Think back to when you were five. What do you remember learning? I bet it’s hard to recall a specific fact or statistic. Yet I bet anything you learned with your body — riding a bicycle, swimming, playing an instrument, or jumping rope, for example — you probably still remember and know how to do. You remember, and still practice, what you learned with your body — kinesthetically.
This is why memories come back to us when triggered by a smell. And why in Rudolf Steiner’s Waldorf schools, children learn numbers, for example, by “walking” them (tracing large versions on the floor) with their feet. Steiner understood that when we learn with our bodies, we integrate and retain information differently. We are self-connected. Grounded–literally.
For me, learning NVC (Nonviolent Communication) has been about re-friending my body and felt-sense—my own gut feeling and visceral response. Each step of the model invites this kind of awareness. In the first step—sharing an observation free of evaluation—we are making use of our eyes and our ears. “When I see…” or “When I hear…” The second and third steps, focused on our internal response to a stimulus (the observation) is about noticing how our bodies respond. How am I (or someone else) feeling in relation to what’s happened?
And what is our “gut” response—the needs driving us? Our bodies know when we’re agitated, fearful or frustrated; likewise, our bodies know when our needs are met, since we feel open, happy, and relaxed. I believe we can more effectively learn and integrate new ideas and behaviors by engaging our bodies; I also believe that paying attention to how our bodies communicate with us (via somatic awareness) gives us key information about our feelings and needs. When we’re not paying attention–when numb or shut down, we are not fully alive and missing out on crucial information about our experience and our lives.
In effect, this is the core practice of NVC: creating greater awareness (aliveness) and returning our bodies to stasis or equilibrium (peace). When we’re triggered, and angry, scared, or hurt, we are clenched, tense, or restricted in our bodies. We literally are not able to breathe. Our blood cannot easily flow. When we are tense or restricted in this way, how we can be creative or collaborative? Or have space to hear the other side—or come up with strategies that fully address our needs?
By practicing self-empathy (connecting with our feelings and needs) and allowing our bodies to return to a neutral state, we have access to greater internal resources. This is why it’s easier to have a conversation (and think clearly) when we’ve been empathically heard… we are more relaxed and open, rather than in fight or flight (kinesthetic responses).
For these reasons, as a coach and NVC trainer, I like to focus on kinesthetic learning and somatic awareness. In workshops, we play a form of empathy poker where we use sensation cards on diagrams of bodies to notice what we’re feeling, and where. We play a game where you practice noticing your feelings and needs by moving around the room in relation to different feelings (posted on the wall). We play “trigger ball” (with red nerf balls), and do demos with props, to practice responding to difficult to hear messages and to fully understand requests. Learning in this way is fun (who said conflict resolution isn’t fun!). It also, by involving our bodies, helps us to learn and integrate NVC practices “in our bones,” making it second nature.
Valuing how our bodies communicate with us, I’ve also developed a practice based on NVC that I call Somatic-Based Empathy (SBE) where we learn how to empathize with sensations in our bodies, to hear what our bodies want to communicate with us. I find that often when people are “stuck” on a cognitive level (wanting clarity around making a decision, or movement or relief around some emotional or physical pain) that listening to our bodies in this way can offer profound insight and transformation. For someone who much of her life was “in her head,” these practices are moving and profound for me, both how they’ve impacted my own life and in how I see them supporting others. New research is demonstrating how we literally do “think” with our guts, and have “gut instincts,” since our brains and stomachs share the same neurons.
How self-connected are you? How much are you listening to your body? I invite you to start embracing your body! And listening to it! What are you feeling—and how do you notice this in your body, on a sensation level? When you are speaking with someone and have had enough– of that conversation, or what the person is saying, how do you know– in your body? And what does joy feel like? And happiness? What brings you most alive—and how do you know and notice? All this is related to somatic awareness. And to being fully in choice, and fully alive.
Want to explore somatic awareness and kinesthetic learning? Here are some exercises you may wish to try:
- When practicing self-empathy (connecting with your own feelings and needs) take a moment to take in each feeling and need on a somatic level. When connecting with your feelings, what sensations do you notice? How are they related? Then imagine your needs as fully met. How does it feel in your body to be connected to that need—to fully experience it??
- Are you feeling stuck about making a decision? Use your imagination to visualize each choice in detail. Go through each step. How does your body feel, imagining each choice? What does your felt-sense tell you about each option, and how it, in fact, appeals to you?
- The next time you’re triggered, focus on how your feeling and how the sensations turn up in your body. While the feelings and sensations might be uncomfortable, I find that if I can sit with the feelings and sensations, they usually pass relatively quickly. This is, in effect, a form of somatic self-empathy. Notice when your cognitive function goes into story—trying to talk yourself out of your feelings, blame someone else, worry, or fix things. Let the stories go and bring your attention back simply to what you are experiencing in your body.
Did you find these exercises helpful? I’d love to know! Send me an email to share your experiences, and what you learned. And please consider joining me this year to deepen your somatic awareness and more fully embrace your body.