Book review: 'Make Your Brain Work' by Amy Brann

March 16, 2017
Patricia Penny

Patricia Penny

Ambition School Leadership Development Coach, North East

Make your brain work: how to maximize your efficiency, productivity and effectiveness, reviewed by Patricia Penny.

This blog is part of our coaching series

“Your brain is an amazing organ” writes Amy Brann, and in recent years brain research has undergone tremendous developments which can help us to better understand our thinking and behaviour. This is not, however, a book about brain research but a book to help us make the most of this knowledge. 

This knowledge can help us understand and therefore influence our behaviour for ourselves and in relationships with others in our professional and personal lives, making us more successful and enhancing our well-being. 

This is particularly relevant for coaches as we are working to help people's thoughts and behaviours more effective whilst helping them to deal with emotions. As coaches we have a repertoire of skills and techniques at our disposal; we sometimes intuitively see a way of shining a light on a problem and a way forwards, however it is helpful to recognise why these techniques work. 

"Any coaching delves into our beliefs, attitudes, decision making and emotions, building resilience and habits which all derive from the brain."

One head of department was working with a reasonably competent but unmotivated second in department who had some personal problems. He wanted to appear sympathetic, but at the same time needed his colleague to be more engaged and energetic. He allowed the colleague to talk about the problems she was experiencing and then set some short term goals which were easy to accomplish. Talking through a problem, even when there is no immediate solution, releases serotonin, a bonding and “feel good” hormone. 

The successful completion of goals releases dopamine which makes us want to repeat the experience. The colleague appreciated the support and also had a kick start to being more effective by successfully completing some tasks. Whilst most of us would suspect that these strategies would be effective, reading the book explains why. 

I recommend the book because it is very applicable to coaching. It features a fictitious coach Stuart who works with three clients, Ben, Jessie and Kate. Although they do not work in an educational context, the scenarios are universal. Sometimes, anecdotes can not be interesting because they are someone else’s story, however, in this case I was challenged to reflect on what I would do: would I be as effective as Stuart?


 Why is understanding more about the brain helpful for coaching participants on Ambition School Leadership's programmes? Any coaching delves into our beliefs, attitudes, decision-making and emotions, building resilience and habits which all derive from the brain. 

In Teaching Leaders coaching and indeed in my own experience of life, I have encountered parallel situations to those described in the book. One of the fictitious clients is unable to prioritise which leads them to feel overwhelmed as the pre-frontal cortex is sent into overdrive. We read how the coach helps them to set targets and follow up on the actions. Prioritisation is a constant challenge for busy heads of department. 

The fictitious Jessie is stressed, makes errors, and the coach helps her become better able to deal with this. Each chapter is accompanied by a few top tips and practical suggestions: 

"As with any coaching, the agenda is not just to overcome obstacles but to “upgrade” your brain to perform even better."

Ben has a difficult working relationship which spills over into his life at home. This provides a framework for looking at what happens in the brain when we are experiencing negative emotions, some tips for dealing with stress and forming good habits

 Anyone can set an intention to do something, but in order for it to happen you have to take on the correct mind-set. It is easy to write an Impact Initiative, but how do you become the person who achieves the tasks. I have found it helpful to share some of these strategies with participants. 

One of the other lists of tips I have found helpful here is the list of tips for getting “unstuck”. Under pressure many of us use a “scattergun” approach. However, this just overwhelms our brains even more. Contrary to the myth that women are good at multi-tasking, actually this approach is counter-productive and our brains respond better to clear prioritisation. 

The book also deals with memory, learning and decision making. Using these techniques, I coached a participant who had to make a difficult decision regarding staffing in the department. The next day he sent a message thanking me and said he was happy with his decision. Talking it through out loud helps fire certain neural pathways and “sleeping on it” really does work. 

As with any coaching, the agenda is not just to overcome obstacles but to “upgrade” your brain to perform even better. Amy Brann talks of visualisation and anchoring. As far as your brain is concerned, visualising something means it has happened.

One participant was extremely nervous about making a presentation to governors. She was able to visualise it going well and anchor a feeling of success by wearing the dress she had worn on a previous successful occasion.

To complete the list of situations relevant to those Teaching Leaders participants must deal with, the book deals with effective meetings and how to make a presentation which engages the audience.

The book is very clearly set out with lists of top-tips. It contains enough facts to gain an insight but is nevertheless very practical and very much focused on coaching. 

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