Sep 23, 2012 No Comments by

I wonder if the cattle-driving skills I learned as a child growing up on a farm in Minnesota influenced my interest in group facilitation. Long before the catchphrase “herding cats” became popular, I had come to enjoy pulling and pushing strong-willed people through challenging processes. Based on that experience, I firmly believe that the art of facilitation is one of the most important skills a Change Agent can cultivate.

My last article focused on recognizing the differences in the way people think based on a theory called “Left Brain / Right Brain Thinking”. Today I’ll apply this idea in a practical way to the work of guiding group discussions, decision-making and problem-solving.

Before We Start, I always caution Change Agents against over-simplifying their audience or placing labels on people based on this theory. People can get offended when they’re labeled and offended people may not feel inclined to participate in whatever you are trying to get done…

So rather than applying these rules of thumb in an absolute way to all stakeholders, I encourage Facilitators to simply take into account both ends of the “thinking styles” spectrum – and the myriad variations in between. Here are five Change Agent Tips I suggest Facilitators can apply based on Left Brain/Right Brain concepts:

Tip #44: Recognize Who You’re Dealing With.  

Every team has the potential to contain members from either polar opposite – but it’s more likely that a given group will have a mix of thinking styles and even people willing to think with multiple styles. Get to know your team – especially if you’ll be working together for a while. Talk with people off-line and observe how they work as individuals and how they work together as a group. If you are facilitating a one-time event, assume there is a mix of thinking styles at play.

Tip #45: Cook With What’s in the Kitchen.  

Leverage the skills and thinking styles that you have in the room. If you have a few great analytical folks, lean on them to tear apart the problem you’re solving by gathering facts to help the group better understand the context and options. Left-brainers tend to be able to keep their emotions in check while doing this kind of research. I often leverage methodical left-brain thinkers in highly-charged interpersonal situations by asking bottom-line questions like; “What happens if we are unable to make a decision?” or “What do the numbers tell us?”

Leverage the creative participants to imagine alternatives your structured members may have missed. For example, one technique I’ve used with success is to select one of the group’s favorite proposed solutions and suggest we do the exact opposite thing! While the opposite approach may not be viable, just considering it may jolt the group. This disruption can help them sharpen their answers and close gaps in the solution by seeing things from a completely different angle. Right-brainers tend to be more comfortable proposing innovative ideas and questioning assumptions in this way.

Tip #46:  Help People See What They’re Missing.

Here’s a riddle for you to do: Do you see one or do you see two?

Encourage those who think more logically to consider the emotions and creative inputs of the right-brainers. Likewise, help the left-brainers recognize there are benefits to following a certain amount of rigor in the course of your work as a team.

It can help to talk about common group goals early in the facilitation process to help everyone agree that accomplishing a shared objective will be more useful than accomplishing individual goals like winning an argument, scoring political points or convincing people that they’re right.

 Tip #48:  Unplug GroupThink! 

You may occasionally be asked to facilitate groups where most (or all) of the members tend to be of one thinking style, or the dominant members tend to enforce a certain thinking style. In these cases, you may need to take the opposite approach to the prevailing trend in order to maintain a balance.

Standing alone in a crowd can feel uncomfortable at times, but groups tend to make better decisions and hold more meaningful discussions when Facilitators open the eyes of all participants to alternate approaches.

Tip #49:  Vary Your Approach.

Remember that most people are capable of operating in various “right-brained” or “left-brained” ways as needed to function in their world. Even if you tend to favor one style or another, you can learn a few tricks from the other side. As you facilitate, don’t hesitate to keep things moving by alternating your own thinking approach. For example:

+ When a group gets mired in a right-brained, “all-the-choices-have-merit-analysis-paralysis” where none of the roads forward stand out, consider jump-starting the decision-making process by calling for a left-brained multi-vote or consensus check.

+ If you perceive that the group has coalesced too quickly on a left-brained logical solution based on groupthink, you may want to play the role of right-brained “devils advocate” and propose a completely different answer.

Alternating styles, jostling entrenched thinking patterns, leveraging the brains you have available and understanding your team are all basic facilitation skills that Change Agents can use to foster effective dialogue.

A Few Final Words of Caution: Like most theories, I think the biggest danger of the “Left-Brain/Right Brain” concept is over-application. Instead of using these ideas to neatly fit everyone into a box:

  • Use this knowledge to catalog your observations and raise your awareness of how people think and interact.
  • Avoid the temptation to peg everyone as one style or another.
  • Be careful not to assume that an entire group thinks like the loudest member (or their “leader”).
  • Help your team see the benefits and risks of their styles.

    Next we’ll talk about how to avoid being Bossy when facilitating…

  • Help them generate and coalesce the best ideas and alternatives by applying the five steps above.

Lastly, because these techniques are not necessarily plug-and-play, I also encourage Facilitators to practice them often and try them in different settings. See what works best for you and your team. Hone your facilitation skills and you’ll grow more comfortable guiding discussions that get results.


Questions for Chatter:

  1. Describe a time when you saw a group get “stuck” because it was dominated by members with one thinking style.
  2. How did this impact their ability to make decisions, solve problems, etc.?
  3. Can a full-blown left-brainer or right-brainer be a good facilitator? If so, how?


Change Agent Skills, Change Communication, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness, Team Dynamics

About the author

I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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