Coaching has been accepted as an excellent tool to help leaders grow faster than they ordinarily might, left to their own devices. Coaching has been proven to help leaders:

  • Grow their self-awareness and personal mastery.
  • Sharpen new skills.
  • Produce results by working well with and through others.
  • Increase their capacity to inspire people and build followership.

We know coaching is a worthwhile investment because it works. What most people don’t really know is why it works. Recent advances in cognitive and social neuroscience may shed some light.

Over the decades that we’ve hired coaches, we’ve struggled to find ways to not only accurately assess competence but also ensure that the coach has the qualities that inspire trust in the experienced, successful, intelligent clients we serve. The establishment of several professional associations, such as the International Coaching Federation (ICF), over the last 25 years has provided us with well-crafted assortments of competencies. A well-established assessment process that confers credentials sets a solid benchmark. But just because someone is credentialed does not necessarily mean they will be able to create that very rare experience that accomplished leaders will find relevant and valuable.

We needed to find a way to establish coaching ability quickly. Through trial and error, we came up with a simple formula that helps us not only test for the most important combination of traits and skills, but also parse the neurological functions at play when clients have a truly remarkable experience with coaching.

When we set out to vet a coach who is interested in joining our bench, the last hurdle is to have them coach one of our Master Certified Coaches. We simply present to the coach a situation that is causing static and off we go.

We then ask ourselves three questions:

  1. “Did I feel heard and gotten?” I use the term “gotten,” at the risk of being very U.S. centric, because the term expresses more than the word understood. When a coach truly “gets” a client, it means that they see the whole picture, see the client as they are, and how they are operating in their environment. They grasp context that the client doesn’t explicitly share. It requires wisdom, knowledge and experience of adult development theory, organizational cultures, and universal laws.
  2. “Did I learn something from the coach or from myself that makes a difference for me?”
  3. Am I ready, able, willing and (possibly most critical) committed to doing something specific as a result of the conversation?

To examine the neuroscience of a successful coaching engagement would require a much more lengthy article. In the spirit of brevity, I will utilize this short evaluation process to highlight some key neurological processes that excellent coaching can produce.

What does the coach do specifically to ensure that the coachee feels heard, learns something new, and commits to action? What happens in the brain of the person being coached that causes them to answer “yes” to the three questions because of a conversation that lasts, at most, thirty minutes? Let’s break it down.


1. Did the client feel heard and gotten? 
What the coach does: They listen masterfully, clarify ideal outcomes for the session and assume that the client has everything they need to succeed. What happens in the client’s brain: They become present, focused and able to access the brain’s full power.

 For someone to feel not just heard, but fully understood, requires:

  • Masterful listening; which means, at the very least, not interrupting.
  • An ability to zero in on what matters most to that person.
  • The wisdom and experience to ask exactly the right question that signals a deep understanding of who that person is at their core.
  • A total absence of judgment.

This combination of skills can take decades to hone.

The client feels safe. What we know from recent neuroscience research is that when people feel heard and understood, it leads them to feel safe and valued. When the brain feels safe, it is much more likely to make abstract connections, solve problems, access all the fleeting thoughts and memories that will help them, and engage in creating possible solutions.

When a client feels safe, they are able to become fully present, resist distractions and hear their own thoughts.


The coach has the client articulate an explicit goal for the conversation that is implicitly related to long-term goals and the client’s vision for themselves.


The result of being properly heard leads to the swift co-creation of the goal for the conversation, which is usually connected to a larger, long-term goal. Clear goals rewire the brain by impacting the way our neurons organize themselves. For the client simply articulating what they really hope to accomplish in a coaching session provides extraordinary value.

Finally, when a client’s vision for themselves is reinforced, they have a renewed sense of vitality and are much more likely to actively pursue what is important to them.

Shares observations of evidence of the client’s competence and operates on the assumption of client agency. Questions that assume competence and agency automatically enhance productivity and creativity for the client.
2. Did the client learn something that caused a shift for them?  

What the coach does: They let the client do almost all of the talking.


What happens in the client’s brain: All experience becomes available to them, and the brain is able to make new connections.
Learning is complicated. Everyone learns differently, and, among individuals, each person learns different kinds of things differently. Sometimes a critical learning can be something that was already known but had been buried or forgotten. Certainly, the coach might share a prompt in the form of a question or a shared concept, but all the thinking done by the coachee on that question or concept is going to result in something new that can shift everything.

Self-explanation is a process by which learners generate inferences about causal connections or conceptual relationships.

The science shows that the more people hear their own voices, the more parts of the brain are engaged, and the more ideas are made available, which increases the possibility that they might see something new or put existing thoughts together in a new way to create a fresh idea.

Clients will learn what they are really thinking/feeling, in essence, what they already knew but hadn’t articulated for themselves, by hearing their own voices.

3. Did the client leave the session committed to taking a specific action?
What the coach does: They help the client create a picture of what a good job looks like and think through the steps required to manifest that picture. What happens in the client’s brain: Specific visualization of ideal outcomes and the steps needed to achieve them.

The decision to do something new or different is monumental. In coaching, it is often something that either hadn’t occurred to the client before, had potentially crossed their mind but was ruled out, or hadn’t yet been thought through. The coach will help the client think in words and images and will ask questions like: How might that work? What could that look like? How would you approach that?

At each step the coach helps the client to consider the value of the choice, building motivation.

Recent research shows that different brain regions store and process information with different formats depending on the demands of the information processing task. The client will use more parts of the brain to fully engage in thinking about a potential action: in pictures, in steps, and in language.

Clarity about the significance of the action and how it will move us toward our goal vastly increases the likelihood of high performance.


It stands to reason that if the coach fails to ensure that the client feels heard and understood, the client won’t learn much and almost certainly won’t be compelled to take action. The idea that coaches give advice and tell people what to do is a myth that persists. The dead giveaway of a rookie coach is that they ask the wrong questions and think their value lies in what they say, instead of what the client says.

We don’t need neuroscience research to tell us that even when people explicitly ask for advice, what they really, truly want is to be listened to and helped to untangle their own ideas.