Going from aware to awake

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 began teaching classes 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: obscuring instead of clarifying, 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.

deeper in

The penny dropped when I started 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 (I don’t like when you do this because it frightens me, and I want to feel comfortable). 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. A connection we try to establish to satisfy certain needs.

The 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. We need interaction with others, communion, the stimulation of their responses; we need to hear their ‘no’ in order to feel our own ‘yes’…. There are many things we can want from others.

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…

image: Katsushika Hokusai, a coloured version of the Big Wave from 100 views of Mount Fuji,  Wikimedia Commons


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 aspect of ‘nonviolent’ thought is the tenet 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. 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 started developing my workshops and lessons, something in me baulked at forcing participants to do something. Grading students for skills they hardly possessed and had to learn under pressure, felt senseless to me. 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. I focused on making people feel comfortable. I listened very carefully as they talked about their work and progress, encouraging them to develop whatever came naturally. To work with, instead of against themselves.

One of my students dubbed this “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.

the future: running wild…?

Another piece of the puzzle I found in 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.

This 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…

image: box by Hock Wah Yeo, for the 1990s computer game Wolfpack, from his website

My workshops are designed with all of this in mind. Beginner, intermediate, experienced, seasoned: it doesn’t matter, each workshop is for everyone. You can start with the fundamentals and eventually decide to run wild with me. Or you can just pick one that appeals to you.

image: Liam Butler, aka angrycatflap.com, 2014