In August 2022, I gave a talk at the 1st ReMO conference for Researcher  Mental Health, in Budapest. What follows is the script that helped me improvise during the talk itself 😉

Note of thanks

I am grateful for Dr. Christiane Haupt’s trust in me. It it thanks to her, at the time head of HR development for young researchers at the Max Planck Society, that I was able to make this incredibly valuable experience on which the talk was based.

I am also grateful for Kerstin König’s thoughtful and heartfelt feedback on this script. It inspired me with courage and helped me focus on what mattered most.

Last but not least, I am so grateful to every one of my past workshop participants for their openness and their trust. I am especially grateful to those who have taken the time to reflect with me on their experience with learning NVC in these workshops.

Context

I’d like to share with you an experience I had as a trainer. In 2020 and 2021, I was offered the opportunity to design and teach six courses on self-care and stress management at the Planck Academy, which is the learning and training platform of the Max Planck Society in Germany. It includes 86 research institutes and employs some 24.000 people.

Motivation

One reason why I want to share this experience with you is that I had never before in my work as a trainer encountered such an overwhelmingly positive response by so many participants. Several of them said or even wrote on a postcard to me that this course had changed their life. Many more expressed deep gratitude. These responses went far beyond the usual expressions of appreciation I hear at the end of workshops. So, I thought you people here at ReMO might be interested in hearing about this.

As a trainer, I get excited when I hear that something I have taught has contributed substantially to making people’s lives better. In this case, the inner transformation that my courses have stimulated in some participants was especially meaningful to me because of the complexity of the topic. Mental health in the research sector, as you all know, is exacerbated by the research system’s inherent structures and dynamics. Suggesting that all it takes to make researchers more resilient are better skills at dealing with stress would be cynical.

And yet, I was hired to teach researchers better skills at dealing with stress – not to improve the working conditions to reduce external, systemic stressors. So, one question I asked myself while designing these trainings was this one: How much stress relief can a training program bring about given that it is focusing on personal development (or self-management) skills and given that the system around the individual participants is unlikely to change anytime soon? Is it possible at all? To be honest, I was very sceptical, especially when reviewing some literature on stress management training, which seemed to suggest that identifying the stressors and making a plan on how to implement some common-sense behaviours, such as taking more breaks, getting more sleep, meditating, or confiding in a friend, would work.

Hypothesis 

I only knew one approach that I believed might be helpful in a more substantial and sustainable way: Nonviolent Communication, or short: NVC. To my knowledge, NVC is not an established framework in stress management trainings. It is more widely known as a method for conflict resolution and for improving communication between people.  Nevertheless, I based my courses on the assumption that, if the participants learn NVC, they will have better skills at dealing with stress in their research environments. I believe that the reason why so many participants responded so enthusiastically to this course is that it enabled them to learn Nonviolent Communication.

Testing hypothesis through interviews

I used the ReMO call for papers as an opportunity to explore how much of that enthusiasm was still present after some time had passed since the workshops took place – in other words, what the long-term effects were. How did I do this?

I am not a scientist. I do not have the expertise to design and conduct scientific studies, to collect or code scientifically sound data. My academic background is in comparative literature. I understand stories. I work full-time as a coach and trainer. So, I also know how to ask questions.

That’s why I decided to arrange Zoom interviews with 13 people who had participated in one of my six stress management courses. They included doctoral and postdoctoral researchers and one group leader from eight different countries, three continents, and different natural and social scientific disciplines. I interviewed at least one participant from each of the six courses to get a fuller picture. I also tried to choose people from whom I knew that NVC had had a huge positive impact on their lives (7) and people where I was uncertain if this was the case (6). In fact, the seven people from whom I knew that their lives had become richer thanks to NVC were people who had joined an NVC practice group which I had initiated following their wish at the end of the training to continue with this self-empathy practice.

The interviews took place in the first half of March 2022. For some interviewees, this was one and half years after they had done the course with me, and for others, it was only four months. For most of them, it was somewhere in between. I asked the same questions in each interview, though not verbatim and not always in this same order:

  1. What were your main stressors at the time of the stress management course?
  2. What did you expect to learn in the course?
  3. What did you in fact learn?
  4. Was there a key moment for you?
  5. Has NVC changed the way you deal with stress? If so, how?
  6. What influence does your institute/ your work environment have on your ability to implement NVC?
  7. What long-term effects of this NVC course, if any, can you still perceive today?
  8. How much support (or resistance) to participate in this course did you get from your work and private environments?

My hypothesis was that learning NVC had a positive long-term effect on some of the people I interviewed. But beside testing this hypothesis, I was also curious what exactly this impact consisted of and what had enabled it.

What is NVC?

Before sharing some of my results with you, I’d like to say a few words about NVC because not everyone here might be familiar with it.

NVC is a thinking and communication process that is designed to help everyone get their needs met. Or, to use an expression often used in the NVC community, to make everyone’s life more wonderful. The two necessary ingredients for that to happen are compassion and honesty. These concepts are rather abstract, so I am thankful that Marshall Rosenberg – the founder of NVC – developed a simple four-step process that helps learners of NVC develop their compassion and honesty. These are the four steps:

  1. Observation
  2. Feelings
  3. Needs
  4. Request

Unfortunately, some people believe that NVC is synonymous with the four steps. This is unfortunate because these people may have missed the most important part of the process: our willingness to really connect with our feelings and needs. Why is it important to do that? It’s important to know what our needs are because they tell us what would make our life more wonderful. Understanding the need that is not met helps me find strategies that increase my well-being. Rather than blindly trying out one self-help tip after the other, I choose a strategy that directly addresses one specific need. It’s much more likely that I get my needs met if I know what they are.

But how do I know what my needs are? How do I connect with my feelings and needs? If you have ever tried to identify your feelings and needs, you may have encountered similar obstacles as my workshop participants and myself: thoughts. 

They frequently come in the form of interpretations, evaluations, judgments, blame, comparison, criticism, demands, reproach, and diagnoses. In fact, most of us rarely experience a moment free from these kinds of thoughts. What makes matters even more difficult is that, most of the time, we are not even aware of having these thoughts. We run on auto-pilot.

So, it’s not as easy as one might expect from looking at the four steps to really feel our feelings and understand our needs. What helps?

  • Becoming still.
  • Opening an inner space that is accepting, friendly, and curious.
  • Assuming full responsibility for our own feelings and needs. (This can be painful and that’s why it’s hard sometimes, to be honest with our feelings and needs.)
  • Learning to listen – to our body just as much as to the thoughts in our mind, learning to listen to the needs underlying these thoughts.

In my courses, I focused on the inner process of NVC. I suspect that other approaches, such as MBSR or ACT, may achieve similar or better effects in individuals when it comes to developing awareness and compassion for one’s own feelings and needs. But in NVC, this is only one part of the process. Let me show you what all the parts of the process look like:

In the training sessions, we focused on the first part, represented by the drawing in the upper left part of the picture. This is all about getting clarity about our own needs and empathising with ourselves. The other, also internal part, is empathising with another person’s needs. This is usually someone with whom we are experiencing conflict or tension. The practice consists of doing an empathy process as if we were the other person, trying to guess what needs of theirs may be unfulfilled in any particular situation that is also causing us distress. And only then is it advisable to apply NVC in the outside world, having the needs of everyone involved in awareness. This does not mean that it is necessary to have guessed the needs of someone else correctly, but rather that a friendly openness and genuine interest to care for the other person’s needs makes it much more likely that everyone gets what they need and want. 

If you decide to practice this process on the outside, you can choose between two fundamentally different modes: EITHER you listen with presence and care to what is going on inside the other person’s heart and mind OR you express your own observation, feeling, need and request with honesty and clarity. You can imagine that this sounds much easier than it is likely to be in reality. Usually, a lot of practice (and a lot of failing) is necessary to develop a style of thinking and speaking that feels natural and authentic – rather than stilted and artificial. But everyone whom I have met who has decided to walk this path has found it very beneficial to their own well-being. The extracts from the interviews that I’d like to share with you, will hopefully give you an impression of what I mean by “beneficial”.

The interviews

On the next few slides, I’d like to show you some of the things that my interview partners told me about the impact that learning NVC had on their dealing with stress and what they remembered as key moments or key elements of the course.

 

Participant F: What impressed me the most was that we created a bit of a bubble where everyone was very eager to listen and to share. […] It was such an immediate safe space. That was completely unexpected from me. 

Participant G: It was always strange people to me, people that I did not know at all. To talk about my feelings with strangers – I don’t normally do this. But it happened very quickly that there was this trust and belonging in this online group. Even though we only see each other in rectangles reaching no further than our shoulders and miss a lot of the body language. I was impressed with how quickly it happens that when you are open you get openness in return. And when you are offered trust, you can return trust.

 

Participant I: The active listening had a lasting impact. We practiced it in so many situations in the seminar. That was a very profitable experience, although I had not connected it to stress management before. PI 

Participant K: First of all I remember I paid a lot of attention while I was talking to other people that I don’t jump on them. I really tried to practice this also with friends. I have this tendency to complete their sentences if they take longer to express themselves. We practiced listening at the beginning of each session. Most of us realised that usually we are not properly listening. 

Participant A: I can’t believe […] how quickly you were able to create a safe space. I am not a super closed person, but the emotions further down, I really do not share. I’m really surprised how quickly I became comfortable in this group. […] We had a few people in the group who were very shy. [They also eventually felt safe enough] and started coming out of their shell.

Words that came up again and again were: safe space, safety, listening, openness, trust. This is what most people remembered most vividly – presumably because it is an experience that they do not usually have in their work environment, and one that they did not expect to have in an online course such as this one.

Once people trust that they are safe in a group, something wonderful happens. Everyone starts exploring what makes them and the others feel alive and what they need to make their life more wonderful. People start to trust that they can be vulnerable in front of others. This is a very different experience from what we usually think “listening” means. This is what enabled some participants to experience self-compassion – some of them for the first time in their lives.

Participant H: Every week [for the duration of the course], it was on my schedule to think about self-compassion. Without even realising, it became part of how I was thinking. If I was getting stressed or getting panic attacks – if I would be getting into that state – I would actually go through these steps.

Even just witnessing this process can have this learning effect:

Participant A: The process of self-empathy… I had no idea that I was such an asshole to myself. Observing others go through this cycle and recognising their struggles and then projecting that on my own process and identifying where I got stuck. I learned a lot by watching others go through the same issues and seeing you guiding them through it. By watching them from a distance I could see more clearly what the next step could be for me.

This practice of slowly moving through these four steps – not in a linear way, but more like in a dance, back and forth, lingering, staying, pausing, moving, circling – doing this with other people, in my experience, brings our ability to feel our feelings to another level:

 

Participant C: The influence that NVC has on my dealing with stress today is massive. It changed my whole approach to myself. […] Realising that it can be good to be sad. […]. That was a big realisation. The feelings changed from restlessness – because I could not allow myself to feel this sadness – to know that – oh, I actually feel sad because I’m missing something. And then it’s such a relief. It slows down everything. There is a need that I cannot meet right now and maybe I can do that later. It was so much quieter inside myself after that.

 

Participant G: When we talked about this topic in the seminar [a case of sexual harassment at the participant’s institute] – I remember how intensely I experienced those feelings again, this tight feeling in my throat, drawing up my shoulders, everything becoming so tight and oppressive in my chest. This moment is still very present in my mind. [Then moving to the strategy of making sure to only go to meetings with this person with a third person], also showed me the relaxing effect this solution had on my body – [because it met my need for safety]. This moment of relief is also still very present in my mind.

 

Participant I: Listening into my body and seeing what’s there right now. The question “What’s alive in you?” was central. I tried to apply it many times. […] Now I recognise the fear as such. Before, I used to block it. So I’m one step further now. I recognise the fear as the actual feeling and not as this stream of thoughts.

 

Participant F: What I remember is that needs are important. I had never thought about that much before. For me that was important. Acknowledging one’s feelings and needs – that was definitely a major point for me. It seems so basic and somehow a lot of people are completely taken over by so many other things.

 

These are only a few extracts from approximately 520 minutes of audio recordings. But they show that these people have learned some essential NVC skills that help them process their stress reactions in a more caring, compassionate way.

But what about the other parts of NVC that I showed you earlier? In the process of conducting the interviews, I discovered that some of my past course participants successfully applied NVC to find more constructive ways of dealing with conflict in their work or private relationships – even though communicating with others was not as such part of the course programme.

 

Participant D: I forgot all the terms of NVC, but I am much more aware how I talk to my kids and to my wife. I have more awareness of where the others are. In what situation they are. To be actively aware of what’s going on with them right now. That they are maybe not behaving like this because they hate me, but because of things that have nothing to do with me.

 

Participant G: I think I speak differently now. Because I name my feelings more, for example that I don’t feel seen in a certain situation. The other day, at a performance review, I said exactly that. My boss understood that really well. […] In the past, I would not have said that, let alone with the self-confidence that it is okay to say it.

 

Participant H: If I was having an argument with someone it would just come to me to address it in this way [using the 4 steps]. The steps would really help me to deescalate the conflict. It became a practiced part of my everyday life.

 

Participant J: I learned how to communicate with people about their problems more. It became clear that different people have different expectations of how they want you to listen. There’s the possibility of asking, okay what do you want me to do actually? Just listen or give you advice?

 

Participant B: I had already told my boss that I wasn’t motivated to finish my PhD – and that didn’t work because it didn’t help me reduce my stress. He told me, well yeah, we’re all stressed. You have to deal with it. Then I started practicing self-empathy and I saw that it is not his responsibility to understand me, to understand that I’m stressed. I would have liked it, of course, but it’s okay. I let it go. And I could communicate non-violently on other things and speak honestly about certain things that were happening. This is still impacting me. I have seen results from this, improving communication.

These accounts make me hopeful. If a course on stress management that teaches participants to apply NVC to treat themselves with more compassion also – almost as a side effect – inspires them to change their listening and communication behaviour, then that’s a good starting point for a culture change. The change would be huge. 

But to initiate and implement this change in a substantial way, offering NVC training to early stage researchers to help them deal with stress is not enough. As long as…

 

… the system is benefiting from the inherent violence… Participant C

… the very people who would make great group leaders,  head of departments and directors – because they care for their own and other people’s needs – will leave that system. Because right now, they might see it as the only healthy option. If we want to support and nourish science, we need good leadership. And this will not do:

 

Participant J: One of the directors said about the many people in his department with mental health problems: Yeah, but they can’t measure that, so it doesn’t matter.

Luckily, not many people in authority abuse their power as blatantly as this director. And yet, in its extremeness, this comment shows how dangerous it can be if someone who does not care about other people’s needs, is in a position of so much power. This needs to change. And I believe that Nonviolent Communication can contribute to that change.

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