Adapting to change through coaching

by 04 Sep 2012

With research showing that the brain is not 'hard-wired' early in life to work in a certain way, Dr Hilary Armstrong outlines how a basic understanding of neuroscience and a good coach can ease fear of change.

"If you're in a bad situation, don't worry it'll change. If you're in a good situation, don't worry it'll change" - John A. Simone, Sr.

Change is constant and inevitable, so we are told. Yet we resist it, especially when the change happens to us, like at work. So in the uncertain climate of organisations today it becomes more vital that we understand how to assist people and prevent change fatigue setting in.

As a coach working increasingly with moving roles and restructured landscapes, cognitive and social neuroscience research has enhanced my (and my coachee’s) understanding of responses to change.

Although our brain is built to relentlessly scan our environments for what has changed and then assess this in terms of the danger or delight (will it eat me, or will I eat it?) our brain is more likely to register danger. In other words, we are genetically programmed to avoid change. The good news from the last 10 years is about brain plasticity, where research has emphasised its capacity for change; in fact our brains are designed to continually learn, change and adapt.

Scientists once believed that the brain was 'hard-wired' early in life. We now know that the 80 year old brain has the same ability to make new connections as the eight year old brain. Unfortunately, most people stop challenging themselves to learn new things around age 30, and when we don’t use it, we lose it!

Working with, and adapting to change is one effect of plasticity and how we grow (our brains!).  Working with change responses from a coaching approach that models understandings from neuroscience, assists change managers and change participants in many ways. Here are just three:

Deactivate fear circuitry

Coaches can explore with coachees their view of the change. Talking through individual’s responses to the change reduces the activation of our brain’s fear circuitry. This is important because arousing the fear circuitry overloads our pre-frontal cortex, reducing function and decision-making. Even mild levels of uncertainty, like gossip or rumours with no evidence can stimulate fear. We expect the worse and unless these expectations are understood then underperformance and productivity set in.  

It is the uncertainty itself - not the potential outcome, that generates change in neurotransmitter levels that inhibit the thinking. Coaching assists by encouraging expression of concerns and uncertainty. It is a space to acknowledge the coachees’ viewpoint without forcing the change agenda, and it is the process of the coaching conversation itself that reduces the physiological effects of stress, and when this occurs people often move themselves forward. An effective coach sees this non-verbally often before it is spoken, and can gently guide the person towards acceptance.  

Grow mindfulness

What is missing from many organisational change processes is quantity and quality time to focus on the development of new skills and behaviours as well as peoples’ ability to do this. Studies on neuro-plasticity show that with focused attention, new (physical) neural connections are made and stabilised so that people experience the change as “normal or automatic”. Mindfulness is the key to this.

Unless we can mindfully focus our attention, stabilisation of new neural connections cannot occur and people revert back to old behaviours. This is amplified by research about our set point in terms of reactions to change as being tipped more toward negative emotions (irritability, frustration, etc).

The good news is that this set point can be moved towards more constructive emotions by coaching for mindfulness.

Build a possibility focus

What we focus on grows. A focus on problems, grows problems. Focus on strengths and possibilities grows neural connections of possibility and strength. A coach is a champion of both the coachee and neural plasticity.

In addition, while our brains chatter along with thousands of unconscious thoughts every day, we do have a small window (seconds) to make conscious choices between automatic reactions and conscious response. The more the possibility focus, the more likely we are to make choices that fit these possibilities and strengths. This brings ownership of the change.

So get a coach, or include a coaching approach in your change processes. Then whether you are in a good or bad situation the change won’t matter.


About the author

Dr Hilary Armstrong is director of education for the Institute of Executive Coaching and Leadership, an established centre for excellence in coaching, coach training and leader development in Australia and the Asia Pacific region. For further information visit