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Coaching Tip

Re-Wiring: Coaching for Behavior Change at the Biochemical Level, by Cathy Bolger, PhD

"Learning has not taken place until behavior has changed."
Robert W Pike, Creative Training Techniques Handbook

I recently had lunch with my colleague Beth Levin, a Practitioner of Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). NLP is a widely-used methodology created in the 1970s to help people focus on making wanted changes in their lives.

Beth mentioned that as coaches, we help our coachees change at the neurophysiological level. I immediately flashed to the movie, "What the Bleep Do We Know?" In it, interviews with scientists such as Candace Pert suggest that behavior will not change until neurons are re-wired.

According to those scientists, our hypothalamus assembles chemicals that match our emotions. These chemicals are "peptides" or "neuropeptides", chains of proteins (amino acids) that form a chemical sequence that matches our every emotional state. Each emotion has an associated neuronet that develops over time as we react to our environment. That's how we get wired, so to speak. In the words of one scientist, the "neurons that fire together, wire together."

When something activates one of our "hot buttons," within six seconds, chemicals shoot through our bodies; land on receptor sites in our cells; turn the key; and we automatically respond. To break our automatic responses, i.e., to re-wire ourselves, takes self-awareness and lots of energy! I see applications for these ideas both personally and as a coach. A recent coachee told me there are three situations in which she has seemingly out-of-control reactions: when she is caught off guard; when she is embarrassed; and when someone performs poorly, far below minimally acceptable standards.

Together, we worked on specific strategies for her to use in each of those situations. For instance, when caught off-guard, instead of yelling in an unrestrained manner, she may choose to say, "Give me some time to think about it, and I will get back to you in the morning." Instead of aggressively reacting to employees' blunders, lethargy, or indolence, she may try an open-ended type question such as, "Help me understand your thinking on this."

Another coachee said that one of his employees continually pushes his hot button by asking him irrelevant questions). Instead of getting angry, he has chosen to say "I am not going to address that" when the employee annoys him.

These two people are rewiring their neuronets—by making different choices.

As coaches we can help people become self-observant and aware of their hot buttons. We can help them learn the importance of breaking the stimulus—automatic response connection.

We can teach them to "observe and interrupt" so they no longer respond automatically. If we teach people to "interrupt the firing," by choosing a different response, we help them break the neurophysiological relationship that has built over time. If the neurons don't fire together, they will no longer wire together, and that well-established connection to a hot button can be broken.

As coaches we can help people realize that changing a behavior requires re-wiring neurons—and re-wiring takes practice and persistence. The payoff is huge, though—our coachees become freer to make more effective choices and move their careers in the direction they want.

Cathy Bolger is now a San Diego-based consultant specializing in training and coaching in the areas of Conflict Management, Presentation Skills, and Meeting Skills. Contact her at 619 294-2511.

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