, beliefs and actions (even if they don’t serve) until the desire for something else becomes strong enough to disrupt the pattern. In coaching, we need to be sure that our clients have a chance to get in touch with (or create) the powerful emotional relevance necessary for learning and change to occur.
New experiences stimulate neuronal connections. If we don’t know how to do something, the cognitive patterns for it don’t exist in our brains, thus new connections must be made. In order to maintain the benefits, however, these experiences have to increase in challenge in order to create new growth. Additionally, we simply don’t pay attention to things that are boring or to which we are habituated. Parts of the brain are constantly taking in everything in our environments and cuing us to notice that which is new—releasing neurotransmitters in the brain that help us focus.
4. Focus and Attention
The close paying of attention (as in study, meditation and focused attention) increases neurotransmitters, including brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is necessary for neuronal growth and connections. Designing a distraction-free space for the coaching, encouraging clients to check in with the interoceptive sensations their bodies, and simply asking good, thoughtful powerful questions all contribute to more presence in the coaching. (It’s also interesting to note that many studies have linked traditional meditation practice to differences in cortical thickness and density of gray matter in key areas of the brain.)
A critical part of the learning process is the ability to try, fail, recalibrate and try again. This is literally how the new neural connections we make get either strengthened or pruned. According to Daniel Coyle in The Talent Code, training “at the edge of our abilities” produces results up to 10 times faster than regular practice. That is, making mistakes leads to better skill acquisition. Directly linked to the key of novelty, making mistakes is inherent to increasing the difficulty of the task. As long as we are making mistakes, the task is probably challenging enough.
6. Play, Humor, Movement
The more multi-sensory neural connections we have associated with a behavior or skill, the stronger the “pathway” becomes by engaging more aspects of the brain. For example, when we remember a vacation to the beach, we may access sounds, smells, sights, even the feeling of sand on our toes. This anchors in the experience more strongly than simply seeing a photo of sand and waves. When we are intentionally working to create positive new neural pathways, bolstering this process by bringing in as many of our senses as possible is a fabulous strategy. It is also a place we can tap into the wisdom of the body.
Additionally, in order to make mistakes without perfectionism or shame, we need to step into a place of playfulness and even humor. Being playful puts the brain in an open state for learning. All baby animals and humans learn through play, which allows mistakes to be made (and learned from) in a safe environment.
The brain needs time to process and reflect on learning, and can only take so much stimulation and continue optimal function. Additionally, spacing things out over more than one day allows the integrating and clearing aspects of sleep to be activated. With adequate REM sleep, neural connections are retraced (cementing in important learning), and unnecessary input from the day is cleared, allowing space for new learning.
All these factors are cumulative in nature. In other words, the more the better. As a coach, please take a moment to celebrate the keys you do well, knowing you are not only doing good coaching, you are having a powerful impact on your client’s brain. And if there are one or two you could make more intentional, you may find your coaching has even more impact!
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Amanda Blake Your Body is Your Brain, available on Amazon
Meditation and Neuroplasticity: Using Mindfulness to Change the Brain https://goo.gl/yl6YAG
Less Stress, More Social Competence
Neuroscience Backs What Great Leaders Know: To Succeed, Embrace Your Mistakes
How sleep clears the brain. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/how-sleep-clears-brain