AT Congress, Berlin 2022
Exchanging hands-on work is a common practice among teachers of the Alexander Technique and one from which we expect several advantages, the first of which is receiving qualified work that does us good. But it is also a way to make contact with teaching methods different from our own, and to increase our skills thanks to the feedback of a colleague. Unfortunately, however, this practice conceals pitfalls which sometimes prevent us from reaping the hoped-for benefits and may instead provoke various kinds of discomfort.
I began this session by asking if any of the participants had had difficult experiences exchanging work, and everyone raised their hand. Examples mentioned included misunderstandings, unspoken issues, or unprocessed feelings of unease, even to the point of compromising personal relationships.
So, what happens during a work exchange? There is usually an agreement, tacit or explicit, to exchange verbal information, to communicate our feelings, give or receive suggestions, propose changes, or ask questions. Sometimes we work in silence, or while chatting, perhaps to avoid the risk of a direct confrontation, and may end up with a one-sided perception and internal appraisal of the situation which are of doubtful use.
Next, I proposed that the session participants exchange work in pairs for ten minutes, giving each other traditional feedback such as communicating feelings, expressing comments, giving suggestions. At the end I asked them to share their experience based on three questions: How did you feel about giving the feedback? How did you feel about receiving the feedback? What might make you feel better?
In giving or receiving feedback, our ways of relating to people – whether habitual or linked to a specific situation – come into play: how I perceive my colleague, how he perceives me, how we both feel perceived, and so on. Direct observations tend to imply a judgment. What will the other’s reaction be? Can a comment be neutral? Does it always imply an emotion? Does it generate an emotional state in the speaker and listener? These ambiguities may lead our words to take on a meaning for the listener that goes beyond their plain word content and beyond our intentions or, alternatively, may reveal our intentions too blatantly. In discussing my own experiences with other teachers, I learned that many colleagues had found themselves unable to come up with appropriate ways to comment on work they were receiving, or that they had been perplexed by some feedback, or even hurt.
Before speaking to someone, it would be a good idea to stop and think, to ask yourself if what you want to say makes sense, if it is true, useful, honest, and if it does good for both of you. But this does not rule out that what gets said can be perceived as a judgment, with all the resulting consequences. However, the effect may be different if an observation is transformed into a question. For example, if I perceive someone’s hand contact as superficial, instead of suggesting more contact I can ask my colleague: ‘How do you perceive the contact of your hands?’ Or, in the case of work that seems too physical without enough direction, instead of pointing this out, I could ask: ‘How do you feel the effect you are having on me?’ From such questions a thoughtful and constructive dialogue can arise. It is about using the present experience to discover something new which concerns both people, rather than to affirm one’s point of view.
Compared to making a simple statement, this choice requires more internal processing work, which can be facilitated by some recommendations to make questions truly constructive. For example, it’s a good idea to prefer open-ended questions (those that begin with who, what, how, where, when), which allow the respondent to articulate a thought, compared to closed questions which presume ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as an answer. Asking ‘why’ is perhaps the least effective question and the most difficult to answer: it coerces the other into giving explanations. It is also preferable to avoid questions for which you think you already know the answer: they make the other person feel they are under interrogation, not exactly a pleasant sensation. These questions are considered ‘illegitimate’ by some pedagogists and philosophers of education, compared with ‘legitimate’ questions where the asker truly doesn’t know the answer (Perticari 2012). Good questions presuppose genuine interest: I ask the question to discover something I don’t know. What do I want to know? What am I interested in learning more about? What can I learn from this experience?
Next in the session, I proposed that participants exchange work in pairs for ten minutes again, this time shaping their feedback as questions. In case they might have trouble doing this, I suggested some back-up questions: Do you like what you are doing? What do you like about what you are doing? What don’t you like about it? What would you like to change? At the end I asked them to share their experience based on a few questions: How did you feel when asking the question? How did you feel about receiving the question? How did you feel answering? How did you feel about receiving the answer?
The final sharing in the group brought out considerable appreciation of the experience gained. Some said they felt a sense of liberation from judgment, both their own and other people’s. Others found the questioning process mentally stimulating, as something that takes you beyond your own view of things. In my personal experience it is a creative process, useful both to those asking and to those receiving the questions.
This is nothing new: the art of questioning belongs to the history of philosophy and pedagogy and boasts its own distinguished masters. If we could adopt such an approach more often, perhaps we would encounter less frustration in our interactions and we could make our work exchanges more constructive.
Comment from Patrick Johnson
Paolo’s How-to session on exchanging work was revelatory. First, just the idea that someone would address this topic was exciting. Exchanging work is something most teachers do. But do we really question how we exchange work and the unspoken rules of communication? What is the point of an exchange? Is it to just get a new experience like any student taking a lesson or is it to have a constructive dialogue about the teaching and learning process? To me, exchanging work is a unique and important practice for the Alexander Technique community – maybe even one of the most important. So I came to this session very excited about exploring this topic.
My own experience was profound. I worked during the session and after in the exchange room for several hours. The exchanges felt much more like a cooperative exploration of experiences. It was more playful. The dialogue with my partner was rich – like a great conversation. There was no element of ‘you are better than me’ or ‘I am better than you’, but rather a shared experience of two serious and curious practitioners. And, I learned two very specific lessons, one having to do with an issue with my hands on and another having to do with an issue with my partner’s. More than a month after the Congress, I’m still working on developing these concepts. In short this exchange ranks with the richest and most educational hands on Alexander Technique experiences that I’ve had and would not have been possible without Paolo’s help with communicating in a new way.
Perticari, P. (2012). Alla prova dell’inatteso. Armando Editore: Roma.
Paolo Frigoli trained as an Alexander Technique teacher from 1989 to 1992. In subsequent years he spent long periods of professional development in the UK at the Brighton Alexander Training Centre directed by John and Carolyn Nicholls, while also taking regular lessons from Walter Carrington and Peggy Williams. Since then he has kept working regularly with John Nicholls who has become his mentor. Paolo has taught the Technique for 30 years individually and in groups, both in his private studio and in public institutions, and has been invited to teach in various Alexander training schools. In 2008 he was on the Continuous Learning faculty at the International Congress in Lugano. In 2015 he started his own STAT-approved teacher training course in Italy. Paolo qualified as a physiotherapist in 1989, then trained in the Mézières method with Dr. Laura Bertelé and in the Cranio-Sacral Therapy of Dr. John Upledger, which is still part of his daily practice.
Paolo Frigoli, Coccaglio (BS), Italy