In an earlier article, we wrote about the "mission and limits of political education" in relation to Russia's war against Ukraine. Now, unfortunately, there is another reason to write about war and conflict: the escalation of the conflict in the Middle East. However, this article is not about the conflict itself. (There are much better experts than us for that). Instead, we share our experiences with a series of workshops we conducted with students at the Hertie School in Berlin, where Simon and Björn have been offering skills training for years. 

As at many other universities around the world, discussions about the conflict at the Hertie School had escalated repeatedly in recent weeks: at the university, in chat groups and in personal conversations. The mood among students was poor, and there was also dissatisfaction with the university's handling of the conflict and a lack of understanding about the debate in Germany as a whole - especially among students from other regions of the world. Many students also wanted guidance: how can we talk about the conflict without offending those directly affected, without being labelled and without being forced to choose sides? How can we argue productively and respectfully on the matter?

Not an easy task, so we first sought valuable advice from some wonderful people close to planpolitik. Then we got to work on the concept. The result was a three-hour workshop concept in two parts: Firstly, we gave the students the space to share their feelings. In the second part, we introduced tools and instruments for talking about conflict-laden topics. Participation in the workshops was voluntary.

But more specifically: after checking in and jointly setting up the rules for discussion, the students were invited to talk about how they perceived the atmosphere at the university after 7 October and what they felt in terms of conversations and discussions about the conflict. In all three workshops, impressions and moods were shared very openly, as were descriptions of personal backgrounds and concerns, including those with family and other ties to the region. All of this was done without haste, as the basic rule was that each person was allowed to speak for as long as they wanted without being interrupted or commented on. 

This succeeded in all workshops, although the opinions of the participants sometimes differed just as widely as the roles they had each played in escalating or de-escalating the situation at the university. The fact that this "safe space" was successful was a very valuable experience for all participants and, according to some, was the first step towards improving the situation. This was followed by a round of wishes and expectations - both of the community itself and of the university management - the results of which we then prepared in anonymised form for the university.  

The second part of the workshop consisted of a brief introduction to the "best of" our skills training on communication and conflict management - at least the parts that fit the specific requirements of this situation. After all, it was not about dealing with or resolving conflicts between two or more parties, but about strategies for talking about a conflict. And on three levels: 

1. Self-care and emotion control: 

The first step is to be mindful of my own emotions. Why do I react emotionally when discussing this topic? How am I affected, what does the topic trigger in me, what other topics do I bring along that my counterpart may not even be aware of? We also presented a selection of so-called grounding techniques, i.e. simple exercises that I can use to help myself in emotionally stressful situations. 

2. General rules, models and tools for speaking productively about conflictual topics: 

In this part, we presented our versions of conflict analysis models: the four sides of a message, an adapted iceberg model, and communication techniques to go with it (PEW-formula, active listening, I-messages). The core message here is that there is a great deal hidden beneath the level of factual statements. The more I know about the interests and motivations that drive the other person and myself, the more likely I am to have a productive conversation. 

3. Strategies for reacting to statements that I find (very) problematic: 

For this part, we have adapted the positioning triangle approach and the associated dialogue strategies, which are more familiar from the context of dealing with right-wing extremists and statements.

The core thesis here is that choosing the right dialogue strategy always depends on the context: What is the other person's goal? Is there enough time, is it the right situation for an in-depth discussion? Am I in the right frame of mind for a conversation? Are there people affected, other listeners? Accordingly, having a discussion is only one of the possible strategies; I can also decide not to enter into the conversation and instead refuse to talk, postpone it or simply make my own position clear. Protecting people who may be affected by the situation is also a consideration here.

For us personally, Simon and Björn, it was certainly the most challenging project this year in terms of content, and at the same time the one in which we learnt the most about ourselves and about our self-image as political educators, as politically minded people and probably also as Germans. We have been working very intensively on the question of what is currently shifting in our society, which certainties are being shaken, and what contribution we can and want to make to ensuring that we as a society can talk about crises and conflicts in a productive and respectful way. But we will perhaps report on this at another time.

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