Coaching, Stress and the Pre-Frontal Cortex (VIDEO)

Here I am explaining and then demoing how to work with stress and the pre-frontal cortex as part of Boom Boom Go‘s great video library of coaching tools. Click HERE to watch (and HERE to read the article this tool is based on).

Note: this coaching tool is just one of many we teach at BEabove Leadership  in our Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching program!


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.


Feedback or Unpack?

i-love-feedback“Hey, can I give you some feedback on that meeting?”

“Come in my office, I want to give you some feedback.”

“Do you have a minute? I have some feedback that you need to hear.”

Ok, how many of you have already gone into amygdala overdrive just reading that? Feedback is one of those areas of leadership and management that frankly, very few people have really figured out. Except for those highly self-regulated, amazingly emotional intelligent people for whom the idea of feedback is nothing more than a wonderful opportunity to improve (or, conversely, those who just don’t care), it’s mostly, well, tough. Tough to give and tough to take. And while I am by no means arguing that we don’t need it at all, I think it merits pulling apart and reconfiguring.

My first stop is, of course, the neuroscience perspective. Here there are a few things to take into account, the first being the pain of social rejection. We evolved to live co-operatively, in small groups. Our need to belong is as real and pervasive – and as important to our survival – as hunger or thirst. In fact, brain studies have shown that being rejected activates many of the same regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain.

Our limbic system, responsible for scanning for threats (and therefore keeping us alive) is finely tuned to whether we are safely part of the group, whether we are deemed acceptable or deficient, whether we belong. Feedback, even well intentioned, can often trigger a fight or flight response. We think we should be responding rationally, but deeply entrenched safety-driven neural pathways are screaming ‘‘threat!’’ On a basic level, even if it is not true in today’s society, being left out of the group makes us fear for our survival. This puts us in a mode where our higher brain shuts down, making it hard to take in what the other person is saying.

That having been said, it’s also important to note that in terms of any sort of pain, we’re not one-size-fits-all. In terms of physical pain, research shows that people will describe the same stimulus as anywhere from “not at all painful” to “highly painful,” with brain activity corresponding. It’s reasonable to conclude that the pain of social rejection is the same. What feels like harsh criticism to one person may even be too mild to take notice of for another.

BEST ADVICE: Get very very connected when you want (or need) to give someone feedback.When the person you are giving feedback to really knows that he or she is safe, you have a lot more room to say things and have them heard.

This perhaps brings us to the issue of the self-referential nature of our own brains. We understand the world by running it through our own experience, making our own mental map of what is going on. Our feedback to someone often reveals more about ourselves than it does about the other person. For example, when we are asked to rate someone’s behavior, such as in a 360-degree review, we tend to rate it in reference to ourselves. As Marcus Buckingham said in a 2011 article on 360-degree reviews: ‘‘If you rate me high on setting a clear vision for our team, all we learn is that I am clearer on that vision than you are; if you rate me low, we learn that you are clearer than I am’’ (Buckingham, 2011). Buckingham calls this ‘‘bad data,’’ and says that even if you have 20 people’s answers in a 360-degree review, 20 inputs of bad data do not make a reliable report. Bad + bad does not equal good.

In addition, we tend to think that there is a right and wrong way to do things. Each culture, including the culture within an organization, has its own ideals. For example, if the ideal/assumption in your organization is that challenging people and ‘‘calling them on their BS’’ creates the most growth, and you personally believe more in nurturing and focusing on strengths, you will be given ‘‘feedback’’ that you are not measuring up. And you will not be, but only relative to the ideal, which ultimately may or may not be effective.

BEST ADVICE: Provide feedback in terms of the impact you experienced. Marcus Buckingham adds: ‘‘Although you are not a reliable rater of my behavior, you are an extremely reliable rater of your own feelings and emotions.’’ Thus, while you cannot necessarily trust your own judgment of my performance or behavior, you can trust the impact it had on you.

Thus, as we’ve probably all experienced, feedback is tricky business. To be most effective, we have to be highly aware of the other person’s emotional state and manage our own emotions as well. We also need to be cognizant of our biases and beliefs, and focus primarily on the impact of the actions. Even so, the feedback may or may not work to motivate different behavior.

And so, in the BEabove team, we’ve started working with a model we call unpacking. As much as possible, we work together to “unpack” things Unpackingcollaboratively, rather than one person giving feedback to another. Using our model of the Seven Levels of Effectiveness, we look  both “above the line” and “below the line” to see what was present in the situation. To manage our own biases and completely avoid amygdala hijacks, we each own what we did to contribute (positive and negative), and commit to at least one thing we can see for ourselves that we need to do to improve in the future.

This non-blaming dialogue creates a powerful, open space for innovation and emotional intelligence. While we don’t require this in the model, we often end up asking each other about our blind spots and what we might be missing, from a true space of curiosity and desire to improve.

When we decide for ourselves where and how we want to improve, we activate areas of the brain that are not activated when we are told what to do. We stay connected to each other, and curious about what we can do to be more effective members of the team. And we’re motivated to make changes and to grow because we want to, not because someone else — with their own biases, opinions, and emotional reactions — wants us to.

Reference: Buckingham, M. (2011), ‘‘The fatal flaw with 360 surveys’’, Harvard Business Review, October.

What Does it Take to Change the Brain?

changesI’ve written about neuroplasticity here before a few times, but since it is a fascinating, complex topic (like everything about the brain, right?) I thought I’d share a few more thoughts about some of what we are learning helps or hinders our ability to change.

Neuroplasticity—Keys and Enhancers

Neuroplasticity is, simply put, the capacity of the brain to change throughout life. It can occur on a variety of levels, ranging from changes due to learning or growth, to large-scale changes in response to injury (see Norman Doidge’s entertaining The Brain that Changes Itself for more on the latter). While for most of the 20th century, general consensus among neuroscientists was that brain structure is relatively unchanging after early childhood, current understanding is that many aspects of the brain remain plastic—that is, changeable—even into adulthood.

And so,  we can (and do) change. But what does it take? And why do some people succeed at developing new habits where others fail miserably? Well, extensive research points to certain keys to neuroplasticity, without which it is more difficult (and sometimes impossible) for the brain to make neuroplastic changes. In addition to these keys, there are additional aspects which also assist with or enhance the process. In both cases, the more keys/aspects, the better.

Five Keys to Neuroplasticity*

The following five keys are necessary to the process of making new neural connections. The more one of more of these keys is compromised, the harder it will be for the brain to stay flexible, healthy and cognitively sharp, especially through aging and stress.

1. Exercise

Exercise improves blood flow and increases oxygen levels, which increase neuron growth. (The brain is only 2% of our body mass but it consumes 20% of our oxygen and nutrients.) Exercise also increases the volume of white and grey matter in the brain, by increasing brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF), which is necessary to neuronal growth. A minimum of 30 minutes three times a week is generally recommended, although shorter workouts of more intensity and longer with less are helpful as well.

2. Sleep

A healthy adults needs between 7-9 hours of sleep (Teens need 8.5 – 9.25 hours). During sleep our brain has the chance to integrate learning and also combs through information and decides what is needed and what is not. Neural impulses are literally reversed from our waking state, which serves to both clean out unneeded information and prime the cells for learning and memory in the future.

3. Food

The brain needs Omega-3s and vitamins from foods to create new neural pathways. It’s also critically important to stay away from foods and substances that inhibit neural growth and/or create inflammation. According to new research, aspartame and other artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, vegetable oils and many grains may all contribute to non-optimal brain states. Promising research finds coconut oil, berries, B vitamins (and much more) helping to build neural connections in the brain.

4. Novelty

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!

5. Focus and Attention

The close paying of attention (as in study, meditation and focused attention) increases neurotransmitters (such as BDNF, mentioned above in the Exercise section) responsible for creating new neural connections. In addition, many studies have linked meditation practice to differences in cortical thickness or density of gray matter.

Four Enhancers to Neuroplasticity

The following four enhancers are extremely helpful to the process of making new neural connections. The more we have of each, in combination with the five keys, the easier it is to learn, remember, and change.

 1. Relationships

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 creates fight or flight responses in the brain which inhibit learning. 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. Mistakes

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.

3. Humor/Play

Humor relaxes and bonds us, and is a wonderful ally in helping to overcome the brain’s strong negativity bias. Laughter has been shown to release oxytocin, which not only makes us feel more bonded and connected and trusting, it’s also a great anti-inflammatory agent. Good humor also often plays upon the unexpected, causing us to think in new ways (novelty). Similarly, 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.

4. Multi-Sensory Input

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.


*A huge thank-you to Dr. Daniel Siegel for first sharing the Five Keys to Neuroplasticity with me.

Coming soon: a complete bibliography of studies supporting these keys and enhancers. Stay tuned!


Some Thoughts About Consciousness and the Brain


Hello everyone! I am musing today about consciousness and the  brain. It’s a messy, imperfect attempt to get my head around something, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!

I posted on our sister site, BEabove Leadership, so just click this link and head on over:



Loving Our Clients, Being Loved by Our Clients

Happy Valentine’s Day 2013 from yourcoachingbrain. And it’s perfect timing, because today I want to talk about LOVE!! Love and science and coaching, of course.

When I think back on my twelve years as a professional coach, one of the things that stands out is the astonishing moments of StroluchKarenHeartsandStars_ManyHeartsBlueGreenintimacy I’ve experienced. The times clients have told me things they’ve never told anyone else before. The times they’ve cried, or faced their biggest demons, or finally stepped into their own greatness. What a privilege to hold all of that.

There is a poignancy to these memories as well. I know that for many of my clients our coaching relationship is more deeply honest and emotionally intimate than any other. In the container of coaching, they are able to be fully themselves like nowhere else in their lives. And interestingly, intimacy doesn’t seem to be something we’re getting much better at (at least here in the U.S.). According to the General Social Survey, in 1985 most Americans had three confidents in their lives. In 2004, the most common response was zero. I guess this might be good news for coaching, but not so great in terms of our development as humanity

While ideally we are helping our clients increase their overall capacity for emotional connection, there is often an particularly special and noteworthy energy in the relationship between coach and client. Like many of you, I’ve  know for years that this is simply the energy of love, no two ways about it. So I was thrilled when I saw Barbara Frederickson’s new book Love 2.0, How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do and Become, and her definition of love as “micro-moments of positivity response.” By this she means that love is something that occurs in connection with another person when a flood of positive emotions and biochemical responses are activated.

This response can happen with any other person at any point as long as there is connection. According to Frederickson, biologically, there are three key aspects to the “love system.” First, our mirror neurons for empathy, which enable us to “mirror” what another person is feeling as if we were feeling it ourselves. Secondly, the hormone oxytocin, which is released during moments of intimacy and enables us to trust and connect. And third, the vagus nerve, which  connects our heart and gut to our brain (see The Embodied Brain for more on the amazing vagus nerve) and allows us to experience love in some subtle and interesting ways. For example, the vagus nerve controls micro-movements of the face and eyes as well as the muscles of the throat which produce varied vocal tone (we’ll come back this last one). The vagus nerve is also a key player in emotional regulation, calming us down in the face of stress or perceived threat. While Frederickson has been criticized for reducing love to just this trifecta and not taking into full account ALL of the other biochemical responses, these micro-moments generated by her big three certainly are one powerful form of love, and well worth considering.

So much of the brain can be understood when we remember that we are programmed to be acutely aware of threats (see Shifting the Brain’s Negativity Bias for more on this). I find vocal tone particularly interesting as a coach, perhaps because many of us do our work over the phone. Vocal tone is one way animals (including humans) cue other animals that things are safe. We listen for something called “prosidy” or a sort of rich tonal variance. At its most extreme, think of a parent crooning to a baby — we  naturally go into a sort of sing-song tone when around babies or very small children. This tone is an evolutionarily programmed cue to the baby that it is safe. And although we generally don’t talk to each other in quite such a sing-song way, emotionally intelligent, connected people with good self-regulation tend to speak more melodically. This is one way we subconsciously know whether or not a person is trustworthy. A flat affect and droning tone may indicate a less-developed vagus nerve, which means that they cannot control their emotions as easily and thus literally are not as “safe” to be around. (This will generally not be in our conscious awareness, but we may find that we are simply not drawn to that person or for some reason don’t trust them.)

And so, what does this have to do with love, and loving our clients? As coaches, we learn to make people feel safe. Many of us even become masters of doing this over the phone, without any verbal cues (something many people would believe is almost impossible). Without even knowing we are doing so, through using our mirror neurons to feel their experience, through activating oxytocin by listening deeply and holding them in our hearts, and through our melodic vocal tone, we weave a net of security around our clients that they relax into, knowing all is well — at least in this moment with their coach. And this “micro-moment of positivity response” is one form of love that is as real as any other, and when it is activated in the client, it also often gets activated in the coach. And there you are, glowing with the privilege of coaching this amazing person, who is glowing with the extraordinary experience of feeling so very safe, and loved, and held.

The most wasted of all days is one without laughter

The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.

~e.e. cummings.

Most of us are aware that laughter is relaxing, and that humor makes the learning process much more fun. There’s social science research that students whose professors bring humor into the classroom have greater retention of the material, and those professors also tend to have far greater student engagement overall. (It’s interesting to note that in order for this to be the case, the humor must be relevant to the topic at hand. Just generally “being funny” doesn’t have the same impact.)

During my speaking engagements on neuroscience and coaching, I love to bring in humorous examples, cartoons and an overall sense of lightness. I do this because it’s both my personality to have fun no matter what I am doing, and because I know at times people can get intimidated by a topic requiring so many six-syllable words. (On that note, here’s my tip of the day: If you do nothing else, tell your Head tiltsclients you are engaging their brains in positive neuroplasticity during the coaching process. This will make their left hemispheres quite impressed with how smart you are, and you’ll be able to get away with almost anything.)

I also typically use a dose of appropriate humor in my coaching sessions, because I have found over the years that Bill Cosby was right when he said:

“Through humor, you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.”

Recently, however, I got curious about the impact of humor on our brain and biochemistry. I wanted to know where laughter can be found in the brain, and also why humor helps us shift things, reduce stress and even heal (The late Dr. Norman Cousins, who, among other things, was a researcher into the biochemistry of human emotions, credited laughter to helping him fight cancer. His regimen? Hours and hours of old Three Stooges movies).

The question of where laughter is located in the brain does not have a clear-cut answer, but it does seem to have something to do with activation of a certain area of the pre-frontal cortex, (PFC) the most highly developed part of our brains. This may help explain why laughter can help shift things so effectively and easily. When we activate our PFC we can actually begin to think and not Cerebral Cortex-Lizard Brain inboxsimply react. Laughter has also been shown to reduce biochemical markers of stress, specifically catecholamines and cortisol. It boosts the immune system and a good belly laugh will increase your heart rate and give you a bit of a work out!

Laughter is also a powerful social connector. According to a 2010 article by the Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute, “Laughter is thought to have predated human speech, perhaps by millions of years, and may have helped our early ancestors clarify intentions during social interactions. But as language began to evolve, laughter may also have provided an emotional context for conversations—a signal of acceptance.” Laughing with our clients creates bonding and trust. When we laugh with someone, we are evolutionarily primed to feel safe.

In looking at laughter from the perspective of consciousness as well as neuroscience, I have seen that those coaches who appear to calibrate at higher levels of awareness have an interesting ability to hold lightness and humor concurrent with seriousness and depth. The humor they bring is in the context of deep respect for the challenges their client is facing, and not intended to bring the client out of their experience. This is an important point — while making a joke of things might lighten the mood, the coach also needs to know when the client needs to be brought more deeply in to their experience.

Thus, like everything in coaching, even laughter isn’t the “right” answer, but it is a wonderful tool. And on that note, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite scientists–someone who definitely knew not to take himself too seriously.


Shifting the Brain’s Negativity Bias

As they say in Tibet, if you can take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves. We can turn good moments into a great brain.
~Rick Hanson

I recently had the delightful experience of listening to author and psychologist Rick Hanson (The Buddha’s Brain) on the NICABM brain science webinar. He spoke at length about the so-called “negativity bias” of the brain and what we can do to help our brains overcome it so we can be happier, less stressed, and more effective. His wisdom elegantly maps on to what we are trained to do as professional coaches. In fact, it is one area where it seems to me we are particularly well-equipped to help our clients make lasting, positive changes in their brains.

big_sabertoothWhat is a “Negativity Bias?” 

To put it quite simply, the brain is designed to remember negative things more easily than positive ones. Dr. Hanson puts it like this: for negative events, the brain is Velcro, for positive ones, Teflon. Our amygdala uses about two-thirds of its neurons scanning for threats (see The Whoosh for more on our friend the amygdala), and the memory of something hurtful or scary goes into our long-term memories with ease. This makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary biology perspective — that growling noise that preceded a saber-toothed tiger attack? Stuck into my cavewoman brain permanently. A bias towards negativity helps us stay alive and avoid threats.

In our ancestral days, this alertness wasn’t as much of a problem as it is today. We were designed for short bursts of “fight or flight” where we burn resources faster than we can refuel, and then long stretches relaxing and recovering from the stressful event. Unfortunately, in today’s world, we encounter far too many perceived threats (most of our fight or flight reactions in day to day life are unecessary) and have far too little recovery time. Thus, training our brain to be less attuned to the negative and more focused on the positive is a way to live a healthier, less stressful life.

Encoding Our Brains for Positivity

In order for a positive experience to make it into our long-term memory, we must hold it in our field of attention for at least 10-20 seconds. Otherwise, the experience simply slips away. Hanson says that when we do hold positive experiences in awareness for this period of time, we not only encode these experiences into long-term memory, we tune and sensitize our amygdala to focus less on the negative and more on the positive. And because the brain sees what it expects to see, what it is “primed for” (think of buying a new car — all of a sudden there are red Toyotas everywhere!), being more attuned to the positive means we actually see and experience more positive things in our lives.

The Impact of Coaching

According to Hanson, the process of encoding our brains for positivity, what he calls “taking in the good” (that 10-20 second focus on positive experiences), has three key steps or aspects:

1. NOTICE or CREATE a positive experience.
2. STAY WITH the experience, be with it.
3. ABSORB the positive experience. 

In coaching, we routinely help our clients do some or all of this. First, we often call to attention the good things that are happening in their lives. We ask them questions like “What are you proud of?” “What are you celebrating today?” and “What was good about that?” We help them find something worth honoring even in a difficult situation or one they are deeming a failure. And we help them create positive experiences for themselves. We encourage them to do things in alignment with their values, to reconnect with their joy, and to stop doing those things that are unrewarding or unduly stressful.

We also know how to put on the pause button when our clients are inclined to brush past something positive on their way to talking about a problem or issue. We say “Hold on a minute! We need to spend some time on that accomplishment before we go to looking at what’s wrong.” We ask them how it feels, really, to get the promotion or finish the project. We slow them down so they can actually relish their lives and “absorb” the experience.

Hanson also mentioned one other step or aspect:

4. Pair positive and negative experiences

Pairing is when you have the client hold both positive and negative aspects of a situation in mind at the same time, or go back and forth quickly. This, he says, helps the positive infuse into the negative neural networks and thus create very powerful changes. I think as coaches we do this when we are helping our clients look at things from multiple perspectives (at CTI we call this Balance Coaching) or go deep into an experience (what we call Process Coaching). Process coaching often starts with some difficult situation the client is having trouble facing, and instead of trying to fix it or find a solution, the coach will take them “into” it by using body geography, metaphor, and other tools to keep the client present and aware of the emotions, sensations and wisdom therein. Usually, after some time spent being present to the negative aspects (being present is distinct from being overwhelmed or lost in the experience), the client will find and begin to explore positive aspects as well, in the process infusing them into the negative neural networks. At CTI, we have seen for many years that Process Coaching is extraordinarily effective at shifting places where the client is very stuck or challenged. (NOTE: Process coaching is also very useful for steps two and three above in terms of Staying With and Absorbing positive experiences.)

Coaching and Positivity

I think that in general coaches tend to have more of a positivity bias toward life — it’s what makes us so much fun to be around! It’s not that we are naive about risks or problems, it’s just that our whole profession is focused not on what’s wrong, but on what’s possible. Through the process of one to one coaching, we also gain so much evidence that people can and do create amazing things for themselves through effort and intention. And of course, as we help our clients focus on the positive for that crucial 10-20 seconds (or more), it means we are also focusing there, thus strengthening the positivity circuits in our own brains.

Isn’t coaching amazing?

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.