Book Summary: Neuroscience for Coaches – How to Use the Latest Insights for the Benefit of Your Clients by Amy Brann

Author and coach Amy Brann explain insights from neuroscience that can help coaches understand how to guide their clients more effectively. She emphasizes what you can do now to think smarter.

Neuroscience for Coaches by Amy Brann
Neuroscience for Coaches by Amy Brann

In this summary, you will learn:

  • Coaching helps people transform themselves and reach their goals.
  • New advances in neuroscience can assist coaches in helping people.
  • Different areas of the brain engage in different functions.
  • How coaches can apply neuroscience to traditional coaching challenges,

Take-Aways

  • Coaching helps people transform themselves and reach their goals.
  • New advances in neuroscience can assist coaches in helping people.
  • Different areas of the brain engage in different functions.
  • Brain chemicals – neurotransmitters and hormones – are responsible for transmitting signals and determining mental and physical function.
  • Distinct systems in the brain group themselves by function and somewhat by location.
  • Coaches can apply neuroscience to traditional coaching challenges, like helping clients set goals, change old habits, make better decisions and become more optimistic.
  • The brain has neuroplasticity; it grows and changes in response to experience.
  • Stress negatively affects many brain systems and functions. Distraction and “cognitive load” also can diminish brain effectiveness.
  • Coaches can use choice architecture to influence clients’ decision making by setting up specific stimulus-response routines.
  • Training in mindfulness, meditating, removing distractions and taking better care of your health will improve your performance.

Summary

Coaching and Neuroscience

Business or life coaches help people become their best. Understanding brain behavior can help them guide people more effectively. The behaviors that coaches work to change rest on a neurological structure, so coaches must understand the basics of neuroscience. The field advances rapidly, generating new data and understanding, such as insights into human neuroplasticity – how the brain changes in response to a person’s experiences. Neuroscience offers coaches a fresh picture of what happens as they do their work with those they coach.

Brain Regions, Models and Networks

The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s “CEO” – responsible for reason, judgment and impulse control. It is important for planning, making decisions, aligning behavior with social norms, and aligning thoughts and actions with goals. It consumes a lot of energy, tires out quickly and doesn’t work well under stress. To help the prefrontal cortex function strongly, choose behaviors that increase focus, like prioritizing and eliminating distractions. Similarly, different areas of the brain are relevant in coaching about various behaviors.

“From the perspective of coaches, neuroscience is the field that can inform them on important things about the brain.”

The insular cortex, which connects to the amygdala, plays major roles in emotion, perception, thought and social interaction. People who meditate develop a thicker right anterior insula. The amygdala prioritizes emotions and gives more weight to important emotions like fear. Ongoing stress also produces physical changes in the amygdala. The hippocampus transforms short-term memories into long-term memories. To improve memory, decrease your stress, exercise more and navigate by memory rather than with electronic aids. The hypothalamus moderates metabolic processes, most notably controlling food intake. People benefit from knowing the brain’s role in hunger and the limits to willpower.

Neuroscience shows coaches “things that are key to new ways that you work with clients and also that underpin things you are already familiar with.”

Those who follow patterns that don’t work for them, such as eating impulsively, can implement new patterns. Organizations can find ways to support healthy lifestyles, such as offering a scoreboard so people can track their performance of desired behaviors.

Neurons and Synapses

The brain is made up of neurons and synapses. Signals travel along neurons, reach an end and jump the synapse to the next neuron. Memory formation occurs at the neuron level. Mirror neurons fire when people observe others doing an action. Neuroplasticity means the brain can change. Other parts of the brain take over for lost portions to restore function. The brain regularly develops new patterns and removes old ones. Experiences change the brain, and new experiences can change it in new directions. “Working memory” refers to how people hold “small chunks of information” in the front of their minds. It involves information recall, executive function, and attention. Breaking complex tasks into identifiable components, or “chunking,” helps working memory, as does suppressing irrelevant data. Coaches can help clients evaluate their ability to focus on important data, suppress unneeded information and eliminate clutter. Stress impairs memory; exercise improves it. Adrenaline engages the emotions and forms stronger memories of emotionally important events.

Brain Chemicals

“A range of chemicals… affect the brain.” Hormones affect brain and body functions; neurotransmitters transmit signals from one neuron to another. These chemicals include:

  • Cortisol: The body releases cortisol in response to stress. Cortisol triggers the fight-or-flight response, driving energy and blood pressure up and pain response down. Caffeine consumption and lack of sleep drive cortisol production. This hormone “has important actions within the body and on processes linked to the brain.”
  • Dopamine: When people do something they enjoy, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter. When their efforts fail, dopamine neurons drop. High levels of dopamine nudge people to choose immediate rewards over long-term payoffs. The brain’s striatum passes signals between the cerebral cortex and the basal ganglia. One part of the ventral striatum – the nucleus accumbens (NA) – releases dopamine in response to specific cues. Appeal to clients’ NA by praising them, giving rewards at irregular intervals and helping them visualize reaching specific goals. Unhealthy diets depress dopamine. Good diets and exercise elevate it, as does focusing on smaller goals that align with larger goals. Coaches can guide their clients to switch their thoughts away from unhelpful topics.
  • Glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA): These are the “king and queen of neurotransmitters.” Glutamate is essential for learning, and stress affects it negatively.
  • Oxytocin: The pituitary gland releases the neurotransmitter oxytocin, which reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels, stimulates positive social relationships, and works against anxiety and pain. Oxytocin helps people pay closer attention to “social information.” People can raise their oxytocin levels by sharing a meal or giving a gift. Meditation, especially meditation focusing on “loving-kindness,” can be useful.
  • Serotonin: Elevated levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin play a role in happiness; people with low levels of serotonin feel anxious and sad.

Coaching

To succeed, people need to develop self-control. Studies show that mindset plays a major role in willpower. The condition of the physical body also affects willpower. Coaches can help clients develop their willpower through conscious practice. They can guide their clients to distract themselves, change how they view a situation and take better care of their bodies. Reducing a client’s “cognitive load” through strategies like guiding them to keep a to-do list also can help.

“Your clients’ ability to control themselves is key to their success.”

Much of what people do is habitual. They may seek coaching when their habits no longer serve them well. People are likely to revert to habitual actions under stress and should plan alternatives. When you intervene to help clients change their habits, ask them to verbalize how negative habits harm them. Have clients design more positive habits and identify and practice small steps to develop them. Remind clients of the brain’s plasticity, and train them to rewire it.

Attitudes About the Future

The way people view the future helps determine that future. Optimistic people have greater persistence, focus longer on challenges and work longer to solve them than non-optimists. Optimists experience less stress and recover from setbacks more quickly. Yet optimism can lead people to take more risks. Coaches should guide clients to review their attitudes and to identify the moments and areas in which they stay optimistic, become pessimistic or embrace unrealistic notions. Meditation can help people release their pessimism. Training clients to anticipate positive futures can build their optimism, as can practicing gratitude daily.

Optimism and Goals

People need to build a sense of optimism about their goals. Failing to reach goals can harm people’s mind-sets. Repeatedly reaching their objectives can help make goal completion a habit. Coaches can help clients achieve their goals. Start by having them visualize their goals and associate a positive outcome with attaining them. Help clients set realistic goals, so they won’t discourage themselves by reaching for too much. As they set goals, spell out the reason for each goal and how they will reach it. These steps activate crucial areas of the brain. Research on “goal maintenance” shows that depending completely on internal cues is seldom as effective as creating and heeding external reminders. Have your clients build positive associations to make it easy and pleasant for them to pursue their goals. Motivation is essential for people to achieve their goals. This motivation can be short term – people act for an immediate reward – or it can call upon more complex, longer-term drives. Autonomy, mastery and purpose motivate people, so coaches should guide clients to review what matters to them, which gives them power, which improves their existing skills and what grants them fulfillment.

Memory and Decisions

People access their memories when making decisions and when they must integrate their values, emotions and rational processing into their decision making. Both consciously and subconsciously, people gather information to help them make decisions. The process of collecting this information engages multiple areas of the brain: The frontal cortex processes reasoning, while the anterior cingulate determines socially appropriate behavior. To help clients make better decisions, have them reverse engineer previous decisions to identify patterns and processes. Guide them to integrate their emotions into this process and to consider how their decisions looked when originally made and how they look now in light of their ultimate outcomes.

Mindfulness

When people meet their expectations, they experience a pleasure. When they don’t fulfill their expectations, they feel disappointed and anxious. Expectations involve the brain’s reward system. Have your clients review what they expect and how their expectations function. Make sure they include rewards in their plans and encourage them to evaluate their expectations to make sure they are realistic. Practicing mindfulness can help people manage their expectations. Mindfulness also can alleviate stress and depression and can improve immune responses. Though many people associate mindfulness with spiritual traditions, anyone can benefit from practices like meditation and from the increased self-awareness they generate. Regular meditation assists people in regulating their emotions, and it increases their empathy and focus.

Flow

When people say they are “in the zone,” they refer to the level of performance known as “flow.” External rewards don’t motivate them. They find that the activity they’re doing is a reward in itself. Coaches can support flow by guiding clients to track their state of mind so they can identify when they do and don’t experience flow. Focusing on flow helps clients review and strengthen their beliefs about “self-efficacy.”

“Choice Architecture”

“Choice architecture is the process of affecting outcomes by influencing decisions.” It offers a variety of tools, such as “priming” and “nudging,” that can bypass people’s conscious minds. Coaches can use these tools to shape situations. They can influence clients’ decision making by setting up specific stimulus-response routines and working with the factors that influence how clients make decisions. For instance, a coach can say certain things or strategically post-physical reminders where people are likely to be influenced. Coaches can make their clients aware of how nudging works, help them analyze the nudges already active in their lives and show them how to establish new nudges deliberately to guide their behavior.

Trust

Trust reduces the activity level in the amygdala. When people trust, they secrete oxytocin, strengthening the hormonal bonds between people. Cooperation triggers the brain’s reward system. Coaches should help clients review their perceptions of trust to establish how trustworthy they consider themselves to be. Coaches can show clients how to demonstrate trustworthiness. When people interact, their anterior cingulate cortex becomes active as it compares what a person expected with what happened. When people experience unfairness, their insula activates. When people perceive a situation as unfair – for example, in negotiations – their productivity drops and their perceptions shape how they act. Coaches should guide clients to be fair in their actions, such as when negotiating, and can help them show that they are fair. Transparency increases perceived fairness, as does regular and clear communication.

Loneliness

Being lonely can affect all aspects of someone’s life. Relationships deteriorate, work suffers and people become less healthy. Chronically lonely people experience elevated cortical levels. Their lives become more stressful. Coaches can teach clients to approach loneliness from different perspectives – for example, examining the personal meaning of loneliness, reviewing the factors that contribute to it, changing their behavior and learning to become more socially perceptive.

About the Author

Consultant and frequent public speaker Amy Brann wrote Engaged and Make Your Brain Work. She has worked worldwide and is an experienced coach with the UK firm Synaptic Potential.

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