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Neuroscience coaching: self improvement at the workplace


Coaching is one of the most powerful tools for career and personal development. It can help you continuously improve as a person and a leader and bring your goals within reach.

Neuroscience, the study of the nervous system and brain, is used increasingly in coaching to assist leaders in discovering how their brains work. They can then use this knowledge to achieve their objectives through neuroscience coaching.

But in the absence of a coach, or maybe in addition to one, you may want to apply some of the principles of neuroscience research to your own development.

Set your vision and assess where you are

The first step in any journey is to establish where you are and where you want to go. Take a look at the gaps and areas where you want to improve. How can you build an effective bridge?

Although honest self-assessment is a good starting point and may yield some truths, it likely will have some blind spots as well. Consider finding a trusted feedback partner to help you gain insight, and glean your annual reviews from employees for information.

Goals can be narrow, such as, “I want to be more patient when listening to employee concerns,” or broader such as, “I want to have a greater positive impact as a leader.”

When emotion takes over 

Neuroscience tells us that emotions are activated when our body goes into “fight or flight” mode in response to an event. This happens in the section of the brain called the amygdala.

In that moment, the rational part of the brain takes a vacation, shutting down access to the area that allows you to objectively analyze a situation and make an appropriate response. If you don’t – or can’t – step back, you’re in danger of being taken hostage by your emotions.

Triggers, also known as stimuli, are those things that put us in compromised positions because of the feelings and behavior patterns they incite. We are led away from appropriately responding in the moment and effectively executing the task at hand, and led into being overtaken by our emotions and displaying unproductive behavior.

If you see yourself or others being hijacked by their emotions, it is helpful to become more aware of the triggers that are to blame. Each person’s triggers are different, but they are usually based on:

  • Not getting core needs met, such as feelings of belonging, being in control or being seen as competent
  • Making assumptions about others’ actions and their motives or what they may be thinking about you
  • Having your view of yourself threatened and the impact of that on your self-esteem or self-confidence 

Mindfulness to the rescue

Mindfulness, slowing down long enough to examine the noise in your head, can actually change brain structure, according to a 2010 study by Britta K. Hölzel, an MRI researcher.

Taking the time to step back and observe a situation and your thoughts and feelings about it may allow you to put the brakes on an emotional response before it derails your goals. Then you can choose the way you want to respond instead of succumbing to a knee-jerk, and possibly unproductive, reaction.

For instance, if you feel someone is threatening your authority, you might realize you are experiencing a trigger. Try to step back for just a moment to acknowledge the feeling and move forward as best you can, noticing your emotions as you respond.

Mindfulness takes practice, but a good start is to find 10 minutes every day where you can sit quietly. Start by focusing on your breathing and just observe – without judging – your thoughts and feelings. You will be better able to recognize the situation for what it actually is, rather than letting “mind chatter” distract you from being present in the moment.

Coachable moments

Once you assess your situation, set achievable goals and begin to discover those triggers that take you off track, you’re ready to put science to work. When you face a potentially challenging meeting or situation, utilize your neuroscience coaching knowledge and practice mindfulness at each step.

Before: Sit quietly for a few moments. Set an intention about what you want to have happen (the desired outcome) and how you need to show up in order to influence that outcome. Anticipate different scenarios that may trigger you and plan for how you would like to respond in those situations.

During: Put yourself in observer mode. Slow down and be aware, particularly of what is happening in your body. For example, do you feel warm? Maybe your head or stomach or shoulder hurts? Physical sensations may provide cues to how we are feeling before the thought reaches our brain.

If you feel yourself getting hijacked by emotion, for instance, if you feel angry, try to step back and see if you recognize the triggers and the beliefs or assumptions that accompany that trigger.

When you’re in a potentially volatile situation, remember that you don’t have to respond immediately to a question or event. Use stalling tactics to take a few breaths and gather your thoughts. Saying something like, “Let me think about that for a minute,” or leaving the room briefly can help buy you some time.

After: As soon as possible, take a few quiet minutes to reflect. Ask yourself:

  • What triggered my emotions? Maybe you felt people were questioning your authority or you didn’t feel you were coming from a place of power.
  • What did I feel – emotionally and physically?
  • How did I react? What did I say or do?
  • How did my response impact me and those involved?
  • How would I have preferred to respond?
  • What could I do differently next time?

Consider enlisting the help of a trusted colleague to provide an objective look at the situation and your reaction.

Once you’ve gotten some perspective and examined the lessons learned, complete the feedback loop by thinking of opportunities to apply the lessons going forward. You might create reminders to add certain mindfulness practices to your day.

Put science to work

As you gain insight into what makes you tick and how neuroscience can play a part in achieving goals, you can translate it into more effective coaching for your team’s development.

For more tips on how to be an effective leader, download our free magazine, The Insperity Guide to Leadership and Management.