Giving Thanks to (Facilitation) Students

From Bob Bordone and Rachel Viscomi (Harvard):

November 25, 2014

This fall semester this year a notable one for both of us, for different reasons and motivated by different circumstances. Bob is preparing to take his first sabbatical after sixteen years of continuous teaching in both semesters; by contrast, Rachel embarked upon teaching her first law school class. For entirely different reasons then, both of us felt some anxiety about the semester. For Rachel, with years of experience teaching corporate executives but new to teaching a semester-long class for law students, her attitude was one of cautious optimism. For Bob, ready for a much needed break, his attitude was, “Power through these three months and then a break is on the way!”

Who would have thought that now, looking back three months later, we would be thinking of the semester gone by as one of the most energizing, rewarding, and exciting experiences of our careers to date?

This year, building on the work of Bob (with the invaluable help of our colleague Heather Kulp) in the Fall of 2013, we offered for the second time (with the indispensable assistance of our colleague Sara del Nido) an expanded version of the Lawyer as Facilitator Workshop. Our purpose in designing the class was to capacity-build law students to facilitate genuine dialogue around areas of deep difference in our politics, community, churches, and even within the legal profession. We also identified a broader need to train law students in how to collaborate more effectively with each other working in groups, manage multi-stakeholder processes, and run strategy and planning meetings. The Lawyer as Facilitator Workshop convenes participants in dialogue groups related to abortion, university policies around Title IX and harassment, and trigger warnings. We also partnered with Harvard University’s largest union and its labor relations team to facilitate brainstorming sessions on topics that have consistently been points of contention in official labor negotiations.

On the surface, then, this course sounds like mostly a skill-building and practical workshop. But it has, in fact, been so much more – for us and for our students. A workshop on facilitation necessarily forces self-examination and self-challenge, and we approached the course design with that emphasis in mind. But we underestimated the ways in which that element of facilitation would create a learning “container” in the classroom for personal growth, sharing, and introspection about identity, emotions, competency, and community. Partially by invitation, but mostly by dint of courage and openness, the twelve students in our class created a place where they could not only develop behavioral skills, but also explore the inner voices that get in the way of their being as skillful in the room as they might. These inner voices might be telling them many things, including that they are unqualified, an imposter, or undeserving of the opportunity to witness and guide a group in deep conflict.

Our own experience witnessing and guiding the students as they opened up this space of incredible rigor and depth for each other and for us served as a powerful reminder of the opportunity, privilege, and honor that we have of teaching. Our work as teachers of conflict resolution, at its best, should be transformative. Conflict management is a subject area that demands cognitive and behavioral skills, but also an emotional self-awareness and courage to accompany people to terrain that can be unsettling, volatile, frightening, and often unexplored. To do that well, the best facilitators and mediators need to know how to go there themselves. And seeing our students take on this tremendously challenging work this semester was nothing short of inspiring.

Here is just a small sampling of what we have learned from our students in the course – not only about facilitation, but also about the unique role that we find ourselves in as teachers in our field:

Deep empathy, particularly for personal stories and histories, matters; it bridges gaps and creates connections. Students’ aspirations and fears – for themselves professionally and for the profession they are about to inhabit – were often central to why they chose to take this course in facilitation; and as those aspirations and fears came to the fore in class, so, too, did students’ personal stories of struggle, success, loss, doubt, tenacity, and triumph. The sharing of these stories provided a chance for everyone in the class – instructors and fellow students – to take one another’s perspective and better understand the challenge, unique to each student, of learning to facilitate a group in need of their own “container” for conversation, dialogue, or problem-solving.

In the face of challenge, students respond with deep resilience. The course offered a chance for students to facilitate during nearly every class, as well as engage in a subsequent deep and thorough review of their work. For most students, it was their first experience facilitating in a formal setting. At times, students experienced regret, disappointment, and even a feeling of being overwhelmed by the experience. We found ourselves called upon to bear witness to these difficult moments, to find ways to encourage and support them, and also to offer the coaching they needed to take the next step. But the students did the same for each other, without prompting, and wholly on their own. What impressed us most was their desire to persevere – to pick themselves up, integrate the lessons, and show up again the next time, ready for what might come their way.

Given the space and tools, students can be masterful at creating a classroom learning environment that fosters rigor and challenge as well as compassion and care. If this fall’s course has been a success, it is owed in large part to the atmosphere that the students helped create. Our classroom has been a “container” that has required rigor in the form of difficult exercises and detailed critiques, but also has been infused with compassion, care, and a spirit of experimentation and low stakes that has in turn promoted openness. Reflecting on the space that we managed to co-create this semester, we are keenly aware of a teacher’s tremendous responsibility in this regard: not only to foster a positive environment, but also to enable the students themselves to maintain that sense of safety, even when the material is challenging and students and teachers feel vulnerable. Indeed, while we intentionally designed the classroom to be a learning “container,” that simple intention would not itself have been enough to ensure a positive and open atmosphere throughout the semester; we relied on – and were inspired by – our students, who made the conscious decision to adopt, extend, and embody that spirit consistently.

As Thanksgiving approaches and we reflect upon our experience this fall, we are filled with a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude – for the field of dispute resolution and conflict management, for our vocation as teachers, and, most of all, for our amazing students. Working with students who struggle past challenges, take risks, and put themselves fully into their craft is more rejuvenating and refreshing than a lifetime of sabbaticals, and the most exciting kickoff to a teaching career that we could imagine. So thanks for that reminder, as we move on from the fall and prepare for what’s next.

 

Robert C. Bordone is the Thaddeus R. Beal Clinical Professor of Law and the Director of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program at Harvard Law School.

 

Rachel A. Viscomi is a Lecturer on Law and the Assistant Director of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program at Harvard Law School.

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