Wellness Coaching Australia's Blog

Coaching and The Brain - Part 2

This is part two of our two part blog on Coaching and the Brain. Click here to read part one. 

There are many qualities that make a good coach and many skills that we learn to improve connection with our clients and help them create effective change.  While considering the role of the brain in the process, let’s take a look at what happens there and put four important aspects of coaching under the spotlight.


We cannot support our clients unless we have trust, and building that trust takes time.  Once trust is created, the brain chemical that is released is Oxytocin  - likely in both client and coach! This is the chemical that is associated with empathy and connection. What’s interesting about Oxytocin is that it only creates connection with people you closely associate with – your tribe, if you like – and when we are with people we identify as being “our people”, it has the effect of reducing fear and calming the amygdala – positive things in a coaching conversation.  However, the same chemical can cause rejection of people who are not seen to be in that “tribe”.  Interesting implications? The coach needs to build trust and allow the client to get the full benefit of Oxytocin.

The actual physicality of coaching – either touch or close presence will also increase the release of Oxytocin - under the right circumstances.  What isn’t known as clearly is how this works during phone coaching, although there is no doubt that trust can be created in that situation. Some people have a higher level of inherent trust than others and what’s interesting is that it has to start with the relationship with our own bodies.  If we don't have that, it is unlikely that we will trust others.  This is highly relevant to concept of whole body coaching which fits so well with health and wellness coaching.

There are six types of listening:
  1. Hearing (noise);
  2. Pretending (to listen, often being skilled enough to fake our body language too);
  3. Self-biographic (filtered, self-related);
  4. Selective; 
  5. Active – this can be with your mind;
  6. Empathetic listening – this has to always be with your heart.
So how does the brain work when we listen? What we need to understand is that our brain builds up information on incomplete data.  We make assumptions about things that may not have been said as we try to make sense of what we are hearing. This is very important for us as coaches to realize as we endeavor to fully understand our clients. Our brains want to make “sense” not necessarily find “truth”! So we fill in the blanks to confirm our own hypotheses. So it is essential that we find out what really is there – what the client’s story is all about, not what we think it is about when we listen ineffectively.  We must always strive for the last level of listening.

By asking the right questions, we will help the client share information that is as important to them as to us as coaches. However, if we ask the wrong type of questions, instead of triggering new pathways in the brain that can lead to different outcomes, we can cause the client to become defensive and actually create new barriers.

Once again, by reframing and showing new perspectives, we open new channels and pathways in the client’s brain which can increase possibilities and solutions!

Knowing how our brains work is important knowledge for any coach. Our work should not be random use of learned skills. We have to be aware of the actual effect that our presence and our choice of words can produce.

How Mindfulness Can Help Your Clients Kick a Habit

We are aware that most of our work as coaches, focuses on helping adopt new habits and get rid of a few old ones.  Of course there is a bigger conversation that precedes this but eventually, we have to face the fact that certain behaviours have to go!

And it’s not easy.  

But here’s a new approach.  We have always said that we need to replace an old habit with a new one. But what if we could simply “turn the switch off” and knock that old habit on the head.  We can. By revisiting Mindfulness.

Let’s think about those habits.  Most of the time we are indulging the behavior because we’re not feeling so good. We could be tired, stressed, bored, frustrated, anxious or sad.  We reach for the food, the wine, Facebook, the cigarettes…We use the habit as a way of coping.  And this is where mindfulness begins its work.  By noticing what is going on for us, and paying attention to the cycle we have got into, we can start to change things.  But the important point is that we need to pay attention but not judge. 

So here is a step by step approach to using mindfulness as a way of breaking the cycle.

Note the craving, recognize the feeling and avoid rationalizing it

Accept that the craving is there. Don’t do anything about it, just accept it.  Don’t try to ignore it or distract yourself, just accept it.

Get curious and notice how you feel.  Identify your thinking and remember, your thoughts are not you!  

Make a mental note of how you feel – or even better write it down! Use a word or phrase and put a label on it.  When you give a feeling a name, it calms your brain.  

You are now in a better place to “surf the craving” and you may well find you can ride it out and it passes on its own. The trick is to become more aware, mindful about what is going on at the time the behavior is about to kick in. The more we become interested in what is happening in our minds and bodies, turn towards our experience rather than away from it, the sooner we can take control back of our actions, and our life.

REFERENCE:  The Craving Mind, Judson Brewer
Highly recommended:  
Barking up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker.

The Underside of Wellness

The Underside of Wellness

We assume that we work in a field that has appeal to anyone on this planet. Who doesn’t want to improve their health and wellness?  What could possibly be bad about working towards this outcome?

Well, think again.  Wherever there is a strong argument for one approach, there will be someone who argues against it!  (Remember the fitness movement and the articles and books sending the message that “Exercise can kill”?)

Of course, freedom of speech, sharing ideas, playing devil’s advocate etc. are all good things so when I came across the following interview, I listened, (non judgmentally) and attempted to filter out the learning or awareness that came out of what Dr. Spicer had to say.  

Dr Spicer was interviewed on Life Matters radio program and was promoting his book The Wellness Syndrome where sure enough, the main message was “Wellness is simply the latest obsession”. I will sum up Dr Spicer’s comments (and a bit of his rationale) and then counter them with a few of my own.

  • Wellness has become something else to worry and feel guilty about (consider the bloggers whose daily routine is something we can never aspire to).
  • Wellness trends are associated with abstinence and possibly self punishment.
  • Wellness encourages too much self-obsession (think of all the ways we have of monitoring everything we do.
  • Wellness behaviours are time stealers and take up huge amounts of our day.
  • Corporate wellness programs are becoming a way of discriminating against new employees who are not fit and thin.
  • Organisations are taking the view that a successful CEO must be able to run a marathon or climb a mountain and  productivity and wellness are inaccurately linked.  
  • Pressure is being put on employees to train.
  • Wellness is becoming a cult.
Yes you are probably thinking, “wow”! but let’s face it there are some things we recognize as being, if not problems, potential problems and this is what we must be aware of and accept that some of what he says could have merit.


First, all the above points are referring to extremes.  

“Bloggers who have huge followings and expound living the perfect, rigorous healthy life with rules around everything could well make people feel somewhat inadequate.”   
My response – choose who you follow!  We need to take some responsibility over what we expose ourselves to.  What motivates that blogger?  Are they boasting or helping?

“Wellness behaviours are cultish and like religious rituals.” 
My response – anything taken to extremes can be sinister.  If a ritual is a habit, then that sounds like a positive way of incorporating a few new ones into our daily routine.  Becoming aware of what we do automatically is the first step to changing it.

 “Corporate wellness has become a way of discriminating.”
My response – taken to extremes yes, but high energy that comes from being well is definitely associated with productivity.  Anything that our society can do to encourage healthy behaviours as being the “norm” is a good thing.  If an individual does not want to consider their health as important, go and find an organisastion who doesn't care about this aspect of their employees’ lives.

Dr Spicer’s final comments are about the backlash that the wellness movement is having.  “Dude food” is increasing where people can eat as much as they want and eat real, high fat meals.”
My respose - Hey, if that’s your choice, it’s your body.

 “People are looking for meaning rather than happiness.”
My response – Agree (finally) - and we need to be.  If we search for happiness, it will elude us. If we try and find meaning in our lives, the incidence of depression will decrease.

 “The rise of neo-stocism – the belief that gains can only be made through pain and suffering and fight clubs, extreme work outs, tough mudders etc. are now becoming very popular.”
My response – there will always be people who want these things. Let everyone find what works for them.. There are plenty of softer “wellness” options out there!

In conclusion, I respect many of Dr. Spicer’s views but worry about the way people might interpret his message as encouraging a total lack of regard for whether we have healthy lifestyle habits and a continuation of the growth of lifestyle related illnesses.  

At least we’re doing something to try and slow it down.

The recording of Dr Andre Spicer was found at this link 


Why Measure Happiness?

We often use the terms wellbeing and life satisfaction in favour of the sometimes wrongly interpreted label of “happiness”, yet there is no getting away from the fact that happier people do better in life – on many fronts! But first, how do we measure happiness? There are two commons ways of measuring “happiness” – firstly, subjective wellbeing – people are asked about the degree of life satisfaction they experience and this is matched with a high level of positive emotions and a low level of negative emotions. This is more about a snapshot at any one time. The second way is of a more enduring measure – how much fulfillment we are getting from our relationships, how much meaning we are experiencing in our life and whether we feel we are developing as a person. 

So when we have this “score” what correlating relationships do we then look for?  Well, research has shown that happier people experience the following:

  • Greater productivity at work;
  • Greater creativity;
  • Higher earning and better jobs;
  • More likely to be leaders;
  • More satisfying relationships;
  • Better overall health;
  • More likely to be helpful and generous.
Sonja Lyubomirsky presented at a Coaching conference in September this year and emphasised that the research also showed that happier people tend to be more focused on others, and sadder people more focused on self.  We might question which comes first, for example, if we are not experiencing good health, then surely we will be unhappier.  However, Sonja described a study which exposed people to the cold virus (after measuring their happiness levels).  The virus was actually injected into their nasal passages. And guess what? The happier people were less likely to develop a cold. This gives weight to the notion that happiness is the cause rather than the effect of all these other positive factors.  

So we know that around 40% of our overall happiness can be influenced by the activities we do.  (The other 60% is either genetically determined – 50%, or linked to our circumstances.)  What are those activities?   Well there are many but here are a few tried and tested:

  • Express gratitude;
  • Be physically active;
  • Be mindful and savour experiences;
  • Practice forgiveness;
  • Set life goals;
  • Perform acts of kindness (make someone else happier).
The important thing also to note is that the activity needs to be a good “fit” for the individual. It needs to fit your personality, culture, and even strengths and what might work well for one person may not work for another. We need to remember this when working with clients and at times help them find the source of their unhappiness and come up with an activity that will counteract this.

How Mindfulness can help break and make habits

When we think of the bad habits we have, we often associate them with a lack of thought – i.e they are automatic behaviours that we’re sometimes unaware of or that we perform mindlessly! So how does the practice of mindfulness work when we wish to do different things instead of the same old same old that may not be working for us?

Well first, let’s think about what mindfulness is. Put simply, mindfulness is about living in the moment, paying attention – in other words, being very aware of what is going on and our place in the universe at any given moment.  But being mindful is not just about paying attention, the type of attention is important.  The Buddhist philosophy  encourages us to pay attention with an element of compassion and non-judgmentalism.  So we observe our own behavior but in a way that doesn’t involve criticism or judgment.  Being mindful and being aware of what’s happening in the moment   is a great way of discovering what habits we actually have developed!

Three tips to achieving a mindful state:

(1) Mindfulness can be more difficult for some than others. But if you start with the following, you’ll get a sense for what you are trying to achieve.

  • Relax your body and mind
  • Focus on something
  • Allow your thoughts to come and go without judging them

(2) Mindfulness is all about vigilance but vigilance without anxiety.  It great for identifying habits we want to change but also becomes a way of changing them. It works in three ways.

  1. We monitor ourselves vigilantly to find out when the habit occurs and what triggers it.  
  2. Distraction is key. Suppression of a habit is just too hard.  Instead of smoking a cigarette, we need to do something else with our hands.  Instead of reacting with impatience and anger, we need to find a way of responding that follows a repeatable form.  Instead of saying “yes” to everything we need to find a substitution such as “Can I give this some thought?”.  We then have an alternative behavior that if practiced diligently (with vigilance), will become the new habit
  3. Change the situation.  Habits are trigged by situations and environments.  There is a reason why it is easier to give up smoking when we go on holiday. We are removed from the familiar which can prompt the urge for cigarette at regular times throughout the day.  

(3) This last factor, has more importance than people realise. Research has shown that habits are “rooted in the situation in which they occur”.   Take a new look at what you want to be doing differently and see if this new approach is useful. 

How to Turn Off, Check Out, Tune In

Do you remember the era of the ‘on call’ job?  A time when someone you knew had a beeper (pager) so that their company could contact them on the weekend or after hours, interrupting their ‘down time’ so they could attend to company business? 

I remember a friend who would sigh when her beeper went off, but she was grateful for the extra hourly pay she’d earn for the period she was on call.

These days, being always available – socially and for work - is a way of life, or even an expectation. We’re living in a ‘24/7’ culture and it has a massive influence on how we live, work and relax, and how we relate to others. 

Of course, there are plenty of benefits with being connected and available; convenience, speed and productivity. We can finish our time sheet remotely, call our mother to say we’ll be home a bit late (where is that phone box?) and respond to a client’s email without going into the office. But at the same time, ‘stress’ is becoming the latest lifestyle disease. 

With a growing culture of instant, constant connection, we are always available to others. We can find ourselves bent over our devices, checking, updating, and responding. We are more frequently exposed to light sources that elevate our stress hormone levels. 

Why do we do this? 
Well, aside from the benefits, there are some less positive drivers for constant connection. 
For example, some recent studies indicate the ‘reward’ centres in our brain respond to positive social feedback (e.g. Facebook). And we all like being rewarded, right? So you can end up ‘pushing the pleasure button’ over and over to get more rewards.

There is also the feeling of obligation to be available for or accountable to other people, and of course, there’s FOMO (fear of missing out).

Some chiropractors I know say they are more-frequently treating excessive forward head posture and upper cross syndrome.

Studies are also emerging that show anxious people can becoming more anxious and depressed with excessive internet use.

And of course, in the vein of coaching, it’s hard to be mindful, present and in the moment, if you are ready to respond instantly to a text, email, Facebook notification or instant chat message.

Maybe Tim Leary was on the right path in 1967, when he came up with the famous mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out”. It was all about mindfulness, harmony, focus and attention.

If you feel you are too ‘plugged in’, I highly recommend a digital detox – to Turn Off, Check Out and Tune in. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Turn Off – Do you need to turn off your communication devices and if so, when, and for how long? Write down some ideas to experiment with. 
  2. Check Out – If you decide to ‘turn off’ regularly, what sorts of boundaries would you want set around your use of technology? Who would you need to communicate these with?  In other words, how can you ‘check out’ and be sure nobody will disturb you?
  3. Tune In – What will allow you to be mindful and in the present moment? What do you need to do, or what could you experiment with, to achieve mindful, meditative bliss?

In Defence of Mindlessness

We are all advocating “mindfulness” as a desirable practice that can help improve our lives in many different ways. With our world being so full of things that can distract us, it can become difficult to focus on the task at hand, or even the person at hand, and we lose the joy and benefit of being closely connected to the moment.

However, I would like to say a few words in defence of, at times, being “mindless”! By that I am not referring to “thoughtlessness” which has another connotation, but to that state of being when our brains are disengaged and we are not intensely focused – well, really on anything! Why would this possibly be something we would set out to achieve and what am I really referring to?

I bring attention to the notion of letting our minds wander. Think about lying in bed chasing the sometimes elusive state of sleep. When we finally let go of the anxiety of having to fall into a deep slumber to get through the day’s next commitments, we will often go into a dream-like state when our thoughts flit from one scene to the other, before we actually nod off. I quite enjoy this  feeling of ”letting go”. And when I head out for a training session, on the bike or by foot, there are times when letting my mind wander to a place other than the hard, unforgiving tarmac or pavement has real benefits. In fact I will often head out to train and come back with some great ideas for my business. I find that my creative brain comes alive when my physical body is doing what it does automatically. And lo and behold, the session is over without too much agony or negative mind talk.  

Mindlessness can be a desirable state when we want to recharge our mental batteries, switch from thinking about one thing that may be causing us stress and for coming up with some left of centre ideas. Personally, I am all in favour of the occasional bout of mindlessness.

When Distractions Become Addictive

I have given a lot of thought to content of the sessions at Mind and Its Potential conference the other week and feel compelled to share a few more pearls of wisdom – or perhaps different ways of looking at things with you all! 

The idea of our becoming addicted to distraction really hit a note for me as I can recognise the tendency to sometimes scan my working environment (ie laptop) for new stimuli, usually in the form of an email or perhaps a Skype voice message, particularly if I am working on something not quite as exciting as I would like it to be! The ability to focus, or pay attention to the task at hand – otherwise known as “mindfulness” (yes, let’s take the hoo ha out of this term) is something that I believe we all struggle with more and more. The quote about attention deficit trait “turning steady executives into frenzied underachievers” was very powerful and a reminder about the dangers of constant stimulation and multi-tasking. 

I will share with you a set of guidelines given to ensure we get the most out of our choices in life and don’t miss out on what is valuable.

  • Set limits on technology
  • Be active, not passive – innovate, write, do something!  Don’t see to be entertained.
  • Use these things to clarify your emotions
  • Exercise!  Minds live in bodies.
  • Talk
  • Have idle, quiet time (not sleep).
  • Share activities with someone (eg read the same book – two copies of course).
  • Remember mortality to make more of life
Some of those strike a chord with me. Do they with you?

Wandering Minds

Last week I listened to an interesting presentation on “Wandering Minds” at the Mind and its Potential conference in Sydney. I was curious to know what the speaker had to say about this aspect of our natural behavior and I did learn an interesting fact.

  • 46.9% of people have minds that are wandering at any one time. (Work that one out!)  
What to make of this? Are there advantages to letting our minds wander and daydream, when so much is being made of the values of “mindfulness” – or in layman’s terms, “paying attention”? I came away with more questions than answers which is often the case and not such a bad thing in our business!

Today’s world is full of distractions. We are constantly stimulated by a bombardment of messages. We are faced with a multiple of choices at any one time and we simply are not equipped to deal with them. Making “good” choices or not, will dictate whether we have a “good life”. However, we are faced with fighting the potential addiction that distraction can become (think multi-tasking for fun rather than necessity, constantly checking email and looking for new stimuli.) The term Attention Deficit Trait has been coined for people whose daily habits have created an inability to focus for long.

Perhaps to counteract the above, “mindfulness” is being touted as the antidote to most of today’s busyness. Being totally present in the moment is very good for us. Finding activities that we become “engaged in” has positive mental benefits. Meditation is the answer to pretty much everything.   But so many people still find it challenging to meditate for a set period of time each day (30 minutes has been suggested). I rather like the idea of “five minutes of joyful resting” that one speaker was recommending. When you let all your thoughts pop up as they will – drift in, drift out – recognising that we are not our thoughts.”

I am also a great advocate for cultivating an atmosphere of creativity.  I often have my best ideas when lost in space – drifting off with the fairies. You could say, letting my mind wander. So maybe we just need to know what we need at any one time, to zoom in or to float off? But definitely not to attempt to do 5 things at once!

Mindfulness and Reflections from a Sydney Ferry

I had the pleasure of using public transport in Sydney last week in the form of a ferry ride across the harbour where I spent half an hour enjoying balmy skies, the sea and the sheer beauty of this amazing city.

When I boarded the boat I had to make a decision about where to sit. Wanting the fresh air I opted for what I thought was the front of the boat and found myself sitting at the back! I watched the city recede into the distance and pondered on the difference between looking at where you had been as opposed to where you were heading. And of course the metaphor for life was clear. I like to look forwards. I'm a coach!  It's in our DNA. But as a Counsellor, I also know it is very useful to look backwards to see what might need understanding better to allow us the freedom to enjoy our future.

And I was reminded of Martin Seligman's belief of our need to have a healthy relationship with past, present and future. Put simply, when we look back into our past, do we do so with gratitude or regret? And when we look into the future, do we face it with anxiety or anticipation? It seemed very appropriate for the occasion as I scanned the city looking for familiar landmarks of where I had lived, worked and played and funny memories came up for me. I really focused on all the enjoyment I had had over the years. So my choice of seat on that ferry gave me the opportunity of nurturing my healthy relationship with the past. 

And the future, well sure, I was looking forward to the meetings I had planned and curious to know what might come out of them. Also looking forward to strolling through Manly's streets on a gorgeous sunny day. But as the journey progressed and I settled into the experience, I realised that what was really happening was that wonderful experience of "time out" and total mindfulness of where I was right at that moment. 

People report feeling very "grounded" (!) when they are in the sky flying somewhere. I have experienced this feeling too. It's as if we are between places and that sense of freedom that the travelling interval gives us, helps us clarify exactly where we are in our lives, relationships, businesses. Long live travel and the chance it gives us to be mindful.

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