Coaching Solutions

Living the Hybrid of Applied Neuroscience and Coaching

What does a coach need to know about applying neuroscience for greater wellbeing, resilience, and performance? Here is one overarching approach that introduces the answer.

Authors Tyler Phillips (Consultant: Research and Content) and Dr Etienne van der Walt (neurologist and CEO & co-founder of Neurozone®)

Over the last decade or more, the world of coaching has been embracing the field of neuroscience ever more closely. It is certainly useful for any coaching endeavor to understand the many ways in which biology intersects with psychology to influence how we can (and cannot) most effectively achieve our goals and transform our lives. At the same time, translating the vast, complex, and nuanced knowledge in the neurosciences into clear, concise, practicable insights for the ‘ordinary’ person can be challenging. We easily run the risk of taking a reductive approach to this knowledge, over-simplifying some complexity that needs to be kept intact. For example, forming habits is not only about ‘hacking your dopamine’, nor is regulating your emotions just about managing your fight-or-flight response. Moving with reductive ideas like these, we lose the real value in neuroscientific evidence and end up (quite unintentionally) misguiding a client. However, we also can’t keep our lab coats on and stay waxing intellectual about it all, because that would make the already challenging task of mental and behavioral change even more difficult (and alienating) for a client. 

That we need to work with both complexity and simplicity – so that we maintain the integrity of the science while making those insights clear, effective, and actionable – speaks to a powerful approach that the neuroscience of coaching must proceed with. It might be called something like ‘tending to the living hybrid’. Where there are two seemingly discrete or oppositional things, we must turn to the ‘third thing’ (the hybrid), which is the dynamic (living) relationship or connection between them. Admittedly, this insight is itself an example of how challenging it is to translate the convoluted into the plain and simple! Luckily, however, the rest of this article unpacks its meaning by exploring Neurozone®’s approach to coaching individuals and teams for greater wellbeing, resilience, and high performance. 

Resilience as the living hybrid of surviving and thriving

At the core of Neurozone®’s approach to optimizing the brain-body system is the innate but changeable capacity of resilience. Broadly, resilience is the capacity to cope successfully in the face of stressors or adversity. ‘Successful coping’ means that we return to baseline or healthy functioning after we encounter stressors (i.e., we ‘bounce back’) and, as a result, we enhance our resources to deal with future stressors (i.e., we ‘bounce forward’). From this, we can see how resilience both helps us survive (overcome challenges instead of being overcome by them) and thrive (grow and move towards higher and higher success). 

When it comes to surviving, resilience protects us against the development of mental illnesses related to chronic stress. This much was established very robustly in Neurozone®’s peer-reviewed paper, 'The development and validation of the Resilience Index', which showed that higher (individual) resilience tends to mean fewer (and/or less severe) symptoms of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and insomnia. Resilience also protects against burnout, a very common condition in today’s frantic world that many clients may bring to the coaching and consulting room. In the face of burnout, depression, anxiety, and the like, it becomes much more difficult for anyone to accomplish their goals, whether they be personal or professional. By reducing the degree of these psychological pressures, resilience removes obstacles toward achieving these goals. This is why increasing resilience ‘unlocks’ the capacity for holistic high performance – or thriving. Neurozone® has also supported this by demonstrating, for example, that higher resilience tends to mean higher academic achievement in university students

From this we can see that, although surviving and thriving at first appear to be quite different ‘states’ or ‘processes’ of engaging with life, they are actually not so neatly separated in the context of resilience. When we enhance our survival (by reducing certain psychiatric symptoms, for example), we also enhance our potential to thrive. Different client cases and circumstances may mean that greater support with survival is needed than with thriving (or vice versa), but in either case, evaluating a client’s resilience seems like it will always be a valuable first port of call. Then, of course, comes the question of how to best go about enhancing this resilience. 

Hybridity in granular resilience interventions and their nervous system mechanisms 

There are many behavioral and psychosocial ways to enhance resilience that have measurable effects in our nervous system. Interestingly, many of these learnable behaviors and mental/emotional states – such as a sense of agency, social connectedness and support, and positive emotional outlooks – have also been shown to enhance thriving. As for how these behavioral and psychosocial interventions do this, we return to a key neuroscientific mechanism focus that is commonly referenced in coaching: the stress and fear responses. 

When we encounter a stressor, challenge, or obstacle (and depending on how we interpret it through our life histories and the mental maps they’ve made), one subsystem of the brain reacts very quickly, activating the fight-or-flight response via the amygdala and sympathetic nervous system, as well as the stress (cortisol-releasing) response via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Let’s call that a ‘lizard brain response’. Then, another more sophisticated subsystem, the prefrontal cortex, takes a more measured or thoughtful look at the situation, tones down that fear and stress activity, decides on a better way to respond to the problem, and learns from the process. Let’s call this the ‘human brain response’. What often happens when we are overwhelmed with chronic stress is that the lizard brain response is way too active while the human brain response is under-active.

When it comes to the granular interventions to improve resilience, most of them optimize the connectivity and relations between these two subsystems, so that the prefrontal cortex is better at regulating the activity of the amygdala. This doesn’t mean that they only power-up the ‘human brain response’, or only power-down the ‘lizard brain response’. To regard one brain structure or system as totally ‘bad’ or ‘good’ for resilience and thriving is misguided: The amygdala, for example, not only facilitates ‘fear’ activity, but also plays part in the experience of rewards, and in any case, quick fear/stress responses are vital for survival in many situations. Rather, we optimize our brain-body system by improving the way these two subsystems communicate with each other. So, to coach a client through these behavioral interventions effectively, we coach the ‘hybrid’ of their subsystems (their whole brain) to respond more adaptively to the ‘living’ (dynamic, changing) pressures and needs it has. 

Self and group hybridity in the team as a living brain 

The individual brain-body system has been the main focus of our attention so far, but a team is arguably a better illustration of this complex ‘whole’ that emerges from hybridity. A team is not simply a group of individuals, especially when it comes to resilience. The former may still just carry out siloed, independent work. Yet, among teams, work is by its nature interdependent: members must coordinate their efforts, collaborate in problem-solving, and rely on each other instrumentally (but also sometimes socially and emotionally) to accomplish their objectives and operate as a unit. This inherent nature of teamwork shows that a team is a larger collective entity, a whole that emerges (but is distinct from) the sum of its parts. Much like a combination of coordinated cells gives rise to an organ, and a combination of coordinated organs gives rise to an organism, a combination of coordinated organisms (individuals) gives rise to a team as a living system.   

This is not just a metaphor; there is actual evidence that a ‘collective brain’ exists, and that this brain can accomplish more than any one individual brain involved in the team. For example, several studies have been conducted observing the brain activity (electroencephalography signals) between people working on tasks either together as a team or as separate individuals. These studies have observed, firstly, that for those who operate as a team (i.e. cooperate and collaborate to solve the problem), their brain waves tend to synchronize (i.e. to fire in the same patterns), while the brain waves of separately working individuals do not. Secondly, those who work in a team (and have synchronized brain waves) tend to outperform the (group of) individuals who try to figure out the problem by themselves

This is why coaching to optimize team resilience doesn’t mean coaching to optimize the resilience of the individuals in it (although there is value in that as well). Rather, it means coaching to optimize the connectedness and collaboration between members, so that something like interbrain synchrony (the ‘hybrid’ brain) can emerge, and the team can perform at a much higher level. Importantly, this connectedness and collaboration must also respond to and withstand changes in the team’s circumstances and demands, and so it is also a ‘living’ (dynamic) capacity that must be continuously monitored and supported.     

Summary and invitation 

Hopefully, this key approach to the neuroscience of coaching – tending to the living hybrid – is clearer now. To coach a client toward an enhanced ability to survive or to thrive, we must look to the dynamic capacity of resilience. To enhance individual resilience, we must coach a client into greater awareness and command of the dynamic interplay between their ‘lizard brain response’ and their ‘human brain response’. To get a team to cultivate greater collective resilience, we must coach the individual members to connect to and collaborate from the perspective of the living team brain – a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Tending to ‘what lives between’ – between basic well-being and elevated performance, between instincts and intentions, and between the individual and the group – is how we help ourselves and others to not just achieve goals, but keep ourselves flourishingly attuned to a purpose in life. 

Unpacking a whole assortment of insights like this, including, especially how to apply them in real-life for practical outcomes, is what the Neurozone® Advanced Course (NAC) for coaches and consultants is all about. Led by experts in neurology, psychology, and organizational psychology, the course offers a comprehensive, applied understanding of resilience-building for greater wellbeing, performance, and collaboration. Making sure not to complicate what is simple, or oversimplify what is necessarily complex, the NAC makes sure to deliver on the promise of applying neuroscience properly for a truly transformative approach to coaching. 

How can we help you?

We specialize in training professionals who use a coaching approach to optimize their people.

Contact Cuan Macnab-Holding, Neurozone Consultant: Business Development & Organizational Resilience



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