How To Create an Optimal Coaching Environment
There are numerous obstacles that can inhibit optimal cognitive functioning, especially when one is trying to learn new skills, restructure old thought patterns, or make important life decisions. These types of scenarios are often the focus of coaching sessions and thus, as a coach, it is my responsibility to create an environment in which my client can function optimally and efficiently. In this blog post, I will be discussing various methods that coaches can utilize in order to best set our clients up for success as presented using the AGES neuroscience model. AGES stands for Attention, Generation, Emotion, and Spacing, and each is an important factor for coaches to consider.
When choosing and designing the environment in which we conduct our coaching sessions, coaches must reflect on, and become familiar with, how brains store and retrieve information. Often, clients seek coaches to learn new skills or thought patterns so a successful coach needs to have a solid understanding of how to work with our clients’ brains to best guide them down the path of their personalized learning initiatives. When pursuing optimal memory retention, the AGES model provides a comprehensive guide.
Attention is the first aspect of AGES that we should address when shaping our session space. We must realize that an individual’s capacity for sustained and directed attention is limited, with a time limit of 20 minutes maximum, and we therefore need to think about how our time with our client is structured. This is particularly important when we are expecting the client to focus on one task or topic at a time. Since the brain is wired for a general arousal to incoming stimuli, the amount of stimuli in the environment must be kept to a minimum for optimal memory storage to take place. This means that multitasking should be discouraged and external stimuli reduced, creating a distraction-free space.
Focus is particularly important, too, when utilizing linear or analytical processes to make a decision. Linear decision making is systematic, incremental, and focused. By focusing on rules, it allows for the consideration of all possible options and paints a complete, exhaustive picture. This can be especially useful in reducing the effects of bias on a client’s decision making.
Next, coaches need to consider the Generation aspect of AGES and how the new information is processed in the brain once it has been absorbed. Since memory is often stored in various sections throughout the brain, it is much more effective to generate your own connections than to have someone else tell you about the connections. This, in particular, is one of the most impactful aspects of coaching relationships - fundamentally, the coach sees the client as already having all of the answers inside themselves. It is our job to simply mirror the client and encourage them to think about how any new information is relevant to themselves, giving them opportunities to share what they’ve learned with others, or creating the space for insight.
Insight, in particular, is a very important and effective method for memory retention because it is one of the most intrinsically rewarding. Insight gives an idea LEGS: it increases Learning by activating the amygdala, it Engages the dopamine reward reaction, it Generalizes by influencing connection strategies across multiple contexts, and thereby produces Systematic change. These processes make ideas produced via insight difficult to unlearn.
Optimal memory generation, then, can be encouraged in the client when we design an environment that promotes the required brain state for insight. The brain must be in a quiet, interospective, happy, and relaxed state. As such, the coach should create a space that is positive and psychologically safe for the client.
Emotion, then, is the next aspect of AGES that we should take into account. There is a direct link between the emotion and memory brain centers, and emotion supports attention by influencing someone to either be focused and organized or distracted and forgetful. Each person has their own individual optimal arousal curve. If someone is too aroused (high levels of stress) or not aroused enough (sleepy or disengaged), then their performance will suffer. They will only function optimally if they are in a positive, mildly aroused state.
We should accordingly create mild to moderate affirmative emotions in our learning environment to encourage optimal cognitive functioning for our clients. This can be done by beginning our session with asking participants to reframe current stressors in a positive light or to talk about something that went well in their day (or week). Learning emotion regulation techniques can also decrease distraction and contribute to effective memory generation.
Spacing is the last aspect of AGES to consider when designing an optimal coaching environment. Since the maximum time limit for an individual’s sustained and directed attention is only 20 minutes, learning is a process that should never be rushed or compacted. The brain needs space and time to process new information. Not only should our sessions be structured so that our client is not expected to stay focused for more than 20 minutes at a time, but our sessions themselves should also be scheduled across a period of time to promote optimal memory retention.
Spacing out sessions is especially important when one recognizes that the sleeping brain is vital to memory storage and retrieval. Since brain connections and circuits are reactivated during sleep, it allows for the new information to be integrated with old information and for irrelevant information to be forgotten. That way, having the same amount of focus time spaced out across multiple sessions achieves both of the Attention and Spacing aspects of AGES.
Helping a client focus and learn new information efficiently should be considered the primary aim of any successful coach, so there are many factors for us to consider when constructing and/or choosing our coaching space. Luckily, the AGES model provides a thorough guide to enhance our individual coaching methods. Attention is important for optimal memory storage, so multitasking, distractions, and cognitive biases should be averted. Generation should be cultivated through the encouragement of personalized memory connections and brain states conducive to insight. Emotion is highly influential on the brain’s memory centers and coaching environments should therefore be positive and psychologically safe. Finally, Spacing out sessions is absolutely necessary for optimal memory retention.