Speaker Blog: Compassion vs Compliance Coaching to Bring Sustained Business Change

August 23, 2018 10:39 AM | Anonymous

Our September speaker, Sarah A. Scala has shared a recent blog posting in advance of our meeting September 18th!

I first learned about coaching with the Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) and Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA) through the courses “Inspiring Leadership through Emotional Intelligence” and “Conversations That Inspire: Coaching Learning, Leadership and Change” at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) Massive Open Online learning Courses (MOOCs).

The goal of coaching is to support positive behavior change. Compassion coaching is focused on the coachee’s vision and ideal self, while Compliance coaching focuses on the organization’s objectives and goals (CWRU, 2014). Through Compassion coaching, we activate the PEA by focusing on strengths and the coachee’s positive vision of the future. The PEA is reached when we focus on “optimism, hope, possibilities, dreams, vision, strengths, compassion, curiosity, learning, and experimentation” (CWRU, 2014).

Compliance coaching is used when we focus on problems, tasks, fears, weaknesses, and expectations, which activates the NEA (Howard, 2015). Compliance coaching often taps into the NEA, arousing a stress response. This can occur when we need to make a decision, solve problems, and focus (CWRU, 2014). “NEA focuses on performance and weaknesses, activates the sympathetic nervous system, releasing hormones, increases blood pressure, heart rate and stress response” (Jack et al, 2013 as cited in Boyatzis, Smith, & Blaize, 2006; Sapolsky, 2004).

I have found when using a Compliance approach in coaching, clients tend to become defensive and tense, which in my opinion, may not open them up to welcoming change. Defensiveness and tenseness are not bad responses, and in some cases are appropriate. At other times, being relaxed may be better for the client. Through activation of PEA, I support the client to be less tense during coaching sessions.

It may be very easy for coaches to perceive NEA as an approach to avoid, and one that is bad. However, NEA is important and essential to survival. NEA simply isn’t needed as often as PEA for positive behavior change and learning.

How often should coaches use PEA and NEA with coachees?

Over the last 20 years, “coaching has refocused toward strengths based approaches, orienting individuals to focus on things they do well” (Fredrickson, 2009). Research indicates a best result with a ratio of 3-6 PEA to every 1 NEA in coaching (CWRU, 2010). World renowned positivity researcher, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson shares in her book Positivity, that a 3 to 1 ratio of positive to negative emotions supports resilience to adversity, strengthens relationships, relieves depression, and improves health (2009). The ratio can be slightly different for each person, and that “80% of Americans fall short of the 3-to-1 positivity ratio that predicts flourishing” (Fredrickson, 2009).

How do we provide coaching experiences that support PEA and NEA with clients?

PEA is triggered during times of hope, playfulness, Compassion, and mindfulness, while NEA is triggered during times of fear, shame, anxiety, and guilt (CWRU, 2014). PEA and NEA are built into the ICT model. Having the coachee discuss the Ideal Self is an approach that is focused on a positive view of the future. This puts the coachee in a place of hope and PEA. When looking at the Real Self, the coachee may move into both the NEA and PEA as they look at current successes and development areas. Remembering that NEA is not bad, a coach simply needs to activate more PEA than NEA. NEA is very important for solving problems and completing tasks—critical elements necessary for successful organizations.

Questions? Let’s connect. I would love to hear your success stories. Please send them to: hello@sarahscala.com or visit www.sarahscala.com


Case Western Reserve University. (2014). ‘Conversations That Inspire: Coaching Learning, Leadership and Change’, lecture notes. Viewed on November 8 2016. .

Case Western Reserve University. (2017). ‘Coaching'. Viewed on February 22, 2017. https://weatherhead.case.edu/executive-education/coaching/

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Top-notch research reveals the 3 to 1 ratio that will change your life. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Howard, Anita R. (April 24, 2015). Coaching to vision versus coaching to improvement needs: a preliminary investigation on the differential impacts of fostering positive and negative emotion during real time executive coaching sessions. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 2-13. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00455.

Kauffman C. (2006). “Positive psychology,” in The Science at the Heart of Coaching, eds Stober D. R., Grant A. M., editors. (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley; ).

Seligman, M. (2011) Flourish: a visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. New York, NY: Free Press.

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