cloud climberA new study, published in Social Neuroscience, addresses the question of inspirational coaching and mentoring. Acknowledging that effective coaching and mentoring is crucial to the success of both individuals and organisations, the researchers wanted to explore some of the neural underpinnings of different types of coaching.

Using brain scans to test two different coaching approaches, the results were dramatic. Working with groups of undergraduates, the researchers first approach mirrored traditional coaching methods by asking students to identify areas in which they might be struggling at school and think about ways to improve. They asked questions like: “What challenges have you encountered or do you expect to encounter in your experience here?” and “How are you doing with your courses?”

In contrast to this negative approach, they  focused on possibilities and positives with the second group, asking the students about their aspirations and urging them to visualize their future goals. They asked questions such as, “If everything worked out ideally in your life, what would you be doing in ten years?”

The fMRI scans of the two groups of students revealed some pronounced differences.  Coaching with with the positive approach stimulated areas involved in:

    • Visual processing, which come alive when we imagine future events
    • Global processing, which is the ability to see the big picture
    • Feelings of empathy and emotional safety
    • The motivation to actively pursue visionary goals rather than simply react to loss or fear

According to researchers at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, who reported on the study:

These differences in brain activity led the researchers to conclude that positive coaching effectively activates important neural circuits and stress-reduction systems in the body by encouraging mentees to envision a desired future for themselves.

While more research needs to be done and the encouraging effects of a positive coaching style shouldn’t exclude a judicious use of the more traditional find-the-problem-and-fix-it approaches when warranted, it’s reassuring to see tangible evidence for what we know works.

The positive coach spurs others to dream big, to reach for ambitious goals, and to strive for a personal best. And the positive coach also never forgets to celebrate the wins along the way.