Creating a Safe Space for Difficult Conversations

Eileen Babbitt, who specializes in international conflict management, has been facilitating discussions on campus about the Israel-Hamas war

Strong emotions and polarizing rhetoric have roiled the globe—and many university campuses—since the outbreak of violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip last month. To help community members at Tufts address this turmoil, one faculty member has been promoting a deceptively simple-sounding technique: talking face to face.

Drawing on her decades of experience in conflict resolution, Eileen Babbitt has recently moderated four community conversations for Tufts students, faculty, and staff, encouraging them to share how the unfolding Israel-Hamas war is affecting them personally.

Focusing on individual responses and facilitating respectful dialogue “humanizes the discussion and it creates the possibility… for developing empathy toward people with whom you might disagree,” says Babbitt, who is a professor of practice of international conflict management at The Fletcher School.

Such discussions are “not a panacea. They don’t solve all the problems of the world,” she says. “But they create some openings.”

Babbitt helped organize the first conversation last month at the invitation of Fletcher’s interim dean, Kelly Sims Gallagher, F00, F03, with the support of several other Fletcher professors. Babbitt then moderated a second community conversation at Fletcher and one each at the Medford/Somerville campus and the health sciences campus in Boston. Another conversation at Fletcher is planned for next week.

Babbitt sees the moderated discussions as a complement to other university programming, such as panels featuring experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or international politics and law. The University Chaplaincy and Tufts Hillel have also offered support and resources to students, and Goddard Chapel is hosting a weekly multifaith peace gathering.

Tufts Now talked with Babbitt about what she hopes to achieve through the community conversations and how her background prepared her for this moment. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

What is your goal in facilitating these conversations?

A lot of communication has been happening through social media, where things can get off track pretty quickly. The idea here was to do something face-to-face, where we could humanize the situation, and help people actually talk and listen to each other rather than debate the facts or argue who’s right and who’s wrong, or give lectures. To talk about this from their personal experience changes the nature of the conversation.

What’s the benefit of having people speak more personally?

It humanizes the discussion and it creates the possibility—I’m not saying that this is automatic, but it creates the possibility—for developing empathy toward people with whom you might disagree on the facts. If you talk from your personal experience—how you are feeling, how these events are affecting you personally—it opens a possibility for connection between people, even if they disagree on some things.

The thing that we are losing seemingly, not just in the country, but in the world, is our ability to tolerate differences. We have different ideas, different values, different histories, different personal experiences. And it’s not always easy to accept those differences, because they can seem threatening or disruptive, challenging, and disagreeable. We’ve got to figure out how to create space to tolerate those differences and still coexist.

At Fletcher, this is what we’re here to do. Our students are going to leave the school as diplomats, whether explicitly or implicitly. One of the skills a diplomat has to have, in my view, is to be able to listen and try to understand multiple points of view and be open-minded. The centering of the conversation on personal experience and response is intended to get at that.

The ground rules sound very important. How did you devise them?

These are common ground rules in conflict resolution. I’ve been using ground rules like this for 30 years. You can slightly revise them, depending on the group. So I wrote these and proposed them.

They’re a little more detailed than I might use in other groups, but I thought it was important to clarify: What does it mean to listen carefully? What does it mean to be respectful?

You read the ground rules at the start of the session, you post them, and you ask the group to agree to them. Why do you follow that process?

It creates a safe space. It says: Here’s what we agree to together. This is the set of agreements we are making that are going to create the boundaries of our conversation.

In my experience, it’s very important to make them explicit, not to just post them and have people read them on their own, but to actually go through them and explain what they mean and to have people affirmatively commit. Because then if someone goes astray or begins to lecture or accuse or be disrespectful, it gives me the authority to say, “That’s not what we agreed.”

I understand that you do sometimes need to interrupt gently and redirect people.

Yes, because we've agreed to a certain kind of engagement with each other, and they’ve authorized me as the moderator to remind them of what our agreements are.

If people see that the agreements are being violated and nothing happens, then the whole thing can unravel.

What has surprised you or concerned you during the conversations at Tufts?

I have to be honest: There’s nothing really that surprised me. I anticipated that this would be quite emotional for people. It touches people very deeply, and not only people who are from the region or have family or friends there. It stirs up a lot for people about basic human needs for security, acknowledgment, respect, and justice.

One of the things that concerns me is that people are feeling unsafe. I don’t think it’s only about their physical safety. I think people are very worried about being judged in a particular way or confronted in a particular way by other people in the community, of being put on the spot in a way that’s very uncomfortable.

So how do we help each other feel safer in our community? In addition to institutional steps, what are the interpersonal steps that we can take?

I think that is something to ask people: What would it take for you to feel safer? What can we as a community do to reassure you somehow? Because I don’t think it’s just a question of policing. Maybe for some that’s the case, but I think it’s deeper than that.

What else have you noticed about the community members who participate?

It takes courage to show up for a conversation. I give a lot of credit to the people who come. It’s not easy and it’s not easy speaking up once you’re there.

People talk about this from their own point of view. They rise to the occasion.

I’m there to create, hopefully, a space for this with them, but if people aren’t willing to be in that space and do this together, then it doesn’t work. And so far, they have.

It’s good for them and good for us, good for Tufts, that there’ve been so many people who have been willing to come into this conversation and do it in good faith, which is the very first ground rule. Do this in good faith. Don’t assume that people have ill intent. Give people the benefit of the doubt and let’s see what happens. And people have been willing to do that. It’s great.

How does your academic training and professional background help you in this role?

I’ve been doing this a long time. I worked some 30 years ago at UC Berkeley in public health. I had a marvelous mentor in those early years who helped me create a kind of template for myself about what it means to create a constructive group experience. Then, I focused at Harvard Kennedy School and in my doctoral work at MIT on negotiation and conflict resolution.

A lot of conflict resolution practice is preparation. It’s what happens before you walk in the room and how you think about many, many details in order to maximize the possibilities for success.

There are so many things to think about ahead of time. What kind of expectations are you setting up by how you’re framing the purpose of the session, and how is that getting communicated? Are you going to have experts in the room or not? If you are, what’s going to be their role?

In some groups, you craft the guidelines with the participants. You don’t come in with your own. That was not practical in our Tufts conversations because of the numbers and the time. But you do want to make as much effort as you can to have the group be part of setting up the parameters.

You’ve also worked for years on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, right?

Yes. This happens to be a conflict that I know a lot about because I’ve been working in this space for 30 years.

As a doctoral student at MIT, I worked with Herbert Kelman, now deceased, who was a professor of social psychology at Harvard. I took his amazing course called The Social Psychology of International Relations. In that course, he conducted an Israeli-Palestinian workshop, which began my connection to the conflict.

I continued to work with Kelman throughout my doctoral time, doing these workshops as one of several facilitators. When I finished my Ph.D., I worked with him at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard. We set up a group called the Program on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution and, under the auspices of that program, we continued to conduct Israeli-Palestinian workshops with politically influential members of both communities. This was in the 1990s.

When I came to Fletcher, I continued to do Israeli-Palestinian work and began to focus more on the Arab-Jewish relationship within Israel itself.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a fraught topic and this is a challenging time, yet you’ve stepped into a public role as moderator. Why did you want to do that?

It is what I can offer in these very difficult times. I mean, watching the news, one can feel overwhelmed. This is my way of doing something to counteract the unspeakable violence happening in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank—the destruction and the loss of life and the terrible inhumanity that we see. This feels like the least I can do.

But it is also more personal, as I have many friends and colleagues on the ground there and around the world who are personally affected, some at great risk of harm. I care about them and want them to be able to live in peace, security, and dignity—as we all should.

Is it hard for you to moderate these conversations?

I do get a little anxious ahead of time. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but I believe in processes like this. I see that they can be so helpful.

I want to be clear: They’re not a panacea. They don’t solve all the problems of the world. But they create some openings, and I think that’s good. I think people have appreciated the space that’s been created. I hope we can keep doing it for as long as people need it.

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