For five decades, Richard E. Boyatzis, PhD, has been preaching the power of positivity—and he has the science to back it up.

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Medical students need academic coaching. Make the most of it.

Boyatzis, a professor in the departments of organizational behavior, psychology and cognitive science at Case Western Reserve University, touted the neurological benefits of coaching with compassion at an AMA Accelerating Change in Medical Education meeting hosted by Harvard Medical School.

The AMA is reimagining medical education, training and lifelong learning for the digital age to help physicians adapt and grow at every stage of their careers. The AMA’s “Coaching in Medical Education: A Faculty Handbook,” offers a framework for educators and administrators to create academic coaching programs in medical schools.

The handbook features eight chapters on academic coaching, each of which was written by faculty members at a school in the AMA’s Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium.

Put focus on long-term vision

Boyatzis has written more than 200 articles and nine books, and co-wrote the international best-selling book, Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence.

He told the meeting attendees that the perception that successful coaching relationships are rooted in goals is miscast. Instead a coach should help a coachee take a much longer, holistic view.

“What we've discovered is that sustained change and learning starts with an epiphany about what you want out of life,” Boyatzis said. “What I'll call a vision. A better word might be your dream—not goals.”

Starting out with a coachee’s life ambitions, rather than their immediate professional goals, builds the relationship on a compassionate foundation. It also engages the parasympathetic nervous system, which can lead to better recall and a healthier body, Boyatzis said. 

Conversely, beginning a coaching relationship by focusing on expected actions, things a coachee should do, adds stresses to a coaching relationship. That activates the sympathetic nervous system and makes recall more difficult as well as compromising the immune system.

Coach’s behavior is contagious

Leading by example is not a new concept in health care. But that example, Boyatzis said, should extend to one’s emotional disposition.

“When you're the position of authority, guess what? You are more infectious,” Boyatzis said. “Your feelings are permeating a lot of the people around you. If you're feeling anxious, they're feeling anxious. If you're feeling joyful, they're feeling joy. On top of whatever else they're doing, people are realizing that if you're not on top of what you're really feeling, how can you be in control of how you're affecting other people around?”

Boyatzis said that leaders displaying positive emotional attractors (PEAs)—small gestures that activate the parasympathetic nervous system—can help their charges achieve better results. He touted research that has shown this relationship, including a study of patients with type 2 diabetes. Researchers found that higher levels of a patient’s PEAs were associated with higher levels of treatment adherence.

Make room for feedback, task-mastering

While stimulating the parasympathetic nervous systems has numerous benefits, people still need to get objective feedback and focus on their professional goals. Injecting PEAs into these conversations can be beneficial.

Boyatzis told the story of a hospital CEO who starts meetings with other high-ranking executives and physicians by asking them to tell stories of patients the hospital has helped that week. By doing that, the staff members are reminded of their shared purpose.

His thought is by sequencing it that way, staff members approach their routine tasks with true passion.

“We need data feedback to know if we're doing well, and what we have to do for corrective action, but it's not motivating—it's fear-inducing,” Boyatzis said. “So the problem is that what you want to do is create a positive incentive for people to learn and change.” 

In addition to Boyatzis’ presentation, the AMA meeting featured a number of speakers offering strategies to effectively coach learners to assist them in skills development, professional identify formation and burnout prevention. Representatives from all 32 member schools of the Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium attended.

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