Traditionally, organizational members are coached for compliance to meet pre-determined goals. Neuroscience research is upending that approach, leading to coaching with compassion to inspire.
By Ingrid Johnson
Neuroscientists are gaining a much better understanding of how the brain responds to stimuli. In the 1990s, fMRI enabled them to detect changes in the brain's blood flow in response to neural activities. Research on neuron mapping continue, but it is now known that there are two major categories of responses.
The limbic system is the most primitive structure and quickly responds in an unconscious manner to stimuli. The frontal lobes are more advanced and enable people to consciously reason and make choices. When people feel threatened, the primitive part of the brain gets a higher level of blood flow, and rational thinking decreases.
Applying this knowledge to leadership, people who perceive coaching events as negative (threats) will have negative emotional responses emanating from activation of the limbic system. Their thinking is focused on self-preservation and not on things like achieving a personal vision. However, people who respond to coaching events as opportunities to develop their individual selves and fulfill dreams are using the more advanced parts of the brain, and they are open to new ways of thinking and new ideas.
Coaching is All About Change
There are two terms to understand: Positive Emotional Attractors (PEA) and Negative Emotional Attractors (NEA). These are concepts developed in Boyatzis' Intentional Change Theory which states that people are pulled toward PEA or NEA in response to change.
A person who responds negatively to change is arousing the primitive brain system, the limbic system where the sympathetic nervous system resides. There is automatic decreased cognitive functioning, a decrease in openness, and an increase in anxiety and nervousness.
A person who responds with PEA, or in a positive manner to change, arouses the more developed part of the brain where the parasympathetic nervous system resides. It is that part of the brain that coaches want to mostly activate in leaders in order to inspire and help individuals discover their real self and fulfill their personal vision.
Coaching for compliance involves instructing someone to behave in a certain way, and that activates a negative response. Coaching with compassion activates a positive response, and that leads to sustainable change.
The bottom line is that coaching is really about change. The coach who activates more positive emotions than negative emotions minimizes stress, enabling the coachee to think more about goals and vision than fear of change or their resentment about attempts to change the person.
Balancing Positive and Negative
It is important to realize that some stress or NEAs are beneficial. The activated stress response is what motivates some people to stretch themselves, leading them to be open to new ideas or change. It can also help people narrow their attention to focus on critical tasks.
However, a stress response is temporary and mostly related to compliance activities. The change is temporary. In this sense, compliance and new ideas reference behaviors like getting required work done and meeting deadlines. The emotions, thoughts and behaviors do not lead to sustained change.
Coaches must return again and again to spark PEAs and open people up to new ideas again and again. It is about developing relationships in order to discover an individual's strengths, weaknesses, dreams and personal vision. The focus is on what the coachee wants to do and not what someone else wants or expects them to do. Coaching an individual to his or her real self is coaching with compassion. The goal is to generate an approximate balance of two-thirds PEA and one-third NEA.
Good communication skills that include effective listening are essential to coaching that leads to positive emotions. A coach develops an agenda to move a person from Point A, a current state, to Point B, a desired state, but it is impossible to develop the ideal agenda without understanding the person's individual vision and goals.
It is not always easy to get past the NEA because many times coaching is viewed as a negative event in itself. A coaching session triggers a stress reaction, meaning the person reacts automatically rather than thoughtfully. The person approaches Point B with an eye for personal protection and risk minimization. A person in this state is not focused on developing the ideal self that is aligned with personal goals, values, and aspirations. The coachee must be in the PEA in order to discover a vision because discovery requires openness, hope and feelings of excitement at the thought of reaching the ideal self. When in NEA, remember the person has a narrow focus and an inability to think past the current situation.
Not Fixing … Changing
Relationships matter between the coach and the coachee, and the leader and followers. Vision, hope and sense of purpose are key factors in engagement.
Studies indicate the NEAs move a person from vision to action, but significantly more time must be spent in the PEA in order to achieve sustained change. This newest research likely explains why so many companies in the past have used coaching as a way to improve change leadership, only to experience disappointment over time.
Coaching for compassion does not focus on things that need “fixing” like weaknesses. That is a recipe for evoking stress and defensive feelings. Sometimes people try to change to meet the coach's vision of how the person should behave or lead, once again evoking NEA. There is a growing understanding that utilizing common feedback assessment tools may lead to feedback that focuses on weaknesses rather than a coachee's vision. Effective coaches do not predetermine how a person should change because that leads to coaching for compliance or back to the "do what I say" approach. It drives a person into NEA.
Coaches able to promote sustained desired change have a high level of emotional intelligence, a requirement to nurture the same in the people they coach.
Coaching with compassion evokes a psychological state that helps people embrace new opportunities and learning. Once the concept is mastered, an organization can begin to implement the same principles at every level. The possibilities seem endless.