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Neurolanguage: Brain-Friendly Compassionate Communication For Education

Written by: Rachel Paling, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise


Everything we say has an impact on the person we are talking to. Did you know that words can literally change your brain? According to Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman: “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress.”

Martin Teicher and colleagues at Harvard Medical School discovered that young adults 18-25, who reported experiencing verbal abuse from their peers during middle school years had underdeveloped connections between the left and right sides of their brain through the corpus callosum and had higher levels of anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, dissociation, and drug abuse than others in the study. Words can, in fact, cause far more than emotional harm.

Our capacity to communicate through speech is one of the unique factors possessed by humans distinguishing us from other animals. However, our impact awareness and sensitivity to our listener is something that we do not consider enough, as more often than not, we blurt out a reply which is more from habit than from empathy and compassion. When we shift communication into our learning processes, we can see that educators are also not as aware as they could be and even should be. And we are all educators and teachers at some point in our lives: as leaders, managers, directors, learning and development or staff trainers, human resources, teachers, trainers, coaches or simply parents. The way we communicate when training, teaching or coaching is absolutely key and could totally change the life and future of a learner.

So how can we create brain-friendly compassionate communication and especially in our roles as educators?

Just imagine, one of your learners explains to you that s/he isn’t feeling confident about giving a presentation and you immediately jump in saying you think s/he is great and you are convinced s/he will be just fine! The impact of your response could have left your learner feeling unheard, unrecognized and ignored. On the other hand, you obviously acted with the best intention and you felt you were encouraging and supporting.

Let’s take another scenario: your learner shares with you that s/he is quite nervous about giving presentations and in the past s/he had felt panic, sweating with shaking hands, even with her/his mind going blank and you respond to him/her by saying it is only a talk that s/he is giving and there is no need to be nervous!

And finally, you even ask blatantly “why do you get so nervous?” and your learner responds with an extremely defensive and upset answer.

Neurolanguage incorporates professional coaching conversations and models as well as principles of neuroscience to totally transform learning. In our first scenario above, from professional coaching, I would be engaging in extremely active listening, demonstrating this through reformulation to check back, “so am I hearing that there is a confidence problem for you here?”. To be able to reformulate well, I really have to listen to what my learner is saying. The next step would be to demonstrate empathy, “I am really sorry that you are feeling this way”. Then I would use powerful questions to bring in compassion, “so, what could you do to build up your confidence?”.

Traditionally everyone says that coaching is about empathy, personally I think it is about “beyond empathy into compassion”. Compassion, in fact, means to understand the pain of another person and to want to mitigate that pain. In other words, it is where the coach recognizes and acknowledges the pain of another but swiftly moves the conversation into action and solution. The fascinating thing is what happens to the brain when we feel empathy and what happens when we feel compassion because, in fact, neuroscience demonstrates how the brain reacts differently to both.

Tania Singer is the director of the Department of social neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for human cognitive and brain sciences in Leipzig and she clearly explains the differences. With empathy, mirror neurons trigger and in fact the pain and reward circuits of the brain light up. Therefore, “I feel what you feel”. However, with compassion, the Periaqueductal grey, which triggers the vagus nerve, lights up and “I recognize and empathize with what you are feeling, but I want to help you move on from this”. The conversation could then move into a thought-provoking brainstorming, using Socratic questioning, so that my learner could come up with her own ideas and solutions. Ultimately, this would also mean that my learner does not feel that I am telling her what to do.

Compassionate communication empowers people to find their own solutions, promoting respect for their feelings and opinions.

In scenario number two, I would also firstly reformulate to check what my learner has told me, “so do I hear it really upsets you to give presentations and to the extent that you notice it physically?” I would also move to empathy and say “I am really sorry to hear that”. I would then ask my learner permission to share the neuroscience relating to “fight or flight”. By sharing what happens to brain functions when we get nervous, frightened or panicked could enlighten my learner as to what is actually happening to her and the reason for the physical reactions as well as the blank mind.

I would explain how the threat response arouses the amygdala, which sends signals to the brain stem and hypothalamus, triggering the fight or flight response. The rational, analytical parts of the brain may shut down as the reptilian brain kicks into gear. After talking this through with my learner, I would then go into Socratic questioning to brainstorm strategies for her to manage this state. Often, when we are fully able to comprehend what is happening, it serves to calm us down, thereby explaining brain functions and potential reactions could greatly serve us to know ourselves and appreciate how this may be happening to someone else.

In scenario three, I would avoid asking such a directly insensitive question and try to see if I could cajole my learner into shifting into a rational analysis of what happens in those situations by exploring the reasons for her reaction. Could this be from a bad memory? Could it be something that s/he does not do very often? Together we would try to analyze the reasons and that could lead us to coaching around bad memories or talking about neuroplasticity and how the brain creates habits.

In summary, a Neurolanguage Coach not only brings equanimity and compassion into learning conversations but also constantly brings awareness about the brain; neuroplasticity; neurogenesis; the conscious and subconscious and the interplay of explicit and implicit learning; how the brain learns through association; how positive feedback impacts the production of dopamine essential for learning: any potentially learning styles; the learning journey; the learning plateau; spaced-out learning; the limbic system affecting the rational, logical, analytical part of the brain; emotional and social pain: arousing curiosity regarding the learning.

In any learning conversation, the magic begins with the words of the educator.

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Rachel Paling, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Rachel Marie Paling is an International Game Changer in Education, in particular, the education of languages. She has created the method and approach Neurolanguage Coaching which incorporates professional coaching and principles of neuroscience into the learning process. She coaches and trains teachers worldwide, transforming them into certified and ICF accredited Neurolanguage coaches and has created the Neurolanguage Coach network with over 700 NL Coaches in just over 70 countries worldwide and is now bringing the approach to schools and institutions over the world through her licensed trainers and in nine languages. Rachel started teaching language at the age of 17 and has a BA Honours in Law and Spanish, MA in Human Rights, she is a qualified UK lawyer, MA in Applied Neuroscience and a PCC ICF Life Coach. She is the author of the books Neurolanguage Coaching and Brain-friendly Grammar and has written numerous blog articles about learning, coaching and neuroscience. She has spoken at many international conferences and her company was awarded the Bronze Award at the Reimagine Education Awards 2019 in the Science in Education category, She is dedicated to the shift in education and is currently establishing an educational foundation to bring coaching, neuroscience and heart science into educational processes.


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