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Neuroscience Tools Coaches Can Start Using Today

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Neuroscience Tools Coaches Can Start Using Today
By Vanita Bellen
Posted: 2017-10-25T20:22:00Z

Contemporary neuroscience research has verified that the brain never stops changing, creating neural pathways (neuroplasticity) in response to new experiences and information. Coaches have intuitively understood this phenomenon, leveraging clients’ abilities for self-directed change by empowering them with transformative tools. So, while the field of neuroscience continues to evolve coaches can easily begin to incorporate these simple neuroscience tools into their practice now:

  1. SCARF: Constructively Using Threats and Incentives

    David Rock, director of the Neuroleadership Institute, explains that people experience, to varying degrees, five domains of threats and incentives when faced with change. These are Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. Through skilled inquiry, coaches can help clients quickly zero in on which domain is at play and then rapidly begin the process of designing strategies to mitigate the potential threat or amplify positive implications. Check out for Rock’s easy to use SCARF assessment. 


  2. Affect Labeling: Naming Emotions

    Brain activation studies show that an aroused limbic system can be calmed simply by a person naming the emotion they are feeling.  Called Affect Labeling, the idea is to draw the emotion closer by feeling it, identifying it and putting a label on it. This quick and effective three step process engages the brain’s reasoning centers and reduces amygdala activity. Coaches can invoke this response by asking questions such as, “how are you feeling right now?” or “what emotions have you felt today/in the last several days?” Clients can also do this themselves, quickly tapping into their affect labeling skills and decreasing emotional arousal on their own.


  3. Imagery Came First – Then Language

    The human brain’s visual processes developed thousands of years before verbal processes. Through imagery, the brain can literally hold millions of pieces of information and since the energy hungry brain constantly looks for ways to conserve energy, visuals are highly efficient methods for processing information. Coaches can use visuals to explain concepts and to engage clients in problem solving.  I use the Center for Creative Leadership’s Visual Explorer cards to help with reflection and self-expression and I’ve developed a deck of coaching cards that have cartoon like images accompanied by a reflective question to use when a client is stuck or just to kick off our session. 


  4. Powerful Coaching Questions to Chunk It Up; Chunk It Down

    ‘Chunking up’ refers to moving from specific pieces of information, or small-scale ideas, to larger ones.  ‘Chunking down’ means going the other way. Neurolinguistic programming (NLP) teaches that narrowing and broadening information forces the brain to be more flexible. Coaches can nurture flexible thinking in their clients by asking questions such as: what is this an example of, and what is the intention, when chunking up. When a chunking down, coaches can ask questions like: what is an example of this and what is this a part of?


  5. Use of the Default Network for Activating Imagination

    Through neuroscience research we have learned that our brain never rests. Even when our minds wander or we daydream, our brains are as active as when we are focused on a task and in fact, brain activity can actually  increase in some regions during this time. This is known as the default mode network and it is unique to humans, giving us the ability to imagine. When it is activated this system has been associated with peaks in creativity and insight. Coaches can evoke a client’s default mode network by building in unfocused time within the coaching session, creating physical spaces that are soothing and free from distraction, and lead clients into a mindful state. David Rock suggest that coaches ask clients to focus lightly on an issue or problem, and describe it in the simplest terms with few details.  Then, guide the client to reflect on the thought process they are using to solve the problem, not the thought content itself. Rock’s studies have shown 75 percent of people will have some level of insight within a short time after using this approach. 

 You may find yourself thinking that these are not new techniques and I wholeheartedly agree with you. What may be different, however, is the lens through which you consider your clients’ beliefs, actions and feelings. More importantly, I hope that you will see ways to adapt your coaching practices to purposefully tap into the power of the brain, both your own and your client’s, to facilitate sustainable change.  

Vanita Bellen, PCC
Principal, True North Coaching and Facilitation

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