The Neuroscience Supporting ICF Core Competency #1: “Demonstrates Ethical Practice” 

Susan Britton, PCC

The Neuroscience Behind ICF Core Competency #1

In our first article outlining the neuroscience advantage in coaching, we set the foundation for understanding how our clients’ Neural Chemistry & Circuitry can either work FOR or AGAINST them when it comes to change. As a quick recap, change begins on the inside. It involves formation of new neural circuits in the brain (aka neuroplasticity) and intentional balancing of the neurochemical cocktail that influences mood, which, in turn, affects thinking. 

In this and future articles, we explore various neuroscience concepts that bring biological insights to the eight ICF Core Competencies. With an understanding of these concepts, we gain additional clarity into why the core competencies are so effective when applied with intention.

We’ll take the competencies in sequential order and devote an article (or two) to each competency. (You can access other articles in the series here). This article looks at the neuroscience behind ICF #1 Demonstrates Ethical Practice, highlighting how:

  • Relationship is at the heart of Ethics—the way we approach relationships can either expand or diminish the client.
  • The ethical emphasis on inquiry and exploration support expansion, while advice-giving diminishes the client.
  • The client experiences a corresponding physiological shift between Red Zone and Blue Zone when diminished or expanded, which directly impacts their cognitive and relational capacity to achieve change

ICF Core Competency #1

As we’re aware, the ICF defines competency #1 “Demonstrates Ethical Practice” as: Understands and consistently applies coaching ethics and standards of coaching.

For some, a topic like ethics can feel dry and regulatory. Coaching instructor Edward Macdonald, MCC shares a beautiful insight that brings life and warmth to ethics: “When I can see ethics as values, it changes something deeply, because ethics are the driving belief behind something that you do.” With this in mind, we offer this ‘driving belief’ for consideration: 

the HEARTBEAT of
ethical practice is
RELATIONSHIP.

When the coach’s relationship is rooted in exploring the human being of beauty sitting across from you (even if they’re stressed out and appear to be doing “stupid” stuff!), we not only demonstrate ethical practice, we embody it.

Our perspective on relationship can either expand or diminish the client. These two states are reminiscent of philosopher Martin Buber’s distinction between I/THOU and I/IT relationships. 

  • In I/THOU, the relationship is one of mutuality and dialogue. As we coach from an I/THOU perspective, there is inquiry and exploration of the client’s power and potential. The coach listens without the desire for the client to think a certain way or take a specific action. The coach’s desire is simply the client’s growth. There is a body-felt belief that the client’s strengths, values, and creativity are more than enough for the challenges, uncertainties, complexities, and stretches that accompany growth.

  • If our coaching slips into an I/IT perspective, the relationship shifts to disconnection and control (often subtle but sometimes overt). We lose sight of the client’s power and potential. As dialogue degrades to monologue; the coach displaces exploration and curiosity with suggestions and advice. The client’s openness to experiment with new ways of being can turn into guardedness, with a retreat to the familiar and the comfortable. In I/IT relationships, growth is hampered and diminished.

Many of the subcompetencies for ICF #1 are reflected in I/THOU: integrity and honesty, sensitivity to who the client is, respectfulness, confidentiality (subcompetencies 1, 2, 3, 5). Likewise, understanding the distinctions between coaching and other disciplines (subcompetency 6) is critical to ethical practice. One key distinction of coaching from other disciplines is the focus on honoring the I/THOU nature of relationship through inquiry and exploration.  

Through inquiry and exploration, we are better equipped to demonstrate other coaching competencies, such as the ability to establish and maintain agreements (ICF #3), cultivate trust (ICF #4), maintain presence (ICF #5), listen deeply and ask powerful questions (ICF #6 and #7), evoke awareness (ICF #7), and facilitate client-generated actions and accountability (ICF #8). All of these competencies flow from an I/THOU exploration of the client ascreative, resourceful, and whole. 

Conversely, ICF notes that: 

“if a coach almost exclusively gives advice or indicates that a particular answer chosen by the coach is what the client should do, then trust, presence, powerful questioning, creating awareness, and client-generated actions and accountability will not be present.”

Clearly, inquiry and exploration expands. Advice and control diminishes. Unfortunately, if we give advice, several disadvantages arise. We might inadvertently: 

  • Overlook or invalidate the client’s resourcefulness and creativity
  • Send a subtle yet supercilious message (e.g., “You aren’t smart enough” or “The way you’re thinking about this is wrong”)
  • Inhibit clients from “owning” and taking action on their learning

There are corresponding neurobiological components when a client feels either expanded or diminished, which we can better understand through the lens of neuroscience. 

Neuroscience to Support ICF #1

When we are with people who demonstrate ethical behaviors and operate in an expansive I/THOU orientation, we feel safe. Distinct biological markers emerge in this state: the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge, heart rate and respiration is normal, blood pressure lowers, and, key to our topic of discussion, vagal tone improves.

Vagal Tone

The vagus nerve is responsible for the regulation of internal organ functions, such as digestion, heart rate, respiratory rate, and more. It sends information about the state of the inner organs up to the brain. 

Vagal tone is a measure of how well the heart responds to stressors:

  • Low vagal tone is associated with poor emotional control and sensitivity to stress.
  • High or “good” vagal tone is associated with positive mood and the ability to relax faster after stress. There are a host of other health positives associated with good vagal tone.

vagal tone directly impacts how openly and flexibly
clients can navigate the stress associated with change.

Vagal tone can vary, and the coach’s own vagal tone has some influence over the client’s vagal tone:

  • A calm coach can help restore a stressed client back to calm: When the coach’s vagal tone is good, the parasympathetic nervous system is predominant, which helps lower the coach’s heart rate, slow respiration, and increase blood flow to the prefrontal cortex for higher-order thinking skills. The coach’s calm physiological state creates a positive emotional contagion, helping the client pick up cues (body language, voice intonation, eye contact, etc.) that they are safe in the coach’s presence. In this state, the coach is better poised to create a connection with the client and invite the client to explore new perspectives.
  • A stressed coach cannot restore a stressed client back to calm: When vagal tone is low, the sympathetic nervous system is in charge. Cortisol and adrenaline surge, muscles tense, and higher-order thinking declines in this protect-defend state. When coach and client concurrently experience this stress state, both are sending and receiving cues that can be misinterpreted as threat. With cortisol and adrenaline escalated, opportunities for the coach to cultivate trust, evoke awareness, and facilitate client growth will be limited.

To understand the implications of variations in vagal tone, we’ll explore the concept of the Polyvagal Theory.

Polyvagal Theory

Psychologist and neuroscientist Stephen Porges, Ph.D., is the author of the Polyvagal Theory. Porges describes that our physical body involuntarily responds to various stimuli with a hierarchy of separate vagal circuits, each of which supports different categories of behavior:

  • Social Engagement
  • Mobilization 
  • Immobilization 

The word “involuntarily” is important to remember as a coach. It means that clients cannot control their body’s initial reactions to these perceptions of safety or threat. And when it comes to a client perceiving a threat, we can extend extra grace and compassion as we recognize how unconscious and unintentional this automatic stress response is. 

The nervous system is constantly monitoring the environment, both for cues of safety but also for signs of risk or danger—anything from people’s facial expressions and voice intonation to unfamiliar sounds, temperature changes, and more. Based on this unconscious detection system, one of three different vagal circuits will be activated.

Social Engagement Vagal Circuit:

When the body detects safety, the parasympathetic nervous system allows the Social Engagement circuit to come online. This is the highest and newest evolutionary circuit. At a biological level, this circuit involves nerves within the vagus that connect with muscles in the face and head, as well as the heart. The activation of this circuit allows us to:

  • Lower our heart rate and increase heart rate variability to control our emotions
  • Smile naturally and have a range of facial expressivity
  • Control our voice intonation to speak in a soothing or calm manner
  • Listen actively to pick up subtle shifts in intonation, pace, or breathing
  • Look into another’s eyes and maintain eye contact
  • And more. 

You’ve likely observed this look before—facial expressions, body language, hand gestures all combine to convey that a person is approachable and safe. Engagement can manifest in a variety of expressions—quiet and comforting, alert and playful, thoughtful and strategic, or even energized and joyful.

As we know from the Red Zone | Blue Zone model, the Social Engagement circuit is the Blue Zone—the “tend and befriend” system, where our full cognitive and relational faculties are engaged. In this state, the body has full access to higher cortical functions and positive emotions are predominant. We think more broadly, flexibly, and strategically, and we can relate more authentically and vulnerably. We feel psychologically and physically safe. 

Important to note: Safety is not synonymous with comfortable. A client might feel uncomfortable exploring new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting, yet can still feel safe because the coach is conveying an I/THOU perspective of acceptance, curiosity, and experimentation. (For more on safety, watch for our article on ICF #4 Cultivates Trust and Safety.)

This Blue Zone state of Social Engagement is the space where both the coach and client can bring their whole selves to the coaching. 

Mobilization Vagal Circuit:

When the body subconsciously detects risk or danger, the Mobilization circuit is predominant. This is an older vagal circuit in the evolutionary hierarchy, characterized by defense. Mobilization triggers the sympathetic nervous system, which is the familiar “fight or flight” stress response, fueled by a rush of adrenaline and cortisol. 

These neurochemicals give us the energy to act in ways that make us feel safe again. Our actions during Mobilization might be adaptive or maladaptive. 

  • Adaptive: Adaptive actions help shift us back to Social Engagement. Adaptive skills require mindful awareness and emotional agility to calm the body and regulate heart rate and respiration.
  • Maladaptive: Maladaptive actions perpetuate a stress response. We stay longer in the Red Zone, with actions and emotions that reflect defensiveness, agitation, anxiousness, anger, withdrawal, inadequacy, pessimism, and the like. 

Physiologically, the Mobilization vagal circuit does not connect to the muscles in our face and head. Thus, a person in Mobilization will display facial features that appear flatter, colder, and less engaging. And, when we don’t feel safe, Porges describes that we can easily misread other people’s cues, such as seeing neutral faces as being aggressive or fearful faces as if they were angry. We can also misunderstand people, in part because the muscles in the eardrum become tense, which inhibits our capacity for listening.

The Mobilization circuit is linked to the heart, lungs, and gut, which readies us for the fight-flight response. Channeling resources in this direction limits the range of emotions that can be expressed during Mobilization. For example, a person racing through an airport full-speed and out-of-breath, only to miss the last connecting flight home of the night, will not be able to readily express a range of relational emotions that foster connection, such as compassion or appreciation.

Strenuous exertion is not required for the Mobilization circuit to kick in. In coaching, a client’s perception of threat can easily come from subtle cues—perhaps they interpret the coach’s tone of voice as condescending or judgmental, or maybe the coach uses a term that brings up an embarrassing memory for the client, or it might be that the coach interrupts the client without reason. Any of these examples might cue up a threat reaction, especially if a client is hypervigilant or hasn’t had sufficient sleep or nutrition. With Mobilization, heart rate increases, a cascade of stress reactions ensues, higher cognitive functions go off-line, and engagement erodes.

There could be hundreds of cues that the client interprets as a threat; and, as coaches, we cannot walk on eggshells. If we try to avoid every misstep, we only degrade our own nervous system to operate in the Mobilization circuit. The neuroscience supporting Core Competencies #6 and #7 will offer additional insights on how to manage situations when the client may be feeling a sense of threat.

In sum, Mobilization (especially if it leads to Maladaptive reactions) creates a state where a client’s progress may be impeded because higher-order thinking and emotional agility is not accessible.

Immobilization Vagal Circuit:

The third circuit in the Polyvagal hierarchy is Immobilization. This is evolutionarily the oldest circuit. It is a separate circuit in the brainstem that involves a shut down of our system, such as fainting or going into a dissociative state. It’s unlikely we’d see the Immobilization reaction in a coaching conversation, but it is helpful to understand how the body reacts in the face of extreme threat. 

This “play dead or dissociate” system is also an autonomic response. We don’t consciously choose to faint or dissociate—the body unconsciously chooses for us as a strategy to protect itself from threats. 

This is the same ancient biological circuitry that vertebrates use to freeze as a defense against predators—a mouse that goes limp in the mouth of a cat, or a lizard that doesn’t move a muscle in the presence of a predator hawk. A human example of this could be an adult fainting at the fear of an impending plane crash or a child who involuntarily dissociates to endure the horrors at the hands of an abuser. 

The Bottom Line

→ Ethics are rooted in Relationships. 

→ An I/THOU approach to relationships cultivates Safety. 

→ Safety activates the Social Engagement Vagal Circuit, aka the Blue Zone.

→ Operating from the Blue Zone supports coaches in creating an ethical coaching practice, which in turn helps us demonstrate ALL of the ICF competencies and create the best environment for client success.

To create this neuro-friendly coaching space, we can start with deepening our commitment to I/THOU relationships, which is at the heart of ICF #1 Demonstrates Ethical Practice. 

  • If our coaching relationships are based on advising, directing, or being attached to our ideas for the client, it can have a negative neurobiological impact. This I/IT orientation diminishes clients, triggering a subtle or overt Red Zone that prevents access to higher-order cognitive skills and relational capacities.
  • Conversely, when we believe in, inquire about, and explore our client’s inherent creativity and resourcefulness, it can have a positive neurobiological impact. An I/THOU orientation invites expansion, opening access to the Blue Zone of whole-brain thinking and whole-hearted relationships.

When clients experience this expansive state, the body can calm the heart in order to control the emotions, to activate engagement, to expand thinking, to try out new behaviors and ultimately experience the change they desire!

Susan Britton, PCC, is founder and president of The Academies for Coaching Inc., providing coaching education globally since 2001. For nearly 10 years, The Academies has been a leader at the intersection of coaching and neuroscience, with a commitment to curate and synthesize neuroscience findings into accessible, memorable, and effective coaching tools. Learn more about The Academies passion for “Changing Minds, for Good” at www.TheAcademies.com, where you can receive short, semi-monthly installments of “Encourage Your Brain”!

Our Courses

We offer all neuroscience-based programming; courses in career, leadership and strengths.

Encourage Your Brain!

Sign up for a free, short, brain-friendly newsletter that is guaranteed to make you feel better every Friday!