The neuroscience of positive, vision-based coaching

Good coach­es get results, respect, and awards. But what makes a coach or men­tor good?

One school of thought says they should hold their mentees to spe­cif­ic per­for­mance bench­marks and help them reach those bench­marks by tar­get­ing their per­son­al weaknesses.

But new research sug­gests a dif­fer­ent tack—namely, to nur­ture a mentee’s strengths, aspi­ra­tions for the future, and goals for per­son­al growth. Indeed, stud­ies sug­gest that this pos­i­tive approach is more effec­tive at help­ing peo­ple learn and change; for instance, it helps train busi­ness school stu­dents to be bet­ter man­agers, and it is more effec­tive at get­ting patients to com­ply with doc­tors’ orders.

recent study indi­cates why this more pos­i­tive approach gets bet­ter results, using brain scans to explore the effects of dif­fer­ent coach­ing styles. Based on what’s hap­pen­ing in the brain, it seems, a more pos­i­tive approach might help peo­ple visu­al­ize a bet­ter future for themselves—and pro­vide the social-emo­tion­al tools to help them real­ize their vision.

In the study, pub­lished in Social Neu­ro­science, researchers col­lect­ed data from under­grad­u­ates at Case West­ern Reserve Uni­ver­si­ty. After com­plet­ing an ini­tial ques­tion­naire mea­sur­ing their emo­tion­al ten­den­cies, the stu­dents had two inter­views with­in five days.

One of the inter­views was a pos­i­tive-based coach­ing ses­sion in which the trained ‘pos­i­tive’ inter­view­er would ask ques­tions such as, “If every­thing worked out ide­al­ly in your life, what would you be doing in 10 years?”

The sec­ond, “neg­a­tive” inter­view­er took on a more tra­di­tion­al coach­ing style, with ques­tions designed to have the stu­dents assess their per­for­mance in terms of ide­al stan­dards: “What chal­lenges have you encoun­tered or do you expect to encounter in your expe­ri­ence here? How are you doing with your cours­es? Are you doing all of the home­work and readings?”

After both inter­views had been com­plet­ed, 20 of the stu­dents went into a func­tion­al MRI machine that mea­sured their brain activ­i­ty while they endured a third inter­view, con­duct­ed by video, with the same “pos­i­tive” and “neg­a­tive” inter­view­ers appear­ing at sep­a­rate times.

As the researchers pre­dict­ed, the stu­dents indi­cat­ed that the pos­i­tive inter­view­er inspired them and fos­tered feel­ings of hope far more effec­tive­ly than the neg­a­tive inter­view­er. Per­haps the more intrigu­ing results, though, con­cern the areas of the brain that were acti­vat­ed by the two dif­fer­ent approaches.

Dur­ing the encour­ag­ing inter­ac­tions with the pos­i­tive inter­view­er, stu­dents showed pat­terns of brain activ­i­ty that pri­or research has asso­ci­at­ed with the fol­low­ing qualities:

  • Visu­al pro­cess­ing and per­cep­tu­al imagery—these are the regions that kick into gear when we imag­ine some future event
  • Glob­al processing—the abil­i­ty to see the big pic­ture before small details, a skill that has been linked to pos­i­tive emo­tions and plea­sur­able engage­ment with the world
  • Feel­ings of empa­thy and emo­tion­al safety—like those expe­ri­enced when some­one feels secure enough to open up social­ly and emotionally
  • The moti­va­tion to pro-active­ly pur­sue lofty goals—rather than act defen­sive­ly to avoid harm or loss.

These dif­fer­ences in brain activ­i­ty led the researchers to con­clude that pos­i­tive coach­ing effec­tive­ly acti­vates impor­tant neur­al cir­cuits and stress-reduc­tion sys­tems in the body by encour­ag­ing mentees to envi­sion a desired future for themselves.

Although the authors acknowl­edge that much more research needs to be con­duct­ed on the top­ic, their results offer a first glimpse at the neu­ro­log­i­cal basis of why peo­ple coached by pos­i­tive, vision­ing-based approach­es tend to be more open emo­tion­al­ly, more com­pas­sion­ate, more open to ideas for improve­ment, and more moti­vat­ed to pro-active­ly make last­ing behav­ior changes than are those coached in ways that high­light their weaknesses.

With more research, sci­ence “may con­tribute to the elab­o­ra­tion of a phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly based the­o­ry of effec­tive coach­ing,” they write, “capa­ble of inform­ing the train­ing and social­iza­tion of peo­ple in a vari­ety of help­ing pro­fes­sions, such as doc­tors, nurs­es, teach­ers, and man­agers, not to men­tion parents.”

marshall-moose-moorePub­lished here by cour­tesy of Greater Good, an online mag­a­zine based at UC-Berke­ley that high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tific research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Mar­shall Moore grad­u­at­ed from Brown Uni­ver­si­ty with a degree in Bio­geo­chem­istry and is a Greater Good research assis­tant. He also writes and pod­casts at Adven­tur­ous Habits. 

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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