Twenty years ago, I helped to lead a major college protest responding to a series of hate crimes and hate-related incidents at my undergraduate alma mater. Thousands of students participated, and it was covered by national and international news organizations.

Columbia University students at a rally in support of Israel on October 12, 2023. © Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On the main evening of the protest, a professor who was on “our side” got up and said, “Whoever [committed these crimes] ought to go straight to hell.” This professor later destroyed physical property on campus, filed false police reports, and told her students she “fantasized” about taking revolutionary action against the university—actions that led to a year-long prison sentence for her.

Protests can take on a life of their own or end up achieving the opposite of what they intend, as emotions escalate and the law of unintended consequences kicks in. Today, as a faculty member at the University of California, Los Angeles, I’m seeing the same type of scenario unfold as many students and some faculty protest against the war in Gaza. The demonstrations and counter-protests were initially peaceful, but then one or more members of the community introduced violent rhetoric—and as is almost always a consequence, violent action followed. That undermines legitimate dialogue about world issues, prevents deep listening to “the other,” and leaves our communities traumatized.

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It doesn’t have to be this way.

On my campus, along with campuses throughout America, there are countless students, faculty, and administrators who are interested in trying to understand each other beyond sensationalist headlines, political positions, or reducing the conflict to “us versus them.” Approaches that are grounded in the more primitive parts of our brain are not healthy for us—and they’re not useful for our groups to understand or even negotiate with each other.

Now this doesn’t mean that we don’t have good points or shouldn’t stand up for what we believe in. It does mean, I think, that we should be aware of our shortcomings and approach others with humility—and a greater understanding of the forces we normally don’t consider that are shaping our actions, like the adrenaline rush that comes with confrontation, the dopamine hits we get from feeling right, or the ways culture has shaped our biases.

On our college campuses, there’s a way for us to do this—a plan for us to do this—that can help us bring healing to ourselves and our communities, and put foundational pillars in place so we don’t let our differences tear us irreconcilably apart. But this can only happen if we are truly interested in listening to and learning from each other instead of trying to win and dominate the other side. Here are three ideas for shifting from conflict to conversation.

1. Invest in compassionate communication training for all college campuses

Compassionate communication—also known as nonviolent communication—has been around for decades, and it offers a step-by-step process that has been used by elementary school students, corporate managers, and FBI negotiators. It has been found time and time again to not only reduce interpersonal and group conflict, but also foster greater understanding, cooperation, and even persuasion.

It trains people to come to heated conversations with the self-awareness to understand how their words and body language can derail conversations—or help bring true understanding. It does this by using a strategy that focuses on helping us to observe a controversial or challenging situation without judgment, articulate which personal emotions and human needs are being triggered as a response to the observation, and respectfully describe how our emotions and needs aren’t being addressed by the other side. Finally, compassionate and nonviolent communication shows us how to make reasonable requests of the other party to meet us where we are.

Protest encampment at the University of California, Los Angeles. © Ella Coffey/Daily Bruin

Let’s talk about how this looks in practice. After the 1994 genocide that slaughtered one million innocent people in Rwanda, compassionate communication techniques helped the warring Hutu and Tutsi survivors to process their feelings and needs so they could overcome this horror—and rebuild their country. Of course, while this approach wasn’t perfect, it did significantly bring healing to both sides and progress to their nation and is considered an incredible success story because of how much they were able to rebuild together against all odds. By most accounts, it helped survivors to build more empathy with each other and take steps toward reconciliation, like jointly sponsored community projects, memorials, support programs for survivors, and the gacaca court system,  which allowed the killers to confess and ask for forgiveness.

Likewise, in our own very different context, compassionate or nonviolent communication can do more to help everyone be heard than calling each other names, trying to point out each other’s flaws and hypocrisies, or trying to embarrass or dominate one another. While using accusations, harsh language, and intimidating tones and body language might make us feel good, they’re not the most effective tactics in moving us through conflict toward resolution.

We need to train our administrators, faculty, students, and staff on college campuses in science-based approaches, perhaps even requiring courses for our students to take as graduation requirements. I teach compassionate communication to my argumentation students, for example, and they frequently say this is the most helpful part of their education that they have ever received.

2. Host regular “bridging differences workshops” throughout the school year on specific topical issues

Workshops on bridging differences have been bringing people together for decades to have heartfelt, guided, but ultimately constructive conversations about tough topics.

The Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) has a “Bridging Differences in Higher Education” science-based program it offers to any college administrator or faculty member for free. Braver Angels has been bringing together thousands of liberal and conservative groups across the country to thoughtfully talk out their similarities and differences. 

Because both of these programs utilize people’s stories, the why behind their stories, and the values that shape their relationships and communication styles, they help participants recognize each other as human beings and see that every person has a good reason to believe what they believe.

That doesn’t mean that everyone always agrees on how to solve specific thorny debates, but it does change the tone and tenor of the conversation, which is 80%-90% of the battle. These programs identify and train individuals in tools and techniques on how to mitigate conflict, not amplify it.

3. Update campus activism policies so that they simultaneously respect First Amendment rights and prevent violence and vandalism

As investigations get launched and we sort through what has happened at our campuses during the Gaza protests, one thing is clear: It doesn’t seem that there were transparent procedures in place to effectively manage tensions before they got out of control.

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What this means, to me, is that we should convene a council of some kind with the best freedom-of-speech attorneys, bridging differences mediators, and public safety experts to develop new protocols that ensure we don’t have a repeat of what has gone on on our campuses. When I was transportation commissioner in Los Angeles, for example, we put into place safety simulations to prepare for the worst so we would not have to ad lib what to do or be caught off guard.

Of course, these measures require us to make an investment of time and resources. But it is clear that we should. After decades of protest on American colleges, it’s long past time to stop making up on the spot how to handle the crises that hit our campuses. We can start to course-correct by using this plan to give our campuses the tools they need to better manage conflict—and help both the individuals and institutions show up as their best selves while they are still fighting for the things they believe in.

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