15 September 2020
At this difficult time of lockdowns, social isolation, and huge uncertainty, we need methods to reorient ourselves - to see new possibilities. Thinking more flexibly and creatively comes about when we are more in the right hemisphere of our brain, and there are changes we can make that rebalances us into our right brain.
Let’s start with the differences between the brain hemispheres. Often the right hemisphere is said to be about emotions, and the left about logic. But it’s so much more than that. The most fundamental difference between the hemispheres lies in the different styles of attention they give to the world. Learning to integrate these different styles opens up greater possibilities.Most of us spend a lot of time in our left hemisphere, and this, unfortunately, increases feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.
The left hemisphere takes a local, short-term view. When I’m in my left hemisphere I’m primarily interested in me and my needs, and how I might use the world to get those needs met. If you take a moment to consider how you might solve a work problem, or how you might get a promotion, or how you might plan a holiday, that’s your left hemisphere coming into dominance. The left builds models and maps of how the world works. The left gives me narrow, focused attention, and weighs up short term gain and loss.
The right hemisphere, on the other hand, is about here and now felt experience. If you take a moment, right now, to feel the sensation of sitting in your chair, standing up, whatever it is you’re doing, that’s your right hemisphere becoming dominant. If you take a moment to bring to mind your feelings towards a good friend, or see your life in the bigger picture, that’s also your right hemisphere paying attention. It’s likely just by doing these things, you are already feeling calmer.
Insight comes from balancing these different ways of paying attention – my short term needs and being focused (left hemisphere) plus the big picture, noticing how I feel towards others, and experiencing the world through my body (right hemisphere). We get stuck when one hemisphere is too dominant. It’s usually the Left. Helping people to rebalance the hemispheres is important in the work that I do.
Let’s look at an example…
John came to see me because he was burnt out. He was highly productive, but he didn’t know how much longer he could keep going. He felt like he never had time for his wife and children – and he knew this was a problem.
For John, working harder and longer equalled working better. This was becoming even more pronounced with working from home during COVID. He believed any problem could be solved if enough hours were put in. He loved processes.
I saw part of my task in working with John was to help him rebalance his world-view by re-learning to pay attention with his right hemisphere. This is what we did…
- First, I began by re-acquainting him with his Emotional Intelligence. I regularly asked how he felt. At first, these questions were answered with long stories about what was going on in his life. Lots and lots of information. But slowly he began to identify and name his feelings. He felt angry. He felt sad. He felt exhausted.
- Second, I asked questions like ‘can you describe what that’s like?’ It got him thinking metaphorically – which is a right hemisphere function. So a question about his exhaustion – “What’s that like?” in one session brought the response – “It’s like slowly drowning – and no-one comes to help me.” This metaphor gave us both insight on what it was like in John’s world – apart from being exhausted, he felt he had to do everything himself – he felt lonely.
- Third, I asked him to try putting himself in others’ shoes – how did he think his family felt about him always being busy? How did he think others felt about his leadership at work?
- Fourth, I introduced a mindfulness exercise. A simple body awareness during the day. As he walked, as he sat, as he stretched, as he worked out in the gym, I suggested he spend time practicing just being aware of his body – not thinking about the meeting to come or the meeting just gone. The right hemisphere views the world through the body – so body awareness is a very direct way of bringing the right hemisphere online.
Slowly he reported spending more time with his family – he started to get to know them again. He reported more nuanced conversations with his staff. He listened more and empathised. He realised he really did want a life outside of work. And, as he got to understand the world from others’ perspectives, he realised he could trust others at work and he started to delegate effectively, thus lessening his workload. He became much happier, enjoyed the time with his wife and children, he enjoyed his work more, and became a much more subtle, and more effective leader.
To re-balance your right hemisphere:
- Become better acquainted with your emotions
- Describe what it’s like. Try out metaphors.
- Walk in the shoes of the other
- Practice mindfulness of your body as you sit and move
How might you apply these ideas to yourself?