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Coaching – science, art or a bit of both?

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April 25, 2024
CEO, Founder & Executive Coach
Explore the relationship between science and art in coaching. Learn how neuroscience supports the science of coaching, while the art lies in building relationships and effective communication.

Coaching – science, art or a bit of both?

Through history, Science and Art have been considered separate, almost opposing structures, with Science being the voice of logic, calculation, measurability and fact and with Art being the voice of intuition, interpretation, immeasurability and feelings. This duality was more prevalent in Western thinking and even now persists, with the sciences often seen as the voice of impersonal reasoning and the arts as the voice of personal appreciation.

The irony is that in the last 100 years or so, science (through hard reasoning) has proven that science and art are inseparable twins. Even Einstein said ‘After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity and form. The greatest scientists are artists as well’.

Einstein also said that ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.’ By that of course he meant that scientific breakthroughs are made by intuitive leaps of the imagination (for which he was famous), not that knowledge was less important. He was implying that both intuition and evidence, the inner world and outer world, are part of the process of discovery and learning.

Coaching is a profession with its heart and intention in personal discovery and learning, and it is becoming clear that effective coaching is both a science and an art, in the sense that coaching is about interpretation and effective action, about appreciation of the inner world and intention for better results in the outer world.

The science of coaching in a nutshell

The field of neuroscience in recent years has revealed much about the workings of the human brain. In a nutshell, just a few key discoveries are that:

  • Thinking and effort re-shapes the brain over a period of time, just like weight training can re-shape and build muscle
  • The brain is neuro-plastic, that is it can build new neural connection
  • Working/conscious memory is used when you learn something new, it is energy intensive, held in the pre-frontal cortex and is soft wired
  • Routine/habitual unconscious memory is used to repeat familiar tasks or behaviours, needs much less energy, is held in the deep basal ganglia and is hard wired
  • The brain doesn’t like re-wiring so changing hard wiring is ‘uncomfortable’ and resisted
  • Basic parts of the brain (amygdala and the orbital pre-frontal cortex) also react strongly to change and can create fear and anxiety

The hard facts are that humans, amazing though they are, do have a stubborn brain. It prefers not to change from routine if it can help it. When it is confronted with the possibility of change, the classic fright/flight reaction can kick in and make things worse. That’s on the downside for those wanting to change. The upside is that it has also been proven that the brain likes to think.

Earlier in the 20th century, behavioural scientists (notably Skinner, after Watson and Thorndike) were of the view that human behaviour can be conditioned, basically through a carrot and stick approach. It is described as being like tempting a child with M&M sweets – the theory is that every human being can be persuaded to change with the right combination of ‘sweets’. If change isn’t working it is simply that the right combination hasn’t been found yet.

Whilst this approach might have impact in the very short term, it does not create lasting embedded change – it is not making the brain think, but merely react to circumstances (carrot circumstances or stick circumstances). Lasting change needs to come from making the brain think, and engaging the inner world of feelings, needs and imagination which are the drivers for the outer world of behavioural change. In a nutshell, lasting change comes when people can respond with conscious choice rather than react with unconscious fear.

The art of coaching

Tim Gallwey, possibly the father of modern coaching, realised that real change lies in getting behind an individual’s behaviour (outer world) to understand the individual’s inner world – their attitude, perceptions and assumptions about the way they see the world. He called this the Inner Game approach, which emerged from his experience of coaching tennis.

His insight that the Inner Game (perception and interpretation) drives the Outer Game (behaviours and results) came during the latter end of the 20th century when there was a huge surge of interest in human psychology and in particular how this applied to the Western world workforce.

The Western world view that people were cogs in a huge economic machine was beginning to fail as manufacturing became mechanised and work began to be more service and technology driven. The new generation of workers were less inclined to be told what to do, and less respectful of hierarchy and authority. By the late 20th century, our expectations of work had shifted. The workplace should not only be safe fair, it should allow for human expression, personal growth and an opportunity to use our individual talents to show our potential and to feel a sense of personal achievement in our work.

It is this new world view of work that has created the enthusiasm for coaching. If there ever was a conversation that spoke exactly into the themes of human expression, personal growth, opportunity and achievement, then coaching is that conversation.

The Inner Game approach to coaching

Tim Gallwey’s work emerged in the mid 1970’s, and a while before neuroscientists proved scientifically that his approach to coaching had firm roots in brain functionality. The Inner Game works because it helps individuals focus their attention and learn to concentrate. It helps the brain think (which is what it wants to do), and this in turn engages the pre-frontal cortex. It starts to re-wire. The more it re-wires, the more it changes, and so does the person whose brain it is.

Focus and concentration have been at the centre of high performance activity for millennia but historically have had some kind of mystical connotation (Eastern martial arts, meditation). These you will hear world class champions in every human endeavour using words like focus, concentration and flow to describe their moments of peak performance, and there is no reason why every individual at work today shouldn’t be able to say the same thing about their day-to-day work. All we have to do is to help people stop for a short while and think more clearly for themselves.

This last point is important – you can’t help someone to think by telling them what to do or manipulating them discreetly towards the answer that you think they should have or need to have.

PULL coaching behaviours such as listening and following interest engage the coachee’s brain and will create new thinking and ideas. PUSH behaviours such as advising and giving suggestions don’t engage the brain and will result in a repetition or variation of what has been done before.

The power of focus

  • Quantum dynamic theory demonstrates that focussing on a mental experience keeps the brain connections in relation to that experience open and dynamic
  • The brain builds connections and changes as a function of where an individual places their focussed attention
  • Moments of personal insight and clarity need to be hardwired into the deeper brain by internal generation and repeated attention to re-model old habits or thought patterns
  • This means that any kind of change needs to be ‘discovered’ and owned by the individual through their own thinking, not imposed on them by someone else, otherwise it won’t get hard-wired into their brain
  • Everyone’s brain is different – the only person who knows how their brain wants to re-wire itself is the person who owns it!
  • Making the brain think for itself and getting it focused create the optimum conditions for personal learning, ownership and sustained change

The art of coaching then lies primarily in the skills of listening without agenda and holding a relational space where the coachee is able to relax, concentrate and think for themselves. This also means that the coach needs to structure the conversation with a few questions. So here are the key capacities of the effective coach:

  • relationship building
  • listening
  • structuring

So coaching is both a science and an art. The science lies in the theory and the art lies in the practice. The one relies upon the other, though the only way to make an impact is through the practice. You can read all the manuals on swimming you like, but if you don’t practice, then you’ll sink. I know some coaches who have stacks of psychological knowledge and theory about coaching, and couldn’t coach a toffee out of a paper bag. I know other coaches who have no formal qualifications in coaching (or anything else) yet who have the compassion, skill and will to create powerful, transformative coaching relationships.

The difference is all in the art, not the science.

Want to learn more about coaching?

Check out are article about creating an organisational learning culture