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Facing conflicts without fear

December 2020

Seven different countries, seven different cultures. Hilde Janssens has experience in how differently people communicate with each other. And yet, certain problems are the same wherever you go. The Biozentrum alumna is convinced that with good communication and more understanding for the others many conflicts could be quickly resolved and the research culture be changed for the better.

You work at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria) as Good Practice Officer. What is your job?
The two major topics of my work are Diversity & Inclusion and Conflict Management. It is still rare today that conflict resolution is offered at a scientific institution. We established this area here at the IST, with the idea that we could identify conflicts faster and defuse them before they escalate. The employees also had the need to have someone they could confide in when problems arose.

What do you like most about your work?
The contact with other people is wonderfully fulfilling and extremely enriching. It was one of the reasons why I decided to leave research after almost twenty years. For me, resolving a conflict is almost like dealing with a scientific problem. Those involved do not manage to talk with each other. It is my job as an independent third party to bring the conflicting parties together around one table, so that dialogue becomes possible. The question is what does each individual need and how can we bring the different needs together? It’s like a puzzle. 

Twenty years in research is a long time. What made you change your direction?
I have lived in seven different countries, in Belgium, Switzerland, the USA, England, Spain, Germany and now in Austria. It struck me that certain problems arise everywhere and they often involve communication. This hinders scientific work. During the time my partner was a group leader in Barcelona, he attended the course “Leadership & Communication” and said to me afterwards: “Hilde, you would love this, you must really do it too.” The course was a turning point for me. I started then to give courses for scientists myself on leadership, interpersonal communication, self-leadership for women in science, implicit bias and gender equity in science for various institutes and organizations in Europe, including EMBO. And I produced two short films dealing with these topics, one of which is even used by the European Research Council (ERC).

Doing something like this without training is remarkable. How did you acquire the knowledge?
It started with “I’ll give a course and see how well it is received”. I collected a lot of material, read much and of course I also incorporated what I had experienced as a woman in science. In the meantime, I have also taken some courses on these topics, like on conflict management. In fact, I have always been interested in such topics. At the start of my studies, I found it difficult to decide between biology and psychology for a long time. Now I can combine these two so well. 

What do we need to communicate better?
Dialogue and understanding for the other person. And learning to speak with each other on an equal footing. I have noticed that nowadays many people have trouble discussing difficult issues, address awkward or sensitive issues or even accept that someone has another opinion. That surprises me over and over again. 

What is the reason?
Today, we communicate to a large extent in writing, by email or via social media, but less and less in one-to-one conversation. Unfortunately, we interpret much into what we read, i.e. you read what you expect. Having a person in front of you is something completely different. Also, many people find it difficult to say: “Listen, I think we have a problem, something isn’t going well”. I am convinced that most problems could be resolved quickly if we talk to each other openly and respectfully. There are good communication tricks and a few principles, that I follow, for example using “I language”, it relaxes the situation.

You also say the research culture needs to change. What do you mean?
Although we long for diversity, in the long run it is often the people with a similar mindset that are the winners. A consequence is the loss in diversity of intelligent thinkers who would greatly enrich an open research culture. Even in terms of research topics diversity is lost. It is also a question of the allocation of research funding. Taking a risk is less acceptable, the tendency is to back what is familiar, be it topics or people. I think this is how we lose the freedom and the diversity of research.

Do you have an idea about how we can change this?
During a recent online conference about gender roles in science, we discussed the idea of a lottery for grants again. For example, we could draw five great proposals each from female and male scientists and they get a grant. This approach is remarkably interesting. The Volkswagen Foundation in Germany already allocates part of its funding through such a lottery system and here, in Austria, the FWF started this also with the “1000 ideas” concept. I also think it is important to dissolve the boundaries between the disciplines. We are a society and have questions that require diverse approaches and answers. 

After studying in Belgium, you came to the Biozentrum in 1995. How did this come about?
Each year, a Belgian postdoc from Walter Gehring’s lab gave an intensive course on Drosophila at our university. I found it really fascinating and then he suggested to come to Basel for my PhD. At first, I wasn’t sure, however, a few months later while skiing in Switzerland, I did take the chance to meet Walter Gehring personally. After the interview he said: “You can start in my lab next year.” It was a simple as that in those days. But the time I spent in the Gehring lab was all the more intensive. Funnily enough, a nice story just came to my mind this morning. 

I am curious...
Walter always used the formal “Sie” form with his PhD students. Only after your PhD defense you were on eye level with him. From this time on you were allowed to use the informal “Du” and be on first name basis with him. At one of my PhD committee talks I must have impressed him because he came to me afterwards and offered me the “Du” form. That was quite strange. One and a half hours later I entered the lab as Walter was taking care of his fly stocks and he said to me “By the way, in German, I would still like you to call me ‘Sie’.” He was already regretting the offer he had made just before. I continued to address him as Prof. Gehring. And after my PhD defense, just as was his tradition, he shook my hand and said: “By the way; I am Walter.” 

Curriculum vitae:
Hilde Janssens works as a Good Practice Officer at the Institute of Science and Technology in Austria and as a freelance communications trainer. After completing her biology studies, the Belgian came to the Biozentrum and earned her PhD in 1999 in Prof. Walter Gehring’s group. Several research positions brought the scientist to various institutions around the world. She then turned her long-standing interest in leadership and communication into profession. Hilde Janssens lives with her husband, two sons and two cats in Klosterneuburg.