In these polarized times disagreement feels personal. Rather than challenging an idea, the current national conversation tends toward undermining an individual or group. “We tell each other, we don’t listen to each other,” said Associate Vice Chancellor for Organizational Effectiveness and Development Richard Wilkinson.
Wilkinson and Assistant Professor Jane Compson created The Courageous Engagement Workshop Series, a four-part program to help UW Tacoma faculty and staff create a better campus environment. “We’re building capacity for coping with conflict,” said Compson.
The series is one of ten projects to receive grants from the UW Tacoma Strategic Initiative Fund. Wilkinson and Compson received $50,500 to be spent from July 2017 to June 2019. Their proposal made the case that “holding difficult conversations skillfully touches on all aspects of striving to create a campus climate where all are welcome and encouraged to succeed, one where we are able do our best work.”
This past spring the first two cohorts of staff and faculty went through the training. Over 40 participants attended lectures on topics related to fostering better communication building understanding and relationships when you have differing opinions on topics you care about. “We had one speaker talk about shifting from conflict to dialogue, another on cultivating compassion and another on the principles of non-violent communication,” said Compson. Each of the sessions came with readings, videos or other material intended to provide participants with greater understanding of the topic.
Wilkinson and Compson have plans for at least two more cohorts. “Universities should be a place where you can have difficult conversations,” said Wilkinson. “How can we do that more skillfully without pointing fingers and accusing?”
Feedback from the first cohort has been largely positive. One participant said, “I feel like so much of this information is immediately relevant. Self-compassion is one of the tools I’ve been able to draw on to improve my well-being, and compassion practice is something I’ve been able to use to keep my internal dialogue towards others positive when it may not have been otherwise.”
Wilkinson and Compson hope eventually to make this training available to students, either as a series of lectures or even a course. “I think it’s important to have students who can adapt and are resilient,” said Wilkinson.
At the end of the four weeks, Wilkinson and Compson had participants come up with a digital cards (an up-to-date version of wallet cards), identifying those ideas they would put into practice. “The idea is that it would show what they were going to work on,” said Wilkinson. “We want participants to take what they’re learned and create their own approach to more effective interactions with others around differences.”
John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or firstname.lastname@example.org