A dozen pairs of arm wrestlers, with each competitor giving it their all to score the required 10 points, is not what one might expect to see at a program run by an organization dedicated to transforming conflict. But this was an important moment in the Mediation and Negotiation seminar for high school-aged Seeds held recently in New York City.
Bob Bordone—a Seeds of Peace Board Member, who, alongside his Harvard Law School team, has been facilitating such workshops for Seeds of Peace for eight years—ended the tussling and asked who forced their partners’ arm to the table more than 10 times. One person in almost every pair raised their hands with a smile.
“Did you know,” Bob asked, “that both of you could have gotten 10 points? Getting as many points for yourself has nothing to do with beating your partner.” A collective “ohhh” followed as Seeds recognized how Bob’s suggestion of cooperation, though less exciting, would certainly have been more mutually beneficial.
This arm-wrestling activity was one of many skill-building exercises for the 20 New York City and US/UK Seeds participating in the program. Running over the course of a weekend in early November, the training combined lecture and practice, using simulations and role-play to help Seeds practically apply the skills being introduced.
As Eliza O’Neil, Seeds of Peace’s US/UK Programs Manager, explained: “The program was about offering Seeds the opportunity to convene meaningfully, build new skills around better conversations, and strengthen their Seeds of Peace community here in New York City following Camp.”
Sacrificing other commitments, such as an SAT prep session, a school play, and extra hours of sleep, Seeds attended the seminar and began to see how these skills would apply to everyday life, from family dinners to friend groups, student governments to Model U.N., even a fantasy football league.
The program began on a Friday evening with community-building activities and the setting of ground rules. Seeds shared their hopes and fears as well as their common goals and commitments. Saturday began the crash course in negotiation.
Defined as communicating with the intention to influence others, negotiation is an important element of the human experience. Seeds realized that they have been practicing negotiation techniques for much of their lives, starting with the time they could speak and make requests of their parents. But instead of negotiating for a piece of candy or a later bedtime, much of Saturday consisted of role-play as Seeds practiced negotiation as oil pricing executives, politicians, and climate change activists.
Sunday, the final day of the seminar, was focused on the practice of mediation. Seeds learned how mediation shares a process with dialogue facilitation, something they experience at Camp, but differs in its purpose. While dialogue facilitation is only focused on fostering a deeper understanding of self and others, mediation is also concerned with producing a mutually acceptable agreement between two conflicting parties. Dialogue and mediation, however, both require clear ground rules (such as no interrupting and respect), active listening, and empathy.
One activity about active listening—an essential skill when it comes to negotiation and mediation—was, according to Seeds, particularly useful and engaging. As one Seed described it, “it was like my Thanksgiving dinner, but, like, no one left the table in tears.”
During this activity, Seeds were split into groups of three and assigned the rotating roles of speaker, listener, and coach. At the beginning of each round, the listener shared their position on a controversial issue they are passionate about. The speaker then argued the opposite position, while the listener actively inquired about and acknowledged a position they deeply disagreed with. Arguments about abortion, police brutality, gun control, climate change, and affirmative action ensued.
As the activity progressed, however, (and with the help of coaches’ observations and suggestions) listeners became less combative and more curious. Approaching from a place of curiosity, rather than judgement, generated conversations that, as one Seed summarized, “were kinder and more constructive. And when I really listen, I’m able to actually improve my argument.”
“I didn’t know how to just be a listener without giving my opinion,” reflected another Seed, “and I’m still working on it. But I’ve proved to myself that I can come from a place of empathy and curiosity even when I might be angry.”
It was a practical and powerful weekend: Seeds practiced communicating clearly, cooperatively, and curiously; reflected on the role of trust; unpacked their own assumptions and actions; and applied the skills of negotiation and mediation to real situations.
“This is the nitty gritty of Seeds of Peace,” one Seed summarized. “It kind of makes the other stuff possible. Becoming better sometimes takes PowerPoints and practice.”
To learn more about our programs in communities around the world, visit seedsofpeace.org/programs.