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The Brains behind Challenging Coaching

We are delighted this week to feature another guest blogger, Mac Farquhar. If you would like to blog on a theme related to Challenging Coaching then please get in touch. Here is Mac’s valuable insight  into the neuroscience of coaching. (Ian Day)

Having spent much of the past year taking an interest in the way the brain works, I was willingly pre-conditioned to want to explore the science behind the alchemy of coaching with the help of my “teachers”, Professors Richard Boyatzis (“Resonant Leadership”) and Paul Brown (“Neuroscience for Coaches”), and David Rock & Co at the Neuroleadership Institute.

A first line of enquiry was triggered by John and Ian’s assertion that executives are robust and thrive on challenge. Of course, they do. They have to. On the other hand, both Richard and Paul have shone a very bright and concerned light on the “chronic” and “intolerable” levels of stress that executives are working under these days. How far would this robustness apply in the personal development context? How much more vulnerable are these robust human beings when engaged in introspection, compared to the cut and thrust of business decision making?

neuroscience brain picture for blog


Like most forms of stress, too much challenge arouses the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s ability to react quickly and effectively to physical or emotional provocation. Under these conditions, defensiveness will prevail until the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for keeping the body functioning at basal levels, aids recovery from such excitement.

As a coach I need to be aware of when I am triggering what Richard Boyatzis describes as “negative emotional attractors (NEA)” which result in compliance, versus “positive emotional attractors (PEA)” which result in autonomy.  His research demonstrates clearly that sustained desired change tends to start in the PEA. And that to sustain learning or change efforts, it is likely that coaches would have to spend 3-6 times more time with clients in the PEA as the NEA. This is to compensate for negative emotions being stronger than positive.

The Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) state of mind is:

  • Being in Parasympathetic Nervous System arousal; feeling positive and hopeful; thinking about the future, dreams, and possibilities;
  • Being optimistic, focusing on one’s strengths;
  • Excited about trying something new, experimenting; and
  • Being in resonant relationships.

The Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA) state of mind is:

  • Being in Sympathetic Nervous System arousal; feeling negative and fear; thinking about the past or present, expectations of others and problems;
  • Being pessimistic, focusing on one’s weaknesses;
  • Feeling obligated to things you “should” or are “expected by others” to do, like a performance improvement plan;
  • Being in dissonant relationships.

So far, so good. But how would I become practised in this?  I learned from my interest in “brain-friendly coaching” that when I am engaged in a developmental discussion, a focus on what needs to be fixed, and overcoming weaknesses and “gaps” that the discussion only cements their defensiveness and potential to discount any benefit of the coaching. While it may invoke compliance-oriented behaviour, any positive effect of such activities or desire for improvement will probably be short lived.

John and Ian talk about the importance of encouraging clients to dream of the possibilities in their life and work, to reflect on their core values, their passion, and their desired legacy. I appreciate this more by knowing that it works so consistently well because it arouses the Positive Emotional Attractor. Also, the experience of compassion in the relationship with a coach – i.e. empathy or understanding the feelings of others; caring for the other person; and willingness to act in response to the person’s feelings – also invokes the PEA and its benefits. With it come new levels of cognitive, perceptual and emotional performance, as well as openness, and a healthier, more sustainable state with which to face the challenges of the future and adapt to them.

The essential proposition of brain-based coaching is that nothing happens in a coaching session without the brain’s chemistry being the controller of what is happening. It is the coach’s job to create the conditions which facilitate the change in the client’s brain functions required by the coaching contract. And as coaches, knowing what the chemicals are that we are trying to effect in both ourselves and our clients will have a beneficial effect upon the outcome.

It follows that the more as coaches we can observe behaviour and have in mind the main neurochemicals and their specific effects, the more we will see them operating in our clients, and the more clues we will have as to what is happening. As we begin to build up our awareness of the minutiae of the way behaviours are the outward and observable effects of these neurochemicals being produced, so we may become increasingly sensitive to the inner world of our clients that we  are setting out to change or develop.

High Challenge:

Do you believe that there is mileage in executive coaches becoming knowledgeable about neuroscience? If so, are you ready to dip your toe in the neuroscience pool of coaching? Perhaps you are already swimming along beautifully in there?

High Support:

By way of encouragement, I’d like to pass on to you that Richard Boyatzis is repeating his free 8-week online masters course “Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence” starting October 28th, details at www.coursera.org; Paul Brown’s book “Neuropsychology for Coaches” is published by Open University Press and he is running the “Science of the Art of Coaching” a year-long applied neuroscience for coaches programme with the Association for Coaching (sadly, however, you will have to wait for the next one as the latest programme started last month!); and the Neuroleadership Institute’s website is neuroleadership.com

Mac Farquhar is an Edinburgh-based certified management consultant and qualified emotional intelligence coach who specialises in executive leadership and team development.  You can contact Mac via his website at www.ablepeople.co.uk

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