thereToday, we’re talking about ICF core competency #1: “Demonstrates Ethical Practice.” For some, a topic like ethics can feel dry or regulatory, but here, we want to underscore what happens biologically in the brain and the body — the neurochemistry and the biochemistry — when we think about ethics as dry, regulatory, or a bunch of rules to follow. If we flip this mindset and think about ethics as just treating other people with respect and humanity, we can make the case that really, the heartbeat of ethical practice is relationship.

With this in mind, how we approach our relationships, whether we are engaging with a client, spouse, friend, colleague, or family member, can either expand or diminish the other person. But what does expanding or diminishing an individual look like when we’re interacting with others and how does it fit into ethics and ethical coaching practices?

Expanding vs. Diminishing Individuals in Our Relationships

When we’re in a relationship in a way that expands the other person, we must be curious. We can focus on inquiry and exploration, and wondering about how that other person is thinking, feeling, or behaving. When we are curious and focus on inquiry and exploration, we allow the other person to feel heard and validated. This expansive approach elevates the person’s self-efficacy, and power, and taps into their own strengths.

On the other hand, if we’re in a relationship where we’re diminishing the other person, even if unintentionally, there’s often a lack of curiosity. Instead, we may judge or assume that we understand how the other person is thinking when we actually don’t.

Additionally, we have the human tendency of controlling, fixing, or thinking about how the person should tackle a situation. Approaching things this way can end up actually diminishing the client or individual because it can reduce their self-efficacy, power, and strength to be able to navigate their situation.

Now that we see how inquiry, curiosity, and exploration expands while jumping to conclusion, and trying to fix or advise diminishes, let’s look at the neurobiological components of how a person feels when they’re in the expanded state.

The Neurobiological Components of Feeling Expanded

When someone feels that their coach or anyone is treating them expansively, they feel like they have a choice, that they can take control, and can tackle the challenges ahead of them. Their parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and their heart rate and respiration return to a normal, calmer state. Their blood pressure lowers, and, key to our topic around ethics, their vagal tone improves. Put another way, a good vagal tone means that we are in a space where we can respond quickly to stress, feeling under control and calm in the face of stressors.

What Is the Vagus Nerve and Vagal Tone?

The vagal nerve is responsible for the regulation of internal organs, digestion, heart rate, respiration, and other internal functions, which sends information from all of those organs up to our brain. Vagal tone then is a measure of how well the heart is responding to stressors.

Low Vagal Tone vs. High Vagal Tone

Low vagal tone means that you may have poor emotional control, and you may not respond well to stress. Whereas high (good) vagal tone is just the opposite. It means that you are actually in a space where you can respond quickly to stress; you might feel the stress, and your system kicks in, but you can bring it back to normal pretty quickly. So, there are definitely big differences between low vagal tone and high vagal tone.

How Does Vagal Tone Relate to Ethical Practices in Coaching?

It’s important to note that a calm coach can restore a stressed client back to a calm state. However, a stressed coach can never restore a stressed client back to calm. Therefore, it is essential to keep our vagal tone high to approach coaching conversations with an expansive mindset and help our clients regulate their emotional states.

We may experience subtle stressors while coaching our clients, such as worrying about whether the client is happy with our questions or how to steer the conversation to achieve the client’s goals. Moreover, when clients move towards change, they often face complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity, which leads to subtle if not overt stressors in the client. Hence, we must strive to maintain a good vagal tone to help our clients navigate the change process successfully.

Putting High Vagal Tone Into Your Ethical Coaching Practice

Ethical practice is not just about following rules; it is about treating others with respect and humanity. Through a curious and exploratory approach to relationships, we can expand rather than diminish the people we work with. Be sure to ask yourself, “Where is my vagal tone? How is it changing or impacting the way that I’m relating to clients?”

Cultivating a good vagal tone helps us cope with stressors and approach coaching conversations with a calm mindset, enabling our clients to regulate their emotions and achieve their goals effectively. So, let’s take a biologically informed approach to ethics and develop impactful coaching relationships that help all parties expand and flourish.

Visit our Neuroscience and ICF Core Competency #1 article to take a deeper dive into this topic, and keep up with our monthly Neuroscience and the ICF Core Competencies series. Tune in to our next segment where we’ll talk more about the polyvagal theory and the different types of vagal systems that might be involved or engaged when you are working with a client, and what you can do to keep your vagal tone as good as possible in that process.

While you’re here, please take a moment to learn about our ICF-approved coaching programs! We’d love to connect with you to explore your questions and curiosities about our neuroscience-based approach to coach training. Schedule a call with a fellow human today!