The Right Hemisphere and Coaching*
Ah, the two hemispheres of the brain, something we are endlessly fascinated with here at Your Coaching Brain. While it is true that, on a day to day basis, we use both hemispheres for most of what we do (yes, even music, math, art and logic), it is equally true that each hemisphere pays attention to the world in a very different way. The right focuses more on the big picture, the relationship between things, and meaning. The left has more ability to understand and attend to pieces and parts. It is concerned with both the details and process.
The right hemisphere is also attuned to that which is novel, unique and heretofore unexplored, and as such, all new information tends to come to us through our right hemisphere. Conversely, the left deals with what it already knows, the representations (re-presentations) of things already noticed and brought into awareness by the right hemisphere. The left hemisphere’s role is as an interpreter of reality, not as much of a direct experiencer. They each have their uses—and their limitations.
One limitation we need to think about has huge implications for coaching. In order for the client to shift to somewhere truly new, to have an experience of transformation, we must make sure they are activating the right hemisphere. All learning tends to start here—with what we don’t know, haven’t noticed, and are yet to experience. However, we also want to be sure the session is practical and useful for the client, and is, of course, what they want, all of which are more left hemisphere concerns.
And thus a conundrum. On the one hand, traditionally as the session begins we ask the client what they want from today’s work and how they will know they have gotten that. We may ask them to think about the measures and markers that they have, indeed, had a useful session, thus potentially activating more of their detail-focused and interpretive left hemisphere and asking it to sort through what it already knows.
On the other hand, current understanding of the brain shows us that often what needs to occur is in the realm of what the client “doesn’t know what they don’t know.” The right hemisphere is tends to be where we will find that amazing “aha” that can turn the coaching in a whole new—often much more powerful—direction. This is the part of brain that can pay more attention to the “still small voice” of what is unknown and undiscovered.
And so, I have come to enter coaching sessions softly. I do ask, what do you want to focus on today, but I generally refrain from getting too “granular” with specific outcomes,** because (usually) I intentionally want to activate the open, learning aspects of the client’s brain. I want them to enter into today’s coaching from a place they do not know, instead of moving around the pieces and parts they have looked at before. Once we have looked and explored in a wide, open way, there is a time to narrow things down, make plans and look to measures. This focusing in is also an important part of coaching–it’s just not always the best place to begin.
Perhaps it feels a bit more in control if you have a clear, specific, measurable goal for every coaching session, which makes the left hemisphere happy (and yes, as noted in my footnote, there are times when this makes sense). The right hemisphere, however, doesn’t tend to care that things be linear, predictable and measurable, because its focus is a greater integration of the whole. And ultimately, I would argue, this is what really matters in coaching.
*An important note on language. In this blog post I use the words “tends to” and “more,” because nothing in the brain in general or the hemispheres specifically is absolute.
**A notable exception is if the client has already, perhaps in other sessions, done enough exploration and they really at this point just need to make a plan.
Thank you to Iain McGilchrist for his amazing book The Master and His Emissary, and the new documentary, The Divided Brain. McGilchrist spent over 20 years synthesizing wisdom from philosophy, history, art and neuroscience to help us understand the real difference – and challenge – of the two hemispheres of the brain.