Brain-based Coaching Part 2

© Orson - Abstract Speaker Silhouette PhotoIn an earlier post, ” What’s all the fuss about brain-based coaching,” I presented the case for a neuroscience-based approach to coaching (workplace, executive, business–any type of coaching). I also mentioned a foundational idea that guides our brain-based approach: the brain’s primary organizing principle to minimize danger and maximize reward.

Still wondering about its value? Hopefully, this blog will give you additional food for thought.

I’m confident about the need for brain-based coaching given the hundreds of active coaches who have attended programs I’ve delivered who were looking for something more than the coach training they had already completed. Most (you can’t win them all, can you?) came away with something valuable if not a transformational shift in their coaching.

Even my facilitation style has evolved and is now grounded in a brain-based coaching approach. I feel my role when delivering a workshop is to be a “facilitator of insight,” rather than a platform trainer who “guides” participants to the “correct answer” through more (what I’d call) leading questions. I didn’t mean to step on any toes there; it’s my journey talking.

Brain-based coaching is a lot about “high intent with low attachment,” which is easier said than done. Our inclination is to solve someone else’s problem with OUR idea doesn’t go away. You still haves ideas and you still want to SHARE them. A brain-based coach simply gets better at “gating” that reaction. With experience, a brain-based coach starts to realize that clients really DO like their own ideas best and the coach’s suggestion is often more interesting to the coach than to the client.

That’s NOT to say executives and businesspeople don’t want you to bring some experience or know-how to the table. They do! For a brain-based coach, however, it’s about determining whether in a coaching conversation or session there is a NEED to share or suggest AND, if so, when and HOW to share. A brain-based coach will also be more explicit about what “role” they are adopting with a client given the situation, its context, and the client’s stated and unstated needs. I’ll often refer to switching hats in a conversation, e.g., “Would you like me to take off my coaching hat and put on my consulting hat?”

“I already do all of that,” a coach might say.

Watching hundreds of coaches in action in programs and as a mentor coach or coaching client tells me otherwise. Even newer brain-based coaches need some “seasoning” time. How much? About 6 to 12 months from my observations. We all know it takes time to form new habits and brain-based coaching goes against the grain of our normal human inclinations. I often refer to brain-based coaching as a “delayed gratification” style of coaching. For those of you who LOVE being “the expert” or “the answer person” or “Mr./Ms./Mrs. Fix-it,” you will not like being a brain-based coach UNLESS you reframe that preference. The shift is moving from being a “content” expert to becoming a “process” expert. You develop an expertise in your coaching process and let your clients remain the expert on their: situation, business, people, challenges, issues, goals, preferences…

“So what is my value as a brain-based coach,” you might ask.

You offer tremendous value as a brain-based coach. You honor your client’s brain by understanding its limitations. You help them overcome the “rush to action” by slowing them down and giving them space to look at things differently, while keeping an eye on the high level cognitively irritating or expensive things. You can help them come up with new ideas by speeding up the brain’s “insight” mechanism. You know which brain networks are triggered or required in different coaching scenarios and how to strengthen the more valuable networks. Put simply, you work with your client’s brain instead of against it. And that’s not as simple as it sounds.

If you have questions about brain-based coaching or want to improve your leadership, management, teaching or coaching approach, email

How confident are you in your decision making?

Grab the wheel from your emotional brain.

Help your team think new thoughts.

© Everythingpossible Dreamstime.comA common issue many leaders face is plenty of problems and not enough new thinking. This is such a long-standing common refrain, there is even a management-speak saying about it, “Don’t just bring me problems, bring me solutions.” Unfortunately, there is a small “catch” built into the thinking behind that saying.

There are two predominant ways of solving problems: linearly and non-linearly.

The linear approach is the heavily favored approach from the brain’s perspective. It is our default approach. It is the PFC-dominated approach to solving problems. It’s very effective for a wide range of problems: things we’ve seen before, things we have experience with, things with a few (as opposed to many) factors, simple (as opposed to complex) issues. There are many business practices based on this approach: lean, six sigma, trial-and-error, feedback. But it doesn’t solve EVERY problem. And what is happening in today’s business environment is exposing the limits of this approach. There are also times where we exhaust this approach and still have no solution.

What then?

Help build an awareness of and improve the ability for people to tap into a non-linear approach for solving problems. We all do this naturally. Most of us just haven’t learned how to speed up the process.

What process?

The process of facilitating insight.

You have insights all the time. They are seemingly random, come from out of the blue and often in the most unusual places at the most unusual times. They often come when you are not prepared to do anything with them.

Fortunately, it turns out there may be some science as to how the brain creates insights. If we work with this phenomenon, we can speed it up–rather than wait on and hope for it.

The leader’s role is to create the space for people to tap into their own insights. And there is the gap in the saying. People are not often bringing you answers because they’ve run the linear well dry. And no one is priming the pump for insight.

I created a model that reflects some of the current state of neuroscience research on insight. I called it PRIME™.* It represents five ingredients that help facilitate the kind of brain state necessary for insight to occur. It is hard to do on your own. It is much easier when someone helps facilitate this space for you.

I would argue it’s the primary role of brain-based coaches–AND leaders and managers.

You’re probably tired of hearing another common saying from the renowned Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Put another way, we need to think new thoughts. We need insight.

Contact me if you want to learn more about facilitating insight as a leader, manager, teacher, or executive coach.

*PRIME is informed by the following research (as we are seeking more):

  • “The Aha! Moment: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight,” John Kounios and Mark Beeman (c) 2009 Association for Psychological Science, Volume 18 – Number 4, pp. 210-216
  • “A Brain Mechanism for Facilitation of Insight by Positive Affect,” Karuna Subramaniam, John Kounios, Todd B. Parrish, and Mark Jung-Beeman (c) 2008 Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 21:3, pp. 415–432
  • “New approaches to demystifying insight,” Bowden, Jung-Beeman, Fleck and Kounios (c) July 2005, TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, Vol.9 No.7
  • “Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight,” Jung-Beeman et al, (c) April 2004, PLoS Biology, Volume 2, Issue  4, pp. 500-510

What does brain-friendly sound like?

© Borisovv - Magnifying Ear PhotoWhen thinking about what to write about this week, I thought it made sense to continue the thread from a post from two week’s ago, “What’s all the fuss about brain-based coaching,” that continues from an earlier post, “So you really think you’re brain-friendly.” People can sometimes think they are being brain-friendly or using a brain-based coaching approach when, in fact, they are being more directive than they realize OR creating what I call “unnecessary threat.”

A critical idea

One of the essential ideas we work with is from Evian Gordon’s work (previously cited). It involves what he calls “the brain’s primary organizing principle: minimize danger and maximize reward.” If there is one idea our work is built on, it is this idea.

When teaching people about a brain-based approach, the brain’s primary organizing principle can be easily misinterpreted or misapplied. People (teachers, leaders, managers…) think we need to eliminate ALL danger.

First of all, that is virtually impossible. Secondly, we don’t need to eliminate ALL danger. We need to know how and when to work with “danger.” Here’s one approach:

  • First, we need to understand the nature of how the brain responds to danger
  • Then, we need to understand how danger is created for the brain
  • Next, we need to understand when danger is helpful and when it is harmful
  • Continuing on, we need to pay attention to how we are working with danger and reward in our moment-to-moment interactions based on what we are trying to help others achieve
  • Finally, we need to adjust in the moment based on what is actually happening for the person in front of us (whether danger or reward is being triggered in the desired amounts relative to our focus)

And since all of this plays out when we are interacting with each other (live, virtually, or electronically), it’s helpful if we have a map for what a brain-friendly conversation sounds like. Let’s listen in…

Manager: Hey Alex, I’d like to catch-up with you on Project X. It seems like all is on track. I simply need to provide a brief update on it to management. I’d like to find out what’s going well and what else you recommend based on the current state of the project. When would be a good time for us to connect and about how long do you think that would take?
Worker: Oh, OK. It probably shouldn’t take that long, maybe 15 or so minutes. Can we do it later in the week?
Manager: I need to provide the update by Friday so is there time before then?
Worker: Sure, I guess I can make Thursday work.
Manager: Excellent, what time? The morning is pretty wide open.
Worker: How about 10:00am?
Manager: That works. Is there anything you need from me to make this meeting most productive?
Worker: I guess what it is that you want to cover.
Manager: Mainly how complete we are on the project and anything we need to anticipate to make sure we bring things in on time and on budget.
Worker: Well, there is one issue we are having.
Manager: OK, thanks for giving me a heads up. Let’s not get into it right now, if that’s OK. When we meet, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what we might consider doing to address the issue and any other thoughts you have or things you’re learning based on where the project stands.
Worker: OK, I’ll put some notes together.
Manager: Thanks. I’m looking forward to connecting Thursday morning.
Worker: OK, thanks.

You may be wondering, “What’s so brain-friendly about this? Why is this so long? Why not just say, ‘Hey Alex, I need an update on Project X by Thursday morning.’?”

Rather than simply GIVING you the answers, I’d love to hear YOUR thoughts:

  • Where are the potential “dangers” of this request?
  • How/where is the manager minimizing threats?
  • How/where is the manager offering rewards?
  • What brain needs is the manager addressing and how/where?
  • Any other thoughts, questions or connections?

In other words, how brain-friendly are you? (Danger! Danger! Danger!)

What’s all the fuss about brain-based coaching?

Two brains talking

Two brains talking

History seems to indicate that (nearly) every time something new comes along, it is feared, fought or outright rejected dating back even to the first notion that the earth was round (See 1, 2, 3 for a few industry-specific examples). So it now seems for neuroscience and brain-based anything. I’ve been doing work in this area for nearly 10 years and I still hear how neuroscience is a fad and “brain-based” is simply the new hype.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think the human brain is going away anytime soon. So exploring and understanding how it functions (which, it turns out, is often counter-intuitive and contradictory to what we THINK) and how to leverage that understanding can be critical to our success in the classroom, the conference room and the board room.

What do we mean by brain-based?

Brain-based, as we use the term, refers to applying neuroscience research to our ideas, our programs, essentially most of what we do. It is driven by the primary organizing principle of the brain as put forth by Evian Gordon–minimize danger and maximize reward, with minimize danger being the MUCH STRONGER default.

Being brain-based means paying attention to everything you think, say and do in terms of whether you are creating dangers or rewards for the brain. The challenge is that so much of what we think, say and do can be rather “thoughtless” (researchers estimate between 50% and 95% of our brain activity is non-conscious; see 4 and 5 for related research). There are good evolutionary reasons for this. It takes energy to think and we humans like to conserve energy to respond to threats (there’s that dang primary organizing principle again). So finding ways to “automate” processes allows us to minimize energy consumption. It also means we can say and do things that create a trigger to others’ brains that we are a danger.

“Ridiculous,” you say.

When was the last time someone cut you off in traffic, or jumped ahead of you in a line, or lightly challenged your idea, or left you off of a meeting invite or … ? How did it feel to you? What did it cause you to think or say or do? Chances are, it elicited a slight (or possibly greater) negative chain reaction. This negative reaction, often referred to as a “fight or flight” response, further diminishes our cognitive functioning and can result in even more non-conscious reactions.

What does “coaching” have to do with this?

It turns out, taking a coaching or coach-like approach can be VERY brain-friendly IF the coaching approach is a brain-based coaching approach. Just as there are many people questioning the value of neuroscience, there are MANY people calling themselves coaches. Unfortunately, many of these folks are actually providing a service that is closer to mentoring, consulting or training–and there are significant differences. A coach is supposed to let the client “do the heavy lifting” and it is supposed to be a client-driven relationship, meaning the client is in charge. The coach provides the “space” to approach goals, topics, issues, situations, whatever in a different way. It is less about what the coach knows and more about tapping into the client’s ability.

Many coaches take a directive approach, offering suggestions, hints, ideas, thoughts … to the client. While this can be helpful in some (and I’d say the minority of) situations, it tends not to be very brain-friendly. Giving people advice or telling them what to do (even if done in a “helpful” way) can still trigger danger to the hyper-sensitive brain. Even the questions a coach asks can trigger danger depending on the nature, focus and type of question asked.

What does brain-based coaching look like?

First, it demands a more-than-surface understanding of the brain, how it functions, its various networks, and the relationships of those networks.

Second, it involves applying that understanding to our core communication skills: listening and talking. For instance, if we know the prefrontal cortex has a limited capacity for storing things short-term, we should be VERY judicious in our use of language.

Third, it means using a brain-friendly framework for connecting with others that works with–rather than against–the brain. You might be surprised at how easy it is to get it wrong (or you might just be non-conscious, wink).

And finally, it takes LOTS of attention and practice. The human brain has been evolving for centuries; I’ve only got a decade of brain-based practice. How about you?


  1. Science
  2. Communications
  3. Publishing
  4. “The Unconscious Mind”
  5. “The Neural Basis of the Dynamic Unconscious”

Image: (c) Jorgenmac |

“We’re not that far removed from the caves.”

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Disclaimer: While this post was tragically prompted by events in Mina, Saudi Arabia, the fundamental idea applies to human behavior and the human brain in general terms across all countries and cultures.

I was at an event several years ago and overheard a researcher say something to the effect of, “We’re not that far removed from the caves.” Surely, a provocative statement at first blush, but stay with it a while longer and apply it to the events going on in the world today (heck, possibly over ALL of human existence) and you might begin to see his point.

In fact, I was reading a New York Times article just this morning (Sep 25, 2015) related to the human tragedy in Mina, Saudi Arabia in which hundreds of pilgrims were killed or injured in a mass stampede during the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. The article I’m referencing mentioned other similar tragedies of human panic, stampedes, and deaths: Duisburg, Germany in 2010 and Cincinnati, Ohio in 1979 to name two.

The article goes on to mention several factors that may have contributed to the tragedy: uncertainty, fear, panic, heat, exhaustion.

What’s the link to neuroscience?

All of these factors–considered threats to the brain–can quickly trigger the limbic system’s “fight or flight” response and shut down (or significantly impair) our higher level cognitive functioning. Normally, a stampede is something you equate with animals. But when humans panic, our brain functioning becomes very automatic and reactive, much like an animal reacts to a threat–not much thought, just action.

Tragedies like the one in Mina are terrible reminders of what can go wrong when our  reptilian brain takes charge of the show and makes decisions for us (according to the scientists, as much of 95% of our daily behavior in non-conscious).

Our failure to notice and manage (i.e., regulate) these inner signals can be catastrophic. It is our ability to be aware of these quick shifts in our brain state and regulate them that can literally be the difference between life and death.

And that brings us back to the subject of this post, “We are not that far removed from the caves.” While examples abound about this propensity, it turns out that there is a silver lining (as I often find when it comes to the human brain). Most of the time, crowds can get it right in the face of threat and danger. We can leverage the brain’s neuroplasticity (ability to change itself) and strengthen our self-awareness, social awareness, and self-regulation muscles and maintain a more cognitive response to danger.

Put another way, we can gain a little more “distance from the caves” and continue our higher evolution as humans. (Stay tuned for how…)

Related references:
Photo credit: © FabioBerti

So you think you know you? Think again.

© 2005-2008 FMRIB Centre

                © 2005-2008 FMRIB Centre

“There is a very long history within psychology of people not being very good judges of what they will actually do in a future situation.”

These words are from  Matthew Lieberman, Ph.D., the co-founding father of the field of social cognitive neuroscience, the Director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, and the author of the book “Social.”

Why is his statement important?  

Because the field of neuroscience, including Matt and his colleagues’ pioneering work, is helping us to better understand what is going on in our very unique and complex brains. And things are not always what they appear to be.

And  why is  that important? 

Because all of us want results: in life, at home, at work, in school. We are all trying to achieve something, and if you understand the brain and know how to work with it—instead of against it—you can improve your chances.

How do I know that? 

Because I’ve spent the past 10 years learning to understand the brain, how it functions, its limitations, what is common among us, and what is different between us when it comes to what is literally inside of our heads. I’ve delivered hundreds of programs to thousands of people and watched transformations take place when people learn how to honor the brain (which, by the way, honors the person to whom that brain belongs!).

What  am I talking about? 

Did you know that the brain is wired to be empathetic to people who share our racial group. This is linked to our very primal and basic need to survive (if he looks like us, he’s probably safe). We think—and say—we are sensitive to the pain of those who are not like us but the brain tells a different story. In a study that examined the empathetic pain reactions of two ethnic groups, each group was more empathetic to the “pain” of their own racial group, despite reporting a similar reaction to the other racial group’s pain. As one study [1] puts it, “Race has been demonstrated as a feature impossible to ignore in facial processing [38],[58][60], even when race is implicit and not relevant to the participant’s task. Thus, it is possible that race may cause an automatic and bottom-up bias in empathic neural activation to pain. It may be that the neural processing for differentiation of race operates at a more basic level than broader social distinctions. “

What they mean by “bottom-up” you can think of as unconscious or automatic behavior. Another way of putting it is the brain has made a choice without your involvement. And that unconscious choice is informing your behavior. When you understand what is happening, you can begin to employ tactics to overcome this kind of automatic brain functioning. This is particularly of value when you look at what is happening in current day America.

Another fundamental idea we work with is based on Evian Gordon’s 1-2-4 Integrate Model [2]. The “1” in Evan’s model refers to the brain’s “primary organizing principle,” which is to minimize danger and maximize reward. This principle leans strongly to the favor of minimizing danger and is a powerful example of our dominant need to survive. It also links back to Matt’s work in that many of the dangers we face are social, rather than physical, in nature. And these social threats place us in a state of conspicuously low cognitive functioning.

In essence, we become automatic when faced with “social threats” and end up doing and saying things that don’t often work in our favor—although they do keep us alive, from the brain’s perspective.

We help leaders and managers learn how to better manage social threats, maintain cognitive functioning AND improve the nature of their interactions so they achieve the things that are most important to them.

Put another way, it’s not just about surviving—it’s about truly living.



[2] The integrate model of emotion, thinking and self regulation: an application to the “paradox of aging”. Journal of integrative neuroscience, 7 (3), 367-404.

Nuanced leadership

girl giving candyI often think managing people is not THAT hard. Then again, anytime you involve one more person in anything, it gets a little (or a lot) more complicated. Trust me. I’m one of seven siblings (not to mention that first wife).

But I really do believe managing people is not that hard. It’s just not that easy either. And therein lies the nuance.

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines Nuance as:

1: a subtle distinction or variation
2: a subtle quality
3: sensibility to, awareness of, or ability to express delicate shadings (as of meaning, feeling, or value)

Those of you who know me know I work in the field of leadership and talent development, leveraging research from the field of neuroscience. (Some people think neuroscience–and neuroleadership–is a fad; I think the brain is here to stay.) As I’ve come to understand basic brain functioning, I’ve come to better understand and appreciate human behavior and performance.

To me, everything about the brain (and life) is about duality–with a nuance. While I would like to look at things in black and white terms, I can’t ignore the grey (just look at what is happening with the current state of race relations in the USA–so much polarity, so little connection).

What do I mean by duality in the brain?

  • Prefrontal cortex “versus” the Limbic System
  • Problem-focus or Future-focus
  • Negative or Positive
  • Conscious or Non-conscious
  • Serial or Parallel (processing)

And in life?

  • Good and Bad
  • Yin and Yang
  • Heaven and Hell
  • Winning and Losing
  • Chocolate and Broccoli

(My 5-year old son added that last one.)

I’m sure you can think of some, too.

So what’s the point?

The point is, in the brain (and it seems in life) negative has the much stronger team. Minimally, it’s stacked 5 to 1 in favor of threat.I call it a “losing battle.” And that makes sense when you realize the brain’s “primary organizing principle” is to minimize threat and maximize reward–with the dominant focus to minimize threat (Evian Gordon, 1-2-4 Integrate model). It’s our human survival mechanism. Stay away from danger.

As a leader (and human), if you’re not aware of this driving force, you can easily come at things from a negative vantage point, despite the alternative. And while it is natural and “feels” normal, it’s a limiting approach.

What’s the answer?

As mentioned in my post “Our own worst enemy,” it’s about strengthening your self-awareness muscles (you can also call it presence, mindfulness, interoception, social cognition) and improving your brain’s braking system (Ventrolateral Prefrontal Cortex).

What’s the link?

If you get better at noticing perceived threats/dangers and can “catch” the limbic system’s reaction, you can begin to “brake” against the brain’s choice and make a more informed (thoughtful) choice.

I often like to ask, “Who’s in charge? You or your brain?”

It’s amazing how often it’s your brain.

Take charge.

Tame your brain.

Our own worst enemy…

I’ve been thinking a lot about how to best help leaders develop their teams since I’ve been focused on this work for the past ten years. What stands out for me is the ease with which we create “social threat” for others (you can also call this dis-stress). Just the nature of your role as a leader or manager can initiate a significant level of stress on your direct reports. Even the best managers create low level (hopefully manageable) threat for their teams, which is actually OK. Threat, in and of itself, is not the enemy. Overwhelming threat is. The kind of threat that results in people doing and saying things that, later on, they wish they hadn’t done and said.

One of the best ways to combat what I’ll call “unnecessary threat” is to take a more coach-like approach with your teams. This is brain-friendly in a number of ways. In his research, Richard Boyatzis ( cites coaching as a way of halting and even reversing the effects of “power stress” on leaders. That’s a pretty powerful notion.

It’s also amazing to me how easy it is for managers and leaders who know and believe this to still be overly directive in their leadership approach. Again, I “blame” the brain along with a lower level of self-awareness (how’s that for provocative?!). We’re not always aware of how directive we are being. It’s also energy efficient AND feels good to tell people what to do. It’s rewarding for us, but it’s not as rewarding for our people.

So I think the best leaders understand the nature of mindfulness, have courage, are abundance-focused, and are able to practice delayed gratification. We can have a chat to discuss all of this.

Or if you don’t believe me, ask your people. (If you dare.)