Going from aware to awake, part II

Some things I learned about communication, in theory and in practice.


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. Much of my education was about motivation through fear and/or shame: competition, grades, levels. There was little room for play, for exploring, for breathing, for making mistakes, for finding different solutions. And deviation often resulted in some form of punishment.

image: Helene Schjerfbeck, Omakuva, 1912. Finish National Gallery, via  Wikimedia Commons

When I began giving in-company workshops, something in me baulked at forcing participants to do something. As a teacher in higher education, it grading students felt senseless to me. I wanted to help people develop and express what was inside 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.

gentle teaching

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 clock ticking away the time until the end of the session. There was never enough time.

image: Vanitas, Adriaen Coorte, 1688. Collection Zeeuws Museum, via Wikimedia Commons 

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 worked 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. 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 in communication? 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 helped me to make the next step. 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.

image: diggings from the internet

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 the audience.

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