In this discussion, I would like to summarise some of the neuroscience concepts learnt on a recent course I completed online – “Inspiring Leadership Through Emotional Intelligence”- (Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH USA). I would particularly like to link these concepts to the practice of conducting Appreciative Conversations, Like the CPA (Career Path Appreciation) and MCPA (Modified career path appreciation) processes, at work.


We begin this journey by thinking about people in our lives and at work who have inspired us, who we have felt in sync with and who brought out the very best in us (resonant relationships) as opposed to those with whom we have felt bored, deflated and uninspired (dissonant relationships).

It seems that effective or so called resonant relationships are those that typically involve creating a sense of hope, compassion, mindfulness and playfulness. Creating hope by in essence fostering a sense of purpose or vision which creates context and meaning; showing compassion through listening to, deeply caring about and understanding others; being mindful in that they are authentic, transparent, genuine and have integrity and lastly fostering a sense of playfulness by tapping into the lighter side of life, laughing with others and taking time to engage the “inner child”.

We then turn to neuroscience and learn that research has shown that when reflecting on moments in life where executives experienced resonant relationships, MRI scans show activation of the neural networks in the brain that are associated with positive emotions and approach behaviour, namely, mirror neuron networks and the social/default mode network while reflection on dissonant relationships deactivated these networks most of the time and activated those networks associated with negative emotions and avoidance behaviour, namely the task positive network.

We also discovered that the task positive network enables an individual to focus, solve problems and make decisions but closes the perception of new ideas, possibilities and people. The social/default mode network however enables a person to be open to new ideas, people or emotions and to tune into others but could open a person to distractions. The two networks are independent and tend to suppress each other but both are required for effective relationships.

We learnt that emotions, both positive and negative, are contagious and occur subconsciously. Emotional intelligence and mindfulness are therefore quite important in order to understand how our emotions are affecting others and to enable us to consciously change our impact on others effectively


The journey continues as we look at the impact of stress and renewal on our physiology.

Stress whether annoying but mild or acute activates the sympathetic nervous system leading to the excretion of epinephrine and norepinephrine. These are vasoconstrictors and move the blood from the distal capillaries and extremities to the large muscle groups to enhance chances of survival. The pulse rate and blood pressure increases and breathing becomes faster and shallower. The body excretes corticosteroids and cortisone enters the blood stream which eventually diminishes the functioning of the immune system and inhibits neurogenesis. Chronic annoying stress causes the body to activate and prepare for defence but also results in cognitive, perceptual and emotional impairment.

Renewal on the other hand is activated by the parasympathetic nervous system. When the parasympathetic nervous system activates the vagus nerve is stimulated and there is secretion of Oxytocin (in females) and Vasopressin (in males). These are vasodilators and open up the blood flow. You feel warmer, the blood pressure drops, the heart rate slows and breathing become slower and deeper. The immune system is also engaged to its fullest capability and becomes healthier, while there is a possibility of the body rebuilding itself neurologically through the growth of new neural tissue (neurogenesis). This also results in one becoming more open to new ideas, emotions and people and fosters learning, adaption and change.

Without regular renewal experiences, chronic stress will make one’s performance unsustainable. It has been shown that the four key experiences that promote resonant relationships also lead to renewal experiences and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, namely Hope, Compassion, Mindfulness and Playfulness.


We then looked at emotional, social and cognitive competencies that foster effective performance. Emotional competencies are those that enable you to be aware of your own emotions and manage them. They include: emotional self-awareness, emotional self-control, adaptability, achievement orientation and positive outlook. Social intelligence competencies enable you to be sensitive to others’ emotions and to manage your relationships with them. They include: Empathy, organisational awareness, coach and mentor, inspirational leadership, influence, conflict management and teamwork. Cognitive competencies help you to think about and view the world and to make sense of events around you. These include systems thinking and pattern recognition. It has been found that using more of these 3 groups of competencies leads to greater effectiveness in many occupations and that they can be developed in adults.


Intentional change theory (ICT) is a theory of sustained desired change that occurs through the emergence of 5 discoveries or epiphanies. These 5 discoveries are: The ideal self or shared vision; The real self or shared norms and values in relationships; A learning agenda or plan that excites you to move closer to your vision; Experimentation with new thoughts, feelings and behaviours and; resonant and supportive relationships that make the discoveries possible. Movement from one discovery to the next happens as one goes through tipping points as you move between positive emotional attractors (PEA) and negative emotional attractors (NEA).

The Positive Emotional Attractors (PEA) arouse your parasympathetic nervous system leading to feeling positive and hopeful, thinking about the future and dreaming about possibilities. It leads to optimism and a focus on strengths, excitement around experimenting and trying new things and building resonant relationships.

The Negative Emotional Attractors (NEA) arouse your sympathetic nervous system leading to feeling negative and fearful, thinking about past or present expectations of others and problems. It leads to pessimism and a focus on weaknesses, feeling obligated to do what is expected and plan for improvement and building dissonant relationships.

Sustained desired change tends to start with the PEA and it is likely that one needs to stay in the PEA 3-6 times longer than in the NEA to sustain change due to the observation that negative emotions tend to have a much stronger impact than positive emotions. We do however need both, the NEA to survive and the PEA to thrive. In coaching sessions one can create tipping points and move a person to the PEA by arousing hope, compassion, mindfulness and playfulness. The general practice in business of coaching for compliance where one tries to “fix” someone by telling them what they should do, arouses the NEA.

In order to motivate and sustain change, appreciative coaching conversations should therefore move from a focus on the problem to a focus on the process (the interactions with the other person) to ultimately a focus on the person. We learnt how to conduct interviews that foster effective coaching and development by effectively balancing the PEA and NEA.


Due to chronic stress in our environments and a preoccupation with analytics that push our brains into the Task Positive Network we often lose sight of our ideal self and personal vision and dreams. We confuse the ideal self with the ought self, i.e. the ideal self that others would like us to achieve and this arouses the NEA. The ideal self comes from your core identity, a desired future and from hope. By reviewing the ideal self and shared vision the individual is brought into the PEA and is able to become more open to new ideas, possibility, relationships, learning and change. An image of a desired future would come from: Passion, calling and desired legacy; Fantasies, dreams and aspirations; Current life career stage and transitions and; Core values and philosophy. Exploring these aspects during an appreciative conversation would stimulate the PEA and should therefore lead to sustained desired change.


While this is merely a summary of the many interesting concepts learnt during this course, for me, gaining this understanding of neuroscience and its effects on us as individuals has been an interesting journey. Having worked for years with the Career Path Appreciation (CPA) process and its impact on development of individuals in the work environment, I now see the real added value of the methodology of conducting an appreciative conversation for sustained desired change in the development process as opposed to it just being an assessment of capability. As we have always emphasised, The CPA is more than an assessment of how people deal with complexity at work. The process and the person are as important as the outcome. This also reinforces the need for an effective and appreciative validation and feedback process as part of the online Modified Career Path Appreciation (MCPA).

Thank you to the course leader at Case Western Reserve University, Richard Boyatzis and all those involved for an insightful journey and an inadvertent reinforcement of what I do……