Updated: May 13
With your whole body.
One of my gifts is listening. Strangers of all ages easily open up to me. I get along well with people from all walks of life. I enjoy people so much, even when they're being awful. Some of my earliest memories are people much older than I sharing very intimate (and often totally inappropriate) things with me. No, not like that, but asking me for marital advice, telling me their deepest needs, and burdens - that sort of thing.
And when I have the good fortune to travel internationally, I usually get mistaken for a local - until they realize I don't speak their language. I used to the think I was just a bit strange. Spoiler alert: I am!
Now, I realize, I see people. I see others perhaps more fully than they are used to being seen, and I make them feel comfortable sharing themselves.
I witness people, and hold space for them to express themselves. I've had this skill my whole life, but my artistic journey sharpened and honed it with every step.
I learned how to see myself and others with crystal clarity growing as a dancer, choreographer, rehearsal director, and artistic director. My training confirmed what I knew as a child; we are all incredibly beautiful in our individual quirks, paths, and nuances. Our individuality is our greatest burden, gift, and bridge to each other.
In my consulting work, I train the trainers (corporate trainers or classroom teachers) in Arts Integration techniques, specifically dance integration. I also work with theaters, either choreographing plays, or as a movement specialist supporting character development, underscoring the play with movement, and stitching scenes together non-verbally. With both trainers and actors, learning to observe ourselves and others using embodied techniques is the root of our collaborative work. Our efforts invite employees and students to thrive through their work, and encourage audiences to engage fully, empathizing with the characters on stage.
Why don't we all have this sort of training?
How many times have we desperately needed someone to hear and see us? How many times have we failed our loved ones in their time of need?
Can we all be active listening experts?
Yes, we can. But, it requires vulnerability - which is terrifying for most of us. Vulnerability leads us to fear; fear activates fight, flight, or freeze reactions.
Often, in another person's moment of need, we're so busy reacting to our own vulnerability, we've stopped listening to the human in front of us - the human who needs us to be present.
Wanna be a better listener?
Dance with Curiosity, Observation, and Judgment
1. Make a shape with your whole body that represents curiosity. Exit and enter the shape several times, play around with, get… *ahem*, curious about it.
2. Now, embody being judgmental. Explore the shapes you make and how they change as you engage with this word.
3. Finally, find a shape or gesture for observing. Explore how it feels, what level it takes, what kind of energy it summons.
4. Move from one shape to the next in a cycle, starting with curiosity, then judgemental, then observing. Dance through the cycle several times, noticing how it moves in space and how the shapes begin to inform one another. Try starting with different words. Try moving through the cycle in both directions.
Any “lightbulb” moments? What’s coming up for you? Jot your ideas down.
When we are curious about something, we lean in - we physically shift our weight and sometimes our whole body toward the object of our curiosity. We relax, and our breath deepens. We are engaged, but not rigid. Our attention is focused, clear, and direct on the object of our interest. Conversely, when we are judgmental, we lean away - often shifting back, stiffening our posture, and taking shallow breaths. We allow our minds to wander, unfocused, muddled, and indirect. We are no longer actively paying attention to what is happening, we are no longer present. We have drifted into our own mind.
We know and feel the difference immediately. When others are warm, engaged, excited, and most of all, curious about us, we light up with a willingness to go further and deeper into our own curiosity, which leads to learning. And, when we are being regarded across the distance judgement requires, we become self-conscious, timid, anxious, disengaged, and sometimes resentful.
There is a delicate place between these poles: Observation. Sometimes referred to as witnessing or holding space. When we are offered this neutral landscape, we must find value in our own choices, absent of approval or disapproval from the outside. Although invaluable for the purposes of introspection and personal reflection, it can be a confusing emotional space, as we all yearn for positive feedback, physical and emotional interaction, and a sense of belonging.
The three states could be thought of in this way:
Interacting in a cycle that moves forward or backward this way:
This chart is a first whack at this idea. What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? What would you add or subtract based on your experiences? This chart is balanced between the three states. What would the chart that represents your current experience with these three states look like? Write that down, or draw it.
All three states have their purposes; and, I am not demonizing judgment, but I do notice a tendency for many, myself included, to hang out in judgment as the default. I propose an experiment in shifting between these states more mindfully.
What happens if we flip our typical reactions on their heads?
This requires using a great deal of the observation state from the jump; I am asking us to reflect on our own habits and decide how we are going to participate in our everyday interactions; to observe ourselves. And, we will simultaneously be switching between all three states as we choose, based on self-observation, which state to employ in an everyday circumstance.
On a typical day:
1. When are you curious? What happens to your relationship with this interest if you shift toward observation? Example: I am organically curious when I read political news. When I shift toward observation, I am able to see the opinions of the writers more clearly, I wonder about the source of the story, I notice that I am choosing to spend my time reading about politics. Your turn. Take some notes.
2. When are you judgmental? What happens to your relationship with this interest if you shift toward curiosity?
3. And finally, when are you an observer? What happens when you shift toward curiosity or judgment?