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What change leaders can learn from gymnasts

My colleague was leaning forward, her hands moving quickly, sketching out her thoughts in the space in front of her.

She was telling me about her frustration at an incident last week. Her body was turned slightly to her left and her eyes were directed upwards.

I felt myself moving leaning back, and then moving away. I felt the strength of her conviction like air pressure, filling the room and pushing me into a corner.

As her embodiment coach, I wondered... “what will happen if I move closer instead of moving away?”

Proprioception is our sense of where we are in space and also in relation to others. Gymnasts have highly developed proprioception, they are able to perform complex movements in physical relationship to their surroundings "without looking". If you’ve ever broken a leg or ankle, you’ll probably have done those rehab exercises that help you to regain your balance, i.e. develop your proprioception. In the example above, my colleague and I were engaged in a kind of proprioceptive dance, moving in response to each other and noticing the effect.

Proprioception is involved in all our interactions (whether in-person or virtual). Where we choose to position ourselves in a room can have meaning related to status or authority. The expression “right hand man”, (or woman!) conveys the association that the person on the right and therefore the right hand side is particularly useful or has the confidence of someone.

Moment to moment each of us takes up space in a particular way. We can be wider or narrower, taller or shorter, pushed forward or backwards. Each of these ways of taking up space can produce different emotions. We can use this awareness in multiple ways. It can help us to tune in to how we’re feeling. We can learn to work with these to generate the kind of emotion we need for the situation at hand. Or we can use this knowledge to understand what might be going for others. In all of these ways, developing our proprioception can be helpful to us as change leaders.

Try this either sitting or standing:
-Stretch the spine up as tall as you can, as if being lifted up by the crown of your head.
-Now collapse into the spine.
-Stretch up again, what emotions do you notice?
-Now collapse into the spine, what emotions are present now?
-Move between the two a few more times and explore the contrasting emotions.
-Which one feels more familiar?

Sometimes people notice that as they stretch up taller there is confidence, optimism, perhaps dignity, and as they collapse into the spine there is insecurity, uncertainty, doubt.

You might like to experiment with going between narrow and wide and then forwards and backwards too and noticing what emotions are evoked in you.

In essence, developing our proprioception will help us to read the room and can give us more options for effective change leadership actions.

Image by Stephen Leonard on Unsplash

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