Your nervous system has a lot to say (if you allow it to)

Self Awareness | November 14, 2022

“Oh Rachel, it was embarrassing,” said my client Samantha, closing her eyes as she pinched the bridge of her nose. 

CPO of an established tech company, Samantha had been recruited by the aging enterprise for a fresh perspective. Despite this, she often struggled to assert her leadership and use her voice to express her perspective. 

“One of my peers was coming over to ask me something at the end of a meeting, and I—well, I pretended not to see him coming over. You know, as if I was totally, abnormally absorbed in my laptop,” she said, rolling her eyes. 

“So he touches my shoulder, and I turn and say, ‘Oh! Hiiii!’ Like I’m completely surprised. It was something out of a scene from a bad 80’s movie!” she continued, cringing. 

“But seriously, I could see how I was actively avoiding him. I don’t know what that’s about, Rachel! We’ve been working on asserting myself more. What’s going on?” I could see Samantha’s frustration with herself. 

“Well, hold on. Can we play with this interaction for a moment?” I asked.

“Sure,” Samantha shrugged. 

“Okay, let’s slow this down,” I said. “First, I want to know the moment you knew he was heading your way. I’m curious —it sounds like you already knew—could you tell whether he was coming over with an agenda versus just coming over to say, ‘Hey, how’s your day?’ Or whatever?” 

“Oh, I saw it in his eyes,” Samantha confirmed quickly. “And I kind of knew what he was going to ask me. He said, ‘Well, what are we doing with this?’ meaning this training process that I oversee. And I said, ‘I don’t know.’” Again, she rolled her eyes. 

“Let’s slow this down even more. Before you engaged with him, I want you to observe what happened when you just saw him coming towards you with that expression on his face?” 

Samantha’s face changed as she looked inward, remembering in slow motion. 

“Whoa,” she said, surprised. She paused for a beat. 

“What?” I asked.

“Oh my God, I could already feel how I did not want to deal with this.”

“Okay. You’re in that moment. You feel him coming towards you.” 

Samantha nodded. 

“I’m curious. Right in this moment, as you remember, what are you feeling in your body?” I asked.

Samantha put her hand up in response. “I feel: No! Just like that.”

This is exactly why we slowed things down so much, why I took Samantha back even before the exchange. There is a gold mine of information once we slow down and listen to what our nervous system has to say.

“What about it was a no for you?” I asked. 

“I don’t want to run this training the way it’s always been done, with me telling someone what they should or should not be doing in their role. I feel like this is about helping them explore their own way of approaching their role, and using their voice,” Samantha’s own voice grew stronger as her clarity grew. 

“I really want to disrupt this old way of doing things, be more of a guide and a teacher… And—I wasn’t prepared to talk about it yet. Yeah! I wasn’t ready with a plan to propose the training differently.”

The more we played with identifying the body’s no, and the clearer Samantha was on that and where it was coming from, the more she could articulate that no. The more she could actually come from a place of choice

Slowing things down enabled her to do this. It’s a technique I love to do with my clients. Take an event or issue that created some kind of emotional reaction for the client, and move through it very slowly, from far to near. 

When you slow things down for the nervous system, the nervous system has time to mobilize and actually be clearer on what it’s trying to say. Rather than simply reacting, which happens so quickly in the moment.
(This is based on the powerful work of Peter Levine and Somatic Experiencing.)

By slowing the event with her peer down and allowing Samantha distance from the activating situation, she could decide what she really wanted to say. It gave her much more clarity on the language and how she felt.

“You know what,” Samantha said confidently, “I can see so clearly now. What I would have liked to say is: ‘I have some different ideas about this training. I’m not ready to talk about them yet. I’d love for someone else to run the training in the meantime, so I can sit with these ideas and then come to the executive team with a proposal about how I’d approach it differently.’”

Samantha’s eyes shone. She now had a game plan when circling back with her peer.

Getting curious about what the nervous system has to say is a powerful tool. A secret weapon, even. 

The nervous system has valuable information for you, if you give it the space to express it. It’s not about putting the nervous system in charge, but rather, gathering the info it offers, and making decisions in consideration of that information.

Does this resonate with you? How does this idea land in your body? If you’re curious and ready to leverage the clarity your nervous system offers to make you the powerful, sought-after leader you long to be, let’s talk.

Rachel Rider
Executive Coach, Leadership Consultant