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 intimacy 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.