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Managing/Coaching or Working with Dyslexic Thinkers


People considered to be ‘dyslexic’ and therefore ‘different’ are also often thought of as ‘difficult’. In reality no two people are the same so, what makes one person or group of people more difficult than any other?

Nearly always when I find myself in a situation or with people I’m working with that I might classify as difficult, I ask myself one simple and profound question:

What can I do differently to ease the situation?

Although it may sound pitifully simple and startlingly obvious, especially to an experienced coach, what I witness time and again is people trying to change something outside of their band of control, rather than their own approach which is in their control.

Granted, it’s not always easy to change your position or actions, especially when you don’t have the knowledge or understanding.

Knowledge and understanding are therefore the foundations and our starting point in getting to grips with the perceived challenge of the dyslexic thinking style.

Dyslexia is a term used to classify people who are unable to reach a level of competence with reading, writing and spelling. There are other associated conditions: dysgraphia for writing; dyspraxia for co-ordination and balance, and cyscalculia for maths. Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity (or Hypoactivity) Disorder (AD/HD) are also very closely linked. It is very common, indeed maybe even normal, for a person experiencing any one of these characteristics to experience two or more of them. For ease and simplicity I refer to this whole group as dyslexic thinkers or use the term dyslexic thinking style.

People with the dyslexic thinking style make up an estimated 10% or more of our population, with the majority of them never being formally tested or ‘diagnosed’. Can we change the word diagnosed for classified because diagnosis suggests an illness. I question the presence of ‘illness’ associated with dyslexia, for me it’s merely a different approach to using the brain – thinking.

The key difference in brain usage is where the processing is predominantly placed. For the vast majority of people processing takes place mainly in the left hemisphere or side of the brain (sequence, auditory, language) and dyslexic thinking is mainly in the right hemisphere (pictures, colour, shape, feelings): one is straight-line, black and white in its purest sense and the other colourful abstract.

Before anyone gets upset and shouts that they think in sequence and colour at the same time, of course you do. We all use both sides of our brain. The important point to understand here is ‘in what balance and to what degree?’ If you are highly logical and organised maybe you have new ideas but they are not the most innovative of ideas. At the same time you may be working with someone who is comparatively untidy but initiates some excellent new ideas. A third person may be very good at ‘reading other people’ and having the ‘gift of the gab’. None of you would necessarily be classified as a dyslexic thinker due to the dominant thought processing taking place in the left side of the brain. Each of you would, however, be accessing the right side of your brain to a different degree:
• To organise and tidy you need a picture of what the finished state looks like – maybe to then develop a set of logic based rules to follow every time;
• To have innovative ideas you must be accessing the creative element of the brain’s right hemisphere; and
• To read people requires pattern matching behavioural traits – again stored in the right hemisphere of the brain.

How often have you build flat pack furniture and given up reading the written instructions, only to rely on the pictures? What you have done is to move the focus of your thinking from the sequenced left hemisphere to the picture thinking right hemisphere. Alternatively you may even have asked a child to build it and then it wouldn’t matter what language the written instructions are provided in. The reason behind this? Picture thinking is the most natural state of thinking and younger children have not yet learned to be conversant with the less natural, learned, sequence based thinking style.

Here’s another point for you: words (the sound and what they look like) are artificial. Especially in the written form they are a series of codes that have been devised in order for two or more people to communicate ideas and thoughts, i.e. transmit and receive information on factors of the world around them. To receive though is not sufficient; if you hear another language you have received but not understood. Understanding requires competent decoding.

I said ‘especially the written form’ because in the dyslexic thinking style the sound of a word – whole words and collections of words – sit comfortably with the melodic sector of the right hemisphere. Composition needs less logic to create it and is learned naturally by absorbing sound from birth. This explains the reason for dyslexic thinkers often being highly competent with speech and expression. They describe the picture or experience as they ‘see’ it in their mind.

The written form of language differs considerably in that it is a taught and learned skill entrenched with rules. There is also the need to link the sound of language with shapes that symbolise the sound. An example to help you understand this point is if your name and address were written in a script you don’t recognise such as ancient Egyptian or Chinese, you wouldn’t recognise or be able to decode it – even if you are told what the shapes collectively represent.

Another key point in the dyslexic thinking style is thinking in pictures. A little test you can do is to hold up a picture for a few seconds, one that the person you are showing has not seen previously. Before you show them the picture ask them to be aware of what part they see first and how their eyes move around on initially seeing the picture. Some people will immediately be drawn to a line or colour; others scan it from left to right, top to bottom. Dyslexic thinkers will most likely see the whole picture then focus on a particular part. Both left and right brain thinkers will be able to describe what they saw. Left brain thinkers are likely to describe in a sequenced (logical) way whereas right brain thinkers may appear to jump all over the picture: the middle, the bottom, then one side. Equally likely they may give an impression or comment on the colours or composition balance first. Generally they see and retain a greater memory of the whole picture than left brain thinkers.

Because dyslexic thinkers see more, it can take longer to process (decode the picture) and communicate (encode for language) than left brain thinkers. The decoding part of this process also has factors which can cause complication. When you see the whole picture without priority for what to describe first, where do you begin? And what part to describe next. This causes confusion which can be debilitating to the point of saying nothing because of the powerful feeling of bemusement which so often accompanies confusion. Due to the vastness of detail confusion often reins and a confused mind often manifests itself in behaviours such as giving up, procrastination and/or poor motivation. Repeated many times over and often chastised by those around, a dyslexic thinker’s self esteem is prone to drop. The inevitable consequence, over time, is the development of a can’t-do attitude and compromised performance affecting a person’s whole life.

Many dyslexic thinkers ‘know’ without a shadow of a doubt that they have an ability, a worth (their mind’s picture is fabulously clear), that’s screaming to get out but they don’t know what or how to do and often say that nobody understands them. For them it is immensely frustrating.

A manager, coach, colleague, peer, friend or family member who has an understanding of what is happening for them potentially has they key to the treasure trove. Turning the key takes time and patience. It requires the ability to decode a comprehensively detailed picture into what may seem like an enormous amount of pixel sized steps. It is only when these steps are small and clear that movement can be made.

For coaches and co-workers of dyslexic thinkers the abilities that make a profound difference are:

• Preparedness to stretch your own mind and learn how to see the other person’s picture;
• Patience: the detail and progressive steps can be slow to get to and enormous in quantity;
• Understanding and empathy: these are naturally supportive and motivating, being non-judgemental in nature.

The last factor I am introducing here is one of speed. Auditory thinking (left hemisphere) has been calculated at 500 words per minute; Picture thinking at 32 pictures per second – the advertising industry have been prevented from inserting single frames of ‘something attractive’ into video based adverts at a higher speed than this because of its subliminal nature. Slower than this and people will see it so it’s not appropriate to insert.

Think for a moment . . . how may words does it take to describe a picture? So not only is picture thinking exponentially faster than audio thinking, it’s also indescribably more comprehensive.

It’s not as simple as asking someone who thinks so fast to slow down, not least of all because they often don’t understand and appreciate that they think so fast. For them, thinking at this speed is their natural state. To slow down is not only taking them out of their comfort zone – if they can do it – but for those who can do it the speed of the spoken word seems slow and boring. Thinking is also prone to lose its fluidity because the picture they are describing fades as focus and attention are placed on communication encoding – moving predominant thinking from right to left side of the brain.

Equally difficult is the action from the other side. A coach or co-worker who is predominantly an auditory thinker is often unlikely to have developed the ability to process auditory input at such a speed or to move predominant thinking across the brain to develop and interpret such pictures.

If meaningful progress is to be made and the coaching/working experience enjoyed by both parties the answer to this paradox must be found in the middle ground and a solution developed, along with a working relationship over time.

One approach to explore this middle ground in order to establish the area for discussion is to conduct a short visualisation exercise.

With your dyslexic thinking coachee or co-worker calm and relaxed (deep and gentle breathing for a few seconds may achieve this) ask your working partner to visualise being on a train, travelling at 100mph and looking out of the window as they pass a meadow – which will be very easy for them.

Ask them to describe the bushes that surround the meadow, and what they can see in the green that covers the ground.

Ask them to get off the train and onto a bicycle. Suggest that they cycle along the pathway that runs along the side of that same meadow then ask the same questions about what they see.

Representatively speaking, their mind operates at train speed and yours at bicycle speed. It’s very likely that they will be able to describe much more detail at the slower speed – but they may not be used to seeing this kind of detail and have a reaction to it. What agreement can you come to over speed of progress? Will you agree to oscillate between the two speeds, finding a way to communicate when high speed isn’t appropriate because it’s causing a blockage to progress; or will you find a new speed/set of speeds to work with?

Picking up on a small but very important aspect of speed is boredom: slow is boring! So, here I remind you of an old saying:

If it isn’t fun, it isn’t done

Working with dyslexic thinkers can be phenomenally rewarding if not especially easy at times. In actively participating with a dyslexic thinker there’s plenty to be gained, both from a personal and wider perspective. There are many dyslexic thinkers throughout our history who we have much to give thanks for as their contributions have caused significant social development, these include:
• Alexander Graham Bell
• Thomas Edison
• Winston Churchill

While the people you coach and work with are not so likely to become as enduringly famous for their contributions, they may be the musicians, actors and sports people who entertain us, or your prize solution creator!

Facilitators are specially trained and licensed professional development providers who guide and support dyslexic thinkers in learning to learn using their brain’s natural ability and talent.

Once the dyslexic thinker has learned to learn their way, the skill of learning is transferable to all areas of life and the negative, disabling, characteristics of the dyslexic thinking style gradually recede.

Anna Stephens

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