In this blog, CompassPoint staffer Amy Benson shares a personal story on the power of conflict resolution and pays tribute to the mediator whose expertise led her to pursue teaching interpersonal communications and conflict resolution.
During my college years at the University of Pittsburgh, I had the pleasure and fortune of being a part of a student activist group that got coverage in the student and local newspapers, acknowledgement and praise from national pro-choice feminist groups, and most impactfully, provided a first-hand, experiential lesson in how individuals can work together to change institutions and policies. My fellow activists and I accomplished the following:
- We successfully lobbied our Student Health Center to update their policy on emergency contraception (EC) to include discussions of EC at routine visits and writing prescriptions on request
- We had safer sex demonstrations on campus, reaching thousands of students
- We co-created the first women's conference at the University of Pittsburgh
Long before we ever had these "wins", though, we were a bunch of sophomore and junior undergrads who dreamed of increasing safe and affordable access to reproductive health care—but actually used most of our precious time and energy arguing with each other. If I had quit the group right then, I would have left believing that activist groups are ineffective teams where you go to complain about things that are impossible to change. Luckily for me, fate intervened in the form of a wise mentor, Michelle Wirth, and skilled conflict mediator, Madeleine Hershey.
Michelle Wirth, who worked with our student group and supervised internships for some of our members, offered this wisdom to our embattled team:
I've seen this before. I've been a part of student groups with big potential who get derailed by internal conflict. Conflict is normal and can be healthy. Let me introduce you to a mediator who can help you work through the issues that you're having.
We agreed, and a date was set for a mediation session.
I can still picture the details of that meeting with our mediator Madeleine Hershey—probably because this hour of my life turned out to be a "game changer." There were about five of us from Students for Reproductive Freedom, including Sally and Chrissy, two members who had been at the center of the internal struggles of our group. Madeleine asked Sally and Chrissy to speak directly to each other. She said, "You haven't been supporting each other as members of this group." They both nodded vaguely. "You have been saying mean things about each other behind each other's backs." Again, vague nods and averted eye contact. Then Madeleine said, "Chrissy, I want you to tell Sally what you've been saying about her." Chrissy’s eyes looked panicked. She didn't want to do it. Madeleine said, "This is important. Look at Sally and tell her what you've been saying." And she did it. She looked her in the eye and said, "I've been calling you a B*&$%." She looked sheepish and embarrassed and, for the first time, vulnerable. At Madeleine's encouragement, Sally responded, "I've been calling you a b*(*&## too." Two years of tension melted in that moment. It didn't vanish, but I physically felt the hostility shift. We were no longer "stuck." Not what you might expect from calling someone a B! I could feel the room change as the people I've been working with began being honest with each other, admitting their power to each other, and confessing that they'd undermined each other. People in the group, including myself, committed to a new way of working together. We agreed to talk about challenges, respect each other's perspectives, and we remembered and reaffirmed the important purpose that brought us together as a group to begin with.
It's a lesson that I carry with me to this day.
I learned to believe in the power of activism, especially when leaders work together. I also learned that it's not always easy. When egos conflict with purpose, all is not lost! There are people and skills to intervene, to open up the conversation and to help us learn about each other's perspectives so we can work together effectively.
I'm lucky that I had a chance to tell Madeleine Hershey (pictured at right) what a difference she made in my life before she died. She is a big reason that I teach interpersonal communication and conflict resolution skills as part of a capacity building team. Read Madeleine's obituary, which was censored by her local newspaper, here. On a related note, I do aspire to live a life that can't be reprinted in the newspapers after I die. RIP Madeleine, and thank you for sharing your magic with the world.
Amy Benson is a project coordinator at CompassPoint. Amy provides customer service and support to CompassPoint workshop attendees and operations support for several of CompassPoint's cohort leadership programs. She also writes and trains in the area of interpersonal and organizational communications and co-leads CompassPoint"s Multicultural Organizational Development Team.