This article first appeared in Brainz Magazine June 2022.
Avoiding adding my two cents wasn’t easy to remember at the beginning of my coaching journey. Although well-intentioned, I’d find moments where questions didn’t form, only directives, like; ‘You might try discussing this situation with your boss.’ And ‘You should make a list of positive and negative aspects of the issue.’ Even though I had learned that giving suggestions, advice, and telling others what to do are big no-no’s in coaching. It wasn’t easy to let go and accept that change must come from within.
As a professionally trained coach my role is clear, I could, and should co-facilitate the process of neuroplasticity, which is described as when the brain is changed to function differently from how it previously functioned.
According to neuroscience research, people usually react to being told what to do from a part of the brain that is driven by survival. This means the brain if it is not already, goes to its default mode which triggers flight, freeze, or fight. The well-intended piece of advice that I offered could have been interpreted in the emotional brain as ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ Or ‘I have obviously done that, why are you insulting my intelligence?’ The coachee could create negative feelings about themself and/or the coach. Therefore, we must believe strongly that people are resourceful, and they must be in the driver’s seat of the agenda for change.
My brain-based coaching training taught me that people are much more committed to changing their behavior if they come up with solutions themselves. I have come to realize there are four skills, which I continue to develop, that are really helping my coachees get solution-oriented, to think, to bring awareness to their thinking process, and mindset for creating impactful change.
The Four Must-Haves:
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” ‒ Albert Einstein.
1. Focus on the solution, not the problem.
Problems are interesting, so it’s very easy to get distracted and caught up in the details of ‘why’ something is an issue. I observed that giving problems attention wasn’t helping my coachees, it brought on more stress and made me feel that I was responsible for solving their issues. When I developed the discipline of focusing on the solution, getting the coachee to visualize the ideal outcome opened their thinking about what it might take to achieve this specific result.
I confess it’s a different experience altogether, getting into solution thinking, observing the thinking process, and witnessing the rewire of the brain.
I suggest priming the brain to notice the desired vision, emotions, and behaviors to enable dopamine (the happy chemical) into the brain. This allows people to tap into creative problem-solving, engage and become more open. Neuroscience tells us that it’s difficult to stop doing something one has been doing (a habit) but, easier to start doing something new (a new habit) to replace the old habit by getting the brain to give attention to your intention which creates new neural pathways. A solution-oriented mindset permits the co-creation of very different energy.
2. Ask insightful questions.
Insightful questions are open-ended and can’t be answered with ‘yes or ‘no’. They are meant to incite more elaborate responses.
When an insightful question is asked right, it helps to provoke deeper thought, new perspectives, and understanding of a situation. Asking insightful questions opens thinking and changes the brain. We know from neuroscience that insights or ‘ah-ha’ moments happen when those new connections are made in the brain.
In a nutshell, the gateway to gaining committee to changing behaviors is asking insightful questions which helps people to open their thinking, stretch their thinking, and tap into the desired outcome.
“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” ― Voltaire
Some of my recent insightful questions I invite you to try;
1. How happy are you with the approach you’ve taken so far?
2. What would you like to be different?
3. What do you need to let go of?
4. How do you plan to motivate yourself when obstacles arise?
How we think impacts how we feel which drives our behaviors.
3. Hold the space
“Holding space” means being physically, mentally, and emotionally present for someone. This includes letting go of any ideas, influences, or interpretations of what is supposed to happen. Notice what exists and live in that moment. For many of us coaches, we often find that this is where the magic happens.
A large part of holding the space is silence, as some research suggests, Americans are more uncomfortable with silence and usually become suspicious. Where some other cultures judge silence as being reflective and very positive. As an American, I must confess that silence was one of my biggest challenges to develop – I am much more comfortable with this today. I became aware that when the silence is too long or too short, outcomes were mediocre at best. But when I am really tuned into the coaching presence, often when the silence gets uncomfortable enough, insights occur the magic happens!
In your next conversation, try holding the space, explore finding the sweet spot of silence, and notice what you notice.
4. Ask about Emotions
It is widely believed that understanding the connections between, ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ parts of our brain are signs of higher emotional intelligence. The more we question or bring awareness by thinking about what we feel and noticing when these feelings occur, the better we learn to regulate them.
Neuroscience research also informs us that when we label our emotions, we calm down. So, when you take that call from a colleague or that friend in need, ask them to label their emotions to help them
lower the intensity. Asking about emotions generates energy for the change and helps identify their current state.
As a coach, I help shine a spotlight on the coachee’s sense-making mindset so that their behaviors and actions are more informed. Sensemaking or sense-making is the process by which people give meaning to their collective experiences. It has been defined as "the ongoing retrospective development of plausible images that rationalize what people are doing" (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005, p. 409). Coaching allows for sense-making by “placing stimuli into some kind of framework” that enables us “to comprehend, understand, explain, attribute, extrapolate, and predict” (Starbuck & Milliken, 1988)
The four must-have skills for creating sustainable change include being solution-focused, asking insightful questions, holding the space, and asking about emotions. These four elements in combination with other tools, help set up my coachees for success. It helps them become more self-aware and in control of their mindset, not only in current challenges but in all areas of their lives, in an authentic way! It has been an insightful journey to find how my two cents aren’t needed much, if at all!
Let’s connect to discuss what you notice and if I can be useful to you in any way.