How to spot the right-brain thinkers in your business

By Yda Bouvier, below, Executive Coach and author of Leading with the Right Brain

What does it mean to be a left- or right-brain thinker? The left and right hemisphere are two entirely different places. You may be familiar with the definitions that are often quoted: the ‘logical’ left hemisphere versus the ‘creative’ right hemisphere. These simplifications are not fully correct and occasionally misleading, but what is crystal clear is that each hemisphere is unique, separate from the other and, in its own way, essential to us in the workplace.

Most of us, leaders and employees alike, have been taught to be left-brain dominant at work, using the analytical strengths of the left brain to enhance our strategic and problem-solving abilities. Our left brain is efficient and effective – it simplifies our view of the world around us, creating a model of reality which we can then use, manipulate and get things done. However, the left brain can also get trapped in its own system, paying attention only to what it already knows. You may remember a time where you or an employee felt stuck on the same problem, going round and round in circles, unable to find a solution. When this happens, it can only be unlocked by bringing in the strengths of the right side of the brain.

Our right brain experiences the full richness of the world at any present moment. It is able to see the whole, the proverbial wood from the trees, and to see the new, bringing a fresh perspective to situations fraught with complexities and contradictions. The right side of the brain is essential in interpreting context, the real world around us, through the information we gather through our senses. The right brain is also a source of wisdom about ourselves and others. It is the centre of our capacity for empathy, the ability to share and understand the emotions of others. When a substantial change is underfoot – whether on an individual, team or organisation level – we need our right brains to move forward in truly new ways.

There are those who are naturally right-brain leaning. Here are some signs to spot the right-brain thinkers in your business:

  1. Talking in images 

The right side of the brain processes and communicates in images, hence we often say, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Right-brain thinkers can conjure powerful images with the words they use and talk more readily in metaphors. Equally, they are sometimes less articulate with words only and can be searching for a way to make their thoughts tangible.

  1. Out-the-box thinking 

As the right brain processes everything new that we experience first, the right-brain thinkers in your organisation will be those who consistently bring innovative ideas to the table, approaching complex problems from creative and imaginative angles.

  1. Displaying empathy

As our capacity for empathy originates in the right brain, right-brain thinkers often naturally form deeper, stronger relationships with those around them. They make their colleagues feel listened to and understood, displaying an openness for others to turn to for help.

Without doubt, we need the qualities of our left and our right brain to meet the difficult workplace challenges of the 21st century. Yet to use both, we need to be leading with the right brain. Whereas the left brain is a place of ‘or’ and consequently tends to dismiss the right brain, the right brain is a place of ‘and’, with the ability to embrace the qualities of both hemispheres.

Here are a few steps you can take to activate right-brain thinking in your teams:

  1. Change the question 

“What do you think” is almost the standard way we proceed once a topic has been introduced in a conversation. Most likely you have asked or have been asked this many times today. For most people, this generates an immediate left-brain response: a logical, structured, argument. Yet once an argument has been stated, many people focus on defending their thoughts or adding additional information that strengthens their argument, rather than investigating their point of view.

If we instead ask “what do you see, hear or sense” – we invite a right-brain response which naturally focuses on bringing a situation to life. This gives us a richer picture of the topic at hand, invites exploration and inevitably generates new ideas.

  1. Use the body

Involving the right brain stimulates ­­­­collaboration but the inverse is also true – to be comfortably present in a conversation, the right brain needs connection – it needs to experience ‘we’. To give a simple illustration; a conversation sitting opposite someone at a conference table is a very different encounter from having the same conversation while taking a walk together. You will most likely have come across this many times yourself. When we walk next to each other, we are moving forward together while our conversation unfolds. Even if we disagree, we keep walking together, the ‘we’ experience continues, and as we discuss our differences, we arrive at new perspectives. When sitting in a meeting room opposite one another, we are easily hooked into being adversaries, even on small things, and we can become polarized and stuck in that dynamic.

  1. Explore metaphors

Many of you will be familiar with the power of a good metaphor. Whether going after some low-hanging fruit, riding out the financial storm, boiling the ocean or winning the battle – metaphors are often used in business conversations.

Metaphors immediately activate the right brain as they invoke images in our mind. Someone might naturally say, ‘this just feels heavy’ when referring to a piece of work. A little prompt like, ‘heavy, tell me more, what kind of heavy…?’, can already invite the right brain to elaborate. Get someone talking about their metaphor and make the metaphor visible to both of you. Turn on your curiosity, that is all you need. You have to truly see the metaphor in both your own mind’s eye, and then look for new ideas that the metaphor inspires.

Not everyone speaks easily in metaphors, yet you can guide someone into a particular type of metaphor. For example, by asking what landscape, colour, sports, music or animal comes to mind when thinking about a person or a situation.   

Yda Bouvier is an Executive Coach and the author of Leading with the Right Brain