For whom are your services intended?
All those who feel a change in their general well-being, who sense they are no longer happy. People who don’t enjoy going to work or who realize they don’t have time for other things anymore. People who are under stress and perhaps are also experiencing physical symptoms – such as difficulty sleeping, for example. People whose personal relationships are suffering because of their work, or who are struggling to solve work-related conflicts.
Other considerations often add to this strain: Do I want to start a family? Do I want a relationship? Do I want a long-distance relationship? As humans, we might have arguments, go through painful separations, or have to take care of family members who are ill or dying. And if underlying stress is already present, then every additional problem is one problem too many. I strongly advise all those who find themselves in such situations to seek support. My coaching sessions are available in both German and English.
Coaching is a goal-oriented counseling format outside the medical setting that is tailored to an individual’s professional situation, but can also deal with aspects of their personal life. Psychological counseling has a broader focus, but is more short term in nature than coaching and can also be offered by non-therapists (who don’t have a medical or alternative practitioner’s license). Precisely these differences are the subject of varied discussion among therapists and related professionals.
Do employees in scientific institutions have specific problems?
A general topic is stress in the workplace. Common complaints include lack of support (for PhD students), a tense working environment, conflicts within the group and often conflicts with superiors. I hear a lot of complaints about the supervision of doctoral theses. Many PhD students come to me because they feel abandoned or like they don’t see their supervisor often enough.
Why do you think it is mainly young scientists who come to see you?
For young men and women completing their PhDs, this is a very important time. Psychologists refer to it as the “second crisis of adolescence” – the first being puberty. But this one is more about identity: Who am I? What do I want to do with my life and how do I want to do it? It’s about differentiating ourselves from our parents or others, or from certain ideas that have been instilled in us throughout our lives. And many people go through this crisis while also trying to manage an extremely intense workload. Then there are additional problems to contend with. A lot of PhD students have moved to a new city and, with this, are living out a dream. At the beginning, everything is seen through rose-tinted glasses. Then suddenly they come crashing back down to earth: It’s November, it’s cold and dark, you’re sitting on the S-Bahn surrounded by people who are all in a bad mood. You feel alone and isolated. Then you go to the lab and people are arguing. It can all be really overwhelming. Other students who have been working towards their PhD for a long time may suddenly realize that it’s not going to solve their problems.
… that it doesn’t answer the question: “Who am I?”
Exactly. During this phase, young people may also be thinking about life plans, starting a family, choosing a partner. How can I balance this demanding vocation with a family or a relationship? And what about all my other interests? All of this is really not easy.
How do you help in these situations? Can you describe a typical first counseling session?
Most importantly, these sessions are open to anyone and everyone and are strictly confidential. I provide a safe space for everybody. The first few hours are spent learning about the individual’s past. I ask a lot of questions and tap into all areas of his or her life. At the MDC, I allocate eight to ten hours for each client. In most cases, that is a sufficient amount of time to help someone work through a specific problem. If I feel that someone is suffering from a mental illness or is suicidal – i.e., that he or she requires long-term support or therapy – then I try to arrange this.
What happens in these eight to ten hours?
I offer individual counseling to MDC employees. My coaching sessions concentrate on conflicts in the workplace and on health promotion. The aim is very clear: We work together to solve the problem at hand and/or develop general problem-solving strategies in these areas. That’s the difference between therapy and coaching. In therapy, one may take a long look at why, for example, someone always chooses the same kind of partner or always ends up in the same situation in a relationship or a conflict. The idea here is to rummage around in the vaults of a person’s psyche, see what’s going on, and maybe try to straighten things out a bit.
In coaching, on the other hand, we jointly consider what resources are available to an individual and how he or she may be able to use them to deal with the current situation. Sometimes it helps just to have someone on the outside ask a few questions, and to analyze things together that have previously appeared self-evident but that you sometimes just can’t find a solution to.
What are the limits of such counseling? And would it make sense sometimes to say: Bring your superior with you, I need to talk to him or her too?
The problem always belongs to everyone in the system. That is really important. But I’m no judge, and I also don’t know the truth. From my perspective, there is no truth. As a coach, I am biased towards my clients. I am also responsible for making those who come to me feel better afterwards. This can include giving them the ability to better resolve conflicts with superiors afterwards.
How do you go about that?
If someone comes to me because he or she is experiencing a difficult work situation, then in our coaching sessions we can consider the following questions together: How can the affected person distance himself or herself so that he or she does not have to carry this enormous burden any further? Maybe he or she needs more efficient self-preservation methods. Then I ask: What are your limits? How far are you willing to go? What is the end of the line for you? And I emphasize: You are not simply at the mercy of this situation; you can shape it too. That's something that is often important to reiterate at the start. And this can be a very exciting idea, especially for those who come from very hierarchical families, for example. In this scenario, you learn to obey from an early age and you’re made to feel that you shouldn’t say what you think. At first, this is highly compatible with a hierarchical work environment. But sometimes a person reaches their breaking point and realizes: I don't want to live like this. I know this uneasy feeling myself, like you’re in a constant arm wrestling match. So during the counseling, we consider the questions: How can you take good care of yourself in this situation? How can you fix this situation yourself time and again? And, above all, how can you define for yourself how far you want to go and no further?
Do you offer strategies for how to act, for example, when dealing with superiors?
Yes, I will sometimes work with role play. This gives clients the possibility to generate and try out hypothetical scenarios, such as: “Ok, how do I feel if I say ‘Stop’ or ‘Wait a minute’ when a boundary has been crossed?” We also try to establish what the individual’s obstacles really are. How can I take good care of myself? What do I do that serves me or doesn’t serve me? Every adult has solved a conflict in some form at some point in their life. So you can always look to your past and think: What helped at another point in time? How was I able to untangle a similar situation? What do you do when someone reports they have been sexually harassed? Do you advise him or her to go to the police?
Experience shows that it takes a long time for people who suffer sexual violence to talk about what happened to them, even during counseling, therapy, or coaching sessions. My initial focus is to help this person deal with the experience. And to ensure that the situation does not result in further boundary crossings. That is often the case because the ability to protect individual boundaries becomes weaker and weaker. Of course, I very much wish that all of these incidents would be reported to the police and that the perpetrators would be held accountable. But this can destabilize the person who has experienced this boundary violation. And I’m there for this person as a therapist; that’s my No. 1 priority. For some clients it is good to first work on achieving stability.
It is important that structures be created within companies and institutions that facilitate the lodging of complaints, and that there are consequences to pay. And that at the same time there are structures in place to protect the victims. It is also important that training sessions be conducted in order to develop a sensibility for recognizing what is normal desirable behavior in the workplace. That’s what you’re in the process of doing at the MDC.
Laura Breimann and Jutta Kramm conducted the interview.
About Sylvie Tappert
Sylvie Tappert is a social scientist and systemic therapist who has 15 years’ experience in providing coaching, therapy, and counseling. She is a qualified systemic therapist for individuals, families, and couples. This includes systemic therapy training as well as body-psychotherapeutic training, a type of therapy that incorporates physical expression and the posture of the body (e.g., breathing).
Phone: 030 28372571