By: Melanie Hendrix
Creativity in Coaching:
Right Brain Skills for Whole Brain Thinking
The purpose of this paper is to discuss creativity and right brain thinking skills as they relate to the coaching process. The premise of this paper is that the most effective coaching integrates right and left brain skills to promote whole brain thinking for the client and the coach. This paper suggests best practices for coaches to develop themselves, as well as several methods to develop and exercise right brain skills for more effective whole brain thinking in both coaches and clients.
Left and Right Brain Differences
Ample research and practice have established that humans use both hemispheres of the brain in nearly everything they do and that the separate functions of left and right brain complement one another. The brain’s left hemisphere is linear, logical, analytical, verbal, and deals with tangible facts and details. The right is nonlinear, intuitive, holistic, visual, and deals with imagination, feeling, and design. While the left brain processes facts, research and memory, the right brain addresses less tangible resources of intuition, emotion, meaning and synthesis. The left brain narrows in on things while the right brain opens up to possibilities. Left or right skills tend to dominate thinking processes in most people though each side is brilliant at what it does.
Why the Right Brain is Important in Coaching
When a client seeks the services of a life coach it is often because he or she is seeking change; change to develop personal resources, achieve specific goals, or enhance life satisfaction. The client may want to experience current reality in a new way, or to create something new in the future. Experiencing something new requires changing the way of thinking about it. Thinking determines choices and behavior, ultimately determining outcome; therefore, the most helpful coaching tools challenge clients to open, expand and embrace new possibilities and perspectives. The coach can encourage the client to access inner resources by first determining whether the person’s thinking is dominated by left or right brain processing. (Hemispheric Dominance Inventory) This paper considers expansion of right brain thinking when the client’s thinking is dominated by left brain skills and consequently faces limitations.
The left brain’s offerings of logic, structure, facts, analysis and details are essential, but they do not lead beyond where the person has already been. Left brain reliance upon rules, discipline, predictability and order remain with familiar structures and routines. Given a question, the left brain seeks a correct answer from what is already known, mechanically, like a computer. Right brain functions allow exploration of the novel or unknown. Through new perspectives that connect old and new, it can consider many answers, thereby mapping new territories in the mind that remain available for future use and expansion.
In A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink defines right brain qualities of creativity, innovation, empathy, and meaning as the emerging skills of the future. While left brain skills can be outsourced or accomplished faster by a computer, right brain skills are not easily duplicated by mechanization. Further, Pink notes that as technological advances require less expenditure of energy on rote skills, mechanization also tends to increase material abundance in contemporary society. This pairing often results in a greater search for meaning and purpose in people’s lives, casting thoughts and behaviors into right-brain processes.
reativity is defined as: the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships or the like to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness or imagination. (Dictionary.com)
The creative impulse is hard-wired in the human brain. Children at play demonstrate creative thinking without effort or self-conscious awareness. Formal education methods rely primarily on left brain thinking at the expense of failing to adequately develop right brain capacities. Faculties that flow so well in childhood can be stifled in adults unless activated by more expansive modes of right brain thinking. Creativity is not dependent upon high I.Q. scores. Rather, creativity moves beyond the left brain’s exclusion of approaches based solely on past experience, and allows focused attention on different interpretations of an issue. It is important to encourage the client to develop a tolerance for ambivalence, as the complexity of right brain connections extends far beyond left brain tendencies to fall back on stem thinking rooted in the familiar.
Regardless of individual differences in aptitude and talent, the act of being creative requires going beyond conventional thinking to explore multiple perspectives. Obstacles to creativity can result from stressful or burdensome demands on mental and physical energies, or from a lack focused attention outside normal routines. Creativity requires letting go of rigid beliefs, attitudes, rules, schedules and pressures. It requires allowing time for the creative right brain to do its processing. The left brain’s linear processes condition humans to adjust to the environment, while the right brain’s holistic processes prompt changing the environment. Curiosity, imagination, and a sense of play lead from the well-trod territories of the left brain to move into the ever-widening landscapes of the right brain. The willingness to explore, experiment and discover novelty can generate and affirm belief in creative potential.
Encouraging Creativity: The Coach’s Domain
Gerda van de Wind writes, “psychological research has found that the imagination is a necessary part of the creative process and that somewhere between the imagination and the reality principle, the mind can play on an infinite measure of continuum between these binary opposites.” (van de Wind 2003)
Coaches can encourage clients to embrace innate creativity by developing multiple modalities for utilizing right brain processing. Brainstorming, question thinking, mind mapping, stream of consciousness writing, free word association, design thinking, visualization, and Six Thinking Hats (De Bono 1999), may all provide avenues into right brain capacities. The coach may then turn the client’s focus to left brain processing to sort through and analyze options for the most appropriate action. In this way both the client and the coach are using whole brain thinking.
It is essential that the coach’s thinking and interactions with clients demonstrate and model creativity. Coaches might depend less on a specific technique and instead count as best practices a wide range of approaches and techniques to stimulate creativity. The more skill developed in the coaching domain, the more likely the coach will be to overcome limitations and recognize unnecessarily restrictive rules. Leading clients to more expansive perspectives begins with a coach who cultivates curiosity and the desire to explore the unknown.
A distinction is made here between the habits of thinking that foster creativity, and the actual process of creative thinking. The process of creative thinking involves first formulating the problem, and then using creative thinking strategies to solve it. Formulating the problem creatively can include questioning the obvious and not rushing to define its nature. Considering multiple perspectives, causes and explanations, and testing hunches are as important as expressing emotion. Creative problem solving strategies also include divergent thinking, visual thinking, imaginative processes, stream of consciousness exercises, brainstorming, and collaboration.
Additionally, it is helpful to remain open to the tremendous potential that exists in each client and coaching relationship. The domain implicitly sanctions learning to enjoy the process of creativity for its own sake apart from an end result. Enthusiasm, the willingness to experiment, and keeping an attitude of fun and play serve both coach and client. Designing life and practice in ways that support unique expressions of creativity will naturally support creative expression in others. Learning to love challenge and appreciate complexity opens the space for intuition, attention to inspiration, and time to replenish energy.
Creative Thinking Strategies: Coaching the Client
In Creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests ways to experience life more creatively based on his study of highly creative people. He cites the importance of rest and relaxation, harmony with environment, attention to likes and dislikes, and letting the dynamics of emotions guide and inform meaning in life. Internal traits that support creativity involve ways of experiencing different perspectives: developing traits that may be lacking, developing the ability to shift from openness and intuitive receptivity of the right brain to the rational focus of the left brain. He emphasizes the importance of being highly individual while remaining respectful of convention.
Edward de Bono, author of Six Thinking Hats, suggests a method to use one kind of thinking at a time by delineating six different kinds of thinking perspectives: facts and figures, emotions and feelings, cautious and careful, positive thinking, creative thinking, and organized focused thinking.
Question thinking is at the heart of coaching. Coaches know the client holds the answers to the questions before them. In Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, Marilee Adams writes that designing the most powerful questions for realizing goals and values is an indispensable part of intentionally affecting future outcomes. Her question thinking model demonstrates how internal questions can follow a judger or learner mindset.
Judger questions are reactive, blaming, and tend to guarantee getting stuck; learner questions are productive and work toward solution. Once the brain is given a question, it sets out to find answers. How the question is posed determines the kind of brain processing engaged. Questions framed to elicit previously unconsidered perspectives are valuable tools to access right brain thinking. In each stage of the creative process, it is the questions asked that steer the direction of thinking.
Using Many Perspectives
Michael Michalko, author of Cracking Creativity, suggests approaching problems with the most elemental questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How? Reframing the problem by separating the whole into many parts facilitates the ability to consider multiple perspectives by deconstructing the issue and assuming causes and effects from the point of view of all involved. Michalko also encourages developing the ability to restate questions and statements from positive perspectives rather than negative. The human brain is conditioned to respond quicker and with greater ease to positive information, whereas negative information requires additional time and study to determine meaning.
There are many ways to use lateral or divergent thinking to stimulate many ideas and possibilities: random associations and combinations; force fitting relationships between unrelated things; and using analogy and metaphor. By challenging the mind to associate things that are unrelated or opposite in some way, a reorganization of thought can occur that allows something new to emerge. The goals of divergent can be producing a large quantity of ideas, a variety of ideas, or original and unique ideas. Creative solutions emerge from the many variations produced.
Visual Thinking Methods: Mind Mapping
The right brain thinks in pictures, forming visual and spatial representations of the challenges or questions encountered. Stimulating visual thinking methods through exercises such as mind mapping can engage the right brain’s creative impulses. Forsaking the rules of habit or routine, clients are encouraged to develop random connections through free association between seemingly dissimilar concepts. Client and coach can repeat the exercise to generate a profusion of associations, skipping from one image to the next without requiring logical explanation. Repeated exercises in visually and spatially diagramming the clusters of related themes that emerge gradually reveals patterns of strength and weakness, risk and persistence. Mind mapping exposes the dynamic nature of short-term living and long-term goals. Submitted to left brain processing for realistic assessments, mind mapping’s revelations can become the foundation for confident decision-making and effective actions to fulfill important goals and values. Once the basic structures and processes for generating multiple perspectives are established, they remain available for future applications.
The Creative Process
The creative process has been defined as having distinct stages, a perspective pioneered in 1926 by sociologist Graham Wallas and elaborated upon by other theorists ever since. Preparation is the stage where the client gathers information to define the problem. Questions help to define the parameters of the problem. During Incubation, strategies and techniques are engaged to generate creative ideas. Coaches may ask the client to give themselves permission to experiment and explore other perspectives without needing an answer right away. What can you do to live in the question and allow many answers? What are the greatest positive possibilities you can imagine? In Illumination the best of many potential solutions are discovered. Implementation includes critical evaluation and refinement, as well as submitting possible solutions to left brain analytical thinking. It is important to note that all four stages are vitally important for the desired end result of a creative solution.
Through these methods and many more, a coach can encourage the client to exercise and develop right brain thinking skills. The right brain’s importance in coaching is evidenced by increasing skills and resources to ultimately increase effectiveness in all aspects of living and working. Outfitted with multiple perspectives, clients will see more options when dealing with change and challenge. Clients can gain added meaning and depth to their lives when coaching becomes an integral part of creative problem solving and a valuable support to creative thinking. That process begins with a creative approach in thinking and questioning in the life and work of the coach. By thinking creatively, clients and coaches use a more holistic approach to client issues and challenges, thereby promoting whole brain thinking.
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