A Coaching Power Tool created by Lynne Elder
(Professional Training & Coaching, UNITED KINGDOM)
Cognitive thinking (as in CBT) uses the frontal elements of the brain and is very much about information-processing, reasoning and problem-solving. It’s practical, systematic and deliberate and we use it when we are trying to ‘think through’ a situation or challenge.
By contrast, limbic thinking occurs within the limbic system of the brain – our primitive brain system which sits right above the brainstem and is tucked underneath the cortex. It’s our limbic system which is involved in many of our emotional responses, motivations, feelings, pleasure and basic survival reactions.
How is this significant within coaching?
At its most simple level, the difference between cognitive and limbic can be described as the difference between thinking and emotions.
Clearly, as we develop and live, life ‘happens’, ‘things’ take place and we experience daily occurrences. This is very practical, tangible and, usually linear in that one thing happens after another. We make sense of this using our cognitive thinking.
But this isn’t all that is happening, because associated with these life experiences are memories, psychological and physiological reactions and emotional responses which become linked – particularly those we feel to be similar to previous ones.
Plus we interpret things, let’s call them ‘our life experiences,’ in ways that are influenced by our previous life experiences. So those experiences which held a particular and appropriate meaning for us when they first occurred, influence our reaction to and our interpretation of, experiences which we deem to be similar – as they happen now.
And more! For although the originating event has long since passed, the limbic system still holds firm to the emotional response which, although appropriate when it first happened, is no longer appropriate and is now restricting, debilitating, constricting choices etc.
Practical Application of Cognitive vs Limbic in Coaching
In situations in which cognitively reframing an experience, or coaching the client to look at different options or possibilities is not likely to be helpful, or indeed where ‘re-living’ the experience would cause stress and anxiety, it may be more effective to work with the client limbically.
How do we do this?
Given that reason, logic and ‘thinking things through’ are the domain of the cognitive parts of the brain, in working limbically, the objective of the coach is to encourage the client to ‘cut through’ their logical thinking process, to stop thinking, and rather to access their emotional centre. We do that by using linguistics to effectively overwhelm the client’s thinking process and remove the ‘logic’ barriers. Thus their responses and reactions to the coaching stimuli happen in the part of the brain which stored the emotional challenges in the first place.
First of all, the coach creates the right environment for the client to get rid of their unhelpful emotional responses by firstly creating a ‘safe space’ for the client, then exploring the challenging situation with the client and thus ‘lighting up’ their brain pathways. It is not necessary to discuss the events which created the emotional response in the first place – and might be actively avoided. This process stimulates the brain to be open and responsive, particularly around the challenging situation.
The coach will then use powerful linguistic patterns, the purpose of which is to resonate at an emotional level and not at a logical level. The power of the linguistics is not in the words used per se, but in the way the language is constructed and delivered. Thus the linguistic techniques include:
- hypnotic language construction
- use of cadence
- powerful pitch and tone
- ambiguity and abstraction
- use of non-regular syntax
This languaging overwhelms the logical workings of the brain and appeals directly to the emotional centre, enabling the client to achieve the breakthrough that they were not able to achieve via a cognitive approach.
Where a cognitive approach, using deliberate structured thought and reflection is likely to be unhelpful, ineffective or inappropriate, working with the client limbically can produce significant and sustainable transformational change.
This is particularly the case when challenging behavior patterns or barriers to taking action are the result of outdated negative emotions which should no longer be relevant in the client’s current life.