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How Neuroscience Applications Make Difficult Change Simple

Not all change is created equal. Even when people are highly motivated and open to needed changes, some changes are inherently more difficult to acquire and sustain. Furthermore, people who want to grow and improve often subconsciously resist change in ways that get in their own way. Neuroscience demystifies many of the invisible obstacles associated with difficult change, providing clear and powerful support through some of the most difficult change challenges along the way.

Why Should Coaches, Consultant, HR Leaders, and Other Change Professionals Care About Neuroscience?

This short article is designed to (hopefully) start you on a journey of discovery. It focuses on the fundamentals of neuroscience applications, specifically for making difficult change simple. It's an invitation to discuss the most cutting-edge answers to questions like:

  • Why are some changes really hard to adopt, even when we are motivated and have total buy-in?

  • How can we consistently and successfully overcome internal resistance to change?

  • Can we make it easier for coachable individuals to make powerful transformations and achieve their goals by knowing how the brain works?

  • What does it take to make change sustainable?

What Difference is Neuroscience Making?

For anyone facilitating change, understanding the way the brain works means deeper insight, more accurate abilities to navigate and guide people through change, and more consistent, sustainable ability to achieve desired outcomes. Understanding the brain is in no way a substitute to excellent coaching and consulting skills. It is a critical supplement. Adding neuroscience principles to change facilitation is like adding vitamin D to your diet to improve calcium absorption.

Neuroscience principles shed light on how change is acquired, what gets in the way, and what you need to add to traditional change models and methodologies so that coaching, consulting, or training will be better absorbed. By knowing how the brain works, change leaders can better support the way needed changes are acquired and actively facilitate the sustainability of new habits. As more change leaders gain access to these new principles, Neuroscience is starting to make a huge impact on this field and clients who experience the difference are taking notice.

How Does it Apply in Practice?

Neuroscience applications to difficult change can be grouped into 5 general principles: Skills, Unlearning, relevant brain systems, invisible resistance, and accountability.

To get an intuitive sense of what each one of these five principles mean, try to answer the following questions:

Neuroscience-based skills: Try to think of 2 to 3 people you've coached or know well. How do they each respond when they feel hurt, angry, or stressed? Do they react consistently across those situations or do they respond differently to different types of emotional discomfort? Are they detached, avoidant, dismissive, controlling, defensive, impulsive, self-diminishing, mindful, introspective, other? How do they respond to disagreement?

Neuroscience adds the dimension of skills designed to improve the way people respond to discomfort.

Guiding people through Unlearning: Go back in time to when you adopted a new habit or learned a new behavior for the very first time. It can be the first time you learned to shoot a basketball, play an instrument, or habits you learned at an early age like how to behave when you sit at the table etc. What steps did you take to learn? Now imagine you've been practicing doing something a certain way for many years. Your movements in shooting to the hoop have become intuitive. The way you play the guitar, or violin, or flute has become very specific. Or any other behavior or response that has been reinforced for a few years. Years later, you may want to improve how you do things, behave, or respond. How do you unlearn and relearn a habit or a response pattern? How is Unlearning different from learning? Most people know how to learn but struggle to unlearn. Do you know anyone who struggled to unlearn a habit or response pattern? Unlearning is a specific process, with recognizable steps, and distinct obstacles along the way. Mastering how to identify and overcome Unlearning invisible obstacles allows us to minimize the challenges along the way.

The different systems in the brain: A good way to understand the importance of the different systems in the brain is to imagine you were learning to swim for the first time. You are standing by the pool and your instructor explains all about how to move your arms and your legs, how to float, and how to breath. You are then asked to repeat the instructions and when you have done so successfully, you are told to jump in and swim. How likely is it that you would be able to swim right away in that scenario? Now imagine that instead, you were directly placed in the pool and told to swim, with no instructions at all. You'd probably be able to move in the water a little after some tries, but what it the likelihood that you'll be able to swim effectively in that scenario? We typically need both experience-based learning and knowledge or understanding to form new skills and improve. This is because the brain has two distinct systems: one for taking experiences and forming them into new behaviors and one for taking new knowledge and storing it as new insights and understanding. Knowing how to engage both systems directly impacts the ability of individuals to adopt discussions in a coaching environment into practice, so people don't just understand and accept what needs to change and how, but actually start adopting it into practice in a consistent, sustainable way.

Invisible resistance: Have you ever seen people experience a "mental shut down" as a result of high anxiety or stress? Do you know anyone who tends to get clustered, confused, or otherwise stuck when they are put on the spot? For many people, change is a stressor and it elicits a wide range of seemingly unrelated dysfunctional responses. When trying to adopt change, people can get forgetful, apathetic, incoherent, impatient, or otherwise overwhelmed. Knowing to pin-pinpoint invisible change-related resistance and how to quickly overcome it in a positive, empowering way, is one of the critical aspects of making difficult change simple.

Effective Accountability: Have you ever had to or do you know anyone who has had to struggle through changing a habit which requires discomfort in the present for achieving long term benefit? Do you know anyone who tried to diet or exercise more, starting out motivated and committed, focusing on the future goal but then, losing hold of the vision or otherwise struggling to keep up with the new regiment? Accountability is not at all a new concept in coaching. The added value of Neuroscience is the know-how of what works to generate accountability and why.

Accountability ties to the other four principles. Understanding accountability requires a deeper understanding of invisible resistance, the systems in the brain, as well as the Unlearning process and Change-Readiness Skills. In fact, all five principles are interconnected and need to be practiced together.

If you are interested in how these principles make a difference and why they are quickly becoming a high-in-demand skill set, keep an eye out for the upcoming articles and videos we have lined up for you to explore. Otherwise, please feel free to send us your insights, comments, or questions any time :)

With appreciation,


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