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Balancing Emotions for Coaching Success: PEA vs. NEA

The Intentional Change Theory (ICT) model is a tool used to explore the neurological distinctions between two coaching methods. The first, known as “coaching with compassion” or Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) coaching, focuses on fostering positive emotions. The second, more traditional method, referred to as “coaching for compliance” or Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA) coaching, emphasizes adherence to rules and standards (Boyatzis, 2018).

Research involving fMRI brain scans has revealed that PEA coaching stimulates brain networks and regions linked to holistic thinking, engagement, motivation, and stress management (Boyatzis, 2018). In contrast, NEA coaching triggers different brain areas (Boyatzis, 2018). Read on to gain a deeper understanding of these two states and how they can be effectively utilized in executive coaching.

This article was originally published on Arete Coach and has been re-written and approved for placement by Arete Coach on ePraxis. Scroll to continue reading or click here to read the original article.

The Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA)

The Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) is a state that stimulates beneficial cognitive and physiological reactions, which can boost adaptive traits including motivation, effort, and creative thinking (Howard, 2006). When we find ourselves in a PEA state, we tend to be more relaxed, our breathing deepens, and our creativity flourishes.

When guiding clients toward the PEA, it means guiding individuals in a manner that facilitates their entry into this state. This method has the potential to boost motivation, foster creativity, and enhance receptivity to new concepts. The objective is to establish a nurturing and constructive environment that empowers individuals to realize their maximum potential.

PEA aligns with the principles of compassionate coaching, which involves assisting individuals in uncovering their thoughts, emotions, aspirations, and ambitions. This approach supports them in their efforts to adapt and evolve, fostering personal growth and development (Van Oosten, 2020). It entails a focus on an individual's aspirations and the pathways to their attainment. Instead of simply dispensing advice, an effective coach will pose inquisitive, open-ended queries and attentively listen with genuine care and empathy.

The Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA)

The Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA) represents a mental state triggered when we direct our attention to our shortcomings, deficiencies, or areas requiring improvement. Typically, it is associated with feelings of obligation or fear (Howard, 2006). Being in an NEA state activates the sympathetic nervous system, leading to sensations of stress and anxiety. This state can stifle creativity and hinder receptivity to new information, ultimately impacting our decision-making abilities.

Research supporting the opposing domains hypothesis indicates that brain regions responsible for analytical thinking (typically linked to tasks, logic, and analysis) are in constant tension with regions essential for establishing social and emotional connections and comprehending ethical matters (Boyatzis, 2018). This suggests that when one group of these brain regions is activated, the other tends to be suppressed (Boyatzis, 2018).

In the context of coaching, this implies that an approach centered exclusively on tasks and performance (emphasizing analytical thinking) might impede the coachee's capacity to connect with others and grasp ethical considerations. Conversely, a coaching approach that prioritizes social and emotional connections might hinder the coachee's analytical thinking. Effective coaching likely involves striking a harmonious balance between these two domains.

Leveraging Positive and Negative Emotional Attractors in coaching

Both the Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) and the Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA) play significant roles and can prove beneficial in various circumstances.

The Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) is closely tied to an individual's concept of their ideal self (“Using Positive and Negative Emotional Attractors in Your Coaching Model," 2020). Coaching that aligns with the PEA often centers on an individual's strengths, aspirations, and the sources of their inner purpose. This approach can cultivate creativity, receptivity to novel concepts, and a yearning for personal development (Boyatzis, 2018). Specific approaches for triggering the PEA include:

  1. Professional Development: The PEA can be activated in professional growth by sharing inspiration, identifying strengths, and clarifying passions.

  2. Leadership Enhancement: Activating the PEA in leadership coaching fosters effectiveness through a focus on strengths, positivity, and growth.

  3. Team Cohesion: Teams benefit from the PEA by concentrating on shared goals, recognizing strengths, and fostering a positive team culture.

  4. Personal Development: On a personal level, the PEA supports self-improvement through strength identification and a positive outlook.

Conversely, the Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA) is linked to adverse emotions and tends to surface when an individual assesses their present self in comparison to their ideal self (“Using Positive and Negative Emotional Attractors in Your Coaching Model," 2020). This often entails a critical examination of personal weaknesses or aspects requiring enhancement. Identifying the NEA early in coaching can help create plans to tackle challenges and improve areas that need it. Specific approaches to evoke the NEA include:

  1. Performance Improvement: NEA is helpful for addressing performance issues by highlighting gaps between current and ideal selves, revealing weaknesses.

  2. Conflict Resolution: NEA facilitates conflict resolution by helping individuals understand the root causes and work toward resolution.

  3. Risk Management: NEA assists in risk management by identifying potential risks and discussing worst-case scenarios.

  4. Goal Setting: NEA aids in goal setting by identifying potential obstacles and challenges that may hinder progress.

Balancing Positive and Negative Emotional Attractors in coaching

Effectively utilizing both the Positive Emotional Attractor (PEA) and the Negative Emotional Attractor (NEA) hinges on comprehending their roles and their influence on the coaching dynamic.

The PEA is rooted in a vision of the future, individual aspirations, and core identity. It triggers a psychophysiological state marked by positive emotions, and cognitive receptiveness, which are essential for pursuing complex goals (Passarelli, 2015). Conversely, the NEA is often tied to an individual's perception of areas needing improvement or adherence to specific standards (Boyatzis, 2018).

Balancing PEA and NEA in coaching involves:

  1. Initial Session Framing: The way a coach initially frames a session, whether PEA or NEA, significantly influences the subsequent emotional processing (Howard, 2015).

  2. Vision-Centric Coaching: Giving prominence to a leader's personal vision, encompassing future aspirations and core identity, can trigger a state marked by positive emotions, cognitive receptiveness, and optimized neurobiological functioning, which are vital for pursuing complex goals (Passarelli, 2015).

  3. Recognizing the Need for Improvement: While focusing on the PEA, it's equally essential to acknowledge areas that require improvement to maintain a grounded and realistic perspective (Boyatzis, 2018).

  4. Emotional Ripple Effect: Keep in mind that emotions have a ripple effect. While NEA can act as a catalyst for change, it is the PEA that fosters lasting, desirable transformations.

The main takeaway

Striking a harmonious equilibrium between emotional attractors is pivotal for achieving successful coaching results. Coaching directed towards the PEA cultivates positive emotions and receptivity to change, yet an awareness of the NEA remains valuable in pinpointing areas requiring enhancement. In executive coaching, the most effective approach appears to be a balanced one that integrates both the PEA and NEA, thus ensuring a comprehensive and productive coaching experience (Boyatzis, 2018).


Boyatzis, R. E., & Jack, A. I. (2018). The neuroscience of coaching. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 70(1), 11–27.

Howard, A. (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, 455. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00455.

Howard, A. (2006). Positive and negative emotional attractors and intentional change. Journal of Management Development, 25(7), 657-670.

Passarelli, A. (2015). Vision-based coaching: optimizing resources for leader development. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 412. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00412.

Spencer Institute Health, Holistic and Wellness Certifications. (2021). Using Positive and Negative Emotional Attractors in Your Coaching Model. Retrieved from

Van Oosten, E., et al. (2020). How to Support the People You Lead in Times of Uncertainty. Greater Good Magazine. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from

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