Listening to Bodies Long-Distance:
The Power and Possibility of Telephone Coaching
by Suzanne Zeman
It was Thursday afternoon on a beautiful sunny day in the San Francisco Bay Area. My office phone rang and I heard the voice of John, a client in New York. He was calling from his house in Westchester to ask for help after a tough day at work. He had just started a new position as vice president and general manager of an Internet business, and there were people he was not getting along with. I could sense how anxious he was, so I asked if he was willing to do something different than we normally did.
In my years of study in somatics and my experience as an executive coach, I've seen the power of working with a person's whole being. This means I work with a person's physiology, background, mood, emotions, conversations, and spirit to enable them to take new actions. In these early sessions with John, I started experimenting with how I might bring somatic awareness to clients without their being physically present. I have found that this is not only possible, but it is also powerful for them.
On that day I asked John to describe his surroundings and what he was looking at in that moment so he could begin to locate himself in present time. He said he could see the trees blowing in the wind outside the windows of his study at home. We both stood up in our different locations and I asked him to practice centering himself, connecting to the ground by feeling his feet on the floor and then opening to the sensations in his body.
S: Let's scan through your body to see if you're holding tension anywhere, and see what we can do with that. Bring your awareness to the top of your head, then feel your skull, forehead, and the area around your eyes. What do you notice?
J: I feel pressure on the sides, around my temples, and my eyes feel a bit squeezed and hot.
S: Tell me more about those sensations. Is there a color or temperature there?
J: There's a darkness that's beginning to get lighter, and now it feels a bit cooler around my eyes. They feel softer.
S: Any thoughts?
J: I'm remembering a tough conversation I had with one of my colleagues today, the CFO [chief financial officer]. He said he was annoyed that I wasn't giving him the financials that he asked to get regular reports on. He was sharp and had an attitude that made me want to tell him where to go. If he could have waited for me to explain, I would have let him know I've been restructuring the reports so it would be easier for him to get to the numbers he wants.
S: Can you relax some of the tension around your temples and eyes? Try taking a full breath, and as you exhale, let some of that go.
J: Much better.
We continued, with me guiding his awareness through the rest of his face, neck, and shoulders, until we got to his torso. It was interesting to me that he had very little sensation in the front of his torso but felt lots of energy coming into his back. He said the energy felt strong, like a "torrent," but he stopped feeling anything when I asked him to bring his awareness from the back, through his torso to the front of his body. I asked him what he thought about that, and he said it was kind of weird, but he didn't know what to make of it.
My sense was there was a connection between the lack of feeling in the front of his torso and his communication challenges. I asked if he would be willing to try an experiment with me for the next couple of months. I would focus on helping him not only with the CFO, but also with the identity he wanted to establish in his new company. He agreed to have weekly calls with me and to do the practices that I asked him to do daily. First, we started working with his breathing.
S: Where do you feel your breath, John?
J: Kind of in the middle of my chest.
S: What about when you take a deep, full breath?
J: Well, it goes up higher.
S: Can you feel the shape of your lungs¾like big pears¾full at the bottom? Try breathing with your hand on your belly and move your hand with your breath.
I asked him to practice taking full breaths, moving his hand with his breath for five minutes or more each day, and note what he was feeling. At the end of the session, he said he felt refreshed and energized.
During the next session, he reported that he could relax more easily using the breathing practice. His voice was becoming more relaxed as well. He did this practice prior to his staff meetings and discovered that it was easier to be with his employees. He was much less anxious and better able to listen to them.
We increased his breathing practice until his breaths became fuller and he could feel himself breathing throughout his torso. When I asked him to move his awareness out to his skin from the inside, he was able to do that as well, and he felt the energy under his hand. He also noticed that his voice was softening and becoming more resonant. He committed to practicing breathing, relaxing, and moving his energy when he noticed any anxiety in himself or someone he was speaking with.
John told me he was much more at ease at work after doing these practices for a few weeks. He also said he wanted to become a better listener, and that he wanted people to know him in a way that was closer to the person he saw himself to be ¾ mindful, caring, and dedicated to the success of the business. I decided to work with him on bringing his awareness to his body and extending his energy forward to be better able to connect with people.
We began the next session with breathing, centering, and connecting with each other, I in my office, he in his. I guided him in the next steps, not sure how we could do this over the phone.
S: John, now that you can feel your breath throughout your torso, let's see how far you can extend your awareness out in front of you.
J: I don't have any idea of how to do that.
S: Okay. Try putting your hand on your belly and breathe into your hand. Good. Now what are you sensing at the interface between your breath and the container of your body?
J: Well, I feel some sensation and warmth. It's almost tingly just under my hand.
S: Imagine that the tingling sensation is brought about by lots and lots of tiny bubbles.
J: Like champagne!
S: Let those bubbles move out from the front of you and follow how far they go with your awareness.
J: I have a sense of bubbling about a foot out in front of me.
S: Now continue breathing, and with each exhalation, send more of those bubbles out from your torso. Good. Keep extending.
We worked this way for the next few minutes until he had a clear sense of energy moving forward from his midsection. Using the principle that energy follows awareness, I tried an analogy (champagne bubbles) that he could understand to bring his awareness to the edge of his physical form and beyond. I noticed I could feel a shift in my own body when he was able to begin extending, producing an increased connection between us.
John's practice of extending out produced some interesting changes in how people paid attention to him. He told me that in the following week his colleagues and staff seemed to be listening more and taking what he said more seriously.
In our next session, I guided his awareness to extend his energy out from the middle of his torso, around his back, and out horizontally, until he had a sense of a sphere of energy all around him. We practiced contracting and extending the sphere until he had some control and could sense extension and contraction with his awareness.
The next step was to practice connecting with other people by extending his energy to the center of someone he was talking with. After several more sessions of practice with me and then on his own, he could tell when he was connecting and when he wasn't. And he got immediate feedback from his staff and colleagues with the level of communication that was either happening or not. He said that when he stopped to connect before listening or speaking the other person stayed right with him. Their communication was easier and more effective. When he didn't connect and wasn't conscious of extending his energy field to the other person and blending with him or her-when he was thinking about something else, for example- misunderstandings and negative emotions easily resulted.
I coached John for fifteen months as part of a program that teaches the discipline of management and leadership using somatic and linguistic practices. Biweekly coaching customizes the program, so participants bring their learning and practices into their work and lives, learning within their daily concerns and challenges. When we started, John was resigned and blamed his bosses for not giving him direction or providing advancement. Once we worked somatically in our coaching sessions, John's progress accelerated, and he has been able to maintain his self-confidence and ambition.
I've learned through my experience of more than twenty years in sales, management, consulting, and coaching that the essence of communication is connection. The more deeply I connect with someone, the better I'm able to hear their most fundamental concerns, their most precious commitments, what they care about, where their pain is, and what inspires them.
When working with people long-distance, I don't have visual cues to assess their shape and determine where they may be holding back or are constrained. Instead I look for other ways to help them open to increasing awareness, energy, and capacity to take new actions. I open myself to connecting through my senses. I feel their breath, hear their voices, listen to their stories, moods, and emotions, and connect with what they care about. This allows me to determine whether they are acting consistently with their concerns and designing their life in a way that is satisfying. I listen for openings to suggest new possibilities, looking for where to move with them by asking questions. In this way, listening deeply can actually be enhanced via telephone, since I don't have the visual input that might be distracting in some situations. I listen with my whole being. And then I ask questions to ensure my listening resonates with theirs.
A coach who has somatic sensibility, whether a manager or someone from outside a team, can listen deeply with their entire being. They can question, reveal, and take action to remove the hindrances to alignment among team members. This is possible over the telephone, without the traditional visual and sensual cues that we use when meeting face-to-face. The key is a strong connection between the manager/coach and team members. Then people's moods, concerns, emotions, and passions can be revealed, heard, and resolved for the future success of a project, product, or plan.
Listening and communicating with depth and connection is essential for leaders and people who want to make a difference. And when there's little or no connection, misunderstandings and suffering can easily occur.
Today's technology-including cell phones, email, and chat rooms-produces more information flow but less connection. Technology allows for quicker literal connection (we immediately find the other person or instantaneously get the memo to them), but its very speed can hinder the authentic connection of really being there with the concerns of the other. This challenge is evident in the literature on communication in virtual teams. A study done in 1997 reported that eighty percent of companies were working in virtual teams, with people in different locations, different time zones, and different cultures working together via technology to accomplish a mutual goal or project. By now that percentage is higher. What we're seeing is that technology both opens possibilities for communication and coordination and also hinders effective communication and coordination. Using technology saves the time and cost of travel to bring team members to the same location, savings that go directly to the bottom line of a business. Files, reports, memos, and meeting notes can be shared on the web so that all team members are fully informed about what other team members are doing. However, the use of technology produces more potential for miscommunication, misunderstanding, and lack of coordination when team members naturally interpret the documents, notes, and even intentions differently based on their own listening, background, and automatic interpretations. A team leader conducting a meeting over the telephone must pay attention to individual and group moods, energy, emotions, and concerns, both spoken and unspoken. If these are not taken into account, there is a high probability of misunderstanding, causing project delays and breakdowns that can easily offset the anticipated cost savings of working virtually.
Connection with others is either happening or it's not. When we're connected we enhance our ability to produce the results we intend. And when we're not connected, we plant the seeds for misunderstandings and breakdowns. As a coach, I produce connection and a safe environment for the people I work with. They can then open themselves to new possibilities to produce their desired results. The connection can actually be enhanced by working over the telephone, when I create a sanctuary by listening deeply with no distraction to hear emotion, pain, passion, inspiration, and joy that wants to be expressed.
By the way, another interesting change happened for John. As he practiced extending his awareness and energy further, he thought about ways to build his identity with his colleagues, both in his company and in the broader marketplace. He initiated brown bag lunch meetings in his office, during which he and his staff talked to people in other departments about the work they were doing, so there was a broader understanding of their roles. In addition, he called several trade organizations in his industry and offered to speak at conferences and be part of panel discussions. Within a few months he had lined up three speaking engagements. His self-confidence improved and his mood became much more positive as he continued generating new possibilities for his success at work and developing his identity and career.