This discussion of leadership is drawn from chapter 12, Embodying, from the book The Innovator’s Way, where reference to “innovator” is changed to “leader.” The discussion is just as relevant since both innovator and leader engage in conversations to shift the behaviors of others.

The leader’s challenge is to get the members of a community to embody a new practice. When that is accomplished, they will speak differently, act differently, feel differently, and even see the world differently. To meet that challenge, the leader has to manage and maintain coherence among the three dimensions of every practice: language, body, and moods-emotions. This discussion is about how to achieve coherence, not only for the community, but in the leader’s own practice.

It should be obvious that the dimensions of language, body, and moods-emotions are interconnected and mutually interacting. We just need to recall times when we said we would do something, but did not because we did could not get our body moving or we were not in the right mood. Or times when we learned a new technique and experienced elation at our success and began speaking differently about what we can do.

It is easy to separate the three dimensions and forget their coherence. For all three, we have distinctive vocabularies and professions — notably linguists, physical trainers, and psychologists. If we are too good at the separation, we might get caught up in the language patterns behind the seven practices studied so far and be blindsided by breakdowns in the body or emotional reactions.  For example, we could become fixated on “offering” as a language act and forget that our offers will be listened as valuable only if they make sense to our listeners in the context of their moods, emotions, and body reactions.

Our focus here is on the coherence of language, body, and moods-emotions. We will show not only how to be observers of these dimensions, but how to manage them. The practice called blending is one in which we embody the sense of coherence and successfully manage change in a community.

The field we are discussing is large and draws on mind-body methods, psychology, biology, and neuroscience. Its name is somatics, a word derived from the Greek “soma”, referring to the unity of mind, emotion, and body.  We will say just enough about somatics to show how to learn to blend with the concerns, listening, and intentions of the people you want to adopt a new practice.  Our bodies are constantly interacting through “body language” — posture, gestures, contractions, gracefulness, energy, resistance, openness, and the like. Somatic communication goes on even when there are no words, for our living presence always stimulates reactions in others.

There is plenty of data to support the claim that the feeling and energetic body can be more important than talk. The work of Albert Mehrabian (1971) found that in conversations where people spoke about feelings and attitudes listeners assessed the credibility of the speaker on average weighting the speaker’s body 55% of their assessment, emotional intonation 38%, and words 7%.  Although these percentages do not apply to every type of conversation, they do demonstrate that people can respond significantly to body and emotion as well as words.  Allen Wiener (2007) also how important our body is in determining how we are listened to.  Paul Eckman (2007) discusses how emotions are “wired” into the body where they can be triggered by linguistic events.

Alignment of language, body, and mood-emotion is crucial in leadership conversations, where trust is a big issue and the leader’s credibility is on the line from the start.  Misalignments are likely to cause leadership train wrecks.

A New Common Sense

The somatic idea flies in the face of centuries of Western tradition, inherited from René Descartes in the 1600s, that tells us that mind and body are distinct and that our actions are controlled from the mind.

Our modern culture honors the power of the mind and discounts the power of the body.  We tend to ignore our bodies except when we are concerned about health, appearance, sex, sports, and fashion.  Our common approach to understanding communications breakdowns is to analyze the words we spoke rather than the actions we took or the dispositions of our bodies in the communications.  Our cultural common sense puts the brain as the master that reasons and decides, and the body as the servant that implements the brain’s decisions.  A consequence of this is that we do not see that most leadership breakdowns originate in the body in three ways:

  1. Lack of awareness: We are unaware of signals from our listeners that reveal their real concerns, or of how our own behaviors are affecting them, and so we do not connect.
  2. Conditioned tendencies: Some of our automatic behaviors, called “conditioned tendencies” by Strozzi-Heckler (1984), disconnect us from our listeners or push them away.
  3. Lack of blending: We lack automatic behaviors and skills that enable us to join with others in a smooth and graceful flow in harmony with their responses.

The field of somatics, founded in 1976 by Thomas Hanna (1928-1990), has developed a different common sense that is very useful in revealing how to overcome these breakdowns and amplify the effectiveness of the other practices.  Somatics is concerned with the unity of mind, body, and emotions.  This field has developed these principles and a rich literature[1]:

  • The mind and body are not separate, but form and act as a unity.
  • The brain is influenced by experiences of signals carried by the nervous system from all parts of the body.
  • Emotions and moods predispose how we think and act.
  • The history of our experience and practices conditions our perceptions of the world and shapes our capabilities.
  • Communication is not just the transfer of information – it is the interaction of people that produces interpretations, emotions and moods, and body reactions.
  • Practice is the foundation for learning and mastery.

To read more, download your free copy of Embodying, chapter 12 from The Innovator’s Way here.


[1] Selected books that address aspects of somatic practice include:  You Are What You Say, Matthew Budd; The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven R. Covey; The Speed of Trust, Stephen M. R. Covey; What Computers Still Can’t Do, Hubert Dreyfus; Emotions Revealed, Paul Eckman; Social Intelligence, and Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman; Anatomy of Change, and Being Human at Work, and The Leadership Dojo, Richard Strozzi-Heckler; Mastery, George Leonard; A General Theory of Love, Drs. Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, Richard Lannon; Silent Messages, Albert Mehrabian; The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life, Robert Solomon; So Smart But, Allen Weiner.