Waiting Off Stage: Somatic Lessons in Leadership, #2 The Courage to Listen

Updated: Aug 14

Somatic Lesson #2 The Courage to Listen

Not Judging, Taking Responsibility & Breathing Easily

Not everyone will agree with my decisions. Does this mean they are the enemy? Well I could feed the creature waiting off-stage by turning those who don’t always agree with me into my enemies. Might they have some good advice for me? Could I at least listen, and then decide?

I might add listening to my dance skills for times of doubt and disagreement. There was a time when I encountered disagreements with others by trying to convince them about the rightness of my view and actions. Gradually, and with some study in effective communication, I learned the great value of listening, eventually publishing a related article.[i] Leaders who listen have patience and concern for others. Leaders who think they know best, miss out on multiple voices converging on issues that affect everyone in the community, be that a school, department, or dance ensemble.

I found out through heading a department of dance for nine years that I got better at listening to faculty and students over time, and that I was also in a sandwich between my immediate community and that of upper administration. I couldn’t please everyone; that was certain, but I could take time to listen to everyone and consult. I also learned that differences will exist in any organization, and that these could very often carry us forward. Could I find out where agreements did exist; wait and be patient? Could I listen to myself? Could I meditate and clear my mind?

I found that in time, I would need to decide what to do in cases where I had sole responsibility. I might also consider opportunities for people involved to vote on an issue. This was indeed a mandate for much faculty interaction. Quite often the vote didn’t go in a direction that I would have foreseen, but I learned how to trust the mind of the group as a whole. Would it be “my way,” like Frank Sinatra. This American meme can get you into deep trouble. The will of the group takes longer, but it also lasts longer.

Directorships where one holds all the power are easier to manage, or one might think. But it has never worked that way for me in being the director of Eastwest Somatics Institute. I learned many valuable lessons in consulting others who had been with our institute for some time, and I am still probing questions surrounding group think in my interactions with others. Lately, I have been figuring out with my team of directors and teachers how to transfer the institute into their hands for the future. The future will indeed be in their hands, as I step back. It will probably not go in exactly the path that I would have taken it, but I will look on with wonder, sudrprise, and joy. After all, we have cultivated adaptability and creativity as central to our ethos.

I have insisted that people who study at Eastwest call it “our institute,” and “our work,” because I don’t think of it as my institute. I figured out rather quickly that instituting was about bringing something into being, and several people were assisting and being a part of something new, right from the beginning. I thought that if I could be inclusive and minimize ego, we would have a broader curriculum and participation, and that people might take ownership and have fun in the meantime.

Problems do arise, however, and having stated boundaries in advance helps. If someone doesn’t like one of my decisions, then I can point toward a guiding principle. It stands to reason that any leader needs to have guiding principles that hold true for everyone. Many problems get settled through building connections, boundaries, and communication. What you say in guiding people is not nearly as important as how you say it.

The courage to lead is a learned somatic ability. It is embodied, bit, by bit. It takes courage to listen to someone who disagrees with you in a non-judgmental frame of mind, and to breathe consciously as you listen. I have found that given time and patience, taking responsibility for difficult decisions comes with more somatic ease. I try not to second-guess myself, to be clear, and to forgive my mistakes and those of others.

[i] Fraleigh, Sondra. 2012. “The Ways We Communicate: Somatic Dance and Meditation as a Bridge.” Somatics Magazine Journal of the Body- Mind Arts and Sciences XVI (4):14-17.

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