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The Neuroscience Supporting ICF Core Competency #4, “Cultivates Trust & Safety”


Change and the Brain

Change requires that clients navigate unfamiliar territory—they must carve out new paths for thinking, feeling, and being in the world. Unfamiliar territory places extra demands on the brain, giving it a three-fold task to:

    • Navigate uncertainty—sometimes change involves steering through minor unknowns, and sometimes it means negotiating major landmines that may threaten finances, relationships, or reputation;
      • Channel energy—precious energy must be devoted to the cognitive load of deconstructing and reconstructing new neural connections for new behaviors;
      • Resolve ambivalence—for every new ‘yes’, there is a ‘no’, which requires the brain to explore and resolve the tensions inherent in change.

    This article in our series on the neuroscience behind the ICF core competencies focuses on ICF #4, Cultivates Trust & Safety. When clients experience trust and safety, their brains are able to shift resources from self-protection towards focus on meaningful change.

    Safety Reduces Uncertainty and Releases Energy

    ICF Core Competency #4, Cultivates Trust & Safety, is defined as: 

    Partners with the client to create a safe, supportive environment that allows the client to share freely.

    Without a safe, supportive environment, the body’s threat response will be activated. This reduces brain-body resources that can be devoted to change. The threat response equals the Red Zone of fight-flight-freeze, where physiological resources are channeled toward protecting, defending, or avoiding.

    Safety eases the discomfort of uncertainty and paves the way toward the Blue Zone—the state of flow-flourish/connect-create. When the brain-body perceives safety, it has additional energy freed up to take risks—risks such as:

      • acknowledging uncomfortable emotions,
        • being genuinely authentic,
          • sharing honestly and freely, and
            • being open to new ways of thinking and doing.

          Our clients’ ability to feel a sense of safety in taking risks is critical for successful change.

          The Neuro Nugget of Trust and Safety

          As neuro-informed coaches, we can help eliminate one important element of uncertainty for clients: the certainty of how they will be treated.

          The Blue Zone builds trust—
          lowering threat and freeing resources for change.

          To cultivate trust and safety, we will explore how:

            • Oxytocin influences trust
              • Emotional contagion impacts a coach-client relationship
                • Trust can be cultivated, even in the presence of triggers

                Oxytocin Boosts Trust

                Neurotransmitters such as oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine operate in concert, and these three are often referred to as the “happy hormones.” In this article, we’ll focus on oxytocin, known for its role in a variety of social behaviors, from partner bonding and maternal care to social support and stress management. 

                Studies show that oxytocin is associated with increases in empathy, as well as decreases in fear of betrayal and anxiety. In one study, subjects who experienced empathy showed a 47% increase in oxytocin from baseline, along with higher levels of generosity. 

                Another oxytocin study looked at its impacts on processing embarrassment, with results suggesting that oxytocin reduced feelings of pain and anxiety. Reduced activity in the neural circuits involved in emotional arousal broadened subjects’ cognitive assessment of what was happening. Together, greater emotion regulation and cognitive capacity boosts our ability to operate in the Blue Zone, where we have greater capacity to make meaningful change.

                Oxytocin has also been studied on-site in workplaces. Oxytocin and stress hormones were measured at work sites, followed by an assessment of employees’ productivity and ability to innovate. No surprise, the research findings indicate that stress is a potent inhibitor of oxytocin, while trust is a powerful generator of oxytocin. Specifically, people at high-trust companies reported:

                  • Increases: 50% in productivity and 76% in engagement;
                    • Decreases: 74% less stress and 40% less burnout;
                      • Notably: a 106% increase in energy at work.

                    When trust is present, energy is available for meaningful activities.

                    Emotional Contagion

                    As social creatures, we are capable of spreading our emotional states—for good or bad. Coaches can spread emotions to clients, and clients can spread emotions to coaches. How does this happen? There are two key ways:

                        • Mirroring: The brain is wired to unconsciously synchronize movements with the faces, voices, and postures of others. If someone smiles at us, we smile back. As we perceive ourselves smiling, we are prone to experience a positive emotional state. The same holds true for seeing someone frown or clench their jaw—when we perceive ourselves frowning, we are prone to “catch” negative emotions. We can be mindful that mirroring happens in both directions. As we notice subtle changes in our own bodies it can provide clues to the client’s experience. Maintaining a Blue Zone presence can invite the client into a similar space–lowering threat and freeing resources for change. 

                          • Physiological Synchrony: As we spend time with another, our central and autonomic nervous systems can gradually synchronize, with similarities occuring in heart rate and heart rate variability and skin conductance, an electrical measurement of a person’s level of arousal. Results of research conducted by HeartMath suggest that positive synchrony can be intentionally created. Participants trained to send heart rate coherence intentions (analogous to Blue Zone) can draw an untrained recipient into greater heart rate variability coherence. Additionally, greater levels of comfort between participants indicated higher effectiveness of spreading coherence. 

                        As seen through mirroring and physiological synchrony, emotional contagion can spread through visible cues and unseen physiological states. Emotional contagion has consequences, with several studies highlighting this fact:

                          • Positive emotional contagion led to positive work outcomes when leaders spent time the night before doing pleasurable recovery activities
                            • Negative emotional contagion led to cognitive failures (problems with memory, attention or action) and ultimately more workplace accidents.

                          When physiological markers are in sync via positive emotions, teams perform better, players have more empathy and understanding, and patients see their therapists as empathetic

                          As coaches, our ability to regulate emotions toward the Blue Zone can create positive emotional contagion and physiological synchrony—both of which support connection and trust, freeing clients to channel energy toward their growth and change.

                            Cultivating Trust in the Presence of Triggers

                            Coaching inherently carries a measure of threat for clients, because it takes courage and effort to make changes. Despite our best intentions, there may be moments when clients don’t feel trust and safety, often because of past experiences. 

                            A coaching session typically lasts from 30-60 minutes, and yet the client brings with them decades of lived experiences and memories. Many of these memories are buried in the unconscious, unseen by both coach and client. 

                            It is not our job to probe the unconscious, but we would do well to remain aware of its influence on emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. Psychiatrist Bruce Perry, coauthor with Oprah Winfrey of What Happened To You?, explains how the brain is prone to being triggered: “the most primitive, reactive part of the brain is the first part to interpret and act.” Perry calls this “bottom-up” processing. This means that the smartest part of the brain cannot be easily accessed if the reactive part of the brain is in control.

                            With awareness of the brain’s sequential processing, coaches can understand the importance of staying regulated and in the Blue Zone. From a regulated state, we are better equipped to help clients experience trust and safety in the moment, despite their past experiences: 

                              • seeking to understand the client’s context (subcompetency 4.1), 
                                • demonstrating respect for the client’s way of being and adapting our coaching accordingly (subcompetency 4.2), 
                                  • acknowledging and accepting the client’s expression throughout the coaching session (subcompetency 4.5), and more.

                                On the opposite end of the spectrum, in a dysregulated state we might become reactive, reinforcing the client’s dysregulation, and thus inadvertently robbing the client of energy that can be devoted to change. For more insights on awareness and regulation of our own triggers, see the discussion on Metacognition and ICF #2.


                                Trust paves the way for positive emotions, cognitive capacity, and meaningful progress. The coach is responsible to initiate and cultivate trust, setting intentions to operate in the Blue Zone, where the parasympathetic nervous system prevails. In this state:

                                  • Oxytocin can flow, setting the stage for social bonding and trust;
                                    • Emotional contagion and physiological synchronization is positive, contributing to understanding, empathy, and performance; and 
                                      • Curiosity and compassion can be sustained if clients experience triggers or stressors.

                                    Awareness of how our neurobiology impacts trust highlights the importance of developing our capacity as coaches to maintain a Blue Zone presence. As we directly and subconsciously invite clients into the expansive connect-create state of Blue Zone, we free clients to channel their full attention toward meaningful change. 

                                    © 2023 The Academies, Inc.

                                    Susan Britton, PCC, is Founder/President and Jessica Burdett, PCC, is Director of Coaching Education at The Academies. Since 2001, The Academies has provided coaching education globally, and for nearly 10 years, has been a leader at the intersection of coaching and neuroscience. Curious about “Changing Minds, for Good?” Learn about our ICF Level 1 and Level 2 programs that weave neuroscience findings into accessible, memorable, and transformational coaching skills.

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