The Art of Somatic Coaching

First Published in the January/February 2014 issue of HUMAN RESOURCES magazine that Thomson Reuters publishes in Hong Kong.

  • Somatic Coaching considers that leadership skills and principles can be taught and embodied through the physical state.
  • It also relieves stress, enhances leadership skills and boosts productivity.

Lee (an alias), a successful Information Technology manager, has recently been promoted to a managerial position in a medium- sized company in Hong Kong. Up to that time, he worked on small virtual teams but had no experience leading others. His promotion was based on his considerable technological accomplishments and his tenure in the company.

Lee was sent to leadership training sessions in which he read case studies, watched video interviews of successful business leaders, completed assessment instruments that evaluated his leadership style, and he took thorough notes during power point presentations.

Yet, he was unable to build trust with the team members and they complained that he was a poor listener, had a sour disposition, and would erupt in anger at the smallest issues. Although Lee was assigned an executive coach, his behaviour still did not change. It seemed as if Lee could not apply what he learned.

Does this sound familiar? Your talented employees are coached, trained, and many even post inspirational sayings on their desk walls, but somehow fall short of being a good manager.

Understanding Somatic Coaching

Somatic Coaching considers that people do not necessarily change because they have gained knowledge; they change because they engage in new practices that change who they are. This means embodying what you learn in a physical way, and not just acquiring cognitively new information. For example, through Somatic Coaching, Lee would not simply know more about how exemplary leaders act, he would engage in practices – like breathing and posture exercises to help convey calm and strength – that would allow him to embody them.

The term somatics derives from the Greek word somatikos, which signifies the living, pertaining to the body. As such, Somatic Coaching considers that leadership skills and principles can be taught and embodied through the physical state. As they say, a sound body leads to a sound mind.

“Somatic Coaching goes far beyond traditional concepts of leadership development […]. Individuals from all walks of life can become exemplary leaders by awakening their sensibilities to the importance of embodying a professional presence,” said Richard Leider, founder and Chairman of the Inventure Group, a coaching and consulting firm based in the United States.

Coaching methods include physical exercises that combine Aikido movements (in a non-martial arts context) and meditation, so that employees can better focus on their work. Coaches are also asked to focus on linguistic coordination as well as verbal and non-verbal communication (eg observing the shape of the body and the attitude to re-shape it into a more relaxed, confident and bold body and achieve one’s full potential).

Other Somatic Coaching methods consist of observing employees’ moods to learn to work with them in producing emotional states that are conducive to creativity and teamwork, rather than being in a state of reaction to them.


On top of building and sustaining desired leadership traits, Somatic Coaching can relieve stress, boost productivity and enable staff and leaders to take more effective actions in challenging situations (eg restructuring, new corporate strategy).

The Strozzi Institute, an American organisation that delivers Somatic Coaching programmes, set out that over 96% of Somatic Coaching clients reported executing commitments more effectively, managing their moods better, handling internal and external customers more satisfactorily, delivering results in less time,
and increasing engagement in the workplace.

“These exercises helped me focus my attention on what was getting in the way of my success at work. [They] showed me how much of the problem was me, and how, by training my body, I could adjust my decision-making and presence when faced with difficult situations,” explained Tim Bullock, Group Vice President, Europe, Africa, and Eastern Hemisphere at BP Oil International Limited.

Besides, this type of coaching contributes to building trust between staff and management. “This leadership training is a sure-fire way to build true leaders from managers and individual performers. The teams that I led using this training met goals on time and under budget,” said Nancy J Hutson, Senior Vice President at Pfizer Research and Development, an American multinational pharmaceutical company.

Before opting for Somatic Coaching, these leaders had difficulties appearing trustworthy and keeping commitments to satisfy their staff.

Listen to the soma

As such, Somatic Coaching offers valuable tips to HR professionals on how their employees hold their body and how they respond to stressful situations, such as verbal or physical surprises.

To work somatically with an employee, HR professionals could organise training where they observe how the individual has been shaped by his/her experience and how this shaping impacts his/her leadership and management capacities. Then, they should develop exercises to embody new skills, behaviours and mood. These practices produce a leadership presence, increased focus and intent, conversations for action, deep listening, self-awareness and effective coordination.

In Lee’s case, his HR manager observed that Lee’s breath was shallow, high in his chest and in certain conversations he would hold his breath – which are signs of anxiety. His shoulders, neck, and upper back were very tensed too. In addition, he rarely made eye contact when he spoke to his team.

When these things were pointed out to Lee, he was surprised as he did not know he was enacting these behaviours. “What does my breath pattern have anything to do with my leadership skills?” he asked.

Lee came to understand that the way he held himself physically produced assessments that he was anxious and that he did not care about his team members. As anxiety is one of the most infectious moods, when Lee was anxious, his team members became anxious and this affected their performance.

Thanks to regular training, Lee learned to centre on a deep and rhythmic breath, and release the tension in his shoulders, neck and back. Although Lee felt vulnerable to be this relaxed and it did not feel natural to him, he realised that he could actually think clearer and was less fatigued when he was centred (ie it brings more oxygen to the brain and less energy into the rigidity of his shoulders, and neck). The chronic back pain then disappeared. Somatic Coaching also showed him how he could face those he was talking to, which built a deeper layer of contact and trust with them.

More specifically, Lee learned to align his head, shoulders, hips, knees and ankles so that he was standing straight and in a relaxed manner when he was sitting at his desk or in a team meeting. Since he was usually tilted forward, this new stance took the strain off his upper back which he needed to contract to keep himself from tipping forward. This new stance also mitigated his team’s feeling that he was always leaning into them in an aggressive manner. It made him appear more inclusive to his colleagues.

Ultimately, Lee learned to build a more reflective composure that was conducive to leadership. While he used to berate those who did not work fast enough for him, he now had more room for employees’ individual working styles. He was happy to discover that, by letting them fall into their own rhythm, they were more productive.

Who needs this?

Although Somatic Coaching is useful for every manager and leader, some employees need it more than the others, namely those who:

  1. are not fully engaged;
  2. lost their purpose and motivation;
  3. cannot manage their mood and emotions;have difficulties building trust with colleagues and clients; and
  4. have difficulties executing on commitments in a timely manner.

HR professionals can then set up a tailored programme for these specific employees.

Using Somatic Coaching in the workplace

Somatic Coaching is a new but a rapidly growing field that works in industries as diverse as technology, health, government, pharmaceuticals, entertainment, finance, education and retail. HR professionals can consider such training programmes for employees so as to create a healthy and productive workforce and deliver strong leadership.