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Learning to resolve conflict is important in all facets of life

Learning to resolve conflict is important in all facets of life
Alexandra Lieben instructs a UCLA course dedicated to the exploration of international conflict negotiation and mediation (Photo by Rebecca Kendall)

Alexandra Lieben brings her real-world experience as a mediator into her role as a teacher, mentor and Burkle Center deputy director

By Rebecca Kendall, Director of Communications

UCLA Today

As the daughter of a pioneering rock concert promoter and a Zen Buddhist psychotherapist, Alexandra Lieben grew up with a deep appreciation for cultural diversity, an unwavering respect for humanity, a strong sense of humility, the ability to listen and the desire to bring people together.

As deputy director of the Burkle Center for International Relations, Lieben, who was born and raised in Vienna, Austria, is using her past and present to shape the future for students at UCLA.

She is doing this through her role at the Burkle Center, where she runs a popular internship program and has encouraged the growth and development of The Generation, a new online student-produced global affairs journal. She is also doing this through teaching, something she has done at UCLA for the past four years, and something that, like her other interests, has grown out of wanting to promote understanding and harmony among people.

She is currently taking center stage as the instructor of a new class that melds the theory and practice of international conflict resolution, a topic that has served as the constant thread that binds her professional life.

Her new “Communities and Nations in Conflict” course was created as part of a series of public events, curricula and programs developed campuswide in response to tensions on University of California campuses among those who hold opposing views on politically charged issues. The intent of the campuswide effort is to emphasize the UCLA Principles of Community while continuing to equip students for success in a complicated, interconnected world.

“We have an incredibly international student body that carries within it all the global conflicts,” says Lieben, who will lead her final class this week. “A course like this gives students a basic framework for how to understand the underlying issues and how to effectively intervene, if necessary. It gives them a theoretical understanding and practical tools.”

Since January, her class of 35 students has been studying a variety of global conflicts, including those in Rwanda, the Balkans, Northern Ireland and the Middle East. Their course readings, videos and class discussions provide a thorough introduction into the complex field of international conflict resolution, from the emergence of conflict, to conflict prevention, peacemaking and post-conflict reconstruction. Class discussions are informed by personal experiences, including those shared by a master’s student who survived the genocide in Rwanda, and by students’ observations of world news culled from and framed by local and regional news media in different parts of the world.

Her students have also had the good fortune to welcome a series of guest speakers to their class, including General Wesley Clark (ret.), former NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Europe and a senior fellow at the Burkle Center, who joined them in week three. Clark spoke of his experience working in the Balkans during the 1990s and the decisions he had to make there, which added a rich first-person account to their learning about the causes and prevention of war.

“It’s important to thoroughly understand a conflict – no matter the size and scope of the issue - and to understand how its stakeholders perceive it,” says Lieben, who studied international conflict resolution in Prague and public policy at UCLA before becoming a certified mediator and a member of Mediators Beyond Borders International. “There are always several sides to a story, and it’s important to make room for and acknowledge all those sides. The resolution emerges most often from within the conflict parties and it is our role to help facilitate this process, with respect for indigenous agency and humility in the face of human resilience and resourcefulness.”

She says that the lessons they are learning are applicable in any setting.

“You don’t have to go to some far off locale. These lessons can be used in a company, a non-profit, in government, even in their own circle of friends or in their families.  In the end, it is all about people and about helping them understand and negotiate their issues.

She says that her home country’s difficult history was a catalyst for her interest in conflict mediation and resolution. Growing up, she often reflected on Austria’s history, its legacy as the heart of the Habsburg Empire and its role in World War II.

This interest in politics and policy led her toward student government while still in high school. Lieben and a group of like-minded friends organized to bring attention to important issues by running a national student magazine, co-organizing demonstrations and by being involved in an underground radio station. 

Following graduation, Lieben studied Italian in Florence and spent a year in Paris, where she studied French and worked for a jazz festival promoter. The latter landed her a three-month stint in Nice, working alongside notable music heavyweights like B.B. King, Miles Davis, Jimmy Cliff and Dizzy Gillespie.

While working in the music industry and later in film production, she frequently negotiated contracts, mediated disputes among performers and vendors, and established paths for reconciliation.

“Dealing with varying dynamics between people, trying to reconcile their interests — and ultimately helping them resolve their problems — was always the most interesting and enjoyable aspect for me. In those fields, you have to negotiate all the time.”

She says that when working to resolve a conflict, no matter the size or scope, there are a few basic things to keep in mind. Don’t come in with preconceived notions, a planned course of action or preordained solutions. In addition, she says, it’s important to approach the situation with great humility, listen actively and be open for whatever arises.

“You need to come in as an open vessel and help the parties involved develop their own solutions,” she says. “Your role is to help people dig deeper and transcend their emotions and stated positions, help them explore what they really care about, and help them to develop options for resolving their disputes. It’s a respectful, collaborative and enriching process because you help broaden horizons, bridge differences and re-establish relations between people. It all boils down to human beings and a meeting of the minds. It’s about the encounter and how to do that in the most positive, constructive way.”