Right-brain thinking at work

Most of us have been taught to be left-brain dominant at work, but activating the right part of the brain is key to boosting creativity and collaboration, so how can you best achieve this? Yda Bouvier has some compelling ideas

The right brain experiences the full richness of the world and connects us to everything around us, including other people. In contrast, our left brain simplifies the reality so we can get things done, strengthening our practical, strategic and analytical skills. 

To illustrate the difference: imagine your colleague asks you: “Where do you live?” You will likely tell them the name of your town and maybe the street, or a nearby landmark. If someone asks you instead: “What do I see when I stand in front of your house?”, you will give a very different answer. Do you notice the picture that instantly pops up in your mind and the sheer amount of information it holds? When you share some of that image with your colleague, you will inevitably share more information about what matters to you about where you live, strengthening your connection with your colleague.

Why right-brain thinking is key to creativity

While the left brain helps us to be effective and efficient, it can also get trapped in its own system, paying attention only to what it already knows. As the right brain sees the whole, anything that is new also first comes into awareness in our right brain, which makes it essential for creativity, sparking new ideas and finding insights. As the example above illustrates, the right brain processes in images. It’s not for nothing that we say, “A picture is worth a thousand words”.

How to engage the right brain

Here are three practical ways to engage the right brain for creativity and collaboration with colleagues, leaders and business teams alike. Incidentally, the left brain doesn’t like to lose control, so it’s likely that when you read the examples below you might think something like “this sounds silly” – that message comes from your left brain. The best way to manage this is to say to yourself, “let’s be curious and see what happens”.

  • Invite a right-brain response

“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 point of view, rather than further investigating their take on the matter.

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.

  • Collaborate in metaphors

Many of you will be familiar with the power of a good metaphor. Whether going after some low-hanging fruit or riding out the financial storm, 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 feels heavy’ when referring to a piece of work. Your role is then to capture the image someone gives and make it more visible.

A little prompt like, “Heavy, tell me more, what kind of heavy…?”, can invite the right brain to elaborate. Get someone talking about their metaphor and make it visible to both of you. Turn on your curiosity. You have to truly see the metaphor in your own mind’s eye and then look for new ideas that the metaphor inspires.

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.

  • Stimulate creative thinking

Drawing works particularly well to illustrate a complicated situation with a lot of information and facts, where the essence can be difficult to summarise in a few words. It naturally focuses the mind and the conversation.

In business meetings, when a discussion gets challenging, often someone walks to the flip chart to draw or write something. When we are looking at a piece of paper together, it instantly impacts the atmosphere which typically becomes more collaborative and stimulates creative thinking.

A big advantage of drawing is that you can find a pen and a piece of paper just about anywhere. Even Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms have whiteboards. Often people have some hesitation, saying for example “I can’t draw”, yet a small nudge like “Just a few lines, anything simple to illustrate what’s going on is fine” can bring someone over the line.

In a nutshell, when inviting the right brain to participate in a conversation we are naturally creative and collaborative. We see more, think differently and bring new insights. We are more in touch with our environment and with the people around us. The right brain is like your personal genie in the bottle – an enormous power for you and your team, to release and use.

Yda Bouvier is an executive coach and the author of Leading with the Right Brain

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