Play the Part: Master Body Signals to Connect and Communicate for Business Success - Gina Barnett (2015)
Part I. THE STORIES OUR BODIES TELL
Chapter 5. Center of Unconscious Gravity
“Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a different way to stand.”
Now that you have a richer understanding of the body’s influence and signals on multiple levels of feeling, thinking, communicating, and connecting, and before we move on to the nonphysical aspects of presence, I want to explore two more ways of experiencing how your body impacts interactions and connecting. Recall for a moment the centers explored thus far: head, chest, arms/hands, belly, hips, legs/feet. In a perfect world, the energy and expression within us would move through us in a continuous flow from head to feet, with no dominant center. But a perfect world is elusive, and most of us tend to habitually block or express from one center of our body. I call this our unconscious center of gravity.
One of my clients is the CEO of a corporation with 40,000 employees. He’s brilliant, and all head. When we met, my first impression was of a giant head placed on a tiny torso. It was as though his entire body existed merely to transport his head around. His gestures were very contained, almost nonexistent, as though not to divert any energy from his brain. Having him do the shake-out “Get the Peanut Butter Off” exercise (Chapter 2) was a major ordeal (and a revelation for him!). My client belonged to the category I call head people, those for whom all energy, focus, and life seem to emanate from their heads. Their heads may be lifted high, thrust far forward, or move rapidly to scan their surroundings. Or they may hide their heads, with chins tucked downward and voices swallowed. Either way, their heads are their operational center. Do you know any head-centered people? How does manifesting from that center impact how they are perceived? Or how about those for whom the chest is the center? Whether puffed up or sunken, all energy is either trapped or propelled from the chest and shoulder region. Do you know people who operate from the chest region? Do they seem to manifest worry and fear, or expansive warmth and courage, or perhaps grandiosity? How one’s energy and movement are restrained or expressed by a given center can have interesting ramifications. Know any belly or hip people—people who, whether tight or expansive, lead from that part of the body? Imagine your boss and ask yourself: from which body center does he or she lead—or conversely, defend or block? Now for the hard part. Which are you?
TRY THIS: CENTER CONTROL TOWERS
By consciously focusing your energy on different centers, you can experience how your mood, point of view, and way of taking in information are affected.
Begin with your head. Come to a standing position and put all your focus on your head. Imagine it is the source of all your energy and power. Imagine it is twice as large as it is in reality. Now take that “huge head” on a walk and observe how being head-centered makes you feel. Confident? Arrogant? Powerful? Showy? Proud? Strong? Smart? There is no right or wrong feeling. There is just the experience, and given each individual’s habitual center, shifting to the head will have widely different results. If you are a belly person, shifting to your head may feel absolutely bizarre.
Now shake out all over and release any tension from the above exercise. Let’s do the same with the shoulders. Remain standing and imagine all energy, power, even light emanate from your shoulder region. Imagine entering a room and the first thing anyone will notice about you are your amazing, glowing shoulders. They are the most expressive part of your body. Play with them and see how they would express emotions. Walk around as a shoulder-centered person and again ask yourself how that makes you feel. Excited? Proud? Courageous? Strong? Boastful?
This exercise can also be done as though the shoulders are the heaviest, darkest, most burdened part of the body. The head or shoulders can be hidden as shameful and something you want no one to notice. As they collapse and curve inward, this creates an entirely different series of emotions. Try both approaches and observe the impact.
Now shake out and focus on the belly as the most powerful center from which your energy, light, intelligence, and power come. Give yourself a huge, expansive belly that leads and is open. Make it the center of feeling, decision making, love. Take that on a walk. See what it feels like to let the belly lead and what emotions bubble up as a result. And then try the opposite. Make the belly center cut off, tight, hidden, protected. Take that on a walk and explore.
Finally, do the same with the hips and legs. Exaggerate how you swing your hips from side to side. Or play with making your hips completely stiff and immobile. Now the legs. Are they loose and floppy or hard, stiff, and stomping?
Why explore body centers as described above? By exaggerating each center, you may discover the impact that your habitual body center has on how you communicate, interact, present, and connect. Are you a head-centered or belly-centered person? Do you even know? Ask someone close to you what he or she thinks you are. How does your center affect how you’re perceived and how you perceive others in any given situation? Most likely, you are a combination; most of us are. Or perhaps you shift centers according to different circumstances. This is a fascinating line of inquiry and exploration. Go beyond yourself and observe others more closely. Where are your reports’ centers? Does your manager’s center change in different situations? What center does your friendliest colleague have, or from where does your most challenging coworker lead? How do their centers impact their communication? When one center or area of the body dominates, there is information to be gleaned. Is there resonance or friction between others’ centers and yours? Might that explain either rapport or conflict?
My CEO client, who was so head-centric, found that when he explored shifting to his belly, he felt as though he could listen more patiently to his senior leadership team. “I don’t know how to explain it,” he said to me one day. “But shifting from my head to my belly relaxes me. It lets me allow others to come to their own conclusions without me driving things all the time.” That was a big shift in his leadership style, and it rippled throughout his entire team.
TRY THIS: HAPPY SHOULDERS/SAD HIPS
This exercise, like all the others suggested in Part I, is designed to create a conversation between you and your body. It offers ways to more deeply experience the complex and amazing interplay between your self and the body that houses that self. By experiencing your body in unusual ways (shifting centers, copying walks, softening the belly), you can more consciously appreciate the powerful instrument in which you live. You can also explore how by making these subtle shifts they impact your communication, and how you experience the world. There are no correct or incorrect ways to play; there is merely the willingness to do so. Are you willing to play? This exercise is meant to explore and feel contradictory emotions in different parts of the body simultaneously. For example, begin by moving your shoulders and feet as if they are both happy and see what that feels like. Rest. Now move the feet as if they are happy and combine that with sad shoulders. Below is a list of a few combinations. Feel free to make up your own and experiment.
Sad feet with happy shoulders
Happy belly with worried head
Happy head with worried belly
Angry feet with happy head
Angry head with angry feet
Happy belly, happy feet
There is no correct or incorrect way to play this exercise. Akin to the “Ministry of Silly Walks,” whether or not you give yourself permission to do this exercise, you’ll learn something new about yourself and how movement, energy, centers impact your experience of others and yourself.
TRY THIS: HAPPY SHOULDERS/SAD FEET WHILE PRESENTING
To more consciously experience how these centers impact communication, pick one from the above list, stand, and deliver a presentation you have given in the past. What happens? Is the information itself transformed by the movement? Do some aspects of the content seem more or less relevant when delivered by, for example, an angry head? Experiment with a couple of the pairings above using content with which you are very familiar. That way, you can experience how a modification of the instrument radically shifts the impact of the content. You can do this in a very exaggerated way at the start and then allow the movements to become increasingly subtle. Explore what that does to the importance, urgency, and subtext of the content.
WHAT ANIMALS ARE AROUND?
In literature and fairy tales, characters are often given characteristics reminiscent of animals—the wise old owl, the timid sheep, the scaredy-cat. By consciously playing with the idea, “What animal is this person?,” different strategies for communicating, managing, and negotiating can be employed. If you engage with a snake in the grass the same way you would a puppy, you are only putting yourself at risk. There is the lone wolf, who works best on his or her own, or the dolphin, definitely a pod person who prefers and is stimulated by collaboration. And of course we may be mixtures of different animals, a wolf on some projects or times of day and a dolphin at others.
Which are you? If you are a puppy and need lots of chew toys and playtime, it’s best not to seek an environment filled with old lumbering bears. Why think of yourself or others in this way? Because even though we are all individuals, we are also, as much as we may not like to admit it, types. Anyone who has ever taken a personality test knows how shocking it is to see how seemingly unique individuals fit into just a few personality types. We are all mixtures of various traits. By understanding your overall character (animal) type, it becomes a bit easier to anticipate how you typically respond to challenges. Thinking of other types in this way can provide insight into how to communicate with those who are indeed a different species.
TRY THIS: LIONS, TIGERS, BEARS, … AND PUPPIES (Part One)
Look at either an upcoming business challenge, negotiation, or team project and think about what strategies you might employ as you identify which animals your counterparts are. How might you strategize and plan for the turtle in the group? (Lots of quiet and adequate time to get things done. ) The shark? (Enough food to keep it sated?) Or the peacock? (Exposure that flatters and shows off his or her beauty!) Seals, vultures, pussycats, elephants, spiders! This is purely imaginary, but it has great application for finding the right approach and tactics for particular people and assignments.
TRY THIS: YOUR INNER ANIMAL (Part Two)
And yourself? Are you a bear or a hummingbird? Each has such wildly different needs, and it might be good to imagine yourself as the animal that reigns deep within to make sure it’s getting all it needs and wants. Make a list of those needs. Ask yourself how many are being actualized at work. What might you do to get projects or make changes that are more suited to your animal?
CALM IS CATCHING
Whether copying a walk, exaggerating a center, smiling, or frowning, by simply allowing yourself to experience the extraordinary plasticity, flexibility, and receptivity of the body in which you live, you can experience the profound and constant interplay between the physical and the emotional, perceptual, and ideational. More critical, your body does not operate in isolation. It’s not merely for yourself that stress, physical tension, or habitual patterns should be managed. These physical manifestations impede connection and potentially destabilize communication randomly with others all around you. Your awareness that there is a mutually regulating system of bodies affecting other bodies makes it all the more crucial to master your own.
There is nothing quite akin to the opening night of a play. Stress couldn’t be higher; but actors love and crave the adrenalin that floods their bodies. They’ve spent years learning how to use and focus that heightened energy. Competitive athletes and others who work under extreme stress understand the power of focus. That’s why pilots do endless hours of flight simulator practice, so that if and when a genuine emergency does happen, they’ll know how to conquer the stress response and communicate calmly and effectively. But guess what? Presenting, even internally to senior management, can feel as high stakes as opening night.
Recently, I ran backstage to congratulate a TED speaker I’d coached, who in a former life had been a professional sprinter. He’d done a remarkable job. His talk was smooth, effortless, in the moment, and connected. In our rehearsals, he was very open to any suggestions I made. When I pointed out to him that he constantly shifted his weight, swaying from left to right, he had no idea he was doing it. Once I got him to center, grip his toes, and engage his quads, he could feel the impulse to sway and he stopped it before it took over. (Similar to those who have an unconscious repetitive habit, I had him begin to speak, and as he began to sway I put my hands on his hips to stop him. Only by experiencing the cessation was he able for the first time to feel the habit.) After his talk, I asked him how he felt. Even though he’d just walked off stage seconds before, he confessed that he couldn’t remember one single moment of what he’d just done. (He did, however, recall that he’d been able to not sway despite his body really wanting to.) I was a bit surprised that he couldn’t recall what he’d just accomplished. But as a highly trained athlete, he’d spent years learning how to master his adrenaline rush so that he could race like a thoroughbred, tune out everything except the finish line and the clock, and stay calm. At TED his previous athletic training came back, and his focused, calm body took him elegantly through and beyond the finish line of his talk. All this happened despite his mind not recalling a single second of it. Why? He “focused out.”
Shifting your focus and attention away from yourself onto anything outside the self is a terrific stress reducer. Focusing on other people has the added benefit, beyond stress reduction, of increased awareness of the signals being sent. Since most communication is nonverbal, being highly attuned to nonverbal signals only increases one’s ability to navigate the unspoken. By focusing outward, those around you will feel and be seen, which is critical for connecting. Another reason to focus outward? Excessive self-focus tends to inhibit spontaneity, ease, and comfort.
TRY THIS: TAKE IT ALL IN
At a meeting, take time to observe what everyone is wearing: shoes, ties, jewelry, accessories of all sorts. Next observe how everyone is sitting. Focus on such things as who is right- or left-handed, who writes with a fountain pen or ballpoint. Just take in all possible data on the visual plane. Look for anything red or green in the room. The fabric of the chairs. If you tend to get nervous, observe if, by focusing your attention on details, you begin to calm down and relax. While this practice is excellent for dealing with nerves, it has the far deeper application that the better one gets at reading a room, the more skillful one becomes at managing it. Surface observations become second nature, and more subtle cues become more easily observed.
TRY THIS: FOCUS ON
This exercise is designed to make you aware of what happens in the body when you are deeply concentrating on something. There are any number of activities you can do to experience focus, so I’ll suggest a few simple ones to start, but feel free to make up your own. Grab a pen or pencil and a blank sheet of paper and scribble a random doodle or design on the paper. Now get a pair of scissors and cut as perfectly as possible along the outermost edges of the design. When you are about halfway through, check in and notice what your body feels like when you are completely absorbed in that action. Here’s another one: Get a needle and thread, and thread the needle. Then begin to sew along the remainder of the design you drew. Again notice what you feel, how you are breathing, if you are tense, where are you tense? Experience what non-self-centered focus feels like.
TRY THIS: FOCUS ON WHILE PRESENTING
If you have an upcoming presentation about which you’re nervous, while rehearsing do one or both of the above activities while speaking the content aloud. Notice what happens when you focus on something outside yourself. Do you stop speaking? Do you lose your train of thought? Can you focus deeply on a physical action while simultaneously delivering your content? Developing the mental skill to focus out while simultaneously communicating without losing your place is a goal to work toward.
TRY THIS: SAFE-PLACE SENSE MEMORY
This exercise is more of an ongoing practice than a one-time tip. If you incorporate it into your life and return to it frequently, it will engender a state of centered calm that you can access in an instant. For the initial practice of this exercise, allow at least 10 to 15 minutes. Anyone whose professional role is highly stressful, but cannot appear as such, may find great benefit from “Safe-Place Sense Memory.”
Find a comfortable place to sit. Relax the body, close your eyes, and picture a place that you genuinely love and in which you feel completely safe. It can be a favorite room or someplace outside. It can be from your youth or a place you go on vacation. No matter where, just imagining it quickly sheds layers of tension. While you sit there, imagine or recall as best you can what is to your left, what is to your right, what’s in front of and behind you, and what is above and below you. Fill in as many details as possible, every aspect of the place in every direction. Don’t rush through this, as you’ll keep remembering more details the longer you focus on each area. Beyond what you can see, how does the air feel? Is it dry or humid? Still or breezy? What is the temperature? Is it cool, warm, hot, cold? What is the time of day? What is the quality of light? What sounds are there? What does it smell like? Use each sense to complete your mental immersion in the place. Again, initially give yourself a good 10 to 15 minutes to accomplish just this part of the exercise. When practiced routinely, the calm, focused centeredness this exercise engenders can be found in just moments. But you have to practice it and perfect it. Check in with the body now and feel the centered calm it possesses. Open your eyes, stand, and walk around. Observe how that feeling impacts your movements. Calm authority resonates outward like ripples in a pond. It is yours to access, connect with, and spread.
Some clients have found benefit by adding one final step to this exercise. Once they are mentally inside the place of calm, they pick an object—it can be a small stone or piece of jewelry—and they imbue that object with the spirit of the place of calm. They then carry that object in a pocket, and when nervous or worried, they touch the stone as a way to reconnect with that centered calmness. The traditions of sacred talismans, worry beads, and rosaries are examples of how just being in contact with an object imbued with meaning can calm a racing heart.
The above exercises, in combination with the breathing and centering exercises, can and should be used before any high-stakes communication. Calm is catching, focus is riveting, and mastery of one’s adrenaline response is essential for the content inside your head to be embedded in your audiences’ heads. I’ll repeat my favorite new saying: practice doesn’t make perfect; it makes imperfection livable. Great communicators practice. A lot.
As we all know, the body is a deeply interconnected system. No system is separate, and each impacts the others. Nonetheless, it is my hope that by having explored some of the suggested exercises, you’ve gotten to experience how even the slightest adjustment in one part of the body can have a profound impact on how you connect, what you communicate, and what others experience of you. We are, at all times, both senders and receivers of complex signals in the present. The next chapter will focus on presence, how it influences who we are, how we are perceived, and how we can be flexible in an ever-shifting now.
Chapter 5: Center of Unconscious Gravity
✵ Center Control Towers—experience shifting centers
✵ Happy Shoulders/Sad Hips—movement and emotion
✵ Happy Shoulders/Sad Feet While Presenting—how movement changes meaning
✵ Lions, Tigers, Bears, … and Puppies—managing different personalities
✵ Your Inner Animal—knowing your style needs
✵ Take It All In—focus, calm nervous energy
✵ Focus On—deeper concentration
✵ Focus On While Presenting—dual focus for concentration
✵ Safe-Place Sense Memory—accessing inner calm