Via the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program 

Source: Pexels

By: Neha Singh ’19

When Zikaron BaSalon first asked me to facilitate a discussion about Holocaust Remembrance on Holocaust Memorial Day, the task seemed easy even though the subject matter was weighty. After all, many people who were similarly inexperienced in leading group discussions had successfully hosted similar events with Zikaron BaSalon in the past. Moreover, I was working with a great team of fellow students and mentors in the Harvard alternative dispute resolution (ADR) community who would help me make the discussion a success. And I had learned about facilitating conversations in my classes taught by expert facilitators.  With so much going for me, how could I not be an amazing facilitator?

Well, pride goes before the fall.

The more I prepared for the event, the more nervous I became. Despite receiving support from Zikaron BaSalon, despite the help of my team, and despite all my coursework in this area, I felt out of my depth. I had two major concerns with whether I could facilitate the upcoming discussion well.

My first concern was that maybe I was just the wrong person to be facilitating this discussion. How could I, a non-Jewish person with no family connections to the Holocaust possibly do justice to such an important topic? What could I, a second-year law student with nothing but book knowledge about ADR principles, have to offer to people with rich and deep connections to the Holocaust? Who was I to tell them how to share their feelings with each other? I seriously considered the idea that my most useful contribution to this event could be just remaining silent for an hour while others talked.  Unfortunately, remaining silent, while tempting, would not solve my second concern.

My second concern was that I would be unable to stop the discussion from becoming heated in a manner that would be counterproductive to our goal of encouraging Holocaust Remembrance. It was all too easy to imagine the conversation transforming into an angry yelling match. What would I do if people began to discuss and have intense political disagreements about Israel-Palestine relations? Or about the political climate in the US? Or about the refugee crisis in Germany? All of these are topics worth discussing in detail, but I was unconvinced that heated discussions on these topics would further our goal of Holocaust Remembrance.

Eventually, I was able to address both my concerns and facilitate a discussion that I thought was honest, welcoming, and respectful. While I will not pretend I did everything perfectly, it was a rewarding experience that taught me a lot. If I were to host an event like this again, I would make some changes that I think would make the discussion even better.

To address my first concern of not having the right background to facilitate this discussion, I asked for help from a colleague who had a different background that complemented mine. Specifically, one of my former Teaching Assistant colleagues, Max, was available to help facilitate the event with me. Max brought with him his lived experience as a Jewish person and his history of facilitating conversations about the Holocaust in other contexts; this made him an invaluable addition to the team, as he was able to suggest facilitation strategies that created an environment that was conducive to a rewarding discussion. In addition, the two of us as facilitators made a good team because we could model for the rest of the group how Jewish and non-Jewish people could talk together about the Holocaust. During the event itself, no one questioned or seemed offended by the fact that I was co-facilitating the discussion, which I took as a sign that I had addressed my first concern well enough.

To address my second concern of not wanting the discussion to turn into a heated argument, Max and I worked together to prepare a plan for how we would stop off-topic heated arguments, if those occurred. A big part of this process was deciding what counted as “off-topic” in the first place. After all, people have different thoughts about the subject of the Holocaust, and we did not want to stifle any expression that was respectful and sincere. We ended up creating a list of topics that we thought were off-topic and would lead to arguments, and decided that if the discussion veered into these topics, we would re-direct the conversation by asking a new question or prompting a different participant to speak. I was the major driving force behind this strategy, because I felt uncomfortable with allowing conflict in a discussion that I was facilitating. I was uncomfortable because I would hold myself responsible if a participant in my discussion felt disrespected or offended; thus, I wanted to eliminate the chance that any participant would have to participate in a conflict that could lead to disrespect or offense. In retrospect, I think I could have handled this concern better. We were lucky that no heated arguments came up during our discussion, but if one had, I do not think our proposed approach would have been the best way to deal with it. If such an argument had come up, we would have changed the topic, which may have led to resentment at being cut off, confusion about why we were not allowing the discussion to continue organically, and unwillingness to participate further. I think a better approach would have been to be more open about my discomfort and thought process. For example, I could have told the participants that I felt conversations about X, Y and Z topics would lead to heated arguments that I wanted to avoid, and then allowed them to respond regarding whether they agreed with me or not. This way, the discussion would be more democratic, instead of being restricted to topics that I thought would not generate conflict that made me uncomfortable. This more open process would take the burden of guiding the conversation off my shoulders, and allow all participants to feel responsible for the direction of the conversation.

I still treasure the discussion we had that night. Many attendees offered constructive feedback about changes we could have made, but all attendees appreciated the chance to have had such a meaningful discussion. However, looking back on the experience with the benefit of hindsight, my biggest takeaway from hosting the Zikaron BaSalon event is not that I managed to pull it off. My most powerful learning comes from all the questions I still think about. How do I best connect with people who have different histories than me, and help them talk freely with me? How do I handle heated, but important, discussions? I found a way to address my concerns for the duration of the Zikaron BaSalon event, and I am grateful to have had the chance to see how wonderful conversations can be when these questions are considered and engaged.