Keep your coaching hat on, and empower the neurocircuitry of your clients

There is an idea that, as coaches, we wear different hats in our coaching conversations, which is an interesting idea to me. What I often hear from coaches is, “Well, I needed to share this bit of information… for the good of my client. So, I take the coach hat off and put on the consultant hat.” In this article, I will noodle on this idea of the hat we wear. And, explore if our expertise is really for the benefit of the client? Or for the benefit of the coach?

Learn about the neuroscience of how people's minds work from a Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman BarretThe Neuroscience

I recently listened to Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain, by Lisa Feldman Barrett. Dr. Feldman Barrett is a Neuroscientist and Psychologist. She makes some complex science easily assessable on how our minds are actually wired and how our experiences tune and prune the neural wiring that we ultimately hardwire. Neurons that fire together wire together, as the saying still goes.

Our brain is a network that is a control center for survival, continually monitoring our body budget. Our brain has tuned and pruned specific neural networks based on the norms of our culture, context, social, and survival systems. That means that each brain you encounter is an utterly unique entity. Therefore, jumping into advising may not be even a little bit useful. It’s an example of what works for me may not work for anyone else. Our client’s brains have wired for their world, which will be different from our world even if we grew up with similar experiences. So our frame of reference may or may not be useful.

Professional Coaches

As professional coaches, we agree to be in a co-creative partnership with our clients. Professional coaching is fundamentally not an expert/novice relationship. Coaching is a co-creative partnership that is designed to leverage the clients’ knowing. They are not novices in their lives; we are.

Coaching is a brilliant way to honor the differences in how we have each tuned and pruned our neurocircuitry. For me, it’s an excellent reminder to stay curious. Through that curiosity, I explore with my client what is important, rather than coming in as an expert.

Start the Relationship as We are Going to Continue It

We make several assumptions when we change from a coaching/curious hat into an expert hat in a coaching conversation. There is the assumption that the client wants and needs to hear our expertise. And we assume that the brain we are interacting with is ready to be told what it needs to do, or at the very least be open to doing things the way we think will be most helpful to the goals.

I believe that our helpfulness comes from wanting the best for someone else. It’s our attempt to get our clients somewhere we think that they want and need to go. Yet all evidence points to the act of telling someone something may trigger them to feel judged. Plus, we may have unintentionally derailed the client from their own capacity for self-aware insights. This can a place for reflection for the coach.

Are You a Helpful or Useful Coach

I look at questions on a spectrum of usefulness. More to less useful is my measure. In coaching, I find that expertise falls very profoundly into the less useful range. To be clear that sharing an observation directly and openly is entirely within the coaching sphere. I believe that we need to share our perspective with a pretty loose attachment to it being right. Instead, use our observation as a jumping-off point for more discussion. When we tell people what they need to do based on our expertise, we step out of alignment with the ICF Competencies.

Let’s Look at a Coaching Conversation in Two Ways

  1. Taking off the Coach Hat:

Client: I get into conversations at work, and I feel inferior. There’s pressure associated with my thinking. I put pressure on myself to be perfect or show how smart I am, and I don’t know how to stop doing that.

Coach:  Let me take my coach hat off for a minute. Is that ok?

Client: Yes.

Coach: No one is perfect; perfection is this crazy illusion that you are doing to yourself. You really need to let go of that sort of self-sabotage. You have within yourself everything you need to be amazing. In fact, the inferiority sounds like your inner critic is getting going. So, part of what you need to consider is how badly you want to let go of that inferiority?

Client: Yeah, ok, I see that. 

Coach: Yeah, and so how do you want to start believing in your value? Because that is what I really hear that you want to believe in yourself. And the only way we can authentically believe in ourselves is if we let go of perfectionism. Just put that inner critic in the back seat, right? Let me put my coaching hat back on now. Did that make sense to you?

Client: Yeah.

<End of example>

What do you notice in the conversation? The coach clearly likes the client. I would even say that the coach has the client’s best interest of valuing themselves at heart. And not wearing the unrealistic mantel of perfection makes sense. Yet, the coach has taken over the learning. 

This taking off the coach hat is possibly a place where the coach thinks that they can short circuit the client’s learning and get them to the “goal” faster. The coach is helpful but not useful.

  1. Coach Hat Firmly on the Coaches Head

Client: I get into conversations at work, and I feel inferior. There’s pressure associated with my thinking. I put pressure on myself to be perfect or show how smart I am, and I don’t know how to stop doing that.

Coach: What is driving the pressure?

Client: Well, I notice that when I feel inferior and the pressure starts, I feel like I need to do something. I feel like I am responsible for giving the “right” answer or for solving the problem. Then, I find myself saying things that I don’t actually feel comfortable having said.

Coach: How do you determine the “right” answer, and what is the connection to the pressure? 

Client: Well, hmm. The pressure comes from wanting to give the “right” answer. But, as I am saying this, I don’t actually know the “right” answer in these moments. Hmm.

Coach: What just happened with the hmmm?

Client: Well, I want to feel confident. I want to feel like I am showing my value. When I share my perspective or what I know, I want to feel good about what I am saying. Confidently.

Coach: What allows you to show up confidently?

Client: When I know that what I am sharing has value. When it’s also something that I am confident about. Like, I am confident when I talk about the database, but if someone asks me about something else that I don’t know about, I start to feel like I am being put on the spot. Then I blurt stuff that I regret, or I shut down.

Coach: That’s a pretty interesting insight; what are you noticing as you say that?

Client: That there are places where I am confident, but also maybe it’s the pressure that I am putting on myself to think I have to have an answer…

Coach: How else might you navigate that point in the conversation?

Client: Well, you know it’s funny, I hear other people say things like, “That’s a good question, I don’t have an answer for it, can I get back to you?” and I wonder if that wouldn’t be something I could try?

<End of example>

What do you notice in this version of the conversation? Who was doing the work? Who gets to own the aha’s?

From a neuroscience perspective, which conversation tunes the wiring?

The Benefit of Keeping Your Coach Hat On

There are real benefits to your clients when you keep your coaching hat onWith the coach keeping the coaching hat firmly on their head, they actually create space for the client to do the heavy lifting in the conversation. And, probably, more importantly, the client is self-generating their own awareness.

When you put yourself in the client’s role in these two conversations, which conversation would you prefer to find yourself in?

Are There Ever Times to Share Information?

One of the tricks I use with clients when they come into a session and say they want my advice is to say something to the effect of, “I promise you, if we explore your inquiry fully and I see a big missing gap, I will absolutely share what I am noticing.”

I have discovered that often I never need to share this missing gap. If we fully explore what’s in the way or the hidden beliefs under the waterline, the client often easily notices the gaps for themselves.

Going back to the earlier difference between sharing an observation and sharing expertise. There is an artful way to convey observations without attachment to “rightness.” Then we can be curious with the client about their experience of the observation. One of my mentor coaching clients dubbed this the “Reflect and Inquire.” This allows me to share an observation and then invite the client to make meaning.

Circling Back to the Neuroscience​

We tend to believe the things we tell ourselves, for good or for bad. As a coach, with my jaunty hat firmly on my head, I can support my clients to leverage their self-awareness. I can empower their insights. Sort of like a tree falling in the forest, I am there to hear it. It did make a sound. Through deep listening and curiosity, I can support my client to notice their insights; ultimately, we can both hear the tree fall.

My curiosity on their behalf is my hat. Holding the space of deep listening for my client’s benefit is my wearing my coaching hat fully and intentionally. Asking questions that empower them to discover what is essential to explore and then exploring it with them makes coaching so perfectly client-centered. When I do these things, I feel like I am doing the job we both agreed on. You know, show up and be the coach, wearing that hat.

“Scientific revolutions tend to emerge not from a sudden discovery but by asking better questions” – Lisa Feldman Barrett


Lyssa deHart, LICSW, MCC, author of StoryJacking: Change Your Dialogue, Transform Your Life and the Reflective Coach, and the new book, Light Up: The Science of Coaching with Metaphors. Lyssa is a Confidence Coach, Certified Mentor Coach, Coaching Super-Vision Partner, ICF PCC Assessor, and coaching educator. Using her understanding of the ICF Core Competencies and her knowledge of Neuroscience, Lyssa works with Professional Coaches to expand the capacity to partner with their clients through how they show up and hold the space for those with whom they work.

Lyssa is the creator of the Power of Metaphor Certification Program. Giving coaches new ways to tune their ears to hear the powerful metaphors their clients bring forward and discovering how to leverage the important metaphors to create stronger agreements, build trust and safety, allow the client to lead, and ultimately evoke powerful embodied awareness.

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