The Brain: Coaching to Sustain Change for Business

Learning about coaching and how it impacts the brain fascinates me! I studied and completed research the past few years to better understand different approaches to coaching and how they may impact my clients neurologically. I am not a neurologist, and the simple idea that coaching can produce results visible on a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is awesome!

In 2015, I completed courses at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) “Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence” and “Conversations That Inspire: Coaching, Learning, Leadership and Change” taught by Dr. Richard Boyatzis and his team. These classes were offered as Massive Open Online learning Courses (MOOCs) on Coursera.

Compassion coaching focuses on strengths, positive vision of the future, hopes, and dreams of the coachee. Compliance coaching focuses on an organization’s goals and objectives, tasks, problems, expectations, and weaknesses of a coachee. Both methods are important, however, they produce different results neurologically, biologically, and behaviorally. Through Compassion coaching, we activate the Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) by focusing on strengths of the coachee. Compliance coaching triggers the Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA) that moves the coachee into a negative state. To be effective coaches, we must use both compassion and compliance methods.

In 2013, Case Western Reserve University completed a study using fMRI results to measure the impact of PEA and NEA on the brain. The findings showed more activity in the visual cortex during positive conditions versus negative conditions (Jack, 2013). The visual cortex is “associated with imagination and operates at the intersection of basic visual processing and emotion” (Jack, 2013).

Here is a quick video (2 minutes) about the study.

Signatures of PEA and NEA in the brain (CWRU, 2010)

Coaching and mentoring to the Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) emphasizes Compassion for the individual’s hopes and dreams and has been shown to enhance a behavioral change. In contrast, coaching to the Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA), by focusing on externally defined criteria for success and the individual’s weaknesses in relation to them, does not show sustained change”
(Jack et al 2013, p. 1).

These data show that using Compassion coaching may improve retention of behavior change. This is exciting because prior to these studies, it was difficult to know, neurologically and physiologically, what was going on inside the brain during positive coaching versus Compliance coaching. These findings point to a stronger motivation for learning and change potentially leading to a more successful experience for both the coach and coachee.

Research on this topic has led to my use of triggering the PEA more than NEA with my clients. I remind myself often of the need to tap into the PEA a bit more than the NEA, realizing the importance of both. I have found when using a Compliance approach in coaching, clients tend to become defensive and tense, which in my opinion, may not open them up to welcoming change. Dr. Boyatzis shares that we need a certain amount of stress (NEA) to survive and optimism (PEA) to grow, thrive, and change.

Client Story: I was hired by the CEO of a family-owned business to develop their next CEO; his son. Through one year of coaching bi-weekly, we worked to develop his strategic planning, influencing without authority, confidence, and risk taking skills. In just a few sessions with this client, I shared my research about Compassion and Compliance coaching to give him context as to why we talked more about his ideal self and vision (PEA), than his tasks and challenges (NEA). The results of this type of coaching for this client were that he was: promoted to a leadership role of Marketing Manager within 6 months of coaching, built his self-confidence and comfort in taking risks, became more comfortable requesting feedback from the CEO, and practiced influencing without authority more frequently. He seemed to enjoy the coaching process, and looked forward to our sessions, even when he was having difficulties at work.

Coaching with Compassion sustains change which benefits businesses. With stronger behavior change, the potential return on investment (ROI) is higher, and the coachee may stay committed longer and enjoy the process more. By ensuring we focus more on areas that trigger the PEA and less on the NEA, my clients are experiencing sustained successes. I have seen changes in their behavior and approach, as well as a more positive outlook on their work and lives.

What are ways that you have used or experienced Compassion and Compliance coaching approaches with your clients or organizations? Comment below.

Learn more about Case Western Reserve University’s research and courses on coaching at

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Case Western Reserve University (2010) Coaching with Compassion Can ‘Light Up’ Human Thoughts [Web log post]. Viewed on November 15, 2010. Retrieved from

Case Western Reserve University. (2014). ‘Conversations That Inspire: Coaching Learning, Leadership and Change’, lecture notes. Viewed on November 8 2016. < >.

Case Western Reserve University. (2017). Coaching. Viewed on February 22, 2017.

Jack, A., Boyatzis, R.E., Khawaja, M., Passarelli, A.,M. & Leckie, R. (2013). Visioning in the brain: an fMRI Study of inspirational coaching and Mentoring. Social Neuroscience. 8(4). 369–384.

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Sarah A Scala

Sarah Scala is a certified woman and LGBTQ Business Enterprise, provides organization and leadership development, executive coaching, and LGBTQ+ coaching.