The Neuroscience of Coaching

July 27, 2022

Alex Firmin

CEO of Promethean Executive

Advances is cognitive neuroscience progressed significantly in 1990s, to the extent that George H.W. Bush titled it ‘The Decade of the Brain’.  The emerging pattern suggested that there appear to be two sides of the brain that, for those with good mental health, exist in a healthy tension. The Task Positive Network (TPN) has been identified as being responsible for problem solving, reasoning and intelligence in general, whilst compelling research has identified a different element of the brain responsible for regulating our emotions, and reading the emotions of others, known as the ‘social brain’.   This shows that humans have two different capacities for reasoning: one that is geared toward social and emotional understanding and can be broadly characterized as empathic reasoning; and a second that is needed for focused attention and problem solving that might be characterized as analytical reasoning (Jack, Dawson, & Norr, 2013).

Skilled managers can effectively ‘toggle’ between the two elements of the brain.  We need the TPN to solve problems, analyze things, make decisions, and focus (i.e., limit one’s awareness to focus attention on a task or issue). On the other hand, we need the social brain to be open to new ideas, scanning the environment for trends or patterns and being open to others and emotions, as well as for navigating moral concerns.  Business life; time spent on budgets, problem solving, and analytics with dashboards and metrics, tends to focus on TPN activation. As a result, individuals in many organizations become more focused on the TPN than the social brain. This can lead to a tendency to objectify others (e.g., thinking of them as human resources to be utilized or maximized), and norms that may inhibit innovation and creativity.  The cultural and organisational ramifications of the tension between these parts of the brain will be discussed in a future blog.

The implications for coaching are considerable.  Firstly the coach themselves will need to engage the social brain if they are to effectively listen to and understand the client.  The TPN brain might drive problem solving which will be useful in the short term, but won’t help the client to solve their own problems. Helping the client to engage their social brain will enable them to reflect on and overcome emotional barriers, perhaps relating to their confidence.  Where the client’s challenges are emotional or interpersonal, the analytical TPN focus won’t necessarily enable them to find effective solutions.  Switching cognitive focus presents a potential challenge for the coaches to consider; analytical thinking not only engages the TPN, it can also supress the social brain.  It’s a point of ongoing discussion whether we can activate both at the same time (Beaty & colleagues, 2014), potentially enabling us to analyse situations and problem solve whilst also thinking creatively and being open to other’s emotions, or moral concerns.

The questions coaches ask will result in their clients activating different components of their brain.  It may be that coaches can encourage their clients to examine challenges using both the TPN and social spheres.  A broader focus, informed by different considerations, allows individuals to see what really matters most to them and then to turn this insight into goals that can motivate them going forward, and provide them with a stronger sense of meaning in life. This in turn allows individuals to cope better with the stress of change and to succeed personally and professionally.

Beaty, R. E., Benedek, M., Wilkins, R. W., Jauk, E., Fink, A., Silvia, P. J., & Neubauer, A. C. (2014). Creativity and the default network: A functional connectivity analysis of the creative brain at rest. Neuropsychologia, 64, 92–98.
Jack, A. I., Dawson, A. J., & Norr, M. E. (2013). Seeing human: Distinct and overlapping neural signatures associated with two forms of dehumanization. NeuroImage, 79, 313–328.

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