The Change Leaders
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The Change Leaders

Body talk — what we can learn in the workplace

By Debbie Jones

Notes from the May 2022 tCL conference in Paris — Saturday morning session run by Sara Biglieri — Deborah Jones, 28 June 2022

Body talk — what we can learn in the workplace

We are constantly being told to look after our bodies, eat healthy food, don’t drink alcohol or smoke; exercise regularly, sleep longer, buy clothes, creams and products to help our bodies look better. We only have one body, better look after it! We take our bodies everywhere with us, to work, rest and play. Some of us value the aesthetic look of our bodies more than others. To some of us, the appearance of our bodies is everything, to others, how our bodies move, how healthy they are and what they are capable of is valued more; to others, the appearance of our bodies is not so important, it’s our brains, the controllers of the outfit, that are most highly prized and worked.

In most workplaces, unless we happen to work in the fields of sports, fitness, emergency services, dance, fashion or beauty, it’s our brains, our minds, that are center-stage. Our expertise, knowledge, analytical and decision making skills, our creativity, productivity and critical thinking skills are the most valued parts of our bodies. In fact, because of the risk of gender, sexual or ethnic discrimination, bodies and clothes are often “off limits” when it comes to conversations with individuals and teams, or at least it’s a precarious subject. To me this is a missed learning opportunity. After all, if looking after and listening to our bodies is important, why should that stop at the office door?

Talking about and listening to our bodies at work has a real purpose and it doesn’t have to be discriminatory, as long as those taking part in the conversation agree to it, it’s a safe space and everyone is there to learn from each other, not judge. We know that our minds and bodies are connected and that how well our minds’ function is dependent on how well our bodies’ function (and vice versa) so logically, if our minds are valued and listened to in the workplace, our bodies should be too!

Over the years I have personally experienced the negative effects of not listening to what my body was telling me. I’ve carried on, ignoring sensations such as a tight chest, stomach pain, digestive issues and hair loss. I didn’t listen to these early warning signs, in the vain hope that they would go away, or just because I was “driven” to put work or other people’s needs before the needs of my own body. I experienced digestive issues in the early 2000’s, which I ignored whilst working for a dot-com start up and resulted in a stomach ulcer. In 2019, I ignored small patches of hair loss, when I was experiencing huge levels of emotional stress, running a business and raising two young boys. That ended in full blown alopecia universalis (total hair loss) in 2020, just before the Covid pandemic hit. I was blind to the possibility that one day something in my body would “snap” and I would have no choice but to prioritize it, because ill-health would prevent me from “carrying on” anymore.

I know I’m not the only person in this world who thinks or thought that I was invincible and that “it wouldn’t happen to me”. I’ve worked with others who have had heart attacks before they have stopped and listened to their bodies. Why does it often take our bodies to break before we listen to them?

Since 2020, I’ve made a shift in my life. Learning about and looking after my body takes up more of my time, attention and efforts than it has in the last 40 odd years. It hasn’t just changed my personal life, its infiltrated my professional life too. I began to research stress and what we can do to reduce the negative effects of stress on the body shortly after I lost my hair. Mindfulness and meditation play a big role in mind-body awareness and managing stress; both practices have risen in notoriety and popularity as common daily practices over the last 15 years. What is less common and less well known, is the practice of energy medicine[1], which is concerned with how energy in our bodies manifests good and poor health conditions and how emotional stress impacts our bodies’ energy flow.

Investigating how energy flows in the body, how it is emitted and exchanged between individuals and how it impacts work, performance, health, and levels of fulfilment has become a niche I have begun to explore. In my professional practice as a leadership development consultant and systemic team coach, I have the privilege of bearing witness to my clients’ energy levels, emotional and physical states as I work with them. Whilst I too, work predominantly with people’s brains and minds; over the last 18 months I have built in more body awareness and physical practices into my work with individuals and teams.

It was to my delight in May 2022, I attended a workshop at the change leaders[2] conference in Paris called “regenerate through movement” run by Sara Biglieri, a former professional dancer who works as a scientist and an embodied coach. Sara’s workshop was a complete body experience, focussing on mindful movement. Her proposition is:

“to proactively change and transform the way things are done, the way things are, one must thrust a profoundly subversive act of movement”

The workshop was billed as “a social choreography”, a model for a new and regenerative social reality, based on the work of Klien & Valk (2007). The objective of the workshop was to become more aware of your own and other people’s bodies as a way of understanding and communicating reality. We analysed social interactions through the medium of

physical expression and dance, we were using movement and somatic[3] exercises to help us understand and transform our realities.

Participants were fellow change consultants and coaches from across the globe who were there to share learning and were ready and open to trying out new methods and techniques. In spite of being open and willing to try anything, personally, at times I felt exposed. I felt embarrassed, clumsy and completely out of my depth as we were asked to channel actions and emotions that had played out the day before through moving our bodies. Not being a trained dancer, it felt awkward to say the least.

I began to muse over whether I could practically use this approach with clients back in the UK. What would they learn? Would they do it? How would it be received? Would it make a difference? If I felt embarrassed and awkward, then wouldn’t people in an organisational setting surely feel the same? Nonetheless, the exercises were extremely powerful as a conduit for quick understanding of my current reality on that day and prompted a powerful shift into a new frame of mind moving forward. Sara generously shared her approach to listening to our bodies as a way of understanding, communicating, and reframing with us all morning.

My favourite of Sara’s exercises started with us all marking out personal space in whatever shape we wanted, with tape on the floor and standing in it. We were asked to think about something we were “stuck in” and hold our bodies still in a shape or position for 5 minutes to represent how we were stuck. A partner was asked to observe our shape from different angles. Each pair then swapped, and the partner made their own “stuck shape” in their own taped space on the floor. Each pair swapped again, and we were asked to observe if anything had changed about our partner’s body. The observing partner was asked to make one change in the posing person’s shape to “unstick” them. Both my partner and I agreed that we felt really different and almost liberated after the change was made.

As I reflected on my journey home, it was clear how this exercise and a wider somatic approach could be powerful for teams, firstly in helping individuals to listen to their bodies and become more aware of where they are holding their stress and tension. Secondly, helping teams to “unstick” and re-frame their current reality, habitual patterns and circumstances into new, healthier and more productive patterns. And thirdly helping people to reconnect with each other in a human way, through observation and respectful touch of the human body.

Using movement and somatic coaching[4] is a powerful method of coaching teams that have become distanced physically, emotionally, and relationally from each other during lockdowns and long periods of remote working. As a Master practitioner in systemic team coaching, I use movement, somatic coaching and energy work where appropriate in team coaching sessions. Mostly, these physical, energy-based exercises are short interludes or bridges between agenda items, the most impactful being outside in the fresh air. One of the most memorable instances was using the daily energy routine[5] with a client team on the bank of the river Thames next to the MI5 building in London. We all had a laugh at what the spooks might be thinking of us watching through the CCTV cameras pointed all along the riverbank, as we performed the exercises. These short physical interventions in a cerebral “work based” agenda surprised clients who shared emotional, meaningful, and impactful exchanges after that riverside experience, that helped raise the frequency of their energy in terms of the thoughts, words and deeds shared between them for the rest of the afternoon.

Ultimately, I have found that body and movement-based experiences with others, strengthen relationships and the performance of the team in whatever work they are engaged in together. To date I have used somatic and energy-based exercises with teams in the NHS, IT, Consulting, Education and Local Authority settings to good effect.

Circling back to the question “why does it often take our bodies to break before we listen to them? We just don’t value our bodies highly enough as sources of wisdom and we often feel awkward and ashamed of how we move or how we look (surveys by the Mental Health Foundation with YouGov in March 2019 in the UK highlighted that: One in five adults (20%) felt shame, just over one third (34%) felt down or low, and 19% felt disgusted because of their body image in the last year.) As change consultants and coaches, we must do more to change this. Listening to and valuing the wisdom in our bodies benefits the health and wellbeing of individuals, teams, whole organisations and ultimately productivity and happiness at work and in our lives. For my part I vow to continue using body and energy-based techniques in my work and to continue to ask:

“What if as individuals and teams we listen to our bodies and take responsibility for the energy we experience and permit into them, as well as the energy we discharge into this world? What would that be like?”

Author: Deborah Jones

Photos: See below. It would be great to use a photo. Would need to get permission from people in it I guess.

[1] Energy medicine — Energy Medicine, at its foundation, focuses on the energy fields of the body that organize and control the growth and repair of cells, tissue, and organs. www.edenenergymedicine.com

[2] Community of practice — alumni of HEC Paris, University of Oxford MSc. Consulting & Coaching for Change, est. 2005 https://thechangeleaders.com/

[3] Somatics derives from the Greek somatikos, which signifies the living, aware, bodily person

[4] “Somatic coaching teaches individuals, teams and organisations how to contact this life energy and to allow it to inform their actions, relationships, moods and way of being in the world.” (Strozzi-Heckler, 2014, p.36).

[5] (Donna Eden, Energy Medicine, 1988, p.86)

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Richard Torseth

Richard Torseth

Executive coach and consultant focused on building adaptive leadership capacity to thrive in this disruptive world. I do wish I once rode in the Tour de France.