See, Hear, Feel

EP79: Laurie Zorn on whole brain thinking

September 13, 2023 Professor Christine J Ko, MD / Laurie Zorn Season 1 Episode 79
See, Hear, Feel
EP79: Laurie Zorn on whole brain thinking
Show Notes Transcript

I am interested in being able to think better, and at my department's recent retreat, we took the Neethling Brain Instrument, which assesses thinking preferences. There are different quadrants, left vs right brain - cognitive vs. affective. Laurie Zorn helped teach us about the Neethling Brain Instrument as well as our thinking preferences and whole brain thinking. I wanted to learn more, and Laurie was willing to speak with me here! Laurie Zorn is an executive coach and leadership strategist with expertise in the Neethling Brain Instrument, a tool that measures thinking preferences and can give insight into an individual or a team's style of thinking. She specializes in helping leaders who work in complex environments quickly focus on key issues and make intentional decisions toward their goals with more ease.  She brings two decades of experience in organizational strategy, talent development and transformation across a wide range of industries and companies from startups to Fortune 100s around the globe.  She has an MBA from Columbia Business School, a BS from Boston University and has coaching certification from both Columbia University as well as the International Coaching Federation. She is a Licensed NBI® Consultant and can be reached at

[00:00:00] Christine Ko: Welcome back to SEE HEAR FEEL. Today, I am happy to be with Laurie Zorn. Laurie Zorn is an executive coach and leadership strategist with expertise in the Neethling Brain Instrument, a tool that measures thinking preferences and can give insight into an individual or a team style of thinking. She specializes in helping leaders who work in complex environments quickly focus on key issues and make intentional decisions toward their goals with more ease. She brings two decades of experience in organizational strategy, talent development, and transformation across a wide range of industries and companies, from startups to Fortune 100 companies around the globe. She has an MBA from Columbia Business School, a BS from Boston University, and has coaching certification from both Columbia University as well as the International Coaching Federation. Welcome to Laurie. 

[00:00:48] Laurie Zorn: Thank you, Christine. It's nice to be here. 

[00:00:50] Christine Ko: Would you be willing to share a personal anecdote about yourself?

[00:00:53] Laurie Zorn: Absolutely. A fun fact about me is that I speak German. My husband is from Germany, and we met in business school in New York. And his family doesn't speak English, so when we got engaged, I started learning German, and now our kids are learning it. And it's been really something special to have in our family. 

[00:01:11] Christine Ko: Oh, that's awesome. How much of the time do you guys speak German in the house?

[00:01:14] Laurie Zorn: Not as often as we should for sure, but usually we'll designate kind of a German speaking day or morning in the family. Helps encourage the kids to practice. 

[00:01:23] Christine Ko: Yeah. I had read about trying to bring up bilingual kids, and one of the things they said was, it might be easier to set up a time, like you said, like a day where we speak German, or every other day at dinner, we only speak German, that it's a habitual thing. 

[00:01:38] Laurie Zorn: Creating the habit and the routine. So it becomes part of the practice, not like something that's hard to do.

[00:01:43] Christine Ko: Yeah. I met Laurie through my department because we had a departmental retreat. And one of the activities that we did, we filled out this instrument called the Neethling Brain Instrument, which I had never heard of, but you can think of it, in a way, like the Myers-Briggs, where you can learn about yourself and learn about others. Laurie is an expert in that Neethling Brain Instrument. Can you talk a little bit about all of that? 

[00:02:10] Laurie Zorn: Yeah. Absolutely. It was such a fun time with your department, exploring this tool and doing some fun activities together. Thrilled to be able to talk more broadly about it in this session. It's a tool that I use a lot in my coaching practice. The instrument was founded by a man named Kobus Neethling, who is a South African scholar. He had this view that the world can solve more problems more creatively by using the whole brain thinking. That was the crux of his work and his research. So the assessment is used really to help particularly with leaders and executives, but it really is applicable to many people in understanding where their thinking preferences are. Most adults have a preference towards one style of thinking. And what's interesting is they often don't know it's even a preference. So part of this instrument, what it does is it educates them on the range of thinking preferences. Just start to visualize this in thinking of left brain versus right brain processes as one lens, and the other lens around emotional or affective thinking versus cognitive thinking. What's really a shift for people is just first understanding that range and then noticing where they are along these two axes. There's four main quadrants. 

[00:03:21] Christine Ko: The quadrants are called L1, L2, R1, and R2. Can you give a summary of the major types? 

[00:03:28] Laurie Zorn: L1 folks think towards really a focused approach, the question what? What's the point? What are we doing? Where are we going? Really focused and goal oriented. R1 folks are more the explorers. They like to think strategically about why things are, why are we doing this? Look ahead, look forward. R2 folks are more people oriented, thinking about the who? In this situation, who's involved? who should be involved? And, how do we really bring people aligned and get them involved? I fall into that category. And then we have the planners, the organizers, L2 folks that ask, how are we gonna do this? How are we gonna get this done? There's a couple of flavors in the four quadrants, but these are the main premise. Most people will have a preference toward either one or two of the quadrants. And then, the second piece is like, how extreme? Do you have a low, high, or medium preference? The stronger your preference is, the greater the distance between the other areas. 

[00:04:23] Christine Ko: Do you think that these relate to metacognition at all?

[00:04:26] Laurie Zorn: This kind of framework is based loosely on metaphor of the brain. In terms of metacognition, it's all around awareness, the same kind of principles. What this instrument does is help you gain awareness, not only where you are, but recognizing the range of where others can be. We use this a lot in one-on-one coaching of individuals as well as group coaching. How do you create more effectiveness among the team? Part of that is understanding where other people can be.

[00:04:49] I'll give you an anecdote. I was working with a client, a very senior executive. He's about 60 years old, fabulous leader. They were going through a significant organizational change. Our coaching work was around, how do we motivate and bring the team along? After we did this assessment, he said to me, Laurie, I can't believe there are different ways to think. He's someone that's action oriented, he's the L1, what's the point? where are we going? kind of person. He had such a increased perspective after doing this tool and recognizing that there are different thinking styles. This created in him a shift in terms of how he thought about the folks he was leading, which was so critical in finding motive, how do we motivate them? Cause he had a significant amount of frustration in terms of the slow pace in which the organization was moving. This created such a great shift for him, in being able to see and understand others on his team. It created a lot more curiosity, which was really exciting. 

[00:05:41] Christine Ko: Yes. I think it's a cognitive bias where it can be hard to perspective take. We just think that other people have the same perspective that we do.

[00:05:50] Laurie Zorn: You're completely right. These are the biases that we hold, right? We see the world, and this is how thinking preference are formed based on a combination of nurture and nature. It's based on your lived experience, childhood and early adulthood, and they're pretty much formed by the age of 25. 

[00:06:04] Christine Ko: That is helpful. How does a growth mindset apply to these thinking preferences? 

[00:06:10] Laurie Zorn: Growth mindset, this term was coined by Carol Dweck's work in education. She defines it as your inherent beliefs around intelligence. You can either have a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. Fixed mindset means you are who you are, and there's not really much room for growth. Whereas in a growth mindset, there's always opportunity for learning no matter how challenging or difficult the situation is. There's always room, whether that's an inch or a mile. There's always room for growth and for learning and for success.

[00:06:38] Why that is applicable to thinking preferences is the point is it's not only being aware of your thinking preferences, but it's recognizing that you can shift into others. We all have the ability to think in all of the quadrants, and that's really important. You might even recognize that in your lives you often operate in some of the quadrants that are not your preferences. 

[00:06:59] Where growth mindset is so important in this work is recognizing you have agency. You have ability to move. And that is the work I do in my practice, to help people not only recognize it but create movement and create new behaviors. So they are able to be flexible and agile given the challenges, issues, opportunities that they face in this ever-changing world. 

[00:07:20] Christine Ko: Yes. To have a growth mindset and move around to different thinking preferences, to the different quadrants, away from maybe your one or two main thinking preferences and to practice doing that. Can you talk about deliberately practicing? 

[00:07:33] Laurie Zorn: Yeah. We were talking earlier about building habits, and it's as simple as that. The theory is simple, but the act is hard. I'd like to give this metaphor around, are you right-handed or left-handed? So let's assume you're a right-handed person. If I say to you, okay, write your first name with your right hand. Okay. Easy, feels comfortable, natural. And then I say, okay, now take your left hand, and write your first name. It might feel clunky, awkward. Painful, slow. So we have the ability to write with our non-dominant hand, but we will always prefer our dominant hand. That's the same thing with thinking preferences. 

[00:08:08] But if I said, you know what? Write with your left hand. Write your first name with your left hand for the next 10 days. For the next a hundred days. For the next thousand days. Can you even imagine how much easier it might be to write with that hand? And it's the same with thinking preferences. I have a colleague who's a coach. Her preferences were very strong towards both R1 and R2. She was a very successful investment banker before becoming a coach, very successful, and many, many years in a industry and in a profession where more L oriented preferences were celebrated and rewarded. The point here is, she was very skillful in left brain type of thinking activities, but she naturally was oriented around right brain thinking preferences. Skill versus preference. It's energy-based.

[00:08:59] We always will default to something that we have a preference for because that's where we have the most energy. I operate in R2 cuz it's easy for me, it's like a flow. For me to empathize with another person is just natural, doesn't take effort. For someone else, for an L1, for example, having to empathize with another person, it takes work. I coach myself around playing with these different parts, to create intentionality. If I wanna write my left hand, I have to make an intentional effort to write with my left hand. I have many spaces in my life where it calls for me to really exercise a different thinking preference. And I created intention for that. I have a lot of clients that are strong L1s, and particularly for those coaching sessions, I give myself extra time, setting intentions for that session. And then after the session, I always have a practice of reflecting, what went well? What could I have done better? So that is a really helpful practice in, in terms of practicing any new behavior. I like to think of it like muscles. You're building a muscle, you're building your non-dominant hand. So create bite-size opportunities to practice them. 

[00:10:00] Christine Ko: Do you ever give people actual exercises? If you do ,what's an example exercise for each of these quadrants that could help you strengthen that thinking preference? 

[00:10:10] Laurie Zorn: It all starts with awareness, and then it's, how do I exercise it?  If we're talking about practicing like an R2, I always say first, find someone that does this well in your life. Start to observe behaviors. What's important is being able to notice these behaviors, and then pick the one that resonates for you. If you find someone in your life, you're like, oh, I always notice how she might listen really closely, or she'll move her body, few more inches closer when someone's talking. Something small, bite-sized that they can replicate and try it out for yourself and see how it feels. How does it feel? What was the results from that experience? What do I wanna do differently? That can be really powerful. What's important is making it your own to create stickiness. You have to find an actual behavior that really works for you. 

[00:10:59] Another thing I like to do with clients is reflect on action. Reflecting on action is a really effective way for adults to learn. I ask 'em to describe a situation or meeting or some interaction, and I ask them, how did you feel in that moment? And typically they might describe traits that are associated with their thinking preference. And then I ask, okay let's try it on: let's replay that scene with perhaps a L1 preference. What if you were in that meeting and you really were focused on, what's the bottom line? What are the results we're gonna get from this? How might you act differently? What might that look like? And we'll role play that and we'll talk about what went well, what didn't go well. What is one thing that you wanna take away and try in your next meeting? Those experiences are good ways to practice it, and then build that habit. 

[00:11:49] Christine Ko: Yeah. Cool. Since the whole Neethling Brain Instrument is so new to me, I wouldn't have been able to predict what mine was, and I wouldn't be able to predict what someone else's is. I don't even know how to start. It can be a barrier for me to work in a different quadrant.

[00:12:05] Laurie Zorn: Yeah, that's a great insight, and I think it takes time to sit with it and understand it. My advice there is to notice some of the language. There are certain words that people will use, certain questions they'll ask. I could give you a couple of examples. So R2s, which are the people oriented folks, they are the ones that will always ask, how are you doing? Ask you personal questions, what's going on? What did you do over the weekend? So that's a sign of an R2. They'll always start an interaction with something personal. An L1 will typically get right down to business, start the meeting with, what do we want to get at this meeting? What decision do we need to make? The L2 might be the person that's focused on, how are we implementing? How are we gonna get this done? They might have a preference for making sure we get all the notes right, focusing on the action steps afterwards. And then an R1 might say, how are we gonna think about this differently? You will typically notice it as an outside person if people have a strong preference. So the truth is, if they don't have a strong preference or they're maybe not operating their preference, you might not see it. That's okay. It's just recognizing that there are these differences. And then noticing where you might need to operate in this moment. So for example, if you have a strong preference for people orientation, think about, do I really need to spend a little bit more energy on how do we get this decision made?

[00:13:21] Christine Ko: That makes sense. Say I tend to be people oriented, if I'm in that R2, I could say, okay, today I'm gonna focus on the details. I'm just not gonna get caught up in the feelings of, X, Y, or Z. 

[00:13:33] I like your left hand, right hand; dominant, non-dominant hand analogy. With a lot of deliberate practice and having a growth mindset, I could become ambidextrous. 

[00:13:43] Laurie Zorn: I always say, when we're creating new habits and changing behaviors, awareness is nice, but having the motivation to change is really critical because that's what's gonna keep you going and maintain the habit over time. We have to have a reason. Motivation is really important. My client, who is struggling with leading his team through this organizational change, he was really motivated to think a different way, change his behavior in order to meet the moment that he needed to as a leader. 

[00:14:10] Christine Ko: What is one thing or a few things someone can do to promote whole brain thinking, a more balanced sort of way of thinking across the preferences? 

[00:14:19] Laurie Zorn: I'm glad you asked because there's two ways. We as individuals have the ability to stretch ourselves into different areas that we don't have a preference for and build our skills and behaviors in that. The second way, and a really effective way, is to work with others that think differently than us, bring different groups together and be able to have that whole brain thinking as a team and a collective to be able to solve complex problems. Your whole brain thinking can be as an individual or as a collective. 

[00:14:47] Christine Ko: Oh, I like it.

[00:14:48] Laurie Zorn: Thanks so much for having me, Christine. 

[00:14:49] Christine Ko: Thank you for doing it, Laurie.