Public Conversations Trains Students at Northeastern

January 29, 2015

On January 15, Public Conversations’ Director of Program Development John Sarrouf and practitioner Liz Lee-Hood offered their third workshop at Northeastern University. Over the 2014 – 2015 academic year, Public Conversations and Northeastern are developing a program called “Navigating Difficult Dialogues,” which offers students and staff the opportunity to incorporate dialogue and facilitation skills into their academic and personal lives. As the opportunity and need for constructive conversations around difficult issues continue to rise, programs like this have become so much more important. The program represents Public Conversations’ commitment to partnering with universities to foster more fruitful conversations on campus across differences, and to develop the next generation of dialogue practitioners.

John and Liz trained 240 resident advisors and students over two workshops, after offering facilitator training for 15-20 staff and students, and a three-hour training with staff from residential life earlier in the year. John and Liz immersed interested students in what more constructive conversations can look like and trained them to help convene conversations on campus with the Navigating Difficult Dialogues program.

Students learned about the basic neurobiological response to perceived threat – how our brains look “on conflict.” They were also asked to think about circumstances that are “safe enough” for respectful conversations, and how asking questions can open up possibilities for relationship and build trust. By learning simple skills for improving interpersonal conversations, students built foundational dialogue skills that promote trust, connection, curiosity, and coexistence across differences. They ended the training by thinking about conversations they would like to convene on campus and in their buildings.

Said one resident assistant (RA), “As a pharmacy major, I do not receive much training on how to handle difficult or controversial conversations. I think that this training will help me not only in my duties as a resident assistant, but in discussing medications and therapies with future patients when the conversation becomes difficult.” Another noted, “The workshop introduced me to new ways of thinking about dialogue… The most significant thing for me was learning how to ask for more information rather than trying to persuade a person to think differently. I also learned helpful dialogue tips, which are more effective during difficult conversations…. If I encounter a difficult dialogue with any of my residents, I plan on using the techniques I learned in this workshop to facilitate those talks.” Echoing what is at the heart of Public Conversations’ work, an RA added, “The most significant thing I learned was how different ways of approaching conversations can make a big difference.”

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