I can still remember the exact moment when I first learned to ride a bicycle on two wheels. After a bit of tinkering in the garage by my older brother, the training wheels were unshackled, and the open road beckoned. There were many false starts and tears of frustration, my brother yelling at me to “Relax! Just relax your shoulders!” Eventually, an ungainly wobble gave way to a surprising 50-yard glide and suddenly I was off to the races. I remember it feeling very new, but also strangely familiar, as if my body already knew what to do.
I was reminded of this recently when I attended a leadership development seminar drawing upon the principles of aikido. Students of aikido practice “katas” – a series pre-ordained movements that enable them to successfully deal with an assailant by re-directing that energy back onto an opponent. Watching and listening to our instructor, I was reminded that how we move, react, and hold ourselves physically is an important and often-overlooked aspect of leadership training, especially when it comes to managing conflict.
When we feel stressed or under attack, most of us have a tendency to physically constrict. The body releases cortisol and we experience a range of uncomfortable symptoms – sweaty palms, flushed skin, shallow breathing, increased heart rate – that prepare us for “fight or flight.” In psychological parlance, we’ve been “triggered.” When this happens, our higher brain function usually disappears, and so too our memory, perspective and sense of humor. What aikido does is help to bring awareness into conflict situations, allowing us to respond better by overriding some of the conditioned nervous system response.
The problem for a lot us is that we treat the body like it’s a second-class citizen, a mere transport vehicle for taking our brains to meetings. We are disembodied. Coming home to your physical self means learning to listen to cues the body is sending out – cues to slow down, breathe, listen to your heart. Like any skill, it takes some practice. But if we don’t like the way we feel when triggered, then perhaps we “train” for a different response. We can coach ourselves to remain calm, open and present when dealing with stressful people or situations. Bruce Lee had a famous line, “Under duress we don’t rise to our expectations, we fall to our level of practice.” And so we must practice.
For me, that usually means getting outside for a walk, or getting on my bike if the weather permits. It’s about remembering to breathe, and becoming aware of my posture. It’s about noticing the little chatterbox in my head who loves to criticize, when nobody even asked her opinion. When you think about it, our bodies are extraordinary. They walk, sleep, run, breathe, digest, nourish, regenerate themselves. And if we’re lucky, they will carry us through dozens of these activities in the course of a single day, for years on end. How could you think of this and not be amazed by the miracle of the human body?
We all want to be more dignified and relaxed under pressure. As the parent of a highly “spirited” toddler, I know how difficult this can be. But paying closer attention to our body’s natural intelligence helps connect us to ourselves and to others, enhancing our ability to think more clearly and respond more effectively. With practice and a little awareness, we can learn to become less reactive, more flexible, more present. This often has an outward ripple effect, in that people feel more relaxed around people who are centered in themselves.
Of course, there will be moments when we get “hi-jacked” and overloaded and will want to respond in the same old way by lashing out or getting upset. Aikido trainer Wendy Palmer has a lovely saying, “the body always wins.” I think what she means is that you can be phenomenally smart and sophisticated, but if you get triggered, your body will still experience contraction and may not react in the way that you would like. But each time we succeed in bringing bodily awareness to our moments of conflict, we develop our capacity to choose more carefully a suitable response. It may be a pause, a question, an unexpected moment of laughter. Something that re-directs tension, and frees us from the hard-wired fight or flight response.
Your body has an innate intelligence and wisdom. It knows what to do, even when you don’t. So ask yourself: What can I do to return to my body? How can I develop my own leadership presence by listening to what my body is telling me?