Brain-based Coaching Part 2

(c) Orson |

In an earlier post, "What's all the fuss about brain-based coaching," I presented the case for a neuroscience-based approach to coaching (workplace, executive, business--any type of coaching). I also mentioned a foundational idea that guides our brain-based approach: the brain's primary organizing principle to minimize danger and maximize reward.

Still wondering about its value? Hopefully, this blog will give you additional food for thought.

I'm confident about the need for brain-based coaching given the hundreds of active coaches who have attended programs I've delivered who were looking for something more than the coach training they had already completed. Most (you can't win them all, can you?) came away with something valuable if not a transformational shift in their coaching.

Even my facilitation style has evolved and is now grounded in a brain-based coaching approach. I feel my role when delivering a workshop is to be a "facilitator of insight," rather than a platform trainer who "guides" participants to the "correct answer" through more (what I'd call) leading questions. I didn't mean to step on any toes there; it's my journey talking.

Brain-based coaching is a lot about "high intent with low attachment," which is easier said than done. Our inclination is to solve someone else's problem with OUR idea doesn't go away. You still haves ideas and you still want to SHARE them. A brain-based coach simply gets better at "gating" that reaction. With experience, a brain-based coach starts to realize that clients really DO like their own ideas best and the coach's suggestion is often more interesting to the coach than to the client.

That's NOT to say executives and businesspeople don't want you to bring some experience or know-how to the table. They do! For a brain-based coach, however, it's about determining whether in a coaching conversation or session there is a NEED to share or suggest AND, if so, when and HOW to share. A brain-based coach will also be more explicit about what "role" they are adopting with a client given the situation, its context, and the client's stated and unstated needs. I'll often refer to switching hats in a conversation, e.g., "Would you like me to take off my coaching hat and put on my consulting hat?"

"I already do all of that," a coach might say.

Watching hundreds of coaches in action in programs and as a mentor coach or coaching client tells me otherwise. Even newer brain-based coaches need some "seasoning" time. How much? About 6 to 12 months from my observations. We all know it takes time to form new habits and brain-based coaching goes against the grain of our normal human inclinations. I often refer to brain-based coaching as a "delayed gratification" style of coaching. For those of you who LOVE being "the expert" or "the answer person" or "Mr./Ms./Mrs. Fix-it," you will not like being a brain-based coach UNLESS you reframe that preference. The shift is moving from being a "content" expert to becoming a "process" expert. You develop an expertise in your coaching process and let your clients remain the expert on their: situation, business, people, challenges, issues, goals, preferences...

"So what is my value as a brain-based coach," you might ask.

You offer tremendous value as a brain-based coach. You honor your client's brain by understanding its limitations. You help them overcome the "rush to action" by slowing them down and giving them space to look at things differently, while keeping an eye on the high level cognitively irritating or expensive things. You can help them come up with new ideas by speeding up the brain's "insight" mechanism. You know which brain networks are triggered or required in different coaching scenarios and how to strengthen the more valuable networks. Put simply, you work with your client's brain instead of against it. And that's not as simple as it sounds.

If you have questions about brain-based coaching or want to improve your leadership, management, teaching or coaching approach, contact us at

What influences your decisions?

If you were to look back on a recent decision that you made, a decision that maybe didn't turn out the way you had hoped, how clear are you about why things turned out the way they did?

I recently had to deal with a decision gone really wrong. As I reflected on the thought process that lead me to make the decision, I have to admit, I wasn’t at my best.

I didn't think through the decision well enough and I allowed my decision to be influenced by the stresses around me.  That poor decision placed unnecessary stress on my team and on our focus. That created a domino effect that led to events that could have been avoided.

As I reflect back on the moments leading up to the decision, I now better understand what influenced my decision.  A big piece of that landscape is the implicit or hidden biases we hold. The truth is, those same influences (and biases) that effected my decision-making haven't gone away. They can continue to influence my thought process if I don't pay more conscious attention to them. Whether and how I bring self-awareness to those influences is up to me. The good news is, we can strengthen our mental circuitry for awareness. We can also reduce the effect of these hidden biases.

To better understand what to do about the hidden biases that can influence our day-to-day decisions, stay tuned for our next neuroscience-based blog from Paul McGinniss, our Program Director and Master Facilitator.

To learn how to overcome the hidden biases that can negatively impact your critical projects, join our January 2016 webinar "Set Your Projects Up for Success."

To "give the gift of coaching that gives the gift of learning," please support our #CoachingforGood campaign.

Grab the wheel from your emotional brain.

In our last post, Laurie wrote about the nature of emotion and how our brain can quickly (and easily) take over a situation and derail us. Even the emotional state of others can impact us, especially those in our "in-group."

What does any of this have to do with steering wheels and driving?

As humans, we are predisposed to live, to survive. In order to do that, the brain has evolved in such a way that when (real or perceived) threats are detected, it gets our brain's attention. Easily and quickly. And when it does, it engages our limbic system. The limbic system is a powerful and primeval brain region (heavily linked to emotion, memory and learning) and it quickly shifts gears in the brain from a cognitive proactive place, where we are at the wheel, to an unconscious reactive place, where we switch to autopilot mode. It also marshals resources from and prepares the body to fight or flee the (real or perceived) danger.

While this may be great for survival in the face of real dangers, it's not always an optimal choice in response to perceived dangers. To our brain, however, many "less than significant" threats can seem like life or death situations. And the shifting process happens in milliseconds. If we don't notice the shift and are not able to control the shift, we are quickly at the mercy of an "emotional" brain (and by emotional, we are referring primarily to a limbic state of mind). This is linked to Evian Gordon's Brain 1-2-4 Model (see Link 1). The "1" is the brain's core organizing principle (minimize danger & maximize reward), the "2" is the two primary modes of brain function (conscious and nonconscious or automatic), and the "4" refers to four key brain processes: emotion, feeling, thinking, and self-regulation. Emotion happens at an unconscious level, feeling is the conscious experience of emotion, thinking is our conscious cognitive processing and self-regulation is a way of directing or controlling our consciousness.

So what do we do about this?

As mentioned above, we work with the brain's ability to change itself by growing our ability to notice and control these shifts. Like it or not, this starts with your mindfulness muscles. For some leaders, the word mindfulness sounds squishy or weak or froo froo. Maybe so. But mindfulness, simply put, means noticing.

Noticing what?


While we have this capacity, our brain is easily distracted (looking out for and responding to threats), which is why it is not a strong network. By developing a simple mindfulness practice, you can begin to strengthen this network. A strong mindfulness network has significant positive implications (See Link 2, 3, 4).

But noticing is not enough. We have to DO something about what we notice. We have to control (think self-regulation) the shifting energy in our brain/body. This is where strengthening our brain's "braking system" comes into play. The braking system is related to the (right) ventrolateral prefrontal cortex or RVLPFC (see Link 5). The braking system is what is activated when we are exercising self-control. Not checking email every 2 minutes, walking by the ice cream store, getting out of bed rather then hitting the snooze button--these all involve our braking system. And when we strengthen our braking system, we can apply our brakes more quickly and stop ourselves from going from a conscious to a nonconscious mode. This allows us to make more informed decisions in the face of emotional situations.

It seems this is ever-more needed in the face of today's current events. There are a multitude of issues playing out nationally and on the world stage that are emotional powder kegs. Making decisions (can anyone say "creating policy") from an emotional (limbic) place can be lead to just as scary a place as what triggered the emotion in the first place.

So when emotions start to run high, notice the shift quickly (be mindful), apply your brakes (self-control), and take a more thoughtful approach to keep moving forward.

After all, you--not your brain--have eyes and belong in the driver's seat.

If you want to learn more about how to achieve these results, contact us at


1. "Brain 1-2-4 Model," Evian Gordon

2. "The Mindful Brain and Emotion Regulation in Mood Disorders," Farb, Anderson, Segal

3. "Mindfulness meditation training alters cortical representations of interoceptive attention," Farb, Segal, Anderson

4. "Minding One’s Emotions: Mindfulness Training Alters the Neural Expression of Sadness," Farb et al

5. "The brain's braking system," Matthew D. Lieberman