Dan Beverly
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The what, why and how of brain-based coaching

What is Brain-based Coaching? How does it differ from other forms of coaching? What makes it so beneficial? And why might you choose brain-based coaching over other personal development options?

I’m a Leadership and Performance Coach known for two things: helping people embrace their pivotal career moments; and a coaching approach rooted in contemporary neuroscience. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at brain-based coaching: to give you some insight into the what, why and how; describe what you might expect from a brain-based coaching conversation; and encourage you to think about your opportunities for brain-based coaching and how you could benefit from it.

So let’s imagine right now: I am your prospective coach and you are my prospective coachee. You’re thinking about coaching as a possible option. And you want to know more. Let’s think a bit about what brain-based coaching really is.

What is coaching?

Let’s start by outlining what we mean when we talk about “coaching”.

Coaching is a form of learning where a person (the “coach”) supports someone else (you, the “coachee”) to generate new thinking, create learning and self-development, and promote focused action in ways that benefit you, the coachee.

“Coaching” essentially means to transport someone from one place to another. In today’s context, it’s about generating shifts, moving forward and creating change.

Coaching is most often delivered as a conversation, or series of conversations, between coach and coachee. So it’s just talking and thinking.

But our coaching conversation will differ from regular day-to-day conversation. Our coaching conversation will be special in its structure, carefully architected by me, as your coach, to benefit you and your thinking, learning and action. And whilst it’s still just talking and thinking, our coaching conversation will feel very different from other conversations – and will produce quite different results.

What is brain-based coaching?

Brain-based coaching is a coaching approach rooted in contemporary neuroscience: the scientific study of the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Using the latest insights into how the brain works, brain-based coaching is a new approach which complements and amplifies the principles and practises of coaching to create yet more powerful, positive and transformational changes for the coachee.

Much or all of the science will be invisible to you, the coachee: after all, ours is a coaching session, not a science lesson. But as your coach, I will be using my deep knowledge of neuroscience at every step, developing a brain-friendly coaching environment that will: focus on the thinking; help you break out of autopilot; encourage new thinking and insight; leverage your brain’s preference for hardwiring; and embed new learning and behaviour.

Brain-based coaching can thus be defined as: facilitating positive change by first improving the thinking.

What is brain-based coaching … not?

Brain-based coaching is not consulting, counselling, mentoring or training. As your coach, I won’t be instructing you to do something specific or doing it for you. That would be taking responsibility away from you, the coachee.

I do bring with me my coaching toolkit, which I regularly dip into and happily share with my coachees – but only at your request. And when requested , I’ll step out of my coaching persona (focus: drawing out) and into a mentoring role (focus: putting in). But my coaching instinct says I help you best by coming to your ideas first – so that’s always where we’ll start.

So brain-based coaching is “self-directed”: focused solely on your agenda; and on drawing out what’s already there. It will provide the structure and process to help you, the coachee, draw on your best thinking and deepest insights. And it will create the environment for you to re-connect with your best thinking.

Asking About Solutions

Brain-based coaching is about helping people to think better, not telling them what to do.

How and why does brain-based coaching work?

Brain-based coaching works by bringing to bear all the resources and resourcefulness of you, the coachee, in focused and motivated effort to progress your goals. It does this by creating an environment conducive to new insight, creating the space to think deeply about the topics that matter most to you; and in the way most appropriate for you and your brain.

Within a coaching conversation, as a coachee, you will experience a focus and attention that enables you to develop greater self-awareness and a deeper appreciation of your circumstances: both challenge and opportunity. You will create for yourself new ways to resolve issues, produce better results and generally achieve goals more easily.

As a result of brain-based coaching, you will break out of the deeply hardwired autopilot our brains favour and move into more conscious thought and deliberate action, embedding new and positive habits to achieve long-lasting change.

What makes brain-based coaching so different?

Latest neuroscientific research (since the relatively recent advent of brain-imaging techniques in the 1970s and 1980s) has uncovered a number of discoveries that expose many of the otherwise standard practices for self-improvement as largely ineffective.

These insights tell us that the key to helping others improve, achieve and succeed, is to help them think for themselves. Brain-based coaching is founded on this principle.

Here are 6 fascinating insights ref. about the brain that have helped shape brain-based coaching as a new approach to thinking, learning, development and lasting change.

ref. David Rock, Quiet Leadership (New York: HarperCollins, 2006).

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6 brain-based insights

Insight #1: The brain is a connection machine

The underlying function of the human brain is to find links, associations, connections and relationships between whole concepts, often stored in many different regions of the brain. It does this non-stop, at the rate of a million new connections every second.
These processes continually reshape our brains’ circuitry. Every thought, memory, skill and attribute we have is not a single static entity stored in a single region of the brain; but a vast, complex and ever-changing map of connections between higher-level cognitive centres, deeper-level hardwired skill centres and many other regions of the brain.
In the coaching context …

Brain-based coaching supports coachee’s in their thinking, helping them to break themselves out of their own impasses and make new connections – for themselves.

Brain-based coaching facilitates a new level of thinking; one that produces ever-more expansive connections. These large scale connections are energising to the brain. The coach will support the coachee to harness this energy and motivation to get into action on these insights.

Insight #2: No two brains are wired the same

The brain is hugely complex. To choose just one brain stat: 300 trillion constantly changing connections.

These 300 trillion connections are continually re-shaped by every thought, feeling and experience we’ve ever had throughout our entire lives. The result: near-unlimited ways the brain can encode experience, learning and information.

At a distance our brains may look similar, but up close: no two brains are wired the same.

In the coaching context …

Not only is it a waste of our energy to do the thinking for others; it’s also a significant obstacle to that person’s own thinking.

Brain-based coaching respects the substantial differences between people’s brains, focusing on helping coachees think things through for themselves and make their own new connections.

Brain-based coaching facilitates the thinking, watches for and highlights a coachee’s insights – and then helps the coachee run with that energy. And all largely invisible to the coachee.

Insight #3: The brain sees the world according to its own wiring

Any idea or experience gets broadly the same treatment from our brains: lightning-quick comparison with our existing mental maps to see where the connections are.

This process of perceiving the world through our hardwiring is there out of necessity: it enables us to cope with the sheer volume of information we face throughout the day.

But it can also come with consequences. For whilst known, familiar and expected inputs are neatly processed, when the data doesn’t quite fit, we can sometimes go to extraordinary lengths to make a connection. Such thinking can have significant drawbacks.

In the coaching context …

Brain-based coaching makes positive challenge of our “faulty” thinking, ensuring that:

  • coachee’s internal realities do not lag behind external reality;
  • A coachee’s maps are based only on up-to-date and relevant experience;
  • A coachee’s internal representations do not omit crucial information.

Perceiving the world through our own hardwired filters means we can significantly improve performance simply by shifting ours and others’ thinking. Brain-based coaching offers this benefit by helping people break free of their autopilot.

Insight #4: The brain hardwires everything it can

The brain hardwires everything it can.

With so much information to process, and with such a limited working memory, the brain must take any repetitive or otherwise important thought or activity and “hard code” it into our more capacious subcortex (the part that holds long-term memories and processes).

Unsurprisingly then, lasting change takes effort and a whole new approach. Brain-based coaching provides that new approach.

In the coaching context …

Brain-based coaching leverages the brain’s preference for hardwiring by deepening connections around insights, embedding learning and establishing new habits.

This is all of great benefit to you, the coachee: your brain’s hardwiring is far more dependable and more able to deliver results than the conscious brain.

Insight #5: It’s practically impossible to deconstruct our hardwiring

It’s practically impossible to deconstruct our hardwiring: those connections are just too deeply embedded to be “unwired”. In addition, any attempt to understand the source of a habit just serves to deepen the very circuitry we’re trying to undo!

In the coaching context …

The neuroscience is telling us it’s better to leave hardwired connections where they are. So brain-based coaching transforms performance and results by maintaining a focus on solutions and creating whole new habits, backed-up by attention.

Insight #6: It’s really easy to create new wiring

Everything we think and do influences the connections and layout of our brain, continually fine-tuning its pathways. The upside of this is our extraordinary capacity for new connections.

In the coaching context …

The brain is an attention economy. Brain-based coaching helps hardwire new behaviours by giving them enough attention – and of the sort that gives the new maps increased depth and density.

Brain-based coaching focuses on moving coachee’s from impasse, to insight, to new and ingrained behaviour. And quicker than other forms of self-improvement.

What distinguishes brain-based coaching?

From these insights, brain-based coaching is then characterised, in its practise, by a few distinguishing features.

1. Self-directed learning

Brain-based coaching helps people make their own connections. We all learn better when we find our own answers. So the coach’s role is to support others in their learning journey, rather than directing, advising or driving.

When we make new connections for ourselves, our insights are accompanied by a tangible release of energy in the brain that is motivating and compels us to take action. Brain-based coaching watches for and harnesses this energy.

2. Solutions focus

Coaching is about solutions: connecting with the vision of where we want to be and systematically working toward that end – focused all the time on solutions. Coaching is not about searching for problems and delving into their causes: that simply deepens those circuits and finds more problems. Far more useful to be solutions focused.

Focusing on solutions puts us in the future and immediately creates energy in our minds. We get more creative, find new inspiration, open up to new possibilities and create new choices.

3. Challenge and stretch

Our brains love challenge and stretch. Brain-based coaching delivers the degree of stretch appropriate to each coachee to get them (and their brains) operating at their best. That is: to generate new wiring.

Brain-based coaching challenges coachees to develop their thinking along new lines and to move out of their comfort zone to achieve different results. Stretch is about maximising a coachee’s resourcefulness to the full.

4. Positive feedback

Coaching is about attention, focus and positive reinforcement, not highlighting errors and mistakes. It’s about catching people doing something well – and acknowledging that.

Any new learning requires substantial brain activity before it is “hardwired”. To combat distorted thinking patterns and overly-harsh inner critics, the brain-based coach uses encouragement and acknowledgement to help keep a coachee’s mind calm, clear and wholly focused on what they are trying to achieve: to reinforce new wiring.

5. Process and structure

Brain-based coaching is a structured approach to improving thinking and produce lasting change.

To think along new lines and do things differently takes energy and uses limited resources in the brain. The familiar and brain-friendly structure of the coaching framework minimises distraction and concern; and allows coachees to focus on their thinking. A proven brain-based framework, customised for each coachee.

6. Developing the coachee’s agenda

Brain-based coaching focuses solely on the coachee’s agenda: for themselves, their future, their goals and their aspirations. As your coach, I leave my agenda at the door and focus on you, the coachee. If I do have an agenda, it’s simply and unassumingly: to support you to be more of who you are and who you have the potential to be. I should otherwise be “invisible” in the process.

Coaching is also about letting the coachee’s agenda develop naturally, not driving it – which takes the responsibility away from the coachee. Driving comes in many guises: from suggesting and asking (“why don’t you …”); through to instructing and demanding (“if you don’t …”). From the brain-based perspective, far more effective to focus on facilitating insights in the coachee and generating commitment to an action of their design.

What brings people to coaching?

People come to coaching to make positive changes, achieve goals and create better results.

Some come for a specific reason, such as unwanted pressure and compromise at work, keeping them from their longer-term aspirations. Some don’t quite know what their issue is, but for the persistent and nagging feeling that something isn’t quite right. And others have no specific issues at all: they just recognise that what got them their current success won’t get them the success they want in the future.

So people come to coaching for all sorts of reasons; but they are all united in their desire for positive change.

What are the benefits of brain-based coaching?

Brain-based coaching has wide application. But the focus will always be your (the coachee’s) agenda; and the objective will always be transformation.

Common coaching goals might be to accelerate your career; to be more effective at work; to have less stress in your life; to have more confidence in certain situations; or to have more influence and impact when working with others.

Benefits you’ll experience from your brain-based coaching will include:

  • Greater clarity for an improved sense of direction and focus.
  • Increased self-awareness and responsibility.
  • Improved ability to relate to and influence others.
  • Increased confidence, motivation and conviction.
  • Improved personal productivity and effectiveness.
  • Increased resourcefulness and resilience.

All of which culminates in the achievement of goals, the embedding of new and positive behaviours, and a greater sense of purpose, satisfaction and fulfilment.

It’s no exaggeration to say that coaching can literally change people’s lives.

Is coaching right for me?

Coaching is a powerful experience. As I’ve said: it can literally change people’s lives. But no one needs or should have coaching. Rather, each of us has to decide for ourselves whether coaching is the right option at any given moment.

If, as you’ve been reading, you’ve begun to think of your own circumstances and started to glimpse opportunities for coaching, you might like to consider the following questions. They will help you begin to form initial goals for a potential coaching relationship.

And whilst they are not intended to identify specifics, they will encourage thoughts and ideas that you can take to an initial chemistry session with a prospective coach.

Please take a few moments to sit quietly with these questions and reflect on your thinking.

  • What goals are you currently working on?
  • What project would you love to spend time moving forward?
  • What’s going really well for you right now that you’d like to build on?
  • If you could change one thing about your situation, what would it be?
  • What do you really want?

With all the new connections you’re making, what you need now is a thinking partner to help you further draw-out your insights and get you into action. For that, brain-based coaching is an option worth some thought.

Dan Beverly

Dan Beverly is a leadership and performance coach helping high-calibre, high-performing professional women embrace the pivotal career moments.

His mission is to inspire possibility in others: to help us excel in careers without compromise; and to leave us feeling energised and uplifted by a new future.

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  • John J. Ratey, A User’s Guide to the Brain (New York: Pantheon, 2001).
  • David Rock, Quiet Leadership (New York: HarperCollins, 2006).