Introducing hemispherical lateralisation and coaching with art

Coaching with art is a very powerful way of working with our clients. For those of us who coach regularly with art we know this through the experiences we have within our coachees. However, art is a funny thing and people will often dismiss it or be fearful of it. To support this approach and make it, if you like, more logically acceptable, I have been exploring the field of neuroscience and, in particular, the hemispherical lateralisation – the research into the two hemispheres of the brain.

Ian McGilchrist in his seminal book The Master and His Emissary, explores the research into and findings of the differences between the way the right and left hemispheres pay attention to the world and the social and political impact of this.  Both brain hemispheres have many functions and both are involved most of the time in what the brain does. However, there are differences in the way they pay attention to the world and a couple of functional differences which I have found particularly interesting in trying to understand why coaching with art is so powerful. In particular, these are the ability of the right hemisphere to:

  • Work with the whole, as it really is, in all its complexity
  • Understand and use metaphor
  • Be more capable of frame shifts
  • Understand the true narrative, through understanding the flow and inter-connectedness of the world around us and what we experience
  • Have those aha! moments and transformational shifts as the right hemisphere arrives at conclusions through deduction rather than logic – making leaps of insight, often based on patterns, hunches, feelings or visual images
  • Give us emotional value, attend to unconscious emotional processing and manage emotional complexity
  • Communicate through non-verbal means as it is silent, relying on the left hemisphere to verbalise on its behalf

Whilst the focus above is on the right hemisphere I don’t want to lessen the extraordinary importance of the left hemisphere.

‘The left hemisphere gives us, amongst other things, the ability for reason and logic that makes us uniquely human. It has enabled us to expand our knowledge and capability in a way that is quite breath-taking and has made the world we live in today. However, in the context of coaching, the dominant vocal left hemisphere can also bring with it some challenges, particularly for the silent right hemisphere…Understanding this challenge helps to further understand why coaching with art works so well, as the approach I take actively encourages the left hemisphere to relinquish its dominance, allowing for right hemisphere mode working.’ (From Chapter 4 Art and the Brain, Coaching Beyond Words by Anna Sheather, 2019)

Coaching with art gives our clients access to the right hemisphere’s way of paying attention to the world, allowing the left hemisphere to do what is good at and ultimately working with the whole brain. This is crucially important for accessing deeper understanding and meaning, shifting perspectives and understanding personal truths. It is at the heart of creating transformational coaching conversations.

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