When conflicts arise, whether in the boardroom or on the battlefield, sometimes it takes a change of scenery to make a breakthrough.
That’s the thought behind the Point of View International Retreat and Research Center (POV) at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, which will become the Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution on July 1, 2020.
Since POV was inaugurated in 2016, a wide variety of organizations, delegations, and companies have sought out the facility to host workshops, trainings, dialogues, and retreats, often counting on its views of Belmont Bay and quiet, wooded pathways to spark insights, reflection, and connection.
The center’s indoor and outdoor meeting spaces at the heart of woodland in Lorton, Virginia—approximately 25 miles south of Washington, D.C.—have even prompted some to call it a “civilian Camp David.”
When organizations, delegations, and companies seek out POV and the soon-to-be-Carter School to host their workshops and dialogues, increasingly it isn’t just the natural beauty of the retreat center that is a draw.
According to Sheherazade Jafari, director of POV, the school’s specialization in facilitation techniques has led many POV clients to request the facilitation and training services of the school’s experts to support their meetings and programs.
This expertise is critical for moving conflicts from a destructive status quo to a constructive resolution or transformation.
“Facilitation is a foundational skill for all peacemakers, because the work of resolving conflicts and building a just and sustainable peace ultimately is rooted in countless meetings that, when they go well, help conflicting people and groups forge a path forward together, and, when they do not, reify the existing conflicts,” said Bill Potapchuk, who received his Master’s of Science in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from the school (then an institute) in 2005.
Currently the president of the Community Building Institute, an adjunct faculty member at the school, and a senior fellow at the school’s Center for Peacemaking Practice, Potapchuk is one of the facilitation experts that the school calls upon when clients at POV are looking to carry out a successful workshop, training, or dialogue.
His experience in the facilitation of conflict resolution processes is rooted in the school’s earliest years. As the then associate director of the Conflict Clinic, Inc., Potapchuk arrived at the school—which was then the Center for Conflict Analysis and Resolution—in 1987 when the clinic moved from its former home at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
The clinic was led by James Laue, a civil rights advocate and conflict resolution specialist who joined the school in 1987 as its first Vernon M. and Minnie I. Lynch Chair of Conflict Analysis and Resolution.
For Potapchuk, Laue was a mentor. While the former had been practicing as a public policy dispute resolver before coming to the school, his work at George Mason University as part of the Conflict Clinic and his study of conflict analysis and resolution as part of his master’s degree helped him to refine his understanding and expertise.
The school’s scholarship and practice opportunities around facilitation approaches were similarly transformative for Alma Abdul-Hadi Jadallah, who earned her PhD from the school in 2006.
“I give [the school] credit for modeling and teaching us former students the ‘elicitive approach’ in running conversations and understanding competing worldviews,” said Jadallah, who is the president and managing director of Kommon Denominator, Inc., as well as an adjunct faculty member at the school.
According to Jadallah, who is one of the alumni that has helped lead trainings and facilitate meetings through POV, facilitation is both an art and a science.
As part of the science of facilitation, Jadallah draws on an elicitive methodology, which places primacy on the knowledge that already exists among the parties to a conflict. By describing this approach to the groups with which she works, she seeks to gain trust and establish a relationship that is collaborative.
As to mastering the art of facilitation, according to Jadallah, it comes with time.
“One’s toolkit is refined with experience,” she said, adding that effective facilitation needs to be “contextually sensitive and adjusted to meet the needs and the cultural norms of the group.”
As such, Jadallah tailors her own facilitation approaches to whichever audience she is working with, whether companies, grassroot organizations, international organizations like the UN, European Union, and World Bank, or even federal agencies.
A good facilitator will eventually be able to create a space “that is ‘sort of sacred’ to allow all voices to be heard and give people the time to reflect on their attitudes, perceptions and behaviors, and the way they impact the conversation,” Jadallah said.
For Liz London, who earned her Master’s of Science in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from the school in 2017, serving as an effective facilitator is less about mastering the content of the conflict at hand and more about mastering how to effectively guide the people in the room toward a constructive outcome.
“I believe very firmly that as a facilitator, I'm not a content expert, I'm a process expert,” she said. “My job is to figure out how to create an experience that will allow a group to reach their goals and cull the wisdom that already exists within them.”
In the years since she has graduated from the school, London has developed a strong facilitation portfolio as the founder of and lead trainer at Constructive Communities. That work has included serving as a facilitator through POV.
Having only recently graduated from the school herself, she firmly believes that aspiring conflict resolvers and peacemakers can benefit from developing a facilitation toolkit suited to their work.
“There are a lot of ways to practice conflict resolution work, but I think much of it relies on strong facilitation skills,” she said. “Learning theories and frameworks about conflict is incredibly beneficial, but when it comes down to actually working with groups, you need to be able to apply those ideas and move people through a hard or complex process. That's where facilitation training can be immensely helpful.”
As in the school’s years as a center in the ‘80s, facilitation training remains a core element of the school’s coursework, scholarship, and practice opportunities, including as a required component of the master’s program.
Now, Jafari is working with leadership at the school to expand opportunities for both current students and alumni to develop their facilitation practices at POV by joining a roster of facilitators and trainers that the school can call upon when POV clients request this expertise.
Up until now, the requested facilitation services have been carried out by Jafari and alumni such as Potapchuk, Jadallah, and London, as well as some of the school’s faculty and advanced graduate students, such as Molly Tepper, a PhD candidate who also serves as a fellow at POV. On occasion, students at the school have assisted with the design and implementation of programs, as an opportunity to gain hands-on experience.
According to Jafari, an expanded effort to broaden the school’s roster of facilitators and trainers will offer alumni the opportunity to connect with clients and build their portfolios, while it will give facilitation-focused students the opportunity to refine their skills before graduating.
An initiative to expand the alumni roster will begin in April 2020, and alumni who serve as facilitators will receive financial compensation for their services.
In the near future, Jafari is hoping to roll out a concerted initiative to involve students in facilitation at POV as well. She and the school’s leadership are currently exploring how students will be compensated for their work, including through course credit.
Beyond helping alumni and students build their own practices and refine their facilitation techniques and approaches, Jafari sees another potential benefit to this initiative in it's potential to provide increased peer-to-peer and student—alumni connections.
It is her hope that as the initiative expands, alumni will have the opportunity to mentor students who are looking to refine their facilitation skills, and students will have the chance to access networks that will support them when they graduate.
To help foster this connection, Jafari is hoping that POV can host one or two gatherings of the facilitators and trainers each year to bring together alumni and students for mutual learning and reflection.
“It can be an opportunity for folks to learn about each other’s work, maybe even train each other on different aspects of their work. But mostly, [it can be] an opportunity to connect, to collaborate, [and] to support each other,” Jafari said.
For London, being able to continue her facilitation practice through POV has alrady been a boon.
“There's so much incredible facilitation work to be done around conflict resolution and great opportunities to apply the work of our field out in the world,” she said. “Point of View is a unique and special place where a lot of this work is happening—and an amazing place for S-CAR students [and alumni] to get more plugged into.”