One way or another, all coaching boils down to the rude pragmatics of ‘bodies in a room 1’. With the increasing professionalisation of coaching, and the resulting sophistication of coaching techniques, it is easy to overlook or to underplay this basic reality. Yet the soft animals of our bodies interact and communicate in subtle yet powerful ways that are often beyond our immediate awareness and conscious control. Our bodies hold, express, reflect and reveal an extraordinary amount of information. Yet – sadly – I believe that most coach training, practice and supervision pays scant attention to the fascinating phenomenon of embodiment.
I’m absolutely not talking about ‘reading body language’. For example, the interpretation of crossed arms as ‘defensiveness’ is not only simplistic – this objectification turns the other person in to a ‘thing’ and does not consider embodied communication from social or systemic perspectives – our own bodies form an inseparable part of the embodied responses of the other. As social creatures, when we relate in pairs or groups, our several bodies actually constitute a single unit of communication – there is not just a ‘me’ but an ‘us’ that is being expressed and deserves to be explored.
What does it mean for us, as coaches, to pay more attention to embodiment in our client interactions? As starting points, we could explore four possibilities:
- Reconsider touch. While there are obvious and important concerns, boundaries and taboos related to touch, it is also a normal and healthy aspect of relating. New research (2) suggests that touch enhances discrimination (related to decision-making) and improves collective performance. Developments in coaching such as Constellations are going some way to normalise touch as an integrated aspect of the coaching encounter, and while this is to be welcomed, there is much more to be considered about this important topic.
- Move more! Not only are our bodies full of feeling, they are locomotive! Even simple ‘experiments’ such as inviting our clients to change chairs, or repeat an unnoticed but potentially significant gesture with awareness, or to walk with us around a room for a short time, can be hugely revealing.
- Use our own body as a resonance-detector. I led a coaching masterclass recently for experienced coaches, and none of the people present had ever been encouraged to consider their own visceral responses and somatic resonance to their clients until then! One of my old teachers used to instruct me to give only 50% of my attention to what the client is saying and doing. The other 50% of my focus needs to be on what goes on in my own body while my client is talking. For example, when a coachee is describing how relieved she feels to have a new member join her team, and my stomach clenches, I take this as ‘data’ and consider sharing it with her to see if it has meaning for her. Might there be a level of tension and concern underneath her initial relief, which she is not yet consciously aware of, but which could form an unspoken part of her emerging relationship with the new team member?
- Pay as much attention to what the client is ‘bodying forth’ as to what s/he is saying. Flemish psychotherapist Georges Wollants (3) avoids asking questions of his clients, and instead considers what the client’s overall bodily expression reveals about their life-situation. If sharing of what we observe does occur, it is best done in a sensitive, enquiring, descriptive way and stripped of interpretation. For example, I once had a huge insight when a supervisor of mine shared an observation with me: he asked me about my leadership style, and as I replied, without noticing I pushed myself back in my chair a couple of centimetres. He wondered if I often began leading others by giving ground. It was a catalytic intervention, and our subsequent conversation helped me ‘step forward’ more clearly into my leadership.
Ultimately, embodied practice is about achieving a level of mutual attunement that enables change to occur within and beyond the coaching relationship. As coaches, we need to reach beyond our slick question-sequences into our deeper corporeal nature to help our clients more effectively, As Gestalt pioneer Fritz Perls famously used to say, “Get out of your mind and come to your senses!”
- I am indebted to my friend and colleague Archie Roberts for this wonderful expression.
- Scientific American Mind, July/August 2015, pp 30-39.
- Wollants, G. (2012) ‘ Therapy of the Situation.’ Sage. London.