Neuroscience of Coaching



Neuroscience of Coaching

 By Dr. Nancy Zentis


Executive coaching is gaining in popularity as a valuable tool for leadership development.  The field of neuroscience is providing a new approach to coaching, using techniques to better understand the inner workings of the brain as evidence of the benefits of coaching.

Neuroscience is the scientific study of the nervous system including the brain, the spinal cord and networks of sensory nerve cells, or neurons, found throughout the body. Neuroscience advances the understanding of human thought, emotion and behavior.

The biggest impact of coaching occurs when there is a shift in a person’s thinking about their perceptions and how they see the world change through the questions that are asked.  Neuroscience research demonstrates how these shifts are manifested in the brain.

A recent study demonstrates that when coaches provide a more positive approach, to nurture a coachee’s strengths, aspirations for the future, and goals for personal growth, the coachee achieves better results. Based on what’s happening in the brain, it appears 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.

Experiences drive our Behavior:

In the past, researchers thought that the human brain was hard-wired and predetermined, but they have learned that the brain is soft wired and can even be rewired through experiences.  Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe the process in which many of the structures of the brain can be modified by experiences and rewire the brain.


How can Coaches benefit from the field of Neuroscience?

Coaching borrows techniques from the field of neuroscience to create a positive environment for the client to grow, gain confidence, change behavior, and sustain the new behavior.

  1. If you’re a coach you know that you can facilitate changes in:
    • thinking (beliefs and attitudes)
    • emotions (more mindfulness and resilience)
    • behavior (new healthy habits)


  1. Coaching builds the psychological skills needed to support lasting change such as:


  • mindfulness
  • self-awareness
  • self-motivation
  • resilience
  • optimism
  • self-efficacy


  1. Coaching identifies and develops appropriate interventions to initiate and maintain sustainable change.


  1. Coaching can be thought of as a strategic and purposeful ‘tool’ to facilitate change to help shape neural pathways.


Different Coaching Techniques

There are many coaching techniques that can be used to rewire the brain and increase the brain’s capacity to learn and change behavior.


Visioning –  Is a whole brain method for realizing your dreams in all areas of life to imagine what is possible for achieving goals


Past, Present, Future Scenario – A technique used to help a coachee to think about:

  1. What is currently happening
  2. What has happened in the past
  3. To draw conclusions about the present and past and then move those conclusions into the future


Appreciative Inquiry – Focuses on discussing what is working well by engaging coachees to seek self-determined change


Stop, Reflect, and Write –  Allows coaches to use silence as a tool; to reflect on a question, and write down their thoughts before speaking


Brainstorming – A technique used to generate ideas for solving problems and exploring new possibilities


Positive Self-Talk – Focusing your inner voice on positive thoughts and avoiding negative self-talk: I appreciate, I value, I’m proud, I’m successful, I can do it!


Meditation or quiet moments – A popular technique used to quiet the mind. According to David Rock, an expert in neuroscience, a quiet mind allows the weak connections of non-conscious thought processes to rise to the awareness level – unconscious consciousness. Allowing the mind to become quiet through mediation or quieting, helps to unleash forgotten thoughts or new innovative ideas.  Notice when this happens, shortly before you wake or after you have gone to bed and you are relaxed.


Taking a break – Most of us marvel at the power of the unconscious brain over the conscious brain.  When we tackle problems that are too big for our conscious mind to solve, we should take a break from the activity. Your unconscious state is still activated and continues to work on solving the problem.


Reframing or gaining a new perspective – This process of reframing during the coaching conversation to clarify or challenge questions to help the client experience an “aha” moment.  The moment the client gains a new perspective and can release themselves from their emotional triggers, they become better equipped to change their behaviors. The goal is to lower the intensity of negative emotions.  If the client suppresses emotions, it has the opposite effect, making the emotion more intense.  Suppressed emotions can increase stress and in the long term can cause memory loss.


Stress management – According to a study at Yale University, managing stress may help increase your brain functioning, reducing shrinkage and loss of the important connections (synapses) in the brain.


Exercise – Several studies have shown that aerobic exercise increases new neurons in the brain which is good news for memory, brain growth, and the repair of brain cells. Exercise enhances several neurotransmitters, which play a key role in improving mental health.


Sleep!!!: High quality sleep, naps, or even a five-minute meditation changes your neurochemistry in a way that helps you process information.


Using techniques borrowed from the field of Neuroscience can benefit both the coach and the coachee in developing their relationship, building trust, and creating a nurturing environment that encourages the coachee to explore new possibilities.


IOD offers an online Executive Coaching Certification Program to help coaches advance in their career and build their reputation as an effective coach. This program provides participants with the tools and skills needed to develop an integrated executive coaching strategy.


The Executive Coaching Certification Program (ECCP) is offered online, over 8 months, meeting 3 hours per month.  Each session is facilitated live, through Go-to-training.  Our expert faculty provide interactive discussions, examples, tools, guidelines, and resources to enrich your learning.


Author:  Nancy Zentis, Ph.D., CEO and Founder of Institute of OD.  Dr. Zentis is an experienced coach, facilitator and OD Consultant with over 30 years of experience.  She is the author of many articles on Executive Coaching and facilitates IOD’s Executive Coaching Certification Program.


Institute of OD, IOD, offers online certification programs for those interested in Organization Development, Talent Management, Leadership Development and Executive Coaching, as well as OD Advanced Skills courses for ongoing learning.  Nancy can be contacted at  For more information about our OD certification programs and short courses, visit our website at


7 Principles of neuroscience every coach should know, by Sarah McKay, 6-22-2014,


Coaching Through the Frame of Neuroscience, by Rachel Govender,


Neuroscience of Good Coaching, by Marshall Moore, 2-18-2014,




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