Somatic assessments can give us deep insights into other people. Mark Walsh explains.
"The body doesn’t lie" - Martha Graham, founder of modern dance.
It is an innate skill to experience another person’s body and make assessments of them as people based on what you see or feel. A dog or small child can do this and it is part of life to get gut feelings about others based on these usually unconscious somatic assessments*.
We are leaking and reading signals the whole time as to who we and others are via the body. While we all use this skillset daily, it has been neglected in organisational life and is much misunderstood.
We may choose partners or job candidates based on "chemistry" or how we click with people and yet it is a largely unrefined skill. Sadly, in our hyper-rational Western culture embodied knowing is not just undeveloped but often ignored (the police say that most victims of violent crime for example ignore their instincts**) and it is difficult for many trainers and HR managers to acknowledge it as something they do.
How then do we make accurate judgements of what a person’s body reveals so we can better relate to them as trainers? First some clarifications and background:
Where does it come from?
The pioneers in this work were Rudolf Laban and his students who came from a dance background, and Dr Richard Strozzi-Heckler and his group who come from the world of martial arts and meditation. Both groups have been applying this work in business for many years and there are others who have studied the body intensely who have developed parallel work.
Is this just body language?
No, somatic assessments rely upon posture and movement patterns rather than short-term situational factors and more culturally conditioned gestures. Somatic assessments are concerned with who someone is, not just what they are saying with their bodies.
Are you saying short people are one way and tall people another?
No, it is more complex than this. It doesn’t matter so much the shape of you body but how you live "in" it and move with it. You can have no legs and be very grounded, or be short and very upright in the sense I am talking about.
The advantages of somatic assessments over psychometric tests, for example, are obvious. Bodies are readily available to observe and a job candidate who may lie on paper for example, will find it very difficult to move in a convincingly different way.
Trying usually just looks odd and while trained actors may spend years trying to do this convincingly it is often immediately apparent that they are acting. Somatic assessments can be (and are usually unconsciously) done in just a few seconds so they are also quick and, once trained, easy with minimal input. Trainers can benefit from being able to quickly see the preferred learning styles and personality types in a group before learning what they are the hard way.
Again, most experienced trainers have an intuitive sense of this, being able to spot ditfficult delegates easily for example, so it is about refining an innate skill and training out prejudices which lace purely unconscious assessments.
Technique and ethics - analysis, trying on and trying out
In many ways body reading is intimate and I won’t consciously do it in a full way unless asked to, I think I am at risk myself (it has saved my life several times while working in areas of conflict) or in professional service of others - e.g. as a trainer.For me, ethics and a core of respect are vital when working with embodied evaluations. Any assessment should be viewed as just a guess, to be tried out by asking the person (and sometimes their colleagues) if it is the case and observing their behaviour over time to check for congruence (careful of the observer effect here though). I have come to trust and rely upon assessments having seen their accuracy on many occasions with diverse groups worldwide, though still view them as guesses or working theories out of respect.
One basic technique is to try on a taste of the posture and movement of the person you are assessing and to feel what it is like. What does it make possible? How is it emotionally? How might others respond to this body? It takes practice to accurately observe and imitate and even more so to do it in a subtle way that won’t be noticed, however even a child can copy others so most people can do this to some extent.
Some things to look out for
Aside from “trying on” it is necessary to have some models to avoid slipping into personal prejudice (knowing your own embodied type inside-out also helps with this as you know the lens you are seeing others through) and to help when it’s hard to get a subjective felt-sense of someone. While beyond the scope of this short introduction to provide in-depth models here are a few pointers.
Lead: What part of their body does the person lead with? A head, heart or belly lead shows how they orientate in the world.
Task or relationship: Are they primarily task or relationship focused? Task focused driven people have very different bodies to more relational people - e.g. more symmetrical posture, quicker more linear movement, “harder” gaze, etc (think of some people you know). While situational factors of course play a part as with any model, the embodied habits are usually easy to see beneath this.
The five pillars
The five basic factors that make a body (and therefore mind) work effectively are relaxation, structure, balance, responsiveness and energy for movement. These are relatively easy to see especially the first three and correlate with personality as one might expect (the language of bodies and personalities, e.g. “balanced” is strongly correlated for a reason).
The dimensions a person inhabits have meaning. Down is about how grounded we are and connect to practical application and sadness and despair emotionally; upon is about vision, ethics and happiness and stress emotionally for example. This is just a taste. Other models such as archetypes can also be used or embodied versions of established typologies such as MBTI or OCEAN. More detailed models can be found here.
Research opportunity and conclusion
The field of embodiment is ballooning academically as universities realise there is much going on “below the collar”. Some initial studies have been done in this area though more needs to be done for what is intuitively quite obvious to establish scientific validity.
I have mapped established psychometrics in the hope of someone wishing to do this research. Until then it seems a shame not to use what I repeatedly find useful in training and in life. Somatic assessments can give us deep insights into other people so I hope this article has been helpful.
* Somatic comes form the Greek and means the felt, subjective experience of the body
** See The Gift Of Fear, Gavin Decker
Mark Walsh leads business leadership training provider Integration Training - based in Brighton, London and Birmingham UK. Specialising in working with emotions, the body and spirituality at work they help organisations get more done without going insane (time resilience and stress management), coordinate action more effectively (team building and communication training) and leaders build impact, influence and presence. Clients include Virgin Atlantic, UNICEF, The Sierra Leonian Army and the University of Sussex.