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The Neuroscience of Effective Coaching with Richard Boyatzis | Heal The Divide Podinar

April 14, 2021

“Our ability to sustain getting someone else excited and open to new ideas or possibilities starts with us.” -Richard Boyatzis


How can we mitigate the impact of stress in our daily lives? What does it mean to coach with compassion and how does it serve our clients in their desire for change? In this session, Richard Boyatzis joins Alison Whitmire, President of Learning in Action, and leads us through examples of how true, evidence-based coaching with compassion is key to development and more resonant relationships.


Richard Boyatzis is a Distinguished University Professor at Case Western Reserve University in the departments of Organizational Behavior, Psychology, Cognitive Science, and the HR Horvitz Chair in Family Business. Since 1967, he has used his Intentional Change Theory (ICT) to study how people and organizations engage in sustainable, desired change.


Richard is the author of more than 200 articles and nine books on leadership, emotional intelligence, competency development, coaching, neuroscience, and management education. His books include the international bestseller, Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence written with Daniel Goleman and Annie McKee and his most recent book, Helping People Change: Coaching with Compassion for Lifelong Learning and Growth written with Melvin Smith and Ellen Van Oosten.

Modern-Day Stress and the Need for Renewal

Right now in our world, we find ourselves under a tremendous amount of stress. Even before the pandemic, the amount of stress that we endure in our personal and professional lives regularly is beyond the norm that our bodies were designed to handle. What’s more, in our role as coaches, we have our clients’ issues to hold in addition to our own. Research shows that our emotions are contagious and much of the sharing of emotions happens at the subconscious level, such that we may not even realize it. This means that when we’re holding space for clients experiencing turmoil, it impacts our emotional state. If we’re not taking care of ourselves and tending to our own emotions, without even saying a word, we are more likely to bring our clients down than to help them in positive ways. Our ability to be effective in our coaching relationships starts with tending to ourselves.


The Power of Renewal in Our Personal & Professional Lives 

Although we can’t reverse the damage of the stress we experience, we can mitigate it by making ‘renewal’ activities a daily part of our work and lives. Engaging in restorative behaviors shifts our nervous system into parasympathetic — a state which supports calm and renewal. How we feel when we’re in renewal is different than rest or relaxation. Renewal allows our breathing to slow down and our bodies to release oxytocin. Renewal also benefits us by opening us up to our creativity, allowing us to skillfully handle complex concepts, and to be more accepting of people who we perceive as different from us.


How do we incorporate restoration and renewal into our lives and those of our clients? A simple way to introduce this into the coaching relationship is to invite the client into a deep breathing exercise at the beginning of each session. When it comes to our personal renewal, we likely have an intuitive sense of what brings us into a peaceful and restorative state. And when we look to research, there are specific activities that have proven effective in supporting our parasympathetic renewal:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Prayer
  • Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Massage
  • Moderate physical exercise
  • Feeling hopeful about the future
  • Being in a loving relationship
  • Helping those less fortunate, ill, or elderly
  • Having pets we can pet
  • Experiencing laughter, joy, and playfulness
  • Walking in nature


Coaching with Compassion: The Context for Effective Coaching

As coaches, our clients come to us with a desire for change. Each one of us have likely experienced situations with clients and in our own lives, where we commit to making a change and it might last for a day, a week, or even a few weeks, and then somehow we end up right back in our old patterns and behaviors.


How can we create the container for sustainable change in our work with clients? Traditionally, we’ve established our coaching relationships around the client’s presenting problem — what we can call coaching for ‘compliance’. What happens when we approach the relationship trying to fix problems is we unknowingly activate what are called the negative emotional attractors (NEA). This is why so many people can’t sustain change  — because there is a negative framing around the change. Focusing on their weaknesses and what they should do tends to elicit fear rather than inspiration, and it creates a dissonant relationship with our clients. The client may feel defensive and as a result, they shut down and aren’t open to new possibilities for themselves. Additionally, centering our coaching on goals can bring up a similar negative reaction and send the client into stress. Goals are largely not motivational in setting the context for coaching and are better used later in the coaching process.


Sustained, desired change almost always starts in our positive emotional attractors (PEA). Shifting from the more traditional model of coaching for compliance to coaching with compassion presents us with a new opportunity. And in this case, we’re including in our definition of compassion, feeling for people in their pain and also in joy and growth. Research shows that coaching with compassion opens people up to sustained change. Positive emotional attractors focus on possibilities and dreams, the client’s strengths, and inspire excitement about trying something new. Cultivating joy and possibility creates a resonant coaching relationship, inviting the client into a positive emotional state and as a result, truly desiring the change they seek.


It’s also key to understand here that we need both positive and negative emotional attractors to survive. Because of our conditioning as humans, our bodies default to negative, fear-based thinking to protect us. So we have to intentionally focus on the positive. People need performance management and development, so coaching for compliance is relevant at times when we need to provide feedback. Doing them at the same time, however, reduces the effectiveness of both.



Choosing to incorporate renewal activities daily, in both our personal lives and our coaching sessions, is a proven way to reduce the impact of the inevitable stress we experience. For effective coaching, research clearly shows that the most effective context is a focus on the client’s vision or dream, rather than a presenting problem or goal-setting lens. When we set the stage of our coaching from a compassionate and positive place, we create caring and resonant relationships that support our clients’ to open to new possibilities and create lasting change in their lives.



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