Learning Lab

Coaching clients’ to better decision-making skills using neuroscience

By Amy Brann

Making good decisions is a key component to living the kind of successful and satisfying life that so many crave, yet many are unable to achieve. The importance of making a good decision is increasingly important during times of high stress when people may want to shut down or act out aggressively. This leads to poor decision-making that can be devastating, particularly when life-damaging decisions are the result. Neuroscience teaches us that there are ways to improve high stakes decision-making skills by learning a few basic principles.

Most humans do a poor job making decisions.

[image_frame style=”shadow” align=”left” height=”200″ width=”300″]https://neuroscienceforcoaches.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Decisions.jpg[/image_frame]The majority of humans do a poor job of making decisions. This is not a judgement; it is the challenge set before us because of the way the human brain works. The human brain has undergone adaptation over time to be able to make quick decisions with limited sensory input in order to survive in a hostile environment. For example, oh my, the brush moved over there, and there is a flash of orange and black! If the mind took the full time to process what was happening, a tiger may have consumed our ancestor before they had the opportunity to sort out what was happening. Conversely, it may have been a brightly colored bird bursting out of the shrubs. Nevertheless, it is better to look silly running from a bird, than standing there to become a hungry tiger’s dinner, don’t you think so?

The need for a quick response is what gave humans the impetus to develop cognitive programs to make decisions. The disadvantage is that the conclusion of this decision-making may be wrong. A United States National Research Council study for the United States Army informs us that whether it is in a moment of military conflict, in business, or in our personal lives, this type of quick decision-making can lead us to miscalculate risk, and come up with the wrong assumptions that rarely work in the untrained decision maker’s favor.

How people make decisions in high-pressure situations.

Can you think of a time recently when you were in a high-pressure situation and needed to make a decision? How did you decide what to do?

In high-pressure situations, many people use memories of a similar experience to inform their current decision-making process. The mind gives situational feedback, along with a set of belief statements, for example, “I believe that whatever the outcome, I can manage this situation,’” or perhaps something less optimistic, “It’s over! There is no way I can deal with this!” These are beliefs, and on many occasions, people will use what they believe to manage a high-stress situation. The only problem with this method of decision management is that often the person’s belief system is not in alignment with the real time situation unfolding before them. This leads to poor decision making.

The neuroscience behind good decision-making.

Let us take a closer look using neuroscience to inform us about this process to understand how to make better decisions. When making decisions in a high-pressure situation, numerous synapses in the brain are firing in many locations at once. Adrenaline gushes through the circulatory system, offering a higher level of oxygenized blood to support the “fight or flight” response that stress brings. Cortisol another stress hormone is likely to be in the mix, the chemistry for action is in place. However, the high emotional state is not ideal for good decision-making.

The National Research Council report goes on to discuss that the more risk or perceived loss a person encounters in a situation there is potential for them to become risk seeking in their behavior. This risk seeking behavior is often unexpected, and leads to a faulty analysis of what will happen next. We see this in business when someone who has lost a great deal of money on a business deal doubles down on the next risky investment thinking that this will make up for the loss, and if not, things could get no worse than they are, this is the nothing to lose mentality that leads to poor decision-making.

To risk or not to risk? That is the question.

The way people react to risk and conflict is for the most part an innate characteristic of personality. Once assessed, the NRC report informs us, this trait is often stable over the long term. This highlights the a critique of the strategy that some coaches may use when he or she asks a client to become more outgoing in order to obtain a promotion at work or to begin searching for a romantic relationship, it may be in that person’s biochemical makeup to be particularly risk adverse. Therefore, a behavior strategy that considers this risk aversion must be considered instead. Conversely, someone who is not risk adverse may find it difficult to hear advice about how he or she should slow down and think things through, or take life easy and as it comes.

Knowing that this internal chemistry set is something that a client must work with to achieve his or her decision-making goals, the question then becomes more about how the client defines risk and the actions surrounding behavior in high risk or high conflict decision-making.

How to coach your clients to make better decisions during stressful times.

Now that we have determined that good decision-making comes from:

  • Your client’s beliefs as it relates to decisions.
  • Your client’s potential for risk aversion.
  • Your client’s chemical response during times of high-stress decision making.

The strategy then becomes clear to bring these aspects which underpin the decision making process and bring them together for a more effective high-pressure decision making strategy.

First, assess the client’s tendency towards risk aversion. Then establish a basic understanding of the belief system that is in place regarding the particular decision that they would like to address. Finally, help the client, particularly a risk averse client to redefine risks as opportunities changing fearful language that frames the situation and replacing it with positive language that feels less threatening and more of an opportunity for problem solving. This process is described in detail in my book Neuroscience for Coaches.

It is important to help the client implement a successful strategy that he or she may reference when making high-stress decisions. In professions that engage in conflict there are scripts, programs, and procedures that go into effect when the chemistry of the mind floods with stress hormones. This strategy can also be used in the business world. When clients seek information to increase their experience base, repeat these strategies before engaging in a high-stress moment, and finally executing the strategy during high-stress moments that adds to confidence and decreases anxiety response. You will then have coached your client to higher success ratios when coping with high-stress decision-making.


  1. Council, N. R., Committee on Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications, National Research Council (U.S.), ebrary, I., Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, Committee on Opportunities in Neuroscience for Future Army Applications. . Board on Army Science and Technology. (2009).Opportunities in neuroscience for future army applications. Washington, D.C: National Academies Press.
  2. Brann, A. (2014). Neuroscience for Coaches: How to Use the Latest Insights for the Benefit of Your Clients. Kogan Page Publishers.



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