Somatic-Based Empathy – Part II


This past spring, I offered a six week course on Somatic-Based Empathy (a practice I developed based on NVC) via the NVC Academy (NVCA). After the NVCA program, one of the participants, Thierry Dewandre, asked me to write about Somatic-Based Empathy so he could share more about it in Belgium. Curious about his experiences in the course and what he had learned and taken from it (and valuing collaboration), I suggested that we collaborate and write a piece together. What follows is Part Two of a multi-part series on Somatic-Based Empathy based on both our insights and experience.

(Note: If you’re interested in doing a live workshop on Somatic-Based Empathy, I’ll be offering a weekend program 19th-20th February, 2020 in Hamburg, Germany and also offering sessions on this topic as part of the upcoming Ireland IIT).

Somatic-Based Empathy (Part Two)

By Thierry Dewandre (guest blogger) and Dian Killian

Meta View of Practice

The core practice of Somatic-Based Empathy is to be present to our body via noticing sensations in a detailed and attentive way. By doing so, we witness what is — without attempting to change, fix or cognitively understand what we notice or are experiencing. This in itself is a form of empathy and respect.  By doing a scan of what we notice in our body, we see which sensation is “speaking” the loudest or which is most getting our attention. Through noticing intensity,  we listen for which sensation (or part) is most “up” and is needing to be “heard” first.   This is similar to doing an internal mediation with our felt sense. We are then mindfully present to what is, in real time, becoming curious about what this sensation might be “saying” or communicating to us. 

Once fully connected to the sensation, we then consider and explore, “What if this sensation had words? If it did, what would it say?” We then empathize (recapping and guessing feelings and needs) about what the sensation is sharing. Once heard, we may also explore,  “What requests might the sensation and/or the body have or make?”  Once we have fully heard this sensation and any requests the sensation may have, we do a scan again and check back in with the body. Sometimes the sensation has shifted (changed location or intensity) or another sensation is vying more for our attention. We then engage in the above process again, until we feel complete, at least for this concern or session. The body tells us when it is complete by relaxing, releasing, and returning to stasis and equilibrium. Often after a Somatic-Based Empathy session, a person experiences a new level of peace, acceptance and contentment. There also is often relief or cessation around physical sensations and sometimes even physical pain, once the body has been heard about what it is attempting to “say” or tell us.

Detailed Steps

1. Body Scan

Sit comfortably in a chair. Take a moment to check in with yourself. How are you feeling at this moment? If you wish, you can name or identify some of the feelings that we use on the NVC feelings list — you could be feeling happy, relaxed and/or at peace in this moment, for example, or perhaps nervous, worried or agitated, or some other feeling. Connected with your feelings, now check in with your body. What sensations do you notice? Do a scan of your entire body, from head to toe. Some sensations might be “normal” and familiar to you — you may notice for example, that the way you’re sitting in the chair is slightly uncomfortable for example, and so there’s some tightness or irritation in your thigh. Or you may notice that on your face, there’s a spot that’s slightly itchy. Some of the sensations you notice may be related to your body’s everyday processes (like gurgling in your stomach if you are hungry, or a dry throat if you are thirsty).  Notice all your body’s sensations and do an internal scan and map: the location, quality, and intensity, all with a welcoming, open and curious attitude.

2. Identifying a “Vocal” Sensation   

Doing a scan of your body, which sensation(s) is (or are) the most intense? Which ones stand out or do you notice more? For example, beyond the everyday bodily sensation-functions that I mentioned above (such as an itchy nose or empty stomach) are there any areas of tension, restriction, throbbing, discomfort or pain? (There also could be lightness and openness — which also can be powerful to sit with as well as communicating needs met for you.) Choose one sensation to focus on first, based on its intensity and how “vocal” it is.

Where exactly is this sensation? In your shoulders or upper back? Your solar plexus or your stomach? Maybe in your throat, or a knee or limb. As you notice and identify the location, continue to be fully present to what you’re noticing (free of judgment or blame). It can be easy for us to have a reaction — “Oh, that knee hurts again!” or “Why I am so stressed — or nervous?!”  Rather than judging, explaining, or trying to figure out what’s going on in your body, how can you be a caring witness to what you notice — much like sitting with a long time friend that you have warm feelings and associations with and who you are interested in listening to.

3. “Somatic Recapping” What the Sensation is “Saying”

With that caring stance, consider the quality and intensity of the sensation.  How would you describe the intensity and texture of it? Is there a metaphor/sound/colour that speaks to and/or expresses the sensation? Is it vibrating, pulsating or throbbing?  Or more like restriction, twisting, or pressure? Does the sensation express itself via an image? Perhaps a clenched fist, a river that’s stuck or backed up, or a whirling dervish, spinning? Use whatever words/descriptions that come naturally and authentically for you to describe the sensation. While doing so, check in with yourself and the sensation and your body to see if how you’re describing it “fits” for you and resonates.

Continue to check in with the sensation. How is it now? Has it moved, shifted or changed? In location, quality or intensity?  If it has moved or changed, repeat the previous steps.

I refer to this step as “Somatic Recapping” because it parallels the step of recapping (also often called “reflecting” or “mirroring”) in practicing traditional NVC, where you let the person know what you’ve heard them say. This is a form of observation. It addresses the first level of hearing someone: understanding them on a content/informational level. What are they actually saying? Did you hear them accurately? Are you on the same page, on the level of content? Once the person has been heard this way, we then in NVC listen on a deeper, more core and profound level, for feelings and needs. Both levels of listening are important in supporting connection and an experience of connection and being heard.

In Somatic-Based Empathy, given that sensations are the language of the body, the “recapping” step involves being fully present to the sensations: noticing them in detail, with their qualities and intensities, as a form of being present to and/or witnessing these sensations. By repeatedly checking in with the sensations, gauging their quality, intensity, and location, this is akin to “recapping” what we have heard someone way (when they are using words rather than expressing via sensations).

After checking in with yourself (feelings), doing a body scan (sensations), and  identifying and being present to the sensation that is most getting your attention (being present and giving gentle witness and “recapping” it), the next step is to dialogue with it and listen on a core level, in an empathic way. We will explore this step in detail in the next blog post on Somatic-Based Empathy, blog post #3.

Meanwhile until then, I encourage you to start practicing scanning your body and identifying sensations that you may like to be further present to. Explore how you would describe the sensation. What image, sound, color or metaphor comes to you with the sensation? How would you describe it? Again, as you do so, continue a loving presence and concern for what you notice.

One thought on “Somatic-Based Empathy – Part II

  1. Pingback: Somatic-Based Empathy – Part III | Work Collaboratively

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