Why embodiment matters for change agents

Whilst leading change at a large media organisation in the UK, I led a review of an Open Space-style event that I had suggested and orchestrated. We were working our way around the Zoom grid. People were effusing about how interactive and energising they found the meeting. They loved the openness and the fact that they were free to move to different breakout rooms. They enjoyed how they had gotten to discuss the topics important to them.

Then came the turn of one of the main sponsors, Tim, to speak:

“I’ll be honest. I don’t think it worked. Everyone just wanted to hear about the buying project. What was the point of splitting everyone up? I had to introduce myself four different times. I suggest we go back to something more efficient for the next one.”

I could feel my throat tighten, and my heart start to race. This was my idea, my baby. Surely everyone loved it, a symbol of hope for a new culture. The herald of a new era. However, now Tim wanted to pronounce it dead on arrival. I knew I had to breathe. Literally, find my feet. I just about held on in my body, I focussed on staying grounded. I caught myself and focussed on breathing from my belly, though my heart rate was still high.

“Thanks, Tim”, I say, “I appreciate what you’re saying, I get that the format was inefficient for you.”

“That’s what this wrap-up is about, it’s great that you’re being so honest. I’m confident we can find a format that’s going to work for everyone as we continue to experiment.”

I’d just about managed not to get defensive and not tell Tim where he could stick his feedback. Somehow I’d managed not to right Tim off as an unreconstructed control freak for dissing ‘my’ Open Space.

On reflecting, it was my embodiment that had made the difference. Whilst there was still part of me I’m sure that came over as a bit miffed, if I’d only been in my head, I would have got wrapped up in his critique and how he was attacking what I knew was right.

Being embodied is crucial for us to remain present with a ‘generous listening’ for others when we’re leading change. Change can often provoke anger and resistance. As change agents, investing in our embodied capacities can make the difference in our ability to hold space in challenging situations. It can help us to avoid over-or under-reacting and instead stay present and centred.

Embodiment means being able to tune into ourselves, and others, on multiple levels.

One way of thinking about these levels is the concept of our five intelligences. These each give us a different way of perceiving. 

#1 Our senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell – collectively known as exteroception.

#2 Interoception is our ability to detect what’s going on inside our body – our organs, connective tissue and, at times, our skin. Most of the time, we manage these through unconscious processes, but there are some we can easily sense, like butterflies in our stomach. With practice, we can learn to detect many more.

#3 Proprioception is our sense of our body in space – we know where our left knee is in relation to our right elbow without having to look at either of them. Gymnasts and dancers have highly developed proprioception to execute their moves with precision.

#4 Conceptual intelligence is perhaps the most familiar network. This is our stories, narratives, beliefs – how we explain the world and our place in it, to ourselves. Many of us with intellectually focused education have exclusively worked on this capability at the expense of our other intelligences.

#5 Last but not least,  Emotional intelligence, something many of you will be familiar with. This is our awareness of our emotions and those of others.  Neurobiogically, emotions are a bridge between body sensations and conceptual intelligence. Emotions are how we label a collection of feelings (with a name, like “joy”) and attribute meaning to them.

Some of us may be more developed in certain intelligences than others. It could be useful for you to consider in which of these intelligences do you feel strong? 

Which of these could you work on?

If you’d like more information on how to embrace embodiment and increase your impact as a change leader, download the free primer I co-authored with Clare North here.

You could also learn to use embodiment to ‘Become One of the Best Change Agents on the Planet‘ at my upcoming MeetUp here.

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