Rapport and neuro-coaching

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Written by Dr Angus McLeod on 1 September 2014 in Features

Angus McLeod asks how might rapport impact on neurological change to create mind-body shifts for learning and health?

Matching and cross-matching behaviours are two ways in which we demonstrate rapport, whether done consciously or not. This matching is simply the copying of behaviours you see in the other. Cross-matching could be the crossing of legs in response to the crossing of the arms by the other person. This matching or mirroring of another person works in both directions; where both people mirror, the establishment of rapport can be expected to be accelerated.

The human brain has specialist cells that appear to be dedicated to sensing and, to reacting to perceived rapport. These brain cells are called ‘mirror-neurons’. They fire together when a person’s brain registers that another person is behaving in a way that mimics a behaviour (that was very recently been expressed by the person). These mirrored behaviours may include the use of words or phrases, as well as bodily gestures.

It is very easy to imagine how important mirror-neurons are to the developing rapport between two people, as they repeat expressions, tonality and micro-gestures of the other person.

Micro-gestures can be studied by watching video at slow replay-speeds. Micro-gestures are often NOT noticed consciously but the brain can and does react to them. An example of micro-gestures can be seen in photographs, where we may say, “oh, that’s not a good one of you”. The photograph has captured a micro-grimace, for example. In fact, we all are expressing fast micro-gestures in our interactions with others. We may not notice them but the brain is hard-wired to recognise these and may make you more-or-less relaxed or anxious as a result of these unperceived micro-gestures.

Rapport and brain chemistry

Active mirror-neurons trigger the release of the hormone and neuro-modulator, oxytocin. The release of oxytocin during rapport is significant for several reasons. One of these is the fact that oxytocin is reported to increase trust1. So, we now find that mirroring creates rapport. That rapport triggers the release of oxytocin and that oxytocin-release increases trust. We now come full-circle because trust is, without doubt, a key factor in building rapport.

We can imagine that the rapport-skills, including mirroring, coupled with facilitative-coaching skills, provides a powerful mix for a trusted, working relationship. But, what else is important?

Oxytocin – a positive neuro-modulator

Oxytocin (OT) is produced by the hypothalamus and stored in the posterior pituitary gland. OT is released when we are in rapport. In other contexts, OT is also released when receiving pleasant, light touches and by activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, for example; by eating, drinking and digesting.

OT stimulates the release of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, as well as suppressing the fear-flight response. Serotonin creates ‘feel-good’ states. Dopamine, amongst many effects, enhances pre-frontal, cortical executive functions, including raised mental-concentration and working memory. Rapport and oxytocin seem, therefore, to be highly important to change-work in a coachee-change environment.

OT also leads to decreased levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines that would otherwise inhibit the positive effects (of both serotonin and dopamine). Oxytocin and rapport are therefore key modulators of effective, facilitative neuro-coaching.

Neuro-coaching essentials

Although partly conjecture, growing evidence is suggestive of key factors that are important (or essential) for facilitative coaching at the most impactful levels of neurological change.

A neuro-surgeon and psycho-neuro-immunologist, Ian Weinberg, suggests that rapport is critical to change-work with an individual2. In his experience, this relates to coaching of patients resulting in improved recovery and prognosis, following traumatic neuro-events and subsequently by specific medical interventions. From this area of expertise over many years, Weinberg avers that rapport is comprised by, or supported by, four elements:

  1. Perceived empathy
  2. Trust
  3. Belief
  4. A positivistic setting.

He derives this understanding of rapport, in part, from the relationships between these four elements and the change-effects in levels of neuro-transmitters and other body-chemistry. Would any facilitative coach be surprised by these four elements? Probably not. Empowering belief is very much a part of the facilitative-coaching arsenal and relates to self-resourcing and to goals. A positivistic-setting simply means reframing to what is possible in the coachee/world system. What may be missing, from the coach perspective, is the away-from motivation. Coaches often invoke ‘away-froms’ as part of a twin towards/away motivation strategy. From a neurological standpoint, one might easy imagine that the away-from is not useful. It might be thought that the ‘away-from’ reaction is more likely to stimulate a reptilian response of ‘fear and flight’, and therefore not be helpful to the goal-setting that is married to all coaching best-practice?

Rapport and learning states

Rapport, mirroring and the release of oxytocin have other important effects. OT also suppresses the fear-anxiety centre (the amygdala). OT release also starts the biochemical changes that lead to ‘learning states’, or to: ‘socially reinforced learning and empathy’3. In effect, rapport is the basis for a positive, engaged, psychological state and may be expected as ideal for learning. From a facilitative-coaching perspective then, we have a combined bonus.

When rapport is coupled with facilitative coaching, we should see a significant improvement in coachee-states, including trust, empathy and more effective learning. With this trio of assets in our favour, we might expect the coachee to explore their inner-world more deeply and to achieve significant changes in their perceptions, understandings and motivations. In other words, to learn deeper, faster and more significantly.

Rapport, in the context of neuro-coaching, must surely be positively affected by facilitating purposeful motivation, a sense of achievement (gratification) and, within an enriched, positivistic environment. The coach, can be expected to focus attention on goals, achievement, (including acknowledgement for gratification) and on positives.

Establishing rapport

The process of rapport starts when communications starts. In other words, the process may start before coach and coachee engage one to one. Invariably, there will have been other communications between coach and coachee before the sessions commence. The coachee may already have positive or doubtful feelings associated with the coaching before they have any communication together; they may feel vulnerable. Commercial coaching assignments may involve pre-session communication via HR, learning and development or a more senior executive within the coachee’s organisation. All this pre-framing can enhance or detract from the expectations the coachee may have about coaching (rather than specifically about their coach!)

Another question to consider is, what level of ‘assumed trust’ does a coachee have before they engage with their coach for a session? An assumed trust level cannot be zero, or the session would probably not take place. Neither is the level of ‘assumed trust’ likely to be enormously high. The level will be somewhere in between. In other words, there exists an assumed level of trust before the coachee and coach connect4.

Some readers may wonder why I use the word trust rather than, for example, ‘assumed confidence in the coach’. This latter might work, though confidence is often related to the pre-perceived status and known experience of the coach. My own work suggests that some senior executives will only work with a coach who has held similar or higher positions of authority, or whose remuneration is on a par with their own. These things may or may not be relevant, but they sometimes filter out certain good coaches.

This level will be variable and multi-factorial. Trust is certainly necessary since it is very likely to ameliorate any coachee vulnerability concerning the coaching engagement.

To help establish rapport, a coach, even before meeting a new coachee, may be thinking about ‘matching communications’ and also, matching (and cross-matching) behaviours when they are together. Rapport is improved by these graceful mirroring activities by the coach.

When coaching begins

In the real practice of coaching, we see very different philosophies for approaching a first coaching session. These fall into at least two types:

A. Two-part process of: rapport-building followed by a ‘coaching process’

B. One-part process of: rapport building during a facilitative coaching process.

The first of these seems to invoke the belief that a ‘relax and chat’ period is necessary before any coaching should begin.

The second may invoke the belief that facilitative coaching includes rapport-building skills. Hence, the process of coaching can begin immediately.

Your author avers that the neuro-coach will start the process of facilitative coaching from the outset and will use all their rapport skills at the same time at they are asking questions. This coaching will involve starting with gentle challenges and questions to help their coachee to go deeper into their inner-world. The coachee’s attention will be largely focused on explorations of their internal world, their own understandings, meanings and beliefs. When the mind is processing an inner-world exploration, it is necessarily focused less on the external world of the coaching dynamic, including the coaching space. This inner-versus outer-focus of attention is obvious from observational research.

There is another advantage of using facilitating questions from the outset. That is, that the coachee may associate their experiencing of learning states with their coach (especially where they explore their inner-world in periods of increasing introspection); the coachee may already be anchoring these learning states with the presence of the coach. This is not the same as dependence. It just means that the coachee will be more likely to move quickly into their experience of deep learning states, if that is what has always happened when they were with the same coach.

The two-part process has some attraction in that it sounds to be gentle, trust-building and rapport-developing. These are almost certainly the case. A downside may be that, in the two-part process, the coachee experiences two different persona in the coach. For some people, some of the time, this will not be a positive experience; the double persona may sometimes invoke levels of mistrust; two separate personas may not be experienced as consistently authentic.

The inner- and outer-world focus in facilitative coaching.

The author has set out four levels of coachee-experience in facilitative coaching5. Two of these (levels 1 & 2) are intellectual processing by the coachee and the other two (levels 3 & 4) are characterised by internal, psychological states akin to ‘trance states’. When the coachee goes into level 3 or level 4, they exhibit one or more specific behaviours that include:

  • Defocus of vision and mostly steady-eye position
  • Muscle relaxation
  • Slight nod of the head
  • Relaxation in jaw
  • Droop in posture
  • Shallow breathing and heart-rate
  • Silent
  • Total lack of physical movement/tics
  • Reducing pallor in skin tones.

The defocus of vision is rapid and signifies a detachment from external visual stimulus during the episode of internal exploration. In fact, sounds and other distractions, including laughter may not bring the coachee out from their internal psychological states. We know this from the research study of many master-class coaching-videos.

The first session

The early questions will be gently probing, while establishing further trust (from the ‘assumed’ level), and these questions will develop emotional investment from the coachee. The coachee will have increasing trust in the coach when the coaching journey has consistent, repeated experiences having positive outcomes.

We now know that the biochemical changes created by rapport will also enhance trust and ‘loss of fear’. The coach can then increase the challenge level in their questions. The measure of challenge is probably best assessed by the coachee. The measurement can be facilitated by the coach, by asking a calibration question. For example, ‘If ten was the maximum level of challenge in my coaching, what levels have you reached this time?’

Rapport and neuro-coaching journeys

One key to the positive outcome of rapport, is coachee permission to allow the coach to ask questions. These questions will include those that lend themselves to coachee explorations, to (self) interest, self-learning and self-regulation. The coach then will exhibit real focus and empathetic interest in the coachee. The coach will ask questions that help the coachee to develop interest in their own insights, their own beliefs, and their meanings. Ideally, a coachee will become surprised and interested in their own internal processing; fascinated by themselves; intrigued by similarities and differences with others. These last processes are common to the development, in the longer-term, of emotional intelligence6. The coachee is not just solving their issues and finding pathways to their goals, they are becoming fascinated by their own processes, by their own sensing and by their interpretive abilities during the coaching-journey.

Unsurprisingly, one size does not fit all when it comes to coaching. For that reason alone, the facilitative coaching approach is a safe option because it follows the course that suits the objectives, pace, form and delivery of exploration (that are ideal for the coachee). Could any coach second-guess these accurately for even one coachee?

People experiencing change of thinking, experience and behaviours need time to incorporate their learning.

This learning may take time as their needs to accommodate their new thinking and behaviours  will be significant and different between individuals. One way in which coaches can help create more time for these accommodations is to sandwich shorter telephone sessions between one-to-one sessions. For very little extra investment, a coachee can almost double the time of their coaching journey and still have a regularity of contact that will keep most of them engaged in their progress, rather than switching their attention on and off their learning journey.

There are those who self-commit to coaching and who are already on their development path (whether conscious or subconsciously aware). Others are placed onto coaching programmes when they may not be ready for change. It is incumbent then, on both HR and coaching organisations, to make sure that there is built-in flexibility in the coaching programmes in order to suit individual needs – for different pace and depth in their change work.

About the author

Dr Angus McLeod is a practicing international coach and the author of books on coaching and leadership. He is visiting professor of Coaching at Birmingham City University and a supervisor of PhD research. Find out more at angusmcleod.com


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