Coaching with the brain in mind

According to David Rock and Linda J. Page, “Setting goals, making connections, becoming more aware, seeking breakthroughs and taking action — the ‘stuff’ of coaching — parallel what neuroscientists tell us about how the brain operates.”

The above statement by David and Linda put paid the idea that the study of the brain has become of increasing interest and importance to the field of human evolution and development. As such, it has become imperative for coaches to understand how the brain works so we can develop our coaching to align with how the human brain naturally functions. As is often the case, most people come to coaches to create change and ultimately to transform the way they think, behave, perform, interact with others and approach their work and lives. In order to be effective in the endeavour of transforming people’s lives at work and outside, we need to understand how the brain supports change and transformation.

The study of neuroscience shows us that transformative, lasting change is harder than we think. Consider the major changes you and your coachees have attempted and how many have failed. Research on change management in corporate organisation has revealed that 90% of change initiatives in organisations fail because leaders focus on the wrong things and do not understand what it really takes for people to change their behaviour and beliefs. Information and motivation are not enough to inspire people to change. Transformation, whether of an individual or organisational level, requires on-going focused attention on new possibilities and new behaviours – not on the problem – and real commitment and effort over time.

Why is change so difficult

Natuarally, when our brain detects changes in the environment it sends out strong signals that something is not right. These signals come from the orbital cortex – which is closely connected to the brain’s fear circuitry in the amygdala. These signals distract us from our focus on making a change and instead reinforce our commitment to keeping things the way they are. One of the most important benefits coaching offers is the focus it provides for the coachee to concentrate on what they truly want and build the will to push past the brain’s anti-change signals.

What is required for change to be successful?

According to Jeffrey Schwartz, a neuroscientist and author, the key to making real change in the brain and in our lives is ‘attention density’, defined as how much attention we pay to something. When we want to make a transformational shift, we need a high level of attention density focused on the new idea, behaviour or possibility we want to move towards. “Where you focus your attention, you make connections. Focus your attention on something new, and you make new connections.” (From the article ‘A Brain-based Approach to Coaching’ by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz.) With enough attention density our thoughts and new behaviours can become a part of who we are and impact how we perceive and interact with the world.

As coaches our task is to help people increase their attention density through powerful questions, exploring the coachee’s insights, creating opportunities to reflect, asking for commitments and holding coachees accountable.

How the brain functions

Study has shown that the pre-frontal cortex holds the ‘executive function’ of the brain, which means, among other things, it determines good and bad, predicts future consequences or current actions and works towards goals. This is where change initiates. The pre-frontal cortex is used for learning new activities and houses our working memory. It has limited resources and tires easily and is able to hold a limited number of ideas at one time. The basal ganglia is considered the brain’s automatic pilot because it handles voluntary movement control and routine behaviours and habits. It works without conscious thought during these routine activities. Because the working memory in the pre-frontal cortex fatigues easily we push as many activities to the basal ganglia as possible. Once these habits and routines have settled in this part of the brain it’s hard to change them.

Implications for coaching

Much of what people do at work is hard wired and is handled by the basal ganglia. We are unaware of the many habits we have in interacting with people, running meetings, communicating and all the other activities in our daily routines. True transformation requires forging new circuits in the brain, which uses the pre-frontal cortex. This process goes slowly and requires intense effort and attention because you are literally carving new pathways in the brain.

The coach and his coachee must be persistent and patient for the transformative process to work.

Challenges coaches face

One of the biggest challenges coaches have when they first begin is to resist problem-solving and offering advice. Neuroscience shows that these two habits work against the coachee transforming. In fact, focussing on the problem actually emphasises and expands the problem in the individual’s mind, where as putting attention on a future vision where the problem is solved or has dissipated helps create solutions. There is also evidence that when people arrive at their own insights their brain makes multiple connections that gives them a rush of energy that not only uplifts them, but gives them the motivation to take action on their insight.

Coaching helps the coachee give focussed attention to their insights and to possibilities. Where your coachee puts their attention creates connections in their brain and this increases the mental resources.

This provides more energy to resist homeostasis and supports their long-term transformation.

Robert Mandeya is an executive leadership coach, trainer in human capital development and corporate education, a certified leadership and professional development practitioner and founder of the Institute of Leadership, Research and Development (LiRD). Contact: