Coaching and the … THREE brains?

Creative Commons "Internal Organs of the Human Body from The Household Physician, 1905" by WIlliam Creswell is licensed under CC BY 2.0>
Creative Commons “Internal Organs of the Human Body from The Household Physician, 1905” by William Creswell is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Brain science has proven that the body contains not one but three brains – neural networks in the head, heart, and gut. The head uses logic to make meaning. The heart processes feelings, core values, and relationships. And the gut is grounded in our identity and self-preservation instincts. It is also the nurturer of courage.

The most effective coaching will help clients access all three brains. For example, my default is to think a problem to death. I need a coach who will help me get out of my head and tap into my emotions and sense of self. On the other hand, a person who tends to go immediately to the heart may need coaching prompts to think through the logistics of a particular goal.

Many coaches move between these brains intuitively, and my coaching and the brain class has helped me clarify the distinctions between them. This knowledge will enable me to pinpoint better where coachees are coming from and where they might need to be challenged to go. I look forward to implementing this new understanding to help my clients!

The downside of fear

Creative Commons "No fear!" by milena mihaylova is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Creative Commons “No fear!” by milena mihaylova is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

You might be asking, “Is there an upside to fear?” Sure there is. Fear is the emotion that tells us to run when there is danger. It’s a survival instinct. Fear cannot be our persistent state, however, because anxiety blocks learning. The part of the brain that deals in fear – the amygdala – focuses all the brain’s resources on self-preservation, making it impossible to take in new information and strategize movement beyond the moment.

Logic, then, is not the ticket out of this loop. Luckily, we have other options. We can take deep breaths, drawing our focus to another part of the body. We can break down the fear-inducing situation and find the lowest-hanging fruit to pick. We can tap into our imaginations and name the step forward we would take if there were no risks. We can utilize metaphors to look at our problem in a different way.

If your amygdala is in hyperdrive, how will you stop fear from feeding on itself? If your congregation’s amygdala is stuck in an endless loop, what will you do to switch the current so that your people can live into their collective calling?

Making connections

In school I was a great test-taker. I studied, I regurgitated…and then I promptly lost most of that hard work. This is why I made a 5 on the AP Calculus exam but can’t do basic algebra now.

Creative Commons "The Bermuda Triangle" by NOAA's National Ocean Service's photostream is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Creative Commons “The Bermuda Triangle” by NOAA’s National Ocean Service’s photostream is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

This week I learned in my “coaching and the brain” class what created this mental Bermuda Triangle. By preparing myself to respond to test-type questions – for which I was supposed to know the (one) right answer – I was taking in isolated bits of information and not connecting them well to concepts that were already in my longer-term memory. That meant the knowledge never got fully assimilated.

Coaches, however, ask discovery-type questions. These queries are open-ended. They are designed to help the respondent comb his/her memory for various pieces of information and then build bridges between them to create new ideas. That’s what (ideally) leads to “aha!” moments.

No matter how life-changing these new ideas are, however, they can be sucked down into the Bermuda Triangle too if they are not quickly applied. Brain research shows that concepts must be acted upon within 24-72 hours if they are to find a home in long-term memory. In other words, use it or lose it.

I will be asking more questions in upcoming coaching calls to help coachees “lock in” the good work they are doing. What great ideas do you need to act on right now – at least in part – so that they don’t disappear, never to be heard from again?

Tapping into what you don’t know you know

Monday was the first of eight sessions in “Coaching as a Learning Catalyst,” an online class I’m taking. The course teaches basic brain science so that the participants can better utilize coachees’ cognitive preferences and learning styles to promote forward movement.

An underlying theory for this class is the knowledge model (from Smart Things to Know About: Knowledge Management by Thomas Koulopoulos and Carl Frappaolo), which divides information into four types:

  • what we know that we know (I’m ready for the test!)
  • what we know that we don’t know (I need to take a class on X subject.)
  • what we don’t know that we don’t know (Ignorance is bliss.)
  • what we don’t know that we know (I have bits of information, but I haven’t connected all the dots yet.)
Creative Commons "brain power" by Allan Ajifo is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Creative Commons “brain power” by Allan Ajifo is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The goal of learning is to know that we know. Traditional teaching moves students from knowing that they don’t know toward true understanding. The purview of coaching, however, is helping people get from what they don’t know that they know toward confidence and a well-informed plan. The focused questions that coaches ask prompt coachees to bridge the gaps between pieces of information they already have. Unlike purging the brain after a big test, then, the coachee is more likely to retain the connections and act on them, because the parts of the equation were already ingrained.

I’m excited about this class, and I look forward to sharing and using what I (currently) know that I don’t know!