3 Insights from Neuroscience to Enhance Your Coaching Relationships | Dr. Sarah Evans MCC

Coach Smiling at Desk considering neuroscience ideas

A critical premise of coaching is that people are naturally creative, resourceful and whole. This profoundly respectful way of partnering with our coachees can support them in finding their true, deep and resonant answers.

The coaching relationship is a foundation for change, creating the psychological "safe space" for the coachee to reflect on what's most important and meaningful to them.

And neuroscience provides helpful insights into how the human brain works, helping us understand how coaching relationships create transformation.

As we explore ways to create transformative coaching relationships, insights into how the human brain works can provide useful context.

Here are 3 Insights from Neuroscience for Coaches

1. Hormones set the stage for building trust

When we are engaged in a reliable and secure social interaction, we release oxytocin—our 'trust' hormone.

So, consider that embodying the International Coaching Federation's (ICF) competency "Cultivates Trust & Safety" is literally about cultivating the flow of oxytocin in the co-created coaching space.

When this occurs, it enhances the transformative power of coaching as our coachee is neurologically prepared for connection, social bonding, emotional modulation, creativity and motivation.

2. Feeling safe supports positive changes in the brain

Ann Betz1 teaches us that the first of seven keys to neuroplasticity* in coaching is the coaching relationship.

* According to Wikipedia neuroplasticity... is the ability of neural networks in the brain to change through growth and reorganization. It's when the brain is rewired to function in some way that differs from how it previously functioned.

For numerous reasons, feeling seen, heard and understood increases the connective neural fibres in our brains.

In particular it activates an organizing part of the brain, the medial prefrontal cortex. And one of the things the medial prefrontal cortex does is help to bring together disparate ideas.

As Dr. Sarah McKay2 notes, the coaching relationship has the capacity to support coachees as they modify neural systems and enhance emotional regulation.

So, when we help our coachees feel safe and heard, we expand their minds—literally!

3. Responsive, collaborative communication promotes optimal brain function

The coaching conversations that occur within the coaching relationship are meaning making, in service of a coachee's self-exploration.

And we're in collaborative partnership with our coachees. Our responses are contingent on what they communicate to us—meaning that we shift and shape in flow with what is emerging, through our presence and deep listening skills.

Dan Siegel3 teaches us that "when there is contingent collaborative communication, the brain functions optimally both within itself and within present and future relationships."

Coaching IS contingent collaborative communication. It's the kind of conversation where we're seen, heard and understood: collaborative, responsive and unscripted.

This type of communication creates a powerful connected relationship—and helps our coachees' brains perform at their best.

The practice of emptying your cup is a crucial one

Emptying your cup (where we let go of existing knowledge and opinions to make room for new ideas) is a great reminder of the need for humility, curiosity, openness and wonder.

It helps us to continuously clear our lenses—acknowledging, managing or working through potential biases, judgments, emotions or interests. And these are all things that could cloud our ability to offer clear and nonjudgmental observations.

As we engage in the practice of emptying our cup, we are more able to come to coaching with an empty mind, attend to what is emerging in the conversation and attune to what matters most to the coachee.

Questions to ponder and act upon

Consider how you can apply the above neuroscience learnings with these reflective questions:

  1. What do you do as coach that creates a relationship where coachees feel safe, seen, heard and understood?
  2. How are you engaging from a way of being that says, "I see you, the whole of you—your experience, your passions, your pain, your strengths, your weaknesses and your future possibilities?"
  3. How are you holding space for your coachees?
  4. How might you lean more fully into contingent collaborative communication?
  5. How might you deepen a practice of "emptying your cup"—letting go of existing knowledge and opinions to make room for new ideas?4


I hope that these three insights from neuroscience, and the questions to ponder and act upon, might be embraced to support the deepening and expanding of your coaching relationships.

In our divided, disconnected world, coaching brings people together. When people are overwhelmed, stressed, and angry, coaching reminds them of their purpose, visions, and power to move forward. Coaching gives hope to their desires. With just one reflection and one question, coaching can expand who they think they are and what they can do with their one, valuable life. Marcia Reynolds


  1. Ann Betz: Seven Keys to Neuroplasticity in Coaching. Webinar offered through Neuroscience of Change program, Coaches Rising. December 19, 2022.
  2. Sarah McKay: 7 Principles of Neuroscience Every Coach and Therapist Should Know. July 29, 2018.
  3. Dan Siegel: The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. 3rd ed. The Guilford Press, 2020.
  4. Melissa Chu: Empty Your Cup: A Zen Proverb on Opening Yourself to New Ideas. November 19, 2018.

If you liked this neuroscience for coaches article, you may also like:

Sarah Evans, MCC Guest Author

Contributing Author:

Dr. Sarah Evans, PhD, MCC, Dip. CS is passionate about working with visionary decision-makers and influencers inspired by the transformative potential of coaching. She is an executive leadership & team coach, facilitator, OD consultant, coaching supervisor, and mentor coach at Evans Leadership Group. Sarah is dedicated to cultivating resilient leaders—supporting individuals, teams, organizations and coaches lead and thrive in complexity. Her goal is to maximize human capacity, organizational capabilities, and contributions to societal well-being. Her key working themes are relationships, resilience, results! Visit her website here and connect with her on Linkedin. Sarah is a member of the International Coach Federation, where she holds a Master Certified Coach (MCC) credential.

Learn more about Sarah & see all their articles here >>

Image of Coach Smiling at Desk considering neuroscience ideas by Virales via Shutterstock

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.