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Episode 35

The Neuroscience of Resilient Leadership

Ann Betz
February 13, 2019
77 minutes

As the coaching industry booms, coaches are seeking ever-increasing levels of expertise to help their clients. One source of high-octane insight is neuroscience.

In this animated conversation, Neuroscientist and Coach Ann Betz explains the relevance of this field in coaching, takes us deep into how we can work with stress by manipulating neurotransmitters through coaching techniques, and outlines the two cognitive networks we need to be aware of to help our clients function optimally.

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The Role of Neuroscience in Coaching

There is an increasing desire from coaches and clients to understand why something works, how certain cognitive or embodied exercises produce change. Understanding some of the mechanisms by which we create changes in the brain opens more doors because you can rationally explain to audiences who demand logical, linear explanations.

Understanding the impact of stress on the brain for example, is likely to be helpful. The brain has a sweet spot for stress; a certain amount is good for it. But if you go over that threshold you reduce its ability to engage in high level thinking, memory formation, empathy, and abstract thinking.

With clients you need to identify whether they’re understimulated or overstimulated in order to identify what their stress levels are coming from. You can do this by listening to what they’re saying to you about their state. Usually they’re overstimulated, so they may say they feel irritable, impatient, unable to focus.

Coping with Stress

So what does neuroscience teach us about how to deal with stress? There are six simple things you can do, all of which diminish the stress chemicals in the brain:

  • Don’t suppress it (share it with someone)
  • Name it (get specific about how you feel)
  • Controlling the environment (is there anything you can change in your environment that is generating stress)
  • Focus on values and purpose (how they are activated/not)
  • Take a new perspective (how else could you view the situation)
  • Be mindful and present (slow down, calm nervous system)

Naming it is one of the more impactful things you can do. The research shows that the more granular you get about your state the more it helps because it activates the prefrontal cortex. The limbic system is activated through cortisol and adrenaline and other stress hormones. When the prefrontal cortex is activated, the neurotransmitter GABA is released, which lessens the effect of the stress hormones.

If you grew up in a high stress situation (abuse, poverty, trauma) the voice from the limbic system and amygdala is quite loud. For these people it’s important to help them amp up the volume of the voice of the prefrontal cortex. Neuroplasticity means that the more they practice speaking from that part of the brain (more rational than emotional), the easier it gets.

Two Cognitive Networks

Our brains have two main ways of functioning. One is the Task Positive Network and the other is the Default Mode Network. These are neural networks that fire together in certain circumstances. To be a powerful leader you need to be able to shift between these two as needed.

The Task Positive Network is active when we’re actively paying attention. This means tasks that involve execution and getting things done. It keeps us very present and goal-oriented. In this state there is no inspiration, vision, holding another person’s perspective, bigger picture, or flow.

The Default Mode Network is active when your mind wanders when you’re not actively paying attention and there are two modes: up, into vision or down, into rumination. This network’s activity is also referred to as mental time travel as it generally focusses on either the past or the future. This can be useful or destructive so you need to be able to use default mode consciously.

Resources Mentioned:

About Ann

Ann Betz
Ann Betz

Ann Betz is the co-founder of BEabove Leadership and an international speaker and trainer on the intersection of neuroscience, coaching and human transformation. She is the co-developer/leader of BEabove Leadership's popular training program for advanced coaches: Neuroscience, Consciousness and Transformational Coaching. Ann is considered a thought leader in the field of neuroscience and coaching and serves as the neuroscience consultant to The Coaches Training Institute.

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