The Arab and Jewish-Israeli high school students were gathered in a circle, doing TikTok dances, as teenagers do these days. They were having a great time.
I was the bearer of bad news: “Break is over, let’s return to the learning space.”
One student pulled me aside and smartly asked,
Isn’t the point of this whole thing for us to become friends? We’re having fun, why do we have to go back to learning?
The student was correct, in that facilitating cross-cultural encounters and building relationships between Arab and Jewish-Israeli high school students is one of the core goals of the PATHWAYS Institute for Negotiation Education, along with teaching negotiation skills and experiential English practice.
The student was also correct, in that bonding over shared interests and activities (like TikTok) is an amazing and powerful way to build relationships between conflicting groups, much more so than simply bringing two groups together to talk (Koonce, 2011; Larsen, 2014; Luhmann, 1979; Schiefer, 2017).
But PATHWAYS takes this “shared interests” approach one step further than just doing TikTok dances together.
Learning negotiation, specifically the Principled Negotiation method developed at Harvard University, helps students understand a different way to see conflicts and tough conversations. It asks students to consider the underlying interests and motivations of their conversation/negotiation partners, and “changes the negotiation game” from one of competitive positional bargaining (each side simply advocating for what they want), to one of interest-based partnership – taking a deeper look at the reasons for the demands, and valuing the relationship the two parties have now, or hope to have in the future.
At its core, principled negotiation helps students to understand it is possible to have hard conversations in a different and more productive way.
Through PATHWAYS’ two-day workshops in Israeli high-schools (reaching 800 students in 40 schools per year), Arab and Jewish-Israeli students learn principled negotiation while encountering a group that most of the students have only heard about, and in many cases may have been pre-conditioned to fear. In this context, students gain the idea that their counterpart population in Israel can be a conversation partner, and then that they have the tools to engage with this group in a productive fashion.
In the words of Founder Avi Goldstein, PATHWAYS teaches students
the possibility of having a different kind of conversation with people they would have been afraid to meet.
If the students formed friendships just through TikTok dances, inevitably, hard topics would eventually come up. Without their new negotiation skills, the students wouldn’t have the tools to deal with these difficult conversations, and their TikTok-based relationships would fall away.
In PATHWAYS, students do come together over their shared experiences and interests (often Tik Tok, or homework, or struggles with parents), and they bond over shared goals (learning negotiation skills). But they also open their minds to a new way of understanding and talking with people in their own country, who likely seemed intimidating and unknown before.
While I hated to interrupt the students’ Tik Tok dance circle, I had faith that there was something bigger in store for them.