Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Interconnection ~ Grounding the ICF competencies in neuroscience

We are pleased to share an article entitled “Interconnection ~ Grounding the ICF competencies in neuroscience – Part 1written by Susan Britton and Jessica Burdett.

As a professional coach, you know that coaching works! You also know how it works–through your embodiment and expression of core coaching competencies. And now, research helps us understand why coaching works – specifically what’s happening in the brain and body that contributes to lasting change.

This article pairs various neuroscience principles with the ICF core competencies #1-4 and offers practical suggestions for leveraging them in coaching (in the next issue, we’ll discuss competencies #5-8).

These pairings are suggested starting points for consideration. Just as each ICF competency supports another, the brain and body are highly interconnected, as the whole attempts to operate in balance and homeostasis.


When we are with people who demonstrate ethical behaviors, it sets the stage for us to feel safe. Distinct biological markers emerge in this state: the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge; heart rate and respiration is normal; blood pressure lowers; and, key for the ethics competency, vagal tone improves.

Neuroscience Principle: Vagal Tone

The vagus nerve is responsible for the regulation of internal organ functions, such as digestion, heart rate, respiratory rate, and more. It sends information about the state of the inner organs up to the brain.

Vagal tone is a measure of how well the heart responds to stressors:

  • Low vagal tone is associated with poor emotional control and sensitivity to stress.
  • High vagal tone is associated with positive moods and the ability to relax faster after stress. Vagal tone directly impacts how openly and flexibly clients can navigate the stress associated with change. A coach with high vagal tone can help restore a stressed client back to calm.

Coaching Tips

  • Consider where your vagal tone typically operates. A wearable device that measures heart rate and heart rate variability can give clues to our bodies’ natural baselines.
  • Note your own physiological response to stress (whether in a coaching session or elsewhere) and how flexibly your heart rate can return to a resting state after encountering stressors.


ICF makes clear that embodying a coaching mindset is not an overnight process! It involves a learning orientation that takes place throughout the trajectory of one’s professional journey.

Neuroscience Principles – Neuroplasticity & Metacognition

Two principles that undergird mindset are neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to form new neural connections and metacognition – our ability to think about our thinking and emotions.

  • Neuroplasticity – Strengthening & Pruning of Neural Connections: Neuroplasticity is essential for learning and memorizing new patterns of thinking, emotions, and behaviors. We can learn to strengthen and prune connections that reinforce a coaching mindset.
  • Metacognition – Awareness of and Reflection on Thinking & Emotions: It’s been said that the brain is a ‘meaning-making machine.’ We take in information, interpret it, mix in emotion,nand create narratives that help us make sense of what we see, hear, feel and experience. In more formal terms, metacognition comprises both the ability to be aware of one’s cognitive processes (metacognitive knowledge) and to regulate them (metacognitive control) – skills that support the flexible thinking required for a coaching mindset.

Coaching Tips

To leverage neuroscience concepts for a coaching mindset, we can ask ourselves:

  • What are the coaching beliefs, emotions and behaviors that I want to repeat in order to reinforce new neural connections?
  • What practices will allow me to reflect on my own beliefs and emotions?
  • Who are the mentors, colleagues and friends I trust to stretch and support my coaching mindset?
  • What are the signs of progress that will tell me my coaching mindset is evolving and deepening?


Clients come to coaching seeking change. At the same time, they are typically dealing with myriad uncertainties, priorities, and distractions – all of which take energy.

Neuroscience Principles: Seeking & Predictions

These neuroscience concepts shed light on how agreements can lessen uncertainties and channel the client’s energies toward meaningful goals:

  • Seeking: The brain of every human is wired with basic emotional systems, including a seeking instinct (e.g., for food, shelter, relationships, professional rewards). Although there can be a measure of excitement associated with seeking, clients can also experience a high degree of uncertainty as they look toward their goals. Uncertainty is inherent in seeking because we must both determine what we want, and consider how hard it will be to obtain it.
  • Predictions: The brain has a strong predisposition to anticipate what will happen in the future. When uncertainty is high, negative predictions can create worry and increase stress. Supporting clients to predict possibilities can shift them from anxiety towards connection and creation. The brain considers both internal and external probabilities as part of its predictions – do I have what it takes to perform, and will that performance generate what I expect?

Coaching Tips

Consider a two-fold process of agreeing on both WHAT and HOW to support the brain’s propensity for seeking, predictions, and attention:

  • WHAT: Explore the client’s thinking around external probabilities, such as, “What do you anticipate this goal will bring?” or, “How will you be different as a leader as a result?”
  • HOW: Explore thinking around internal probabilities, such as, “What would need to change in the way you’re approaching this?” or, “What would give you a sense that you’ve got this?”

As coaches, we hold a view of the client as creative and resourceful. Our questions during the establishment of agreements can help reinforce this truth within the client, so that they also see themselves in this light. When this happens, they can make predictions that are founded within their wisdom and resourcefulness.


Clients will inevitably navigate uncertainty in their quest for change – sometimes uncertainty involves steering through minor unknowns, and sometimes uncertainty means negotiating major landmines that may threaten finances, relationships, or reputation.

As neuro-informed coaches, we can help eliminate one important element of uncertainty for clients: how they will be treated in the coaching relationship. Certainty of trust and safety lower threat and free the client’s resources for change.

Neuroscience Principles: Oxytocin & Emotional Contagion

To cultivate trust and safety, consider these neuroscience informed principles:

  • Oxytocin influences trust: Oxytocin is one of several hormones that contribute to experiencing positive emotions. Known for its role in promoting social behaviors, studies show that oxytocin is associated with increases in empathy, as well as decreases in fear of betrayal and anxiety. In one study, subjects who experienced empathy showed a 47% increase in oxytocin9 from baseline, along with higher levels of generosity. Another oxytocin study looked at its impacts on processing embarrassment, with results suggesting that oxytocin reduced feelings of pain and anxiety. Reduced activity in the neural circuits involved in emotional arousal gave subjects a broader perspective on what was happening.
  • Emotional contagion impacts a coach-client relationship: As social creatures, we are capable of spreading our emotional states – for good or bad. Coaches can spread emotions to clients, and clients can spread emotions to coaches. This can happen through mirroring and physiological synchrony. In mirroring, the brain unconsciously synchronizes movements with the faces, voices, and postures of others. With physiological synchrony, our central and autonomic nervous systems can gradually synchronize in the presence of another person – similarities can occur in heart rate and heart rate variability and skin conductance.

Coaching Tips

Our clients’ ability to feel a sense of safety in taking risks is critical for successful change. As coaches, we can:

  • Create a body-felt sense of safety within ourselves, acknowledging that both we and our clients have unique talents, insights, and experiences that will guide us.
  • Be aware of our own internal and external state (facial expressions, body language, voice tonality) to support mirroring and emotional contagion. Express empathy and support in a manner that hears the clients’ concerns, without adding worry, pity, or an insensitive cheerleader quality.

An abundance of neuroscience research can contribute to our understanding of why coaching works. Consider how you can stretch and adjust your coaching based on the insights of neuroscience. Watch for Part 2 of this article in an upcoming issue, with neuroscience principles supporting ICF competencies 5-8.

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