Leif Stringer: Teaching self-empathy and deeper listening

Leif Stringer, a resource counselor in the UF Levin College of Law, first joined UF in August 2014.  

A longtime student and practitioner of Nonviolent Communication (NVC), Stringer is completing certification to be an NVC trainer and is finishing his graduate degree in Social Work. He is committed to helping individuals, families and groups communicate more effectively and become more conscious and present listeners.

Stringer will be teaching a course called “Compassionate Communication in the Workplace” at UF for the first time this fall. UF at Work recently sat down with him for an interview.

Can you talk about your work at the law school?

As a resource counselor, I support law students navigating their way through the enormous stress, expectations, competition, stigmas and emotions of their unique three-year journey. I’m there when they’re questioning whether they’re even enrolled in the right graduate school or just nervous before exams, or when they’re anxious, uncertain or embarrassed because they called out the wrong answer in class. I help them with stress management, teach a mindfulness class and connect students with main campus and community resources. I’m not a mental health therapist, but I’m a catch-all of sorts.

What drew you to this unique role?

It’s hard to put words to, but it was a character match. I’ve been doing this work unofficially in a different realm for a while. Supporting people by teaching them self-empathy within an authentic-feelings and needs framework is very much my cup of tea, and now I’m lucky enough to be doing it full-time.

When I’m not at the law school, I teach compassionate communication in my private practice. I work with individuals, couples, families and organizations in Gainesville, virtually and in person, helping them prioritize connection by (re)discovering their innate skill of relational attunement. NVC was first introduced to me in Marshall Rosenberg’s book A Language of Life 12 years ago, and it informs the work that I do and my relationships.

How would you describe NVC?

NVC uses consciousness, language and communication skills to create a framework from which you can express your feelings and needs with clarity and self-responsibility, listen to others’ feelings and needs with compassion and empathy, and facilitate mutually beneficial outcomes for everyone involved.

How do you teach this to students at the law school and your clients?

I help people see and hear differently than before, which results in a new awareness of what drives behavior and a new access to a superpower called present-centered curiosity. When we find out that we’re reacting without understanding our feelings and needs, for example, we free ourselves up to whole new responses—it’s exciting! I help people become aware that all actions are attempts to meet needs, even those actions we don’t enjoy. Everyone is trying to meet their own needs in every moment. Universal needs include respect, appreciation, care, consideration, connection, creativity, discovery, etc. It is the needs list that is the heart of this work. When we stretch our perspectives and realize that all actions are attempts to meet needs, the compassionate lens of communication then allows for more natural conversations in the workplace.

You have studied and earned degrees in organizational communication and hospitality and tourism management. How did you come to switch careers and initially become interested in this type of work?

I wanted first and foremost to have better personal relationships. I’ve always been someone whom friends and family would come to as a good listener, but the compassionate communication tools I’ve cultivated over the years have helped facilitate a particular type of listening. We can listen to fix or listen to drink in the life around us just as it is. When we listen to deeply understand another person’s heart, their longings and fears—not for the purpose of helping necessarily but just to deeply understand and connect—strategies for solutions come infinitely more easily. I originally wanted to improve upon the act of listening that I already valued. It was personal and still is.

After discovering the Rosenberg book, I got involved with the Center for Nonviolent Communication in New Mexico and started its certified training path. I was also a contributing team member at Gainesville’s River Phoenix Center for Peacebuilding, which attempts to work with similar principles. I’ve attended a number of workshops and taught small groups, and now I’m finishing a multiyear process of community-oriented certification from the center, which is very exciting.

How does your work at UF and in private practice inform each other?

The work I do is often the same; it is the audience that changes. I work with intergenerational groups, camps, kids, the homeless, law students and couples. No matter who it is, the work is always empathy-based and about helping people with needs awareness. If you take a law student who’s frozen, for example—he or she thinks they’re going to fail out or that they don’t belong here—if you can get them into a compassionate, self-accepting place where they’re able to express their own needs and fears, they’re better equipped to send a clear email to their professor asking for help, for example, or to go into the next class. They’re more prepared, self-connected and in a better headspace.

What are some of the challenges of this work?

Sometimes out of confusion, people think I’m coming in with a belief system and they might then be resistant. This work also asks us to stretch. For example, if I’m hitting you in the arm, it’s a really big stretch for you to think about me in that moment. Most people are not going to stop and think about the other person’s needs. That’s universally the biggest pushback—people struggling to “stay online,” to stay curious and not shut down when their own needs aren’t met.

The first time I brought this work to higher education was as an adjunct at Thomasville University in Georgia. My students were teachers by day and graduate students by night, and the course was called “Collaborative Classrooms through Social and Emotional Learning.” It was a sweetly rare opportunity to teach NVC and social and emotional learning. It was deeply meaningful, and to have it invited here at UF is really inspiring.

Can you share more about the course you’ll be teaching at UF later this month?

The course, “Compassionate Communication in the Workplace,” is about getting folks empowered in working through their blind spots and engaging their curiosity and compassion when it’s hard to do, or when we’ve been told it’s unacceptable in the workplace. I’ll be teaching participants that they have a choice in how they respond to stimuli. We’ll learn about first seeing and noticing our automatic behaviors, including our blind spots and reaction tendencies. Someone recently said to me, “We have a quarter-second opportunity to react differently,” which I love. We can miss that quarter-second if we’re not paying really close attention.

In the course, we’ll also look at the different ways we make a request. What we don’t want to do, for example, is to offer a demand disguised as a request—polite professional language when we’re really bossing folks around. We’ll look at how we’re conditioned to deal with power and at why we’re afraid to make requests. I make it really clear that needs are different from strategies and that needs are quality-of-life results based on the strategies. How we get our needs met differs, but needs themselves are humanistically universal.

We’ll also look at duality, the education that we didn’t ask for—i.e. “you vs. me,” “good vs. bad,” “right vs. wrong.” These kinds of dichotomies set us up for conflict against each other. There’s a lack of nuance, curiosity and coexistence implicit here; we’re all duped that it’s got to be this way or that, and that’s often what we’re in conflict about. These strategies apply to department leaders as well as staff. We’ll help put people into the shoes of their leaders and vice versa for better compassion and understanding.