“Whatever it is that’s happening in your life, that goes into the voice. And it becomes your instrument.”
– Cassandra Wilson
When we operate from the neck up at work, we’re missing a lot of data. In a meeting recently, I noticed that I was hunching. It was a good meeting. I didn’t notice my posture right away. But I began to wonder why I might be tight or anxious. What was muscle memory telling me and what did hunching express? It may reflect a story, a dimly remembered experience, a pattern of expectations and assumptions, a thought. It definitely carries some meaning. It confirms the principle that our experience is stored in the body as reactions and states.
When Cassandra Wilson says, “Whatever is happening in your life, that goes into the voice,” she’s stating a fact. Experience shapes us. But she’s also describing a purposeful practice she engages in: I shape experience. She goes on to say, “I’m just singing my life.” This is a great goal, rather than to have found at last that our lives have sung us.
Imagine the impression people were getting of me. My face is telling one story: I’m alert, interested, and comfortable. My posture says I’m anxious. Objectively, I didn’t have a care. But enough familiar conditions came together and I hunched. It’s the effect of some cause. It’s worth saying again: our habitual reactions are coded into physical responses and stored in the body. I didn’t think about hunching, I did it.
A lot of leadership advice might focus on managing anxiety and leadership presence. For straightforward impression management, that may do the trick. But developing tactics may be solving a problem we only partly recognize. My aim as a coach is to help people recognize the settings in which our response is a habit and a different one is needed. The more we notice the clues, the more options we have. They’re the key to real, intrinsic change. And for most of us, the discovery alone is liberating. It takes a lot of energy to maintain habits like the one I’ve been describing.
It also takes a lot of energy to manage them when they take over. Think of times when you’ve been exhausted by what seemed like little real effort. It may be that the effort lay in some version of controlling yourself while the body was seized by low-level fight, flight, or freeze reactions. Think of what you could do with that energy if you weren’t investing it in reactions that don’t serve your purpose.