pictograms of dancing figures

Image courtesy of “Pictograms” by xedos4 freedigitalphotos.net

You’re leading a day-long meeting to address a customer dissatisfaction issue and making no headway. No one can agree on the way forward. The technical expert is insistent on a precise approach while the customer relations specialist wants a more user-friendly solution. To make it worse, these two butt heads every time they work together. Adding fuel to the fire is the operations manager who claims neither of them has a clue about how difficult it would be to execute their ideas.

The room feels tense and one person has even turned his chair sideways to avoid making eye contact with anyone.

Your breathing is shallow and you’ve reached the limits of your patience. You’ve tried everything you know to get them to think creatively but nothing has worked. The team is stuck like a log jam on a river.

Don’t give up yet. Recent work by neuroscientists offers a new set of tools to try, namely the power of dance and movement for unblocking negative energy. 

In all fairness, the brain research confirms the mind/body/emotion connection that dance movement therapists have used for years in school and mental health settings.What’s new with the latest studies is the focus on how movement can open pathways—mental and emotional—for resolving conflict.

I can hear you now, “There’s no way I’m going to get anyone on my work team to dance, especially when they’re arguing with each other.”

Don’t worry. The idea is to move, to change position, to get blood flowing throughout the body and into the brain. It can be as simple as asking everyone to stand and stretch for a few minutes.

Some years ago I was facilitating a conflict that had become polarized. The group had been sitting for quite a while. Despite using active listening skills, the discussion had deteriorated to, “I hear what you’re saying but I disagree and let me show you just where you’re wrong.”

On a whim, I suggested everyone stand. I pointed to the two ends of the room and designated each with one side of the argument. I asked the entire group to move to one side first and speak from that perspective, and then to the other and explain that side. They had to stand the entire time but were free to gesture and move around if it helped them communicate.

Combining movement with the requirement to explain a different point of view from one’s own, the group loosened up and began to see possibilities for common ground.

Loosening is precisely what is needed with a group or individuals in conflict. Under stress, you go into default mode. You fall back on familiar patterns of thought, reasoning and emotional responses even when these are not useful in the present circumstance. Not only that, when you feel threatened such as in a heated debate, your body releases cortisol and adrenaline which limit blood flow to the frontal lobes of your brain.

You literally can’t think clearly.

Emotions are also physiologically based, controlled from deep within your brain by the limbic system.

This may make it seem as though you have little hope of controlling your thoughts and emotions, let alone shifting those of an entire team. Not so.

Neuroscientists discovered that our brains are more malleable than previously believed. This is known as neuroplasticity. Put simply, it means your brain can change your mind. Physical movement is a key stimulus for opening new neural pathways, shifting emotions and re-engaging cognitive processes.

Try this experiment. Notice how you are holding your body as you read this article. What are your shoulders doing? Are your legs crossed? Are you smiling or is your jaw clenched? Slouching or sitting ramrod straight? What about your breath—how deep or shallow is it?

Now shift your position to the opposite of whatever it was. If you were slouching, straighten your posture. If sitting, stand. If frowning, smile. Hold this new position for a while and notice any changes in how you feel.

If you’re like most people, you will notice a slight shift in mood. It’s hard to feel optimistic when you’re hanging your head or slouching. Conversely, it’s harder to feel sad when you smile.

This same principle applies to using movement to shift energy, emotions and perceptions in conflict. Specific movements such as mirroring body language help increase feelings of empathy toward another person. Breathing from the diaphragm helps you feel more relaxed. Sitting with both feet parallel to the ground (uncrossed) and hands gently resting, palms up, on your knees can help you feel more receptive to another’s point of view.

Let’s use the example from the top of the article to apply these concepts. As the team leader, it’s your responsibility to turn the tide so the technical expert, the customer relations specialist and the operations manager begin working together to solve the problem. Get them moving by using any of the ideas below.

  • Change locations. Reconvene the meeting at a coffee shop, in a room without a table or, if feasible, at or near a customer’s premise (remember the problem is addressing customer dissatisfaction). A change in venue opens new brain synapses and invites a new way of seeing the problem. If a different space is unavailable, at least ask everyone to change seats. Move the furniture around if you can. Change the physical environment in any way that facilitates communication.
  • Stand to problem solve. Use a white board or hang sheets of paper across a wall. Give each team member a marker and ask them to stand and symbolically depict their ideas. Stick figures, shapes, squiggles, graphs—all are fine. The point is to get them moving and using another part of their brain to communicate. Encourage building on each other’s ideas.

Every now and then, have the group stand away from the wall to review the whole. They can ask clarifying questions. They can talk about what they like about someone else’s ideas and how they could be improved. As a ground rule for this part of the work, disallow comments about what they don’t like, why something couldn’t work or what’s missing. Keep the energy focused on possibilities.

  • Designate an empty chair to represent the customer. When it’s their turn to talk, ask team members to speak to the “customer.” Invite any member to role play a possible customer response by sitting in the customer chair.
  • Lead a physical energizer. Guide the team (or ask a team member to guide) through a series of stretches. Play music and have everyone walk around the table, change direction and walk another circuit, and once more. Ask everyone to pair up, you included. Have them take turns leading each other in a physical mirroring activity. No talking allowed. Laughter is great. In fact, the sillier the gestures, facial expressions and movements, the better.
  • Walk and talk. Pair up and walk to a nearby coffee shop or around the block. Assign the pairs to come up with one idea they can agree upon for addressing the problem at hand. Even a part of a solution counts. A rough draft idea is what you’re going for. On the way back, change partners and have them tell each other the ideas and add to them. The goal is not agreement at this stage. It is opening new possibilities.
  • Change body postures. Ask everyone to notice how they are holding their bodies. Just as I asked you to do above. Suggest they shift their postures to ones that are more conducive to collaboration. Ask everyone to take a pen and put it between their teeth to replicate smiling. Hold it for at least a minute. You do it too and make silly faces. If you feel ridiculous, laugh and say so but remind them you’re all in it together.

The first time you try something radically different like this, you might want to offer a simple explanation to your team such as, “We’re not making progress doing what we’ve been doing. Let’s try something a little different.” Introduce whichever of the above ideas you’d like to try, or better yet, invent one of your own.

Just get ‘em moving.