5 Ways Using Neuroscience Improves Coaching


While there are critics of neuroscience and its interpretations who worry about the “culture’s obsession with the brain and how we have elevated the vital organ into cultish status, mythologizing its functions and romanticizing the promise of its scientific study,” there is unquestionably a place for neuroscience in the coaching relationship.

In  full disclosure I am a coach and organizational development consultant and not a neuroscientist, but I have a passion for social neuroscience. And I’m well informed about the most recent research – so much so, that it has become an integral part of my coaching and consulting practice.

On a purely practical level I’ve found that every coaching experience can benefit from learning and integrating some key principles from the growing field of neuroscience.   Perhaps one of the greatest “revelations” for many coaching clients is the understanding that they can shift their thoughts and feelings and change behavior.

The discovery of neuro-plasticity – the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience – is a “game-changer” in the understanding of human dynamics.  Up until the 1960’s researchers believed that changes in the brain primarily took place in infancy and childhood. Most of us grew up believing (and many still do) that by early adulthood, the brain’s structure was fixed.  Research in the past two decades has shown that while our adolescent brain takes shape until age 24, the brain continues to create new neural pathways and alter existing ones in response to new experience throughout our life span!

Coaching  provides an opportunity and context for change. New learning and experiences create new neural networks. Using neuroscience as one part of a coaching practice expands the context.  Changes can become more potent (emotionally relevant) through the coaching process and as a result are more likely to be retained.

Learning about the structure of the brain can enrich the learning context.  It creates a “container” for holding on to the learning that emerges during the coaching relationship.  Using the framework of neuroscience does not mean that the coaching experience becomes simply an intellectual exercise – quite the opposite

For people, particularly those in a business context, who are reluctant to delve into what they believe is psychological or emotional territory – working with the concepts of neuroscience can help them to understand that the brain is a unified system – cognitive and emotional.  Beginning to  understand our  own “operating system” from a factual, scientific perspective can de-mystify our internal life and can make behavioral change seem more accessible.

Another interesting by-product of using neuroscience in the coaching process – from a cross-cultural, diversity perspective – is that the language of neuroscience knows no boundaries because the language of the brain is universal.

5 Ways Neuroscience Can Lead to More Successful Coaching Outcomes

  1. Knowledge Lessens Threat.  Using the language of brain science can be a powerful way for clients to understand their unproductive behaviors without “personalizing” the explanation. As a result of modern research we have a greater understanding of how the threat/reward process of the average brain responds to stimuli. Working with a model developed from this information, SCARF (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, Fairness) can provide the coach/mentor/manager with broad guidelines to potentially lessen negative responses to feedback and inquiry. Let’s take as an example the case of a manager dealing with an employee who is experienced as behaving aggressively – using the language of neuroscience  the behavior could be explained in terms of limbic arousal and its role in triggering emotional responses  and resultant behavior.
  2. Emotions are Essential for Decision-Making.  Neuroscience is helping us dispel long-held beliefs that intellect alone is responsible – and desirable, for effective decision-making. Mainstream thinking is fueled by the belief that emotions are soft and intrusive in the decision-making process. Understanding that electrical impulses traveling through emotional centers in the brain “evaluate” emotional data necessary for correct decisions, can help people breakthrough the belief that “there is no place for emotions in decision-making.”  Although the role of emotions in cognitive decision-making is complex, and “Decision Science” is relatively young, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a significant discovery that changed scientific assumptions about decision-making.  Studying people who had suffered injuries to the ventromedial frontal cortex, which processes feelings of empathy, shame, compassion and guilt, Damasio found they experienced a diminished capacity to feel these social emotions. As a result, those patients, whose logical reasoning was left intact, were unable to make even simple decisions.
  3. You’re Hard Wired for Change.   How do coaches increase the commitment of a client or employee to a new plan of action in the face of old habits? For example, a client who has successful outcomes in the past feels compelled to engage the same behaviors, even though circumstances have changed and the old behaviors are no longer viable. Using the language of neuro-plasticity, understanding that we are hard-wired for change, can be a freeing and  inspiring experience. Studies prove that while the brain likes reliable patterns, it also craves diversity.
  4. It’s Your Amygdala Speaking.   Anxiety is the result of amygdala activation; it impacts thinking, short-term memory, risk benefit assessment and  the focus of our attention.  Whether we’re reacting to stimulus from the outside or we are triggering ourselves emotionally, we can develop greater control in how we respond.  Coaching clients who often grapple with  conflicts  of interest  (often reflecting  internal value conflicts) can begin to self-manage  more effectively by understanding how they are using their thinking to activate amygdala arousal.
  5. To the Brain, Me is We.  Modern research has shifted the belief that brains act alone. The biggest news from social neuroscience could be that the brain is wired to connect with others “so strongly that it experiences what they experience as if it is happening to them.”   It’s important for those we coach or mentor to understand their behavioral outcomes have a relational context. We aren’t lone wolves acting in isolation but social beings whose experiences and choices have social implications and limitations.

News from neuroscience is changing the way we understand human dynamics. The information is compelling and has universal applications. You don’t need to get a degree in brain science to learn the basic, practical principles that can change the way you view motivation and behavioral change. It can and will make you a better coach, mentor, teacher, manager, parent, friend, partner. And you’ll learn a lot about yourself in the process!


Thanks for reading. 

George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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