If you want to get the life you want then self-improvement and personal growth are highly valuable.  I know because I have been involved in developing myself and others for decades. In this article, I set out the case which demonstrates leaders need a coach.

Part of me always knew the value of coaching.  Personally, I have benefitted from being coached massively.   I would say some of my biggest “aha” moments have come from those times when I was undergoing some coaching sessions with experienced and knowledgeable coaches.   I have also been coaching others for many years.  Indeed some of the leaders I have respected the most, valued being coached. They wore this fact like a badge, showing they were open to stretch and challenge.

However, it wasn’t until I became a behavioural practitioner using neuroscience that the big penny dropped about why leaders did need a coach, and why I did too.

The Neuroscience of Coaching

Neuroscience, the scientific study of the nervous system and the brain, provides fascinating insights into why coaching is not just helpful but perhaps essential for personal and professional development. This post explores the intersection of neuroscience and coaching. Shedding light on why having a coach can be a game-changer in your journey towards achieving your goals.

5 Ways Our Brain Responds To Coaching

1. High Levels Of Perception, Paradox and identity

Robert Kegan’s theory of adult development is key.  Particularly in his concept of the fifth level of self-awareness These insights offer profound insights into the coaching process. At Level 5, individuals reach a stage of ‘inter-individualism’.  This is characterised by an ability to hold multiple perspectives, embrace paradoxes, and understand the fluid nature of identity.

This level of self-awareness is vital in coaching. It enables individuals to transcend beyond the limits of their ego and socialised mind. They become adept at recognising and integrating diverse viewpoints. This skill is crucial for personal and professional growth.

Coaches working with clients at this level can facilitate deeper transformative changes as these individuals are more open to challenging their deeply held beliefs and assumptions. They are also more capable of complex problem-solving and exhibit a higher degree of empathy and interconnectedness, qualities that are invaluable in today’s multifaceted world.

The journey towards achieving this level of self-awareness often becomes a focal point in advanced coaching engagements, aiming for profound personal development and heightened effectiveness in navigating complex environments.

2. Firing Mirror Neurons

The concept of mirror neurons provides a compelling explanation for why individuals can learn better with a coach compared to when they are reflecting by themselves. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we act and when we see someone else perform the same action. This mirroring process plays a crucial role in learning through observation and imitation.

When a coach reflects on a client, these mirror neurons are activated. For example, if a coach models a positive behaviour or mindset, the client’s mirror neurons fire in a way that mimics this behaviour or mindset, facilitating a deeper understanding and internalisation of it. This process of mirroring can be more effective than solo reflection because it involves a dynamic, interactive element that is absent when an individual is reflecting on their own.

A practical example of this is the concept of mirror work in therapy. In mirror work, individuals are asked to look into a mirror and engage in positive self-talk or expressions of self-compassion. This practice is more impactful than simply thinking positive thoughts because seeing one’s reflection adds a visual and interactive component, engaging the brain more fully. The act of seeing oneself engage in a positive dialogue helps to reinforce these messages more powerfully than reflective thinking alone.

In coaching, similar principles apply. When a coach mirrors a client’s thoughts or feelings, it not only validates their experience but also helps the client to see their situation from a new perspective. This can lead to more profound insights and learning, as the process engages both cognitive and emotional brain centres, making the learning experience richer and more holistic than solitary reflection.

3. Taking Our Advice

Most people I talk to can resonate with this idea, the art of being able to advise others,  but struggling to follow it ourselves.  This phenomenon is a fascinating aspect of human psychology and has a basis in how our brains function. When we advise others, our brain operates from a more objective, detached standpoint. We assess their situation without the emotional baggage and biases that we carry for our circumstances. This detachment allows us to think more clearly and logically.

However, when we try to give ourselves advice, we’re often hindered by our emotional investments and personal biases. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and self-control, is influenced by our emotions, fears, and personal experiences. This emotional involvement can cloud our judgment, making it hard to be as rational and objective with ourselves as we are with others.

Adopting A Healthier Lifestyle

For example, consider someone advising a friend to adopt a healthier lifestyle. They might suggest balanced eating and regular exercise, understanding the benefits and recognising the steps needed. However, when it comes to applying this advice to themselves, they might struggle. They know what to do, but emotional factors like stress, comfort eating habits, or negative self-beliefs can create barriers.

This is where coaching can play a pivotal role. A coach acts as an external, objective voice that can mirror back the advice we need to hear. Since the coach is not entangled in the emotional aspects that the individual faces, they can offer clear, unbiased guidance. Moreover, a coach can help individuals recognise and overcome their habitual responses and internal barriers. They provide accountability, which is often a missing element when we try to advise ourselves. The coach’s external perspective and expertise in fostering behavioural change can help individuals break the cycle of knowing what to do but not doing it.

For instance, in the case of adopting a healthier lifestyle, a coach wouldn’t just reiterate the advice of eating well and exercising. They would work with the individual to understand their specific challenges, help set realistic goals, and develop strategies to overcome personal barriers. This personalised approach ensures that advice is not just given but is also followed through, leading to meaningful change.

4. Embedding Learning

We rarely learn something from a single iteration of new information.  My byword often when talking about embedding learning is repetition, repetition, repetition.  However, a coaching session has the unique potential to embed learning deeply by influencing the brain’s neural pathways.

The brain is inherently adaptable, a quality known as neuroplasticity, allowing it to form new connections and strengthen existing ones in response to learning and experience. This adaptability plays a crucial role in how coaching can guide an individual towards a desired path and help in leaving behind unhelpful patterns.

Strengthen Neural Pathways

During a coaching session, when an individual is exposed to new perspectives, strategies, or behaviours, their brain begins to form and strengthen neural pathways associated with this new information. For instance, if a coaching session focuses on developing positive communication skills, each practice and discussion around this skill strengthens the neural connections associated with it. The repeated focus and practice effectively “train” the brain to become more proficient in this area.

Conversely, coaching can also help in making unhelpful neural pathways dormant. The brain operates on a “use it or lose it” principle. Pathways that are not used frequently become weaker over time. In a coaching context, by shifting focus away from negative or unproductive behaviours and thoughts, and instead channelling energy and attention towards more positive and constructive ones, the brain gradually reduces the strength of the neural connections that support these unhelpful patterns. For example, if an individual tends to procrastinate, coaching can help shift their focus and practice towards proactive behaviours, thus weakening the neural pathways associated with the procrastination habit.

Coaching can also reinforce this learning and rewiring process through techniques such as goal setting, reflective exercises, and action plans. These techniques encourage repeated engagement with the new behaviours or thought patterns, further solidifying the new neural pathways. Goal setting, in particular, can be very effective as achieving small goals provides positive reinforcement, which the brain interprets as a reward, encouraging continued engagement with these new patterns.

5. Inspiring Action

Leaders need a coach because coaching is a dynamic process that can significantly inspire action, particularly through the exploration of new possibilities and pathways, and by harnessing the power of intrinsic motivation and the brain’s reward system.

Firstly, discussing new possibilities and pathways in coaching sessions can ignite intrinsic motivation, which is the drive to act for the sake of the activity itself rather than for external rewards. When individuals engage in conversations about potential futures or different approaches to their goals, it stimulates their imagination and opens up a realm of what could be. This exploration can be incredibly motivating because it taps into personal values, interests, and aspirations. The act of visualising success or achievement in these new areas can create a powerful emotional and motivational pull. This internal desire to grow and achieve, which is kindled in coaching sessions, often leads to sustained and self-driven action.

Coaching often involves setting goals and discussing the steps necessary to achieve them. When individuals set goals and recognise the path to achieving them, it can create a sense of clarity and purpose. This clarity, coupled with the support and encouragement from a coach, boosts an individual’s confidence and commitment to take action.

Anticipating Rewards

Additionally, the anticipation of rewards can trigger various chemical reactions in the brain that foster the desire to make changes. The brain’s reward system, particularly the release of dopamine, plays a significant role here. Dopamine is often referred to as the ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter and is released in anticipation of a reward. In a coaching context, when individuals set goals and then make progress towards these goals, their brain anticipates the reward (the achievement of the goal) and releases dopamine. This release creates a sense of pleasure and satisfaction. It also motivates the individual to continue pursuing their goals. The coach can amplify this effect by helping the individual set achievable, incremental goals. Thus providing more frequent dopamine ‘hits’ and reinforcing the desire to continue moving forward.

Finally, leaders need a coach to help them reframe challenges and setbacks, not as failures, but as opportunities for learning and growth. This reframing can reduce the fear of failure, which often hinders action. By creating a safe environment for exploration and risk-taking, coaching encourages individuals to step out of their comfort zones and embrace new experiences, further fueling their intrinsic motivation and desire for change.

So there you have 5 reasons the brain responds well to coaching.  What are your experiences?

You can find more resources on coaching here:

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I help leaders develop self- mastery, helping them to become confident in their own inner guidance.

I collaborate with leadership experts, managers and HR professionals to help them get their own message and unique services and products to a wide audience.