Masks. Distancing. Race. How to Have Hard Conversations during Hard Times
New BU workshops offer tools for navigating everyday conflicts amid the tensions of COVID and racial and political turmoil
It seems to happen all the time during the pandemic. You’re climbing the stairs or entering an elevator or going through a doorway and suddenly someone’s coming at you—without a mask. Do you bark at them? Scowl, but keep on going? Turn around and flee?
“There might be other ways to deal with that moment, where you can get what you need and not start an argument,” says Stacey Harris, associate director of Disability & Access Services and the first Student Life Fellow in the Dean of Students (DOS) office. “You could be direct and say simply, ‘Can you please put on a mask,’ or ‘Hey, we are all one community, please wear a mask.’ Why is asking for what we need so hard? Why does it cause us so much discomfort?”
As if the stress of COVID-19 is not enough, these everyday encounters create an added level of awkwardness and even confrontation. For students, that’s piled on top of roommate issues, academic pressures, and the normal challenges of simply navigating their way into adulthood.
Harris, a certified mediator and conflict resolution expert, as well as a lawyer, is offering a free workshop, Community, COVID & Conflict: Navigating the Hard Stuff in This New World, for undergrad and grad students. The workshop offers “tips, tricks, and skills around managing conflict, hard conversations, and challenging moments,” including both coronavirus-related issues and the usual disagreements with friends, roommates, and parents. The four-hour Zoom workshop, offered on two Sundays, September 20 and October 11, both days at 10 am, is intended to make students more comfortable speaking up for themselves and to show them how to do it in ways that will keep disagreements from escalating.
“Everybody needs practice” when it comes to telling someone to put on a mask or articulating your own discomfort, Harris says.
“How do you tell your friend to put on a mask when you’ve been sitting in your parents’ basement for six months and you haven’t talked to anybody?” she says. “How do you handle assumptions? Like, when I’m mad at you because I think you’re avoiding me, but really you’re freaked out because you’re afraid of germs and you didn’t want to tell me. All sorts of stuff.
“All of us do silly, impulsive things when our mood is elevated,” says Harris, who co-runs a peer-mediation program to train resident assistants and other student groups. “We all say stuff when we’re mad or offended.” In the sessions, she says, the focus is on just figuring out how to take a breath before someone says something they’ll regret.
“We’ve all been in this place of silence and panic, and everybody’s elevated,” she says. “How do we turn our brains back on to communicating? And how do we do this differently because everybody’s wound so tight right now?”
The idea for the workshops arose from conversations between Harris and Kenneth Elmore (Wheelock’87), BU associate provost and dean of students, about setting up a conflict-resolution program on campus, the goal of her DOS fellowship. When COVID struck and stress levels started rising, the workshops seemed to offer both immediate benefit and a piloting opportunity for the longer-term program.
“We were always talking about the idea that we need to put basic conflict resolution skills in everybody’s hands,” says Elmore. “We have a lot of people who have either learned to avoid conflict or haven’t had a lot of experience dealing with conflict. And I said to Stacey, ‘How are we going to make this practical for them?’”
Many students live in an environment where they don’t necessarily have to manage their own household or settle their own conflicts before they get to college. Now they need to exercise those skills, and at a time when it’s extra-challenging, between the pandemic and social distancing and the racial reckoning that is sweeping the country, all in a contentious presidential election year.
“The ramp-up is incredible,” Elmore says. “But the Zoom call also gives us permission to ask questions about each other’s lives. To be effective, to be antiracist, you’ve got to be able to ask those questions, to ask your roommate, ‘What’s your take on this?’ ‘Do you mind if I ask you what your take is on this, because I perceive you a certain way?’”
Even without the ongoing crises, those interactions would be different now than they were for previous generations.
“Remember Emily Post?” says Harris. “One of things Kenn and I were talking about is that there isn’t an etiquette now, all of the rules are gone, and so part of the workshop is: how do we figure out the new social order? Like, if we’re not going to high-five, what are we going to do?”
Add in the miscommunications caused by masks and the limits of Zoom and FaceTime, she says, and we’re going to have to be more overt in our interactions. Let the other person see you put away your phone, so they know you’re truly present. Say you’re smiling, since they can’t see it through your mask.
“We have to build a new way of existing together when sometimes we’re not physically together,” she says.
In August, Harris led a trial run of 90-minute sessions, spread out over five days, with 15 students, including several RAs. These began with self-examination—what’s my conflict style, how do I control my own stuff?—and worked their way up to role-playing conflicts with others and in groups.
“I’m an RA this year, so conflict resolution is a very important skill to have,” says Kevin Cheng (Questrom’22), who attended the August sessions. “Taking a step back and letting the parties involved explain themselves and work out their problems on their own instead of including our own biased opinions. But they need to communicate clearly.
“I’ve had to talk to students about, ‘Hey, you need to put your mask on,’ or ‘Make sure you give yourself some space,’” he says. “I know it’s a very awkward thing to be confrontational, especially for people that are a bit more shy. Just asking someone, ‘Hey, have you gotten your negative test yet?’ But it’s not something offensive, it’s just how we adapt to times like these.”
Graduate student Maddy Dunne (Sargent’22) says she attended the workshop because of her experiences as executive director of an extracurricular organization while she was an undergraduate at Temple University. “My steering committee would get into very heated arguments, and I don’t think I did the best job managing those situations,” Dunne says. “They would get to the point where everyone was unhappy.
“Having attended the workshop,” she says, “I’ve learned ways to validate both parties and maintain a level head when trying to mediate conflicts. I’ve found myself to be a better listener, especially on Zoom calls, and be more aware of others’ views.”
A lot of each workshop is simply teaching de-escalation and patience, such as by taking a deep breath and rephrasing the question, often more than once. “They want to jump to solutions,” Harris says, “but you could see them stop themselves and say, ‘OK, I see that you are stressed, tell me a little more.’ it was just a big breath, slowing down.”
In addition to COVID and politics, today’s society is riven by issues of race and class, gender and sexuality. “We talk about hierarchy and power,” Harris says. “Is it as easy to ask someone to put a mask on when they’re just like you as when they’re super different from you? What if it’s a teacher or someone older or a different gender? How do we deal with power dynamics and the crossing of moral lines? What if there’s someone in your group and you had no idea they loved Trump or Bernie or they’re gay or whatever?”
The bottom line, she says, is to help students understand how to coexist when there are conflicts and how to strengthen the BU community in those moments.
“The big hope is that they’ll be able to walk more comfortably through a world that is super complicated,” Harris says.
Sign up for one of the two Community, COVID & Conflict: Navigating the Hard Stuff in This New World sessions here.