In Coaching Tool-Kit

Do you find yourself trying to get someone to change their behavior, and as hard as you’re trying, nothing seems to work? In my own executive coaching practice, when I find myself trying too hard with a coaching client, I know I’m doing something wrong. I stop and take a deep breath. When we’re trying hard, we’re often working against ourselves because we create unconscious resistance in the person we’re coaching. Emerging neuroscience explains why.

In a fascinating talk at The Conference Board’s 2018 Executive Coaching conference, Dr. Richard Boyatzis (a leading research professor in organizational behavior and cognitive science at Case Western University) explained how our brains see-saw between two opposing domains. We can either be in our analytic reasoning brain (focused on goals, measures, accountability) or in our empathic understanding brain (focused on dreams, aspirations). One brain state actually represses the other. Research suggests that when we are in our analytic brain we tend to be more resistant to change. Here’s how to connect with the brain that is more open to change. 

Let’s think about your own work environment. Chances are that most of us spend most of our time at work in our analytic brains. So as leaders coaching our people for change, we need to proactively engage the empathic brain.

Neuroscience is teaching us about emotional contagion (i.e. our own brain state and emotions unconsciously impact the other person). This means that when we connect to our own sense of purpose, aspirations, and dreams, we bring that inspired state of being to our people. It also means that we work with others to discover where they derive purpose, meaning and satisfaction. This creates the optimum environment and relationship that promotes openness to growth and new learning. Of course, we need to set goals. But start with dreams and aspirations first. Here’s the difference:

  • Analytic Brain Question: What’s your goal for losing weight? How will you measure success?
  • Empathic Brain Question: Let’s imagine your healthiest self. What do you see? How are you feeling? What inspires you? What’s energizing and exciting about this vision?

As you engage with people in their empathic brain, it creates energy and momentum for change. Here are a set of questions that I use with my executive coaching clients that you may find useful to ask yourself as well as those you are coaching. I recommend you start with yourself because you are the catalyst for change.

  • What do you feel good about (or grateful for) right now?
  • What’s working well?
  • Imagine being 80 years old and looking back on a meaningful and fulfilling life. What would have made it so?
  • In three years you’ve been wildly successful. Describe what that feels like? What would be different?
  • What’s important to you in this situation? What does success look like?
  • Who are people that inspire you? What qualities do you see in them?
  • What have been some meaningful moments for you? What most resonated for you?

As we listen deeply to the answers we start uncovering aspirations and values important to ourselves and others. We also start changing our own state of being to one that is empathic, inspired, grateful and open. Once we help others discover what’s meaningful and aspirational for them, we can become co-creators in change.

A version of this post first appeared in my Forbes Leadership Blog.


Showing 4 comments
  • Vibha Zaman

    Very insightful and so true. Thanks for sharing!


    • Henna Inam

      Thank you Vibha. I hope you get to apply this to your own growth journey!

  • Notari

    Great approach in people that inspire us.

  • Rebecca Caputo

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! This post is so helpful in understanding how effective change management works. (Professionally and personally) Dr Boyatzis is amazing and his research has changed the way I think, work, and coach. I love your post and your passion for sharing helpful information.

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