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I just attended a conference on the newest dialogical ideas and practices at Hämeenlinna, Finland.  Peter RoberJohn Shotter and Jaakko Seikkula lectured and held workshops relating to these areas. Especially the talks of Shotter and Seikkula brought up an idea of “affective” or “bodily” turn in the therapy world. Rober on the other hand highlighted the importance of establishing and maintaining connection with the clients, which is also important part of this bodily turn as we shall see. In this post I want to think about the arise of this new paradigm – what exactly is new in this and what is more of a transformation of old paradigms? Even though the conference was focusing on systemic family therapy, I think that these matters are as important for coaches and supervisors as well.

Language and bodily turn

In the 70’s the “linguistic turn” in therapy world challenged the conservative thinking of autonomous individuals and their individual psychological processes. The focus was put instead to the systemic thinking of individuals as part of their networks and family systems. The problems weren’t seen anymore as individual things, but rather as interactive, dynamic processes. Social constructionism, which was developed by Gergen & Shotter among others, gave tools to see how the reality was constructed in dialogues between people.

The bodily turn will make the situation even more complex. Language is just one part of the rich interaction between people. Language gets it’s meaning in holistic context of the facial expressions, gestures and the whole bodily interaction. Especially the subtle details are meaningful. Whereas the linguistic turn was focusing on the subtleties of oral interaction – what was said, what words were used, what was not said, the pauses in the talk, etc – the bodily turn is also focusing on the facial expressions, bodily gestures and physical feelings.

West meets East

Even though this can be said to be a paradigm shift in western therapy and counseling, I can feel a strong sense of similarity with the eastern thinking. In the west we had philosophers like Descartes splitting our body and mind in two already in the year 1637. However, that kind of paradigm never rose in the east and thus there are already long traditions of holistic healing methodologies in the East. This can be seen in spiritual, therapeutic and health context. For example martial artists have always been developing both the physical and mental aspects of their personality at the same time. In the west it has been more common to focus on the body on the gym and the spirit separately at church or psychotherapy. Also the chinese medicine has always used also physical exercises like chi gong as integral part of the healing processes.

Body, Mind and Language

In this sense the new paradigm doesn’t seem to be as new as you would think. However, the interesting thing is the context where the shift is happening. It is very different thing to focus on the bodily interactions in dialogical context than without it. The linguistic turn has brought many useful insights and practices to the western world of therapy and counseling. A good example of this is the “open dialogue” model which is the operating principle of Keroputaa hospital in northern Finland. I would say it is not possible to open up the complexity of interdependent relationships with just a bodily approach of therapy – the systemic view that comes from the linguistic approaches is very important here.

If, on the other hand, the bodily interactions are brought together with the understanding of language systems, this might really be a game changer in the effectiveness of therapy.

G.H.Mead introduced already in the 1930’s the idea of “conversation of gestures” which he thought is the basis of human communication. He used the behavior of dogs as examples of how the complex interactions develop and emerge in bodily expressions. Dogs make gestures that are responded by other gestures. These responses change the meaning of previous gestures and thus create complex patterns of interactions where new meanings are continuously created.

In the same way, the communication between people is before everything else, a conversation of bodies. It is so fundamental that instead of calling the period of development before language is learned a “pre-linguistic period” we should call the period after that a “post-bodily period”. Also words are bodily expressions. They are symbols resulting from complex interactions of muscles producing sounds in the throat and oral cavity. They get their meanings in the chains of interactions happening in the present moment in a historical context. Our responds – no matter if they are verbal or bodily gestures – are transforming the meaning of words and at the same time the larger themes of the conversations.

I see the rise of bodily paradigm as a possibility to integrate linguistic and bodily work as a holistic approach. Mindfulness practices are already proved to be beneficial practice in many forms of therapy. For me, the mindfulness is still just a small part of what bodily work could be. Currently it is used mostly as mental practice where the use of body is quite limited.

Bodily turn could mean that in the future we can utilize both eastern and western holistic practices as tools for developing the reflexivity of the therapists and counselors themselves. The body of the therapist is very sensitive instrument, which resonates really accurately with the themes emerging from the work with the customers. G.H.Mead called these themes “proto symbols”. Most of these proto symbols are never signified in the conversations just because the therapist doesn’t become aware of them in herself. Developing the ability to be aware of these symbols in our own bodily experiences is very important regardless of the used framework.


In this post I have been thinking about the dialogical approach as the special competence of western systemic family therapy. The emerging bodily turn is already quite well-known area in the thinking of the east, but the integration of bodily and linguistic paradigms is something else. As a topic it isn’t totally new, as the theories of e.g. G.H.Mead show. However, perhaps we are now living times when the eastern paradigm of “body-mind” is transforming to thinking of “body-language” in the systemic therapy of the west?

I find it especially interesting that bodily work isn’t seen so much as the tool for client’s healing as the tool for enriching the dialogue. Thus the focus is more on the bodily work of the therapeutist than that of the client.

(If you are interested in Finnish version of this post, here it is.)