A different kind of knowing
What is it to know something? And why does that matter?
I coach many people for whom the need to ‘get things right’ is strong and real and for whom knowing is a cognitive and intellectual activity based in reason and logic. If you’re a coach, this may be a familiar story, particularly if you work in or with organisations that provide learning or have hierarchical structures based on qualifications.
Perhaps like you too, I’ve lived as one of those people for many years, striving for and valuing academic achievement, qualifications, the ‘right way’ of doing things. But over the last few years, the way I seek knowledge, indeed what I regard as knowledge, has begun to change and this has affected not only how I live my life, my relationships and my sense of self, but how I work with my coaching clients. That’s not to devalue what we know in our cognitive mind at all. It’s to recognise that as humans ‘over three billion years of embodied knowledge of survival, adapting, social intelligence, co-ordinating, intuition and reciprocity lie largely unused within us’ (Strozzi-Heckler, p.36) and that our bodies, our minds and our feelings are inextricably connected. And that matters in terms of how we develop self-awareness and insight and how we work as a coach.
Mind and body disconnected
Those of you that have met me will perhaps have noticed that I’m pretty tall! I was always the tallest in my class at primary school (by a lot!) and as a result, I shut myself off from developing a physical understanding of myself because I didn’t want to draw attention (mine or anyone else’s) to my body. I listened more intensely to what my head was telling me and chose to value that. It’s only now I realise what a wealth of knowledge I was missing. If you’re an athlete, a yogi or a dancer, this may sound a bit strange! But for coachees who have come to value cognitive knowing more highly than holistic, somatic knowing, the disconnect can be self-limiting.
You’ll be familiar with the phrases ‘gut feeling’ or ‘heartfelt’ or ‘in the pit of my stomach’? Our language has evolved to describe ways of knowing which are powerful and somatic, yet in society we often value ‘thinking’ over what is going on for us physically. We differentiate between ‘head’ and ‘heart’, seeing them as separate and sometimes conflicting. And that can get in the way of listening holistically, clearly and honestly to what is really going on.
When we become aware of what is going on at a somatic level, we are developing our whole-self-awareness, bringing ourselves more into the present moment, the ‘what is’ and from this place, we are afforded choices about what to do and how to be. Knowing in our whole self, as Yeats so eloquently explains, is transformative: ‘we only believe in those thoughts which have been conceived not in the brain but in the whole body’.
So how can we raise our somatic awareness?
- Step into nature: In the clear autumn weather of the last few days, you may have enjoyed the rich colours of the trees, smelt the soil in the earth, felt the new chill in the mornings or heard he rustle of fallen leaves. All of this is re-sensitising us and honing our attention. I’ve mentioned in previous articles the attentional effect of nature and how attention is like a muscle which can be developed. Being outdoors enables us to tune-in and become more present to what is going on for us right now.
- Move: coaching is often about exploring perspectives and by physically taking on a new physical place or state, we can begin to experience difference in our bodies as well as theoretically in our minds. For example, a perceptual positions exercise involving moving into different spaces can be truly powerful.
- Be ‘content-free’: As coaches, we know that what’s important for our coachees is developing their understanding, their awareness and their choices. It’s not about us! To let go of the need to hear and process our coachee’s words (their thinking) enables them to switch off the filters they may be applying for our benefit and quieten their cognitive intelligence; and it enables us to really pay attention to the somatic intelligence at play both for us and for them, shining a light on embodied responses, giving feedback and growing their awareness.
‘While skills and clear thinking are developed through somatic coaching, it’s the individual’s way of Being that is ultimately transformed and enables them to generate life-affirming action’ – The Art of Somatic Coaching, Richard Strozzi-Heckler