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The body in coaching and training


To be an effective coach or trainer it is necessary to be skilled at working with the body, yet most training and coaching is a purely cognitive affair, says Mark Walsh.

The two most common ways of looking at the body in the western world are not the two most relevant to training and coaching. The body as a machine that carries the head around, and the body as an object of desire are two viewpoints which add little. Having a rudimentary understanding of physiology and the mechanics of the body is useful for the work I will discuss but far from all that is involved. The body as I understand it includes not only the physical body but the lived experience of having a body (this is called 'somatics') and the energetic body (how the body relates to emotions, attentions and intention for example).

What body?

To understand why the body has been largely ignored by trainers and coaches it is necessary to understand Western cultural history – but this is beyond the scope of this article. Enough to say that the disembodied West coming first from the repressed Dark Ages and later the reductionist Industrial Revolution is now starting to wake-up to the body again. It is also struck anew by a modern technological obsession (see my article on e-learning). It is against this backdrop that many training providers and coaches ignore the body as something scary that they know little about, see education as a purely heady exercise in learning about things and the body as merely concerning survival and reproduction.

Why the body is important to coaches and trainers

For some coaches and trainers their interest in the body ends if a client can walk into their office and is not seriously ill. Minimal health is of course the foundation for all our actions, and without our bodies we would be dead. Note the standard use of English – “our bodies”, as if they were objects that we rode around in. My claim would be that our bodies are in many ways, not ours but us. The body is so intimately involved with every aspect of being human that to not address it is seriously remiss for any professional working with people.
Let’s use a concrete example to see how the body is relevant. Through my work on stress management training, I have found that theory doesn’t help people much but exercises involving breathing and posture do. Talking about theories of stress will not reduce it, but a deep breathing exercise or working with the emotions via the body will. With stress the importance of the body-mind connection is well researched and understood, but what about other areas?
Next, let’s take communication – the essence of effective coaching and training. A large part of emotionally significant communication is non-verbal as the work of Paul Ekman, Daniel Goleman and Albert Mehrabian shows (the graph below relates to emotionally significant communication, and despite my friend Martin Shovel’s excellent critique of misunderstandings around this still stands). If you’ve ever had a mix-up with a client by e-mail, not  'clicked' with an internet date in real life or tried to maintain a long business partnership you will know the issues associated with disembodied communication. Leadership and management too are underpinned by the body. The impact, influence and presence a leader has is largely determined by their body, as is the ability to build trust and take a stand. This is more than just body language and more like “body-being”. This is shown in the image below.
Below is a framework similar to Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence model but mapping embodied competencies. Note the application of many of these to training and coaching.
·         Body awareness (with attention)
·         Awareness of attention
·         Postural and movement (includes breath) awareness
·         Mood and emotion awareness
·         Sleep/rest/activity cycle awareness
·         Felt Intuitive sense
Embodied Social Awareness
·         Social body awareness (awareness of others – individuals and group moods)
·         Social attentional awareness
·         Somatic assessment (evaluating others by looking at their bodies)
·         Group mood awareness
·         Felt intuitive sense of others (via unconscious mirroring)
·         Empathy
Embodied Self-Management
·         Postural and attentional adjustment
·         Breath control (e.g. diaphragmatic breathing)
·         Mood management – e.g. confidence building
·         Sleep/rest/activity cycle management (Excitation, centring, grounding, etc)
·         Relaxing or enlivening
·         Accessing intuition (e.g. focusing)
Embodied Social Management/ Connection
·         Nonverbal mimicking, leading and rapport building
·         Interruption of unconscious mirroring (e.g. during vicious conflict cycles)
·         Empathic and emotional connection
·         Leadership impact (charisma, presence, gravitas)
·         Trust building - sincerity

Embodied tips for coaches and trainers

Working with the body is not simple something that can be tagged onto what trainers already know. It takes some years of a regular body practice (e.g. yoga or a martial art) to get back into the body and specialist training is often required. That being said there are some things any coach or trainer can do to bring the body back into their work at least to some degree immediately.

  • Notice your own body while coaching or training – just doing this will add a new dimension to your work
  • Pay attention to participants/clients physicality - how they stand, sit and hold themselves- again just this will make a huge difference
  • Get a body awareness practice yourself – yoga, tai chi and martial arts are fantastic, though any physical activity done with attention is fine
  • Learn to manage yourself under pressure by practicing the ABC “centring” process:
- Become Aware of your body especially your breathing
- Balance your posture and attention
- Relax your “Centre-line” (eyes, mouth and stomach muscles)
  • Make your communication as embodied as possible with clients – face-to-face is better than Skype is better than phone is better than email, is a good order to consider.
  • Learn to access and trust your gut instinct
  • Get feedback on what mood your body conveys (we are all blind to this so you may be surprised!)

Embodied training and coaching resources

For those wishing to take this further I would recommend world leaders The Strozzi Institute, Paul Linden, Wendy Palmer and Arawana Hayashi in the US. In the UK, we, Integration Training, along with Roffey Park and The Beyond Partnership specialise in this type of training. In Europe The Newfield Network provides excellent coach training with an embodied element. Books by Richard Strozzi Heckler and Paul Linden are also excellent resources and I would like to honour these two mentors as the source of much of what I have discussed here.

Mark Walsh is a UK pioneer of embodied training. Based in Brighton, Sussex, he heads Integration Training - business training providers specialising in management and leadership training, team building, stress management and time management training. Contact Mark on 07762 541 855 or visit his training blog.

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