Emotions, Body-Budgets And Clean Language – For Happier, Healthier Coaches?

Could coaching and facilitating using Clean Language make you happier and healthier? It’s quite possible, I think!

I’m currently reading How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett and I’m making some connections about how human minds work, and how that relates to coaching, to facilitation, and to Clean Language. Many thanks to James Tripp for recommending the book.

Up front, Barrett sets out the constructivist consensus.

She explains how, throughout our lives, our brains continually make predictions about what’s about to happen, and our bodies behave accordingly. We’re living in a virtual world, a constructed reality: “a huge, ongoing simulation that constructs everything you perceive while determining how you act.” The most important predictions made by the brain relate to the body’s energy needs, so that you’re able to stay alive and well: “body-budgeting”, in Barrett’s terms.

If it was otherwise, and all people did was respond to the real world, things would happen much too slowly. If the fuel was only sent to our muscles to run after we’d seen the tiger, all our ancestors would have been eaten long ago!

But, of course, the brain’s predictions aren’t always correct: there needs to be a feedback loop, where the brain adjusts in response to sensory input. In healthy humans, brains do this quickly and efficiently, bringing the simulation up to date in a flash.

One of the sources of information the brain relies upon for input is the body and its behaviours: the pumping of the heart, the expanding lungs, the changing temperature.  “Emotions” are one of the ways in which brains interpret patterns of physical sensation.

The specifics of these interpretations are culturally-defined: “happy” and “smiling” aren’t universally equivalent – though it’s extremely easy for an experimenter to influence emotional interpretation through priming. (A strong argument for as-Clean-as-possible experimentation.)

So far, this is absolutely solid scientific consensus these days, apparently.

Body-Budgeting Errors

Fast-forward from the experimentally-verified to Barrett’s more speculative conclusions. She suggests that a lot of modern-day ailments may have their roots in body-budgeting errors.

Chronic stress can result in chronic mis-budgeting; chronic mis-budgeting can result in inflammation in the brain. Inflammation in the brain makes the mess even worse – the brain becomes deaf to what’s really going on in the body, resulting in chronic imbalances. “A chronically imbalanced body budget acts like fertilizer for disease,” she says. Inflammation in the brain has been implicated in all kinds of disorders: diabetes, obesity, depression, anxiety, heart disease, dementia, cancer…

Barrett suggests that stress, pain, depression, anxiety and even autism may be disorders of prediction and prediction-error-correction.

She also offers a prescription. “The most basic thing you can do to master your emotions is to keep your body budget in good shape.” The fundamentals start with good nutrition, exercise and sleep and extend to things like spending time in nature, giving and receiving touch, reading novels and watching films.

Then, there’s a piece about becoming more aware of your own bodily responses (emotions) and other people’s states, so that your brain learns to predict and correct more accurately. Effective body-budgeting relies on clear internal and external perception.

Coaching, Facilitation and Clean Language

So, how does this link to coaching, facilitation and Clean Language?

The constructivist consensus is important for coaches, facilitators and change workers of all kinds. Its how we do what we do. A constructed reality, made out of thought-stuff, is much more plastic than one made out of atoms. We have effective tools, such as Clean Language, for working with thought-stuff.

As coaches and facilitators, we are adept at working in complexity, using probe-sense-respond approaches (as recommended by David Snowden’s Cynefin framework). We’re constantly calibrating what’s going on for our clients/groups. As long as we stay fluid and responsive, that prediction and error-correction piece is working well for us.

I think that Clean Language takes all of this to the next level.

The way I read it is that the brain’s “prediction” is a kind of metaphor. The brain is comparing the current situation to situations it has experienced in the past, “this is like (or unlike) that”. We see that metaphor is the stuff of thought, the native language of the unconscious mind. It makes perfect sense to work directly with clients’ metaphors, as Clean does.

Clean Language works with embodied sensations. Despite the name, it’s not principally about language: it offers a way to help clients to understand what’s actually going on inside them, to get a handle on those body-based experiences which may be described as emotions. In Barrett’s terms, it helps clients to improve their prediction and prediction-error-correction skills.

If so many modern illnesses are linked to prediction and prediction-error-correction issues, leading to body-budgeting imbalances, it seems reasonable to assume that Clean can be useful in these, too.

And, it seems to me that the process of learning to use Clean Language has added benefits for the coach or facilitator. An important part of mastering a Clean approach lies in increasing your clarity about what’s happening for you, at the same time as helping your client to become aware of what’s happening for them.

As you develop the skill to direct a client’s attention to what’s happening in their body and how they are making sense of it, listening with curiosity, you’re obliged to abandon many stereotyped “predictions” and respond more precisely to what you actually see, hear and feel.

That means you’re noticing more, and so providing more granular data to your brain. And that means you’re probably improving your own body-budgeting ability.

Will that make you happier and healthier? I can offer plenty of anecdotes of people’s “personal development journeys” as they’ve developed their Clean skills – including my own personal experience. But really, I suspect only your own experience will convince you!

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