Class discussions can take on a personal dimension, as it did when a master’s student who survived the genocide in Rwanda shared his experience. Students exchange their observation of world news, culled from and framed by local and regional news media in different parts of the world.
Her students have also welcomed 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. Adding to students’ understanding of the causes of war as well as the resolution of conflict, Clark spoke of his work in the Balkans during the 1990s and the crucial decisions he had to make there.
"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," said 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."
The lessons students are learning are applicable in any setting, she said.
"You don’t have to go to some far off locale," Lieben said. "These lessons can be used in a company, a nonprofit, 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.
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 in high school toward student government. Lieben and a group of like-minded friends brought attention to important issues by running a national student magazine, organizing demonstrations and participating in an underground radio station.
Lieben worked as a jazz festival promoter in the music industry and later in film production. But what she enjoyed most in these fields was reconciling competing interests and mediating disputes among performers and vendors.
Following high school graduation, Lieben studied Italian in Florence and French in Paris, where she also worked for a jazz festival promoter. That job 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."
To resolve any conflict, there are a few basic rules to keep in mind, she explained. Don’t come in with preconceived notions, a planned course of action or preordained solutions. Approach the situation with great humility, listen actively and be open for whatever arises, she advised.
"You need to come in as an open vessel and help the parties involved develop their own solutions," she said. "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 reestablish relations between people.
"It all boils down to human beings and a meeting of the minds," Lieben said. "It’s about the encounter and how to do that in the most positive, constructive way."