When Harvey bagged an offer of appointment to be a senior management position at an MNC, he was required to undergo coaching with an executive coach for the first 3 months. He was alarmed. At the coaching sessions he attended, he denied any problems, was non-committal, and was certainly uncooperative. At the end of it, he proudly announced to a few of his friends that he survived and that he did not succumb.

When I shared the above story with others, it seemed that individuals like Harvey who approached coaching with a negative attitude was not uncommon and happened in situations when coaching was mandated.

The above story highlights many misunderstandings about coaching. Chief among these is the belief that the coach is there to find fault with you and to indicate where you have fallen short. This is a myth. The first 90 days for any new appointment, especially a senior one, is a period of adjustment and adaptation and the provision of mandated coaching for a senior officer for the appointee to get up to speed and perform effectively and adapt well within the first 90 days.

A Negative Attitude To Coaching

Yet for this coachee, I detect a more serious problem. And that is Harvey has shut himself from learning by adopting an adversarial attitude typical of that of a fixed mindset. That adversarial attitude appears to be adopted as a means of protecting himself from the verbal assaults of the coach which was expected to be critical of him. Of course, this attitude was wrong as the coach’s brief is to help him perform at his very best rather than being critical of him.

This adversarial attitude of functioning is that which obtain when one is confronted with danger. And indeed Harvey perceived that he was in danger from the coach whom he viewed as hostile and aggressive towards him. This protected mode (as this should be called) protects one from harm and one’s view of the surrounding is very much a paranoid one.

The opposite of protected mode is known as the learning mode. In this mode, we are relaxed enough to listen, absorb and learn from what we take in as information and experience from our surroundings including people. Obviously, we need to feel safe enough to relax our guard and to take in information from all our five senses.

The labelling of thesde opposing modes of functioning as protected and learning modes1 is supported by neuroscience research findings. The protected mode is basically an emotional brain phenomenon typical of the stress response while the learning mode is a forebrain function. One can say that the learning mode is a higher function whereas the protected mode is one typical of a survival response that is seen in lower mammals and is essential to an organism’s survival.  

The Protected Mode

The stress response is a mode of functioning when the midbrain nuclei, the amygdala on both sides of the midline, is in control. As you may probably know, the amygdala are the nuclei that gets activated when you are stressed or faced with danger. The amygdala provokes the flight or fight response which essentially seeks to remove us from danger for the survival of the organism.

In the office situation, when you are threatened by someone or by a situation, the action of the amygdala kicks in and you will function in ways to protect yourself. That is essentially work stress as you would experience it. 

In a coaching session, the coach acts in an encouraging and supportive manner, to help the coachee to relax and learn. The coachee responds in a trusting manner, and feeling safe and secure, he then can learn from the interaction with the coach and stimulated by the interaction he begins to have insights into himself and his work to learn from it.

Obviously, in the anecdote highlighted above, Harvey, the coachee had from the onset, made up his mind that he will reject the coach’s overtures, hence he was resisting the attempts of the coach to engage him. He is in protected mode, under the mistaken perception that the coach would find fault with him and attack him. Hence, he felt the need to wall himself in.

The Learning Mode

In learning mode, the forebrain is in charge, the scientific name being the prefrontal cortex. This is the front of the brain just behind the forehead. This is where the executive function of the brain resides and is the part that is responsible for planning, problem-solving, decision making, error monitoring, inhibition of inappropriate action and emotional regulation.

These cognitive functions are enhanced when attention is focused on the task at hand. This focus is a mild form of arousal that does not activate the arousal of the amygdala, but sufficient enough to ramp up energy for the forebrain to function effectively and efficiently. In a sense, the optimum function requires the activation of the forebrain combined with a relaxation that does not turn on the amygdala. That’s when we are most effective in learning and assimilating information and experiences.

When this happens, the person being coached can derive insights from the description he gives about himself and the experiences he had when he interacted with other individuals over his tasks and environmental conditions including those amenable to his tasks and those that obstruct his performance.

More importantly, he can integrate these insights with his past knowledge and experiences and with the guidance of the coach, he can work out a plan of action to fulfil whatever actions he needed to do to fulfil the objectives and tasks he is responsible for.

The coach on his part can skilfully use questions, reflections and comments to facilitate the learning process of the one being coached and supports the coachee to make the appropriate conclusions and to act on them. Certainly, if the coachee feels unsafe, this process of learning, formulating a course of problem-solving actions, and acting on them, will not take place.

The coach is also functioning in learning mode. He is learning about the coachee, the way he functions, the obstacles he is facing, and the opportunities for fruitful change available to the coachee, and thereby modify his techniques and his approach so that the coachee can be relaxed enough to learn.

The coach’s learning mode is also to learn about environmental conditions, for as the one in charge, he is the leader. And as the leader of the coaching interaction, he must ensure that the environment is safe so that the coachee can feel secure enough for a trusting relationship to facilitate the work of learning.

Making The Coaching Hour Effective

This is what should happen during the coaching hour. Most coaches are well trained enough to learn about the environment to make the coachee feel safe, and they normally know how they can stimulate the coachee to reflect on his experiences and help the coachee to attain the insights that will help the one being coached to make significant progress to reach the goals that the coachee may have set for himself.

The coach is trained, but are those who are being coached trained to be effective coachees? Most coachees before they are coached are given informational leaflets as to what they can expect from coaching and how they should prepare themselves in readiness of being coached. Such leaflets may be a good way to fulfil due diligence beyond that not much else is likely to be achieved.

It is likely that people are not likely to read and understand such informational leaflet let alone follow them. Hence the coaching process will include the coach educating and guiding coachees towards the learning process.

If the coachee is able to be relaxed and if the coach is able to give the one being coached a sense of security, then indeed a whole lot of learning can take place during the coaching hour.

If the coaching is mandated as in the above case, and the coachee do not feel the need to respond in a positive way to the coach, then techniques derived from motivational interviewing2 may be helpful to break the deadlock. Motivational interviewing is best suited for categories of clients such as drug addicts and alcoholics who while needing help may not be motivated to seek help or to change at all. A treatment of motivational interviewing techniques for coaching is beyond the scope of this article.

We are learning all the time in living and growing, and we certainly can accelerate our learning in the coaching hour by learning to trust the coach and to feel safe about the coach we are working with. Only then, can we achieve whatever we wish to achieve when we come for coaching in the first place.

Certainly, in the coaching hour, and in appropriate situations, let us be relaxed and trusting enough to enter into a learning mode so that we can be more efficient and effective in our learning.


  1. This duality of functioning is best seen in Kleinian theory of the 2 positions: the schizoid-paranoid and the depressive positions. Within humanistic thought, these ideas were nascent and the best articulation of the 2 modes is seen in the late Bobbie Burdette’s work and quoted by Marilena Minucci of www.QuantumCoachingMethod.com.
  1. Motivational Interviewing as a system of techniques was invented by clinical psychologists William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick to counsel alcoholics. There are several books on the subject as well as several youtube videos.