A Coach as a Psychologist and a Linguist – article
Author: Peter Jarek, dated 30.12.2022
A Coach as a Psychologist and a Linguist
In this article you will learn that how important for a coach is to be not only a psychologist but also a skilled linguist who is aware of the power of words
In neuroscience-based coaching, one of the aims is to be able to develop a person’s capacity to think and process information bilaterally as much as possible. In practical terms, this involves your coach teaching you to respond to stimuli from the environment using the left and right hemispheres simultaneously, or as quickly as possible.
Most of us are relatively dominant with one hemisphere, which we preferentially process stimuli with. And there is nothing wrong with that. But, evidence suggests that this is inefficient and loses us precious time. Becoming more balanced in our processing of information grants us the opportunity to generate solutions and divergent ideas more quickly2.
The formula is simple — a positive attitude results in consistently more positive outcomes. That is because the brain creates associations with both positive and negative stimuli. If your brain habitually creates optimistic associations with stimuli, it increases your resiliency to negative states of chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. Knowing how to incrementally nurture positive associations regardless of the situation at hand means you are well equipped to tackle that constructively, potentially with more pleasing outcomes than expected.
When it comes to reaching your full potential and optimizing your attitude, few factors are as influential as your coach. Coaches play a vital role in helping individuals pursue their goals, overcome challenges, and develop new skills and habits. They often use a variety of techniques, such as goal setting, asking open-ended questions, and providing relevant feedback, to help their clients achieve their desired outcomes with the use of appropriate language in a coaching session or process. In this sense, coaches are similar to psychologists. In fact, some psychologists also call themselves a coach because this reflects what type of work they do. That is, they help clients assess their situation, identify what changes are required, and aid the transformation processes1.
Both professions work to catalyse long-lasting psychological change in their client’s psyche (van Zyl et al., 2020). However, while psychologists typically focus on mental health and well-being, coaches may work with clients on a wider range of personal and professional development topics. Whether your goals pertain to sports, business, or personal development, coaches are an invaluable resource for anyone looking to achieve success and grow personally and professionally (Williamson, 2009). In this article, I will delve deeper into how coaches inspire and ignite meaningful psychological transformations, with a special focus on their intentional use of ‘neurolanguage’ (Zaharia et al., 2015).
One of the key roles of a coach is to help individuals determine their dominant thought processes, so that they can jettison ones that no longer serve them and lean into new, more fruitful ones. This often involves helping individuals identify limiting beliefs that may be holding them back, and working with them to develop new, more empowering ones. Some versatile examples of empowering beliefs include: “I leverage my strengths”, and “I dream big”3.
The beliefs that we subconsciously harbour contribute significantly to our thought processes, attitudes towards life, and behaviour – all of which ultimately determine our life’s trajectory. Coaches use a variety of techniques to help their clients challenge negative assumptions about the world, shift their perspective, and adopt more auspicious beliefs, including gold-standard techniques like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (Radcliffe et al., 2015; Sturt et al., 2012). By helping their clients develop and adopt new ways of thinking, reasoning, and acting, coaches facilitate persevering change. This snowballs and leads to improvements in performance, thus enabling the coachee to overcome previously insurmountable obstacles in the desired domains of life.
Much of the growth that coaches catalyse in their clients owes itself to their skilled, precise, and intentional use of language. Coaches consider oral communication seriously, opting for specific words, phrases, and expressions (termed ‘neuro-language’) to help individuals reframe their thinking and adopt a more empowering perspective. Neuro-language refers to the way in which language and communication can affect the brain and its functions. In the context of coaching, it describes the use of language designed to help individuals achieve their goals and make positive changes. Some effective strategies that coaches may use include:
- Reframing: This involves helping clients transform negative thoughts or beliefs into more empowering and growth-focused perspectives. For example, a coach may help a client reframe “I’m not good enough” into “I’m learning and growing all the time”. Positive and constructive neuro-language is chosen, which has a positive impact on the brain and promotes psychological rejuvenation (Lambert et al., 2012).
- Active listening: In coaching, active listening is a key skill that helps the coach understand the client’s desires, unconscious biases, defence mechanisms, and ingrained beliefs. It involves paying close attention to what the client is saying, while simultaneously withholding from any judgements. All techniques demonstrate that the coach is fully engaged in the interaction, affirming their professional aptitude (Jahromi et al., 2016). Active listening can be identified by good eye contact, non-verbal cues like nodding, empathetic expressions, and minimal interruption in the client’s train of thought. The coach should also be able to closely repeat back (eg.: mirroring4) what the client has expressed, indicating full comprehension of their perspective.
- Asking open-ended questions: This involves asking questions that encourage clients to think and reflect on their experiences and goals. This can help clients identify their needs and desires and then take immediate productive action. Open-ended questions have no pre-determined answers and usually start with ‘how’, ‘why’, and ‘what” – prompting the coachee to respond spontaneously (Takemura, 2005).
- Providing feedback: This involves giving clients constructive feedback on their progress and exploration so far. This can help clients focus on what to improve, allowing them to progress more seamlessly towards where they want to be. In order to reinforce effective behaviour, positive feedback is given generously. It tends to involve uplifting language like ‘good job!’, ‘very professional!’, or ‘nice work’ (Hardavella et al., 2017).
- Encouraging accountability: Accountability means taking responsibility for your choices and their outcomes. This involves helping clients track progress towards their goals and hold themselves accountable for their actions. Particular emphasis is placed on setting clear, specific, and measurable goals. This helps the client define what they want to achieve, and establish benchmarks and milestones to measure their advancements. Such progress-monitoring keeps clients motivated and on track.5 Relevantly, it gives them the power to make changes to further achieve goals. It may take some effort to change longstanding patterns of behaviour including (negative) language, but introducing clients to new practices helps them forge new, more beneficial brain pathways.6
The language you use affects your feelings, your energy levels, and your belief in yourself. And thanks to the advent of modern neuroscience, we can glean exactly how linguistic techniques work in the context of personal development. The brain handles language in a complex and dynamic way; when we hear or read a word, it processes it by activating specific areas within the language processing system. The first step in language processing is called phonemic processing, which involves recognising and interpreting the individual sounds (phonemes) that make up a word. This requires activation of the primary auditory cortex, which is responsible for processing sound information (Friederici, 2011).
Figure 1: The primary auditory cortex, a brain region in the temporal lobe that processes sound-related information. It is a crucial part of the language pathway, encoding speech before its meaning is deciphered by higher brain areas. Picture source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Primary_auditory_cortex_-_lateral_view.png
The next step is lexical processing, which involves recognizing and interpreting the meaning of words. The left inferior frontal gyrus is recruited at this stage, as well as other brain areas that process meaning. Importantly, the brain also processes language in context, taking into account the surrounding words and sentence structure to understand the overall meaning of a message. This involves the activation of the superior temporal gyrus, among other areas that are responsible for integrating and interpreting language in context. Overall, the brain processes language through a complex and dynamic process involving the activation of multiple brain areas, as well as the integration of various types of information (Musso et al., 2003; Zaccarella et al., 2021).
Figure 2: A more detailed depiction of the primary auditory cortex; different cells are responsive to different frequencies of noise, allowing it to process a wide range of auditory information. Picture source: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/7-The-human-auditory-cortex-The-primary-auditory-cortex-is-shown-in-blue-and_fig5_279682502.
Unsurprisingly, neuroscience also reveals that the way we use language can have a powerful effect on our success in life. By using language (namely words or word clusters7 including collocations, style, register, jargon) intentionally, we can shape our own and others’ thoughts and behaviours in a positive way. This phenomenon predominantly owes itself to the influence language has on our emotional spectrum. The Theory of Constructed Emotion was proposed by American neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett in 2016; according to this ground-breaking theory, emotions are not just physiological responses – they are states that our brains actively generate depending on the named concepts we have memorized. We assimilate these from cultural and social influences, as well as personal experiences (Barrett, 2016).
The upshot is that we have more control over our emotions than we tend to believe. For example, you may experience a feeling of ‘exhilaration’ while working on something rewarding, because Western culture acknowledges this emotional state and refers to it with a word. But in contrast, someone from a culture lacking an equivalent word may not have access to the same emotional state; they could just as easily report feeling ‘happy’ or ‘energised’ (Barrett, 2006; Barrett, 2016). Overall, the Theory of Constructed Emotion highlights the importance of language in shaping your emotions. Experienced coaches use language to trigger the specific emotions required to reach your individual goals, making coaching one of the most rewarding investments you can make.
In conclusion, coaches use an array of versatile techniques to help you shift your perspective and adopt a more empowered, growth-focused mindset. They are a potent tool for catalyzing growth and achieving your goals. One crucial component is the language they choose to speak with. By using the right language, a coach effectively helps you reframe your self-concept, enhancing your understanding of who you are and what you are capable of. Since your new self-concept will be associated with newly-rooted thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, it will steer you towards more effective behaviour, a more positive mindset, and equally fruitful habits. In turn, your confidence and motivation will grow, leaving you perfectly poised to take action towards your goals and make exciting changes in your life, full of hope for the better and this is what we eventually aim at, after all. (Right) words have power.
According to neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz, the key to making real changes in the brain and in our lives is ‘attention density’, measured by the amount of attention we pay to something. When we want to make a transformational shift, we need a high level of attention density focused on the new idea, behavior, or possibility we want to move towards. “Where you focus your attention, you make connections. Focus your attention on something new, and you’ll make new connections.” (from the article ‘A Brain-based Approach to Coaching’ by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz.) With enough attention density, our thoughts and new behaviours can become a part of who we are and impact how we perceive and interact with the world.
Neuro-linguistic coaching helps the coachee pay focused attention to their insights and possibilities. When your coachee homes their attention in on a target, new connections in their brain start rapidly forming – and their mental resources start increasing. This provides more energy to resist homeostasis8 and support their long-term transformation. 9
Coaches help their clients increase their attention density by asking powerful questions, exploring the coachee’s insights, creating opportunities for reflection, asking for commitments, and holding them accountable.
8 The tendency towards a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements, especially as maintained by physiological processes.
9 https://www.performanceconsultants.com/neuroscience-and-coaching fragment: Implications for coaching.
Barrett, L.F., 2006. Solving the Emotion Paradox: Categorization and the Experience of Emotion. Personality and Social Psychology Review, [online] 10(1), pp.20–46.
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Barbara Fölscher-Kingwill (iOpener Institute, Oxford, United Kingdom)
Nicky Terblanche (University of Stellenbosch Business School, Cape Town, South Africa) Academic Paper: “The role of coaching and coach language in clients’ language and individual change” in International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring 2019, Vol. 17(2), pp.158-173.
 https://visiblybetter.cepr.harvard.edu/files/visibly-better/files/instructional-feedback-guidebook.pdf : “Use Language That Motivates”- p.7