This article is the second in a series of four articles about Why Compassionate Coaching Gets Results (insert hyperlink). This article will explain the research foundation for articles #3 & #4.*
In August 2014, I had the opportunity to attend the Coaching Research Laboratory at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU). I found the information that I learned so useful that I’d like to share the good news.
Your Brain’s Positive and Negative Attractors
Dr. Richard Boyatzis gave a talk he called The Physiology of Coaching to the Positive Emotional Attractor. The Positive Emotional Attractor, or PEA, is the mental state we experience when we imagine a positive vision of the future. When we experience the PEA, we focus on optimism, hope, possibilities, dreams, vision, strengths, compassion, curiosity, learning, and experimentation.
There is a second mental state that he describes called the Negative Emotional Attractor, or NEA, which we enter when focusing on a specific task or problem. When we experience the NEA, we focus on problems, expectations, weaknesses, performance, obligations, and fear.
It’s apparent that the PEA is a lot more fun, right? Fun, that is, until you toggle back to your email inbox. Which could bring on some negative feelings about all those unrealistic Pollyannas who live in the PEA, apparently disconnected from reality.
And you would be right: we need the NEA to focus on setting goals, overcoming obstacles, and performing tasks with accuracy. Not much is going to get accomplished without engaging in task focus.
The PEA, NEA, and Your Body
Here’s the challenge: while you’re busting through your weekly marathon of task lists, the NEA is at work activating your sympathetic nervous system (the “fight-or-flight” response).
When our sympathetic nervous system activates, our heart rate increases, our blood pressure goes up, and our focus narrows. Evidence suggests that in the NEA, our social awareness – or ability to perceive the emotions and reactions of another person – can diminish or even disappear as the brain shuts down nonessential neural circuits.
Conversely, the PEA can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, a mode in which our brains release chemicals which slow the heart rate, lower our blood pressure, and broaden our awareness. There’s also evidence to suggest that in the PEA, our social awareness increases – we more interested in, and attuned to, new ideas and how other people feel.
Coaching with Compassion Activates the PEA
Now you know what these modes mean for your mood and your body – what do they mean for coaching someone?
Dr. Anthony Jack, the principal investigator of the Brain, Mind, and Consciousness Lab at CWRU, collaborated with Dr. Boyatzis on a coaching study using functional MRI (fMRI) technology.¹ In this study, they divided student volunteers into two groups. Group one experienced traditional coaching for compliance. In other words, the coaches asked volunteers to focus on the challenges they face in their academic performance and used problem-solving techniques. Group two experienced coaching with compassion. When being coached with compassion, volunteers are asked questions to help them imagine a positive vision of their future.
A week later, both sets of volunteers underwent fMRI scans. The volunteers watched video clips of their coach asking follow-up questions from the original meeting. Volunteers answered questions using a keypad while the scan continued.
The results were exciting. In the article Coaching with Compassion Can Light Up Human Thoughts, from the CWRU blog, Dr. Jack references a particularly revealing finding of significantly elevated activity in the visual cortex for volunteers coached with compassion.² The fMRI images had the neural signature for visioning – a process known to motivate learning and behavioral change. The images had the neural signature for visioning – known to motivate learning and behavioral change.
Dr. Boyatzis adds, “By spending 30 minutes talking about a person’s desired, personal vision, we could light up (activate) the parts of the brain 5-7 days later that are associated with cognitive, perceptual and emotional openness and better functioning. … The major implication is that people typically coach others in higher education, medicine and management with a bias toward the NEA and correcting what the person is doing that is wrong. Our study suggests that this closes down future, sustainable change, as we expected.”
You can hear both researchers explain their study and its implications on this video.
Bottom Line: We Need the PEA To Make Change Stick
When you initiate a discussion with someone about problematic behaviors which need to change – you may in fact prevent the very changes you seek. However if you start off asking about what success looks like, you have a much greater chance of seeing change that sticks.
¹ Jack, A., Boyatzis, R.E., Khawaja, M., Passarelli, A.,M. & Leckie, R. (2013). Visioning in the brain: an fMRI Study of inspirational coaching and Mentoring. Social Neuroscience. 8(4). 369-384.
*With appreciation to Dr. Ellen Van Oosten and the Coaching Research Lab at Case Western Reserve University for graciously granting permission for me to share about this invitation-only event on 8/28/14.