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The Neuroscience of Challenging Coaching


Have you noticed the increasing popularity of neuroscience in coaching? There seems a trend to put “neuro’ in front of phrases as if it automatically increases the topic’s credibility so today I’m going to talk about neuro-challenging coaching.

John and I have just had this article featured in ‘Choice’, the magazine of professional coaching published in the USA. As I read the other articles in the latest edition of ‘Choice’ I came across a feature by Ann Betz entitled “Introducing the Pre-Frontal Cortex”. What caught my attention in the article was a diagram of pre-frontal cortex impairment that looks exactly the same as the Yerkes Dodson inverted U curved detailed in Chapter 7 of Challenging Coaching on Tension.In this chapter we talk about using tension within the coaching room to help the coachee achieve optimal performance. This is a dynamic energy that a coach can tap into and calibrate.

challenging coaching tension graph

In her article, Ann Betz talks about Yale professor Amy Arnsten’s work on the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), in that the chemical environment needs to be just right for it to function optimally. She says that when we are tired, bored or unmotivated, very small amounts of catecholamines (dopamine and norepinephrine) are released. Being stressed creates a huge release of these chemicals. Too much and too little catecholamines affect the PFC and put it in a state of dysfunction. The ideal state for the PFC is a short burst of catecholamines.

Wikipedia tells me that the pre-frontal cortex has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviour such as personality expression, decision making and moderating social behaviour. The most typical psychological term for these tasks carried out by the prefrontal cortex area is ‘executive function’. Executive function relates to abilities to differentiate among conflicting thoughts, determine good and bad, better and best, same and different, future consequences of current activities, working toward a defined goal, prediction of outcomes, expectation based on actions, and social “control” (the ability to suppress urges that, if not suppressed, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes).

The findings that Ann Betz talks about are not new. A paper published by Boyatzis, et al in 2004 called ‘Developing Sustainable Leaders Through Coaching and Compassion’ stated that leader sustainability is adversely affected by the psychological and physiological effects of chronic power stress associated with the performance of the leadership role. This stress can be reduced when leaders experience compassion through coaching. Boyatzis et al describe compassion as (1) empathy or understanding the feelings of others; (2) caring for the other person; and (3) willingness to act in response to the person’s feelings. (This is what we would describe as traditional coaching)

Other studies have shown that pre-frontal cortex (PFC) dopamine (DA) function have revealed its essential role in mediating a variety of cognitive and executive functions. A general principle that has emerged (primarily from studies on working memory) is that PFC DA, regulates cognition in accordance to an “inverted-U” shaped function, so that too little or too much activity has detrimental effects on performance. It seems that PFC DA is another term for tension or maybe we should call it neuro-tension?

So I’m pleased to read that the Yerkes Dodson curve originally described in 1908 has been replicated many times and is very relevant in today’s coaching. I’m also pleased to talk about neuro-challenging coaching!

Join us  to discuss this on our Linked In Challenging Coaching Group

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