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First of all, let’s clarify something before moving on. I don’t really believe in mechanistic distinctions where people say that “feelings” and “rational thinking” reside in different parts of the brain. In 2004 I took classes where Timo Järvilehto introduced his systemic approach to neuropsychology and his brilliant organism-environment -theory. It became very clear that also the brain functioning is all about interdependent organization (of neurons etc.) in specific contexts. It is our language that fools us to think about it all in mechanistic ways. So, I don’t think “different sides of the brain” to be very good explanation of what is really happening when we perceive the world in different ways. BUT, I do think it is a funny metaphor to use when referring to different ways of seeing the world. Ok?

See What Is Not There!

So, few years back I took some art classes where the teaching framework was based on Betty Edwards’ great book “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain”. The ingenious approach that it presented was actually quite simple, albeit counter-intuitive. Instead of trying to draw the objects that you see, we were instructed to draw the things we didn’t see! So, if we were to draw “a chair”, we should forget about the chair. Instead, we should draw the empty spaces between the different parts of the chair. And when drawing a “nose”, we draw the little lines and shapes around the nose – not the nose itself.

The reason why this is effective practice, is because we structure the world and our functioning with our usage of language. When we identify something as a “nose”, we have ready-made symbols that represent this “nose”. To have analogue to G.H.Mead‘s thinking, we have created a “generalized nose”. As soon as we start to draw a nose from a model, we don’t look at the actual object but instead try to reproduce the generalized symbol that we have constructed. If we used to draw a lot when we were 5-year-olds, the nose we start to draw might look quite similar to that one! We draw the generalized symbol, not the actual object that we see in front of us. So the trick is that we should try to forget “what” we draw, and just draw the non-symbolic “shapes” and “colors” that we see in front of us. A curve, a dot, dark grey simple shape, light grey line, etc. After a while, we can again look at the big picture and – surprise! – the nose that we have drawn looks very alive and real, far better than what we thought we were capable of!

So, the metaphor goes that when you are drawing on your “left side of the brain”, you focus on generalized symbols. But when you learn how to draw on your “right side of the brain”, you learn to forget the generalized symbols and concentrate on the particular shapes there actually are, without assigning values and generalized symbols for them.

Forget the Organization, Draw the People and Dialogues

The way Betty Edwards teaches drawing is actually a very good analogue to what I try to do in my work with “organizations“. I always try look at what is actually happening in the dialogues between people. In a sense, I’m looking at the “empty space” between the people. I try to put aside the “generalized others” I have constructed and not to make too much interpretations of everything. Who are the people who are talking with each others? What kind of dialogues are they having? What kind of words are they using? What kind of meanings are they producing? How am I engaging in these discussions? What kind of prejudices I have? What kind of feelings am I having and why? What are the objects that we use in our language? What really is the “program” that we are talking about? Who are the people that are representing that “program” and how? What kind of power figurations are forming, and how hierarchy is utilized to drive some decisions. What are those “decisions” anyway? How are they effecting the meanings and identities that are forming? Etc. Etc. Etc.

Just like when you are drawing a “nose”, there are endless amount of details that you can perceive when you really look closely at the dialogues. Like in fractal processes, new details are always emerging when you look closer and closer. And when you look farther and farther you can see different things also. So, it is important to move to both directions, to put the interpretations aside for a while and then move back to them. Have inner dialogues between the different perspectives.

“Organization” might be a very useful analogy to make sense of some things, but you should never forget it is a generalized symbol that you have constructed. If you forget this it will very quickly become a hindrance – you look at the “organization” and you will always start to draw the symbol. And then it is like 5-year-old drawing a picture: Boxes with names, lines connecting the boxes, role descriptions for the boxes, process charts with boxes, etc… It is kind of cute, for a 5-year-old kindergarten student, but for a 48-year–old CEO or consultant, well, eh…

In order to really see what is happening, you need to learn to “see” things from different perspectives. You need to see what is not there. With practice this becomes easier, but it will always be a struggle to go through your conditioned habits. But it is worth it. Your drawings will have amazing clarity and realism. You will become a real artist.

“Seeing what is not there” is one of the fundamental skills of any decent Wu Wei Coach.