Somatic-Based Empathy – Part III


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 Three 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).

Note: If you missed Parts One and Two please read them before reading this blog, which is a continuation. In the last blog (number two) we covered steps one-three. Here, we continue with step four.

In the last blog on Somatic-Based Empathy, we concluded with exploring how to “recap” what the body is telling you via staying closely with the sensations you are noticing (scanning and then “witnessing”). We also explored how this parallels common practices in NVC, of recapping first (letting the person know what you’ve heard) and then empathizing (listening for feelings and needs). In today’s blog, Part Three in the series on Somatic-Based Empathy, we will now explore how to make empathy guesses with the sensations that you’ve witnessed and “recapped.”

Step 4: Empathizing with the Body/Sensation

Now that you have witnessed and “recapped” the sensations you’re noticing in your body, we will “dialogue” and empathize with the sensations and what they are “saying.” 

I find the most immediate way to enter into this process is by asking the person (or myself): “Imagine this sensation had words. If so, what would it say?”  I have found consistently that if a person is already fully connected to the sensations they’re “speaking with” (already have witnessed, closely observed, and “recapped” the sensations) that responding to this question is immediate and highly accessible. More, asking the sensations for words (what the sensations want to say/communicate) accesses information that the person may have been consciously blocking or dismissing. The body in these moments is the truth-teller — revealing or at least highlighting often what we cognitively have dismissed or ruled out. 

Once you have words for what the sensation is communicating, you can now recap again what you are hearing and empathize, making guesses about the feelings and needs underlying what you have heard. Continue this dialog in an empathic way, giving the body the opportunity to express itself, in particular in detail to the underlying thoughts, experiences and emotions, and to check in about the body’s willingness to remain in contact and dialogue. 

When listening, in addition to recapping and empathizing with what you’ve heard the sensation “say” via traditional NVC empathy guessing (“Are you feeling… because you’re needing…?) you can also make guesses via images, sounds, colors or movements that express what’s emerging. Given that the body experiences the world via the senses (touch, smell, sight, sound) and in space (movement), communicating via images, sounds, colors and physical gestures or movements (reaching the arms up, for example, or spreading the arms out, or standing in a yoga mountain pose,  as ways to express the experience and sentiment of what’s happening) are all highly powerful, connecting and efficient ways of empathizing with what the body is experiencing and wants to communicate. 

Throughout this process, stay closely connected and alert to the sensations, and how they may be evolving, shifting, settling or moving during the exchange. One indication that the body is being heard is that the sensations will change or subdue. This is very similar again to traditional NVC empathy where, once a person has been heard, they return to stasis and experience peace and harmony. Similarly, when a sensation has been “heard,” it will become more still, settled, or “quiet.” Sometimes there may still be a faint whisper of the same sensation and the person at that moment still feels complete, and has done as much work or listening that day as they they would like. Paying close attention to these shifts will help you gauge where you are in the process, and when you or the person you are supporting are complete with listening and ready for strategies, gratitude, agreements and closure. 

Photo by Daniil Silantev on Unsplash

Below are some possible questions you can ask of the sensation and/or your body during the connection/empathy process: 

  • I am hearing that you’re feeling ____ and ____. (Describe sensations in detail.) Is that accurate?
  • Is the sensation more like _____ or ____? 
  • I am getting an image of _______.  Does that fit for you or resonate? 
  • What kind of physical movement or gesture would express this feeling/energy? (Describe it back.) Can we do it together? (Mirror image it — even via Zoom or over the phone)
  • What sound/color/texture would this sensation have?

Once you’ve connected with the sensation, and recapped and empathized with it (guessed feelings and needs), check in with it again:

  • Is there anything else that this sensation would like to share?
  • Anything else to add?
  • How are you feeling right now?
  • What’s happening with the sensation in this second– has it changed? Is it in the same spot? Or different intensity?

Note that the way a sensation expresses itself, and the words it chooses, can be useful information. Because the language of the body is sensation, and sensations are experienced via visual, auditory, and sensual queues, often when listening to the body it will especially “speak” via metaphor. For example, “I have a grinding in my stomach — like a rock grinding against another rock.” Your empathy guess might be then for example, “I am hearing about this grinding sensation — it sounds exhausting! And maybe that you’d like relief, because this has been going on now for some time…?” The person may then reply for example, “Yes, and I also have been wanting to be heard about this — for years.” Your guess then might be: “Yes, I hear that you want relief … and also to be heard. What would this sensation most like to be heard about? If it had words, what would it say?”

After the sensation is complete and has been heard, you can ask about any requests it may have. Often it can be helpful to support the part/sensation that’s speaking to find a request that is fully doable. 

Once you have completed the above process, you can continue if you like by checking in to see if other sensations wish to “speak.” Often though, once the sensation that was “loudest” has been heard, the person feels complete. If there is another sensation that is speaking loudly and wishes to be heard, go through the same steps as above. You can also check in with the body to see if it is willing to pause now, and continue on another day/time. 

In Part Four of this series on Somatic-Based Empathy, we will explore in some detail steps for closing the session with awareness, care, and respect. This is especially important due to the power differences discussed earlier in this series, and how there is often a power-over relationship between our minds/cognitive selves and our bodies, that most of us have learned and not shaken off fully yet from the dominant culture. 

Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

For now, you may wish to practice what we’ve explored today by practicing curiosity. When you notice a sensation in your body and have been present to it (its location, quality and intensity) you can try asking it: If you had words, what would you be saying? And listen/respond empathically, free of judgment, criticism, demand or blame. 

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