Some things I learned, working as a teacher and trainer for the past five years.
In my career, I have learned two different ways of looking at communication, be it writing, speaking, performing, discussing, et cetera: the theoretical, and the practical.
I can explain to you how things (don’t) work and why they (don’t) work from both perspectives. When I first developed workshops on writing and public speaking, I tried to marry those two perspectives: explain some theory, look at real life examples, help participants to try stuff out. I was trying to make people more aware of what they were doing. This was fine. The people I taught learned new things, they expressed happiness and satisfaction.
But there was something missing. Something I felt under the surface (not surprising this, as my main research interest is the implicit).
What was I missing?
A lot of writing and presentation training is about rules (don’t do this, do that) and techniques (how to steer or even manipulate your audience). Rules and techniques can be a support when you feel unsure. They can be fun to try out, to fool around with. But rules and techniques can also get in the way of things. Which is what I clearly saw when I taught a class or workshop: rules were sometimes obscuring instead of clarifying; techniques were sometimes obstructing instead of helping people become more free in what they think and write and say.
And I wanted to help people play, not put them in a cage of do’s and don’ts. Yet sometimes I found myself doing exactly that.
A penny dropped when I began to study a communication method called nonviolent communication. This method tries to help people communicate more effectively, by moving beyond judgments (this is good/bad, you are nice/stupid) to the deeper level of what we feel and what we need (when you do such-and-such I feel frightened. Could you help me feel more at ease, by doing so-and-so instead?). When we communicate on this deeper level, not pushing each other away with judgment (assumption, presumption, prejudice), it is easier to connect, and to get what we need.
This was the dimension that I was missing: the connection that most of us try to establish when we communicate. Thus, this method filled the gap between my theoretical and my practical perspective.
Argumentation theory taught me that when we write a text, when we climb the stage, we are trying to do something with the reader, the listener, the audience. We aim for communion, or discord; to get something across, to convince people or make them doubt…
Nonviolent communication taught me that our deeper reasons for doing so are our innate needs. We want to express ourselves, to make a connection. We need to feel seen, heard, understood; or to be left in peace. We need interaction with others, communion, the stimulation of their responses; we need to hear their ‘no’ in order to feel our own ‘yes’…
To get there, we use a range of techniques, as I learned in practice: from the words that we choose to the tone we express them in to the volume that we use to the pictures that we add to the way we look at the crowd to the way we use our hands to the way we set the stage to the clothes we put on to…
Getting in touch with my own needs, realising how they steer my communication, my teaching, felt like an awakening.
How is that, exactly? Well, another tenet of ‘nonviolent’ thought is that motivating people through fear or shame is not effective, even counter-productive. When I first read this, I felt recognition and relief spread through my body, like a wave.
image: Katsushika Hokusai, a coloured version of the Big Wave from 100 views of Mount Fuji, Wikimedia Commons
Much of my education was about motivation through fear and/or shame: competition, grades, levels. Punishment, being ostracised even, for deviating. There was little room for play, for exploring, for breathing, for making mistakes, for finding different solutions. When I began giving in-company workshops, something in me baulked at forcing participants to do something. As a teacher in higher education, it felt senseless to me to grade students for skills they hardly possessed, and had to learn under pressure. I wanted to help people develop what was inside them, what came natural to them, not press them into a mould. I wanted to share what I know: that most rules are just conventions, that there is a lot more room to play than we think there is. Than we allow ourselves.
After following a course in nonviolent communication, I gave myself permission to experiment with a different style of teaching. Before, I was always concerned with making the most of the time allotted, trying to convey as much of my knowledge and skills as effectively as I knew how. In my mind’s eye I always saw a big clock ticking away the time until the end of the session. There was never enough time.
Now, I tried to let go of that clock. Instead, I focused on making people feel at ease: to create an environment where people could pick up what they were ready to learn. I listened very carefully as they talked about their work and progress, encouraging each individual to develop whatever came naturally to them. To work with, instead of against themselves.
It was a trying time. Right after I followed that course in nonviolent communication, the country went into lockdown. I taught remotely for one and a half years. (Spoiler alert: I hated skyping before the pandemic, and I hate it even more today.) Worse, the institution where I taught was caught up in a #metoo-scandal, causing a great deal of uncertainty and unrest. My students were raw, lonely, exhausted – and so was I. In addition, I had the privilege of teaching a class that they were highly apprehensive about: writing a thesis.
These stressful circumstances only strengthened my resolve to make our time together more pleasant. To try and give each student, each workshop participant, a bit of enjoyment; a little more trust in their own abilities. Because writing and public speaking are activities that, for many people, come with considerable dislike, aversion, insecurity, anxiety. What is more, people are often ashamed of feeling so, when others appear to write and speak without hurdles. When I give people ‘permission’ to air those negative feelings, we can often quickly find ways to work with and around them.
One of my students dubbed my new method “soft teaching”. I love the phrase. Yet I am more inclined to call it ‘gentle’ as, paradoxically, it takes quite some strength to be gentle in our often rigid society. From the perspective of this teacher, there is nothing ‘soft’ about it.
from aware to awake
What does it mean, concretely, to go from being aware to being awake? Think of speaking in front of a considerable audience in an auditorium. For me as a speaker, giving a satisfactory performance previously meant getting through all of my text and slides without hiccups and blackouts; hearing a laugh or a hum from the audience here and there; seeing an ‘aha!’-moment happen on somebody’s face. A good presentation was one that was adapted to the audience, the venue, and my individual qualities as a speaker. This was the level on which my workshops used to operate: being aware of what you are doing, and why.
But I knew that there was something more. Because when I performed as a singer, I could sometimes feel the audience, much more profoundly than I did when I was speaking.
Here nonviolent communication comes in. When we speak in front of an audience, we are not just aiming to convince or shock or entertain. We hope to connect with them, in ways that differ for each individual. Speaking for myself, the connection is often about being understood. And about changing people, even if it is just a tiny bit: putting the spark of a new idea in their minds, a different way of looking at things. In presentations, I always did little conscious and subconscious checks to see if I was being understood, using my ears and eyes and nose to gauge attention, restlessness, dis/agreement, the time for a break.
Why was I only checking so furtively? What was I afraid of? Within the confines of the pandemic Zoom screen, I decided to open myself up and listen to the mood of the room more fully, as I did in performing music. This was surprisingly scary. Even in this truncated digital environment, where visual feedback is stilted, where auditory feedback is greatly impoverished, and you only smell your own nervous sweat.
A curious thing happened. Instead of projecting my voice and thoughts onto the audience and receiving a stilted response from them, a communal mood came into being, a give and take. I felt as if I were surfing the audience. As if they were waves, supporting me, lifting me up and bringing me down. It was exhilarating and liberating and calming all at once.
This, I realised, was performing awake: open and responding to what is going on around you. For my workshops in public speaking, I have since been designing small, simple exercises to help people experience their connection with an audience.
the future: running wild…?
Something else fell into place as I was reading an article on the work of graphic designer Hock Wah Yeo. Yeo described his tactic when designing for clients. He and his team would design two prototypes: one according to the client’s exact desired specifics; the other where they had gone all out, ignoring the rules, letting their creativity flow.
Yeo’s way of working speaks to me, because I am often holding back. I want to help people become more free in the way they express themselves. But maybe, maybe, there are clients who can help me become more free, too. By running wild with me. Who are willing to experience me at the full range of my capacities…
Boxed in by the pandemic, I found that my desire to go beyond the conventional could not be held back any longer. And for once in my life I was not punished, but rewarded for doing things differently.