Understand the brain to understand the mind

How neuroscience can take coaching to the next level

Three examples, three hypothetical coaching clients: Client 1, let’s call her Susan Procrastinate, tends to tackle the more pleasant bits of work before doing the important, high value tasks in a typical work day. She wants to reverse the order. Client 2, let’s call him Helmut Fearful, might want to become less anxious in his way of seeing the world – and, as an outcome, hopes to relate better to his boss, his colleagues and his customers. Client 3, let’s call her Michelle High, might want to take less amphetamine before board meetings, but she finds it hard to resist the temptation. Their respective preferences say: Susan, do the fun emails first! Helmut, the world really is a dangerous place, be suspicious, don’t trust too easily! And Michelle, how about a little kick?! How can coaching help them to make the changes they want to make?

Coaching boils down to changing mindsets and behaviours. And while our brain arguably is the most sophisticated learning machine on this planet, it is lazy and keeps nudging us towards more of the same: repeated behaviours, habits. Almost all our behaviour is governed by our habits. Changing habits is one of the hardest jobs for humans and their brains (and, in all modesty, their coaches).

The brain is the perfect learning machine

Many of our preferences are hard-wired, including things which we really shouldn’t prefer. Unfortunately, our brain can learn the wrong things. Changing cognitions, changing behaviours, changing habits, means changing the brain and the neuronal connections in it. Which means in turn – for coaches – we need to understand how the brain works, to help clients change behaviours and mindsets.

Let’s take an example that comes up particularly often in coaching practice: reducing and managing stress. The bad effects of stress are not only felt by the sufferers and observed by others, some of the fallout from stress can be measured. Clinical data of chronically stressed individuals show damage to the immune system, higher incidence of strokes and heart attacks. And – often in combination with sleep deprivation – periods of high stress very often precede manifestations of psychiatric illness in genetically susceptible individuals. (And we all are susceptible to some psychiatric conditions more than to others.)

You need to understand the brain to understand the mind

The bad and (perversely the good) news is: stress is not only extremely costly to the sufferer, but also to their employers. This gives strong incentives to employers to reduce stress levels in their workforce.

How can coaches and managers support? Of course, obvious remedies come to mind: sleep more, delegate more, more sports, fewer cups of coffee. All good stuff, and proven to be effective. Chances are our clients and employees know this for themselves, already. The important question is: how do we help them doing it? What does neuroscience suggest? We know that learning and un-learning of habits relies on three core variables: contiguity, contingency and context. Let’s take them one by one, in plain English.

Contiguity is all about the speed with which feedback follows after behaviour. Most bonus schemes are likely to be a waste of money and management attention, since the reward comes once a year – typically far too long after the behaviour which they are designed to reinforce. Rewards should be immediate to be maximally effective.

Contingency is about predictable rewards or punishments. If the right behaviour triggers a reward sometimes, but not consistently, our brain will not form a new habit around the desired behaviour.

Context is arguably the most powerful variable. Our brain learns in context: change the context, and we are more likely to take up new behaviours and habits. Bring us back to the old context, chances are we move back to the associated behaviours. One of the reasons clients frequently relapse right after leaving rehab is that they learn to live without alcohol in a new context. The clinic is without access to alcohol, but with great support and lots of activities. Once the client leaves, she is back in the old context, with all the known triggers and temptations.

The mechanics of changing habits are similar to those of curing drug addiction

The good news: because context matters tremendously, coaches – and managers – who change assumptions on an organizational level, who change the context, can have huge impact. If you have the privilege of working as a coach with the CEO and can change her attitude toward stress, you may create more impact, than by coaching 100 of her employees. If bosses did nothing but reducing debilitating stress in the workforce, they would already be value for money.

What does this mean for Susan, Helmut and Michelle, our three hypothetical clients (and their coaches)? They all look for changes in sticky habits. And that means, they need more than an uplifting chat once a month. They need to create systems which make it easier for them to repeat the new desired behaviours. They need to find ways to get timely, frequent and consistent feedback on their behaviours. And they need to create a helpful context for themselves, or move into a different context.

Great coaching can help with all of these. But we coaches must learn more about the brain, to move from half-knowledge to an understanding of it. Because we must understand the brain to understand the mind – and help clients change.

Andreas Kleinschmidt