How does coaching change the brain? What is neuroplasticity? How can we help our clients move forward using neuroscience? Is it possible to integrate current brain science research into a non-directive model of coaching?
Brain science is all the rage in coaching circles these days. So much so that CHOICE Magazine, a publication of the International Coach Federation (ICF), featured brain science on the cover of their December 2014 issue. The issues’ feature article, “Does Coaching Change the Brain?” by Barbara B. Appelbaum, ACC, says that it can.
Until recently, scientists believed that the brain was static, unable to generate new neural cells or pathways as people age. But current research reveals otherwise; the brain is malleable, capable of generating new neural cells and pathways, or brain maps, throughout life. The term used to describe this ability is neuroplasticity.
According to Wikipedia:

Neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity…refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses due to changes in behavior, environment, neural processes, thinking, emotions, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.

One of the fundamental principles of how neuroplasticity functions is linked to the concept of synaptic pruning, the idea that individual connections within the brain are constantly being removed or recreated, largely dependent upon how they are used.

Integrating Brain Science into Coaching

How can we integrate brain science into the practice of coaching?
According to author Barbara B. Appelbaum, ACC, it begins by helping your client create “new, healthy synaptic pathways,” starting with these basic components of brain health (For detailed information on each of these practices, read “Does Coaching Change the Brain?”):

  • Adequate exercise
  • Proper nutrition
  • Plenty of sleep
  • Faith and spirituality
  • Stress reduction

While these core practices are important, there’s more to maintaining a healthy brain. “The coaching process shifts the client to possibility-thinking, thereby alleviating stress, promoting plasticity . . .to create new and strong neural synaptic pathways,” Appelbaum says.
The core coaching competencies, identified by the ICF, are especially helpful when it comes to maintaining brain health and creating new neural pathways:
Reframing — Helping a client see a situation from a different perspective, so they are empowered to act creates new neural pathways in the brain, which can result in significant behavior change.
Powerful Questions — Asking open-ended questions that invite discovery and exploring alternative ways of doing things creates new neural pathways. Consistently using powerful questions when working with clients creates new brain maps the undergird action for maximum benefit to the client.
Creating Awareness — Integrating multiple sources of information and making interpretations that create client awareness. As noted in the ICF Core Competencies, good coaches “help clients to see different, interrelated factors that affect them and their behaviors (e.g., thoughts, emotions, body, and background).” Once identified, the coach can work with the client to replace negative thoughts, emotions, etc. with positive ones, creating new neural pathways, which lead to new actions.
Designing Actions — Empowering clients to create actions that move them toward their expressed goals and asking clients to repeat those same actions strengthen neural pathways and lead to new thoughts and behaviors. Identifying patterns of behavior that are not helpful to the client and replacing them with new actions empower the client to create sustainable change.
Brain science is still in its infancy. But even in its early stages, the implications for coaching are profound.
How can you learn more about brain science and integrating it into your practice? What next steps will you take to act on advances in brain research?

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