One of the themes which has emerged from our #ConnectLegalEd sessions to date is the similarity in the challenges many staff and students face, not only now but also more generally, including challenges to our wellbeing, anxiety around assessments and the sense of uncertainty which comes from being in a position where we feel we’re lacking in autonomy. Cheery stuff, we know (!), but this week there was an air of positivity about how we can help our students in situations which many of us find challenging: having difficult conversations. We were joined by Dr Liz Curran, Honorary Associate Professor at Australian National University, who talked to us about Giving Voice to Values.
What is Giving Voice to Values?
There is a general introduction to Giving Voice to Values (GVV) by its founder Mary Gentile here, but in summary it is a toolkit which can help people to feel empowered when they have to have conversations which challenge their ethics or values. Gentile started in a business context but provides an ethics pedagogy, approach, curriculum and tools which are being adapted now into various disciplines. Her pedagogy works on the basis of enabling people to find their voice and acknowledge their own values and behaviours, and those that sway and impact on others. People must learn how to acknowledge and recognise these values and behaviours in themselves and others, and to factor these into acting on values and ethics with careful thought, planning, rehearsal, and strategy development.
GVV works on the premise that the more we rehearse and practice difficult conversations (having been armed with a process to work through and developed our skills and tools to have those conversations), the better we are able to handle situations when they arise. This is particularly useful when we’re taken by surprise, or when there’s a power differential at play. Liz explained that if we’re taken by surprise and not used to ‘flexing our GVV muscles,’ we’re mostly more likely to become defensive or confrontational, and therefore see tensions escalate in a way which isn’t productive. Liz explained that having the conversation isn’t the only important thing: it is also necessary to learn how to plan to have the conversation, and how to build and rely upon allies in doing so.
GVV isn’t just applicable to students (and in fact, lots of the hangout participants said they would really like to go on a GVV course!) but in this hangout Liz took us through how and why she teaches it to a range of them (including law students at ANU and, most recently, nursing students at the University of Portsmouth).
Why teach it?
Liz explained that GVV is particularly useful in professions in which a course of action might risk an error or patient/client harm, or a breach of ethics, responsibilities, or regulations (such as law, accounting or medicine). Behavioural ethics tells us that in order to be able to respond to situations in an ethical manner, we need to have skills that go beyond knowing the ethical rules, and be able to identify ethical conflicts. Students can often leave university able to cite chapter and verse of the laws, ethical duties and regulatory environment in which they will be working, but when asked to act on it they have little instruction. Liz explained that GVV can help to prepare them for practical challenges within the workplace, as well as helping them during studies. GVV’s focus on encouraging students to figure out whether what they think is occurring is in fact the case (for example, do they have all of the facts which they need to understand why they’re being asked to do something?); to put themselves in the position of the person they are in conversation with; and to seek to understand where the person they’re in conversation with is ‘coming from’ can all help them with situations at university (e.g. difficult group work dynamics, and learning professional legal skills such as negotiation or mediation).
Liz also explained that GVV can help students to deal with e.g. power differentials when they’re in the workplace, or at university. For example, in her GVV teaching she suggests that instead of people seeing themselves as a junior colleague challenging a senior colleague, they should reframe themselves as members of the same professional bound by the same professional standards.
The hangout chat was a hive of activity at this point, with lots of people reflecting upon the usefulness of the approach to many professions and legal skills. There was also a question about how to convince more sceptical colleagues of the value of this type of teaching, particularly if those colleagues are inclined to view legal education as entirely non-vocational. Liz and other participants reflected upon the fact that GVV can encourage analytical thought (how can I get to the answer I want? What else do I need to understand about this person and this situation to get to that point?), and can help students to see the limits of the law (because they will need to develop interpersonal skills and understanding in order for the law to be truly effective).
How is it taught?
When Liz was employed at ANU, Liz taught GVV for 7 years. In the GVV course it took students through a series of steps, including planning for the conversation, thinking about the main arguments they want to counter, what’s at stake for the other parties and for the student, what levers they can use to influence those in disagreement with them, and when and in what context to make their arguments. Students try out using their voice in difficult conversations, with a tutor and in front of peers, which is followed by a debrief. There wasn’t time to fully explore this in detail, but more information about this is available on Liz’s slides on the MS Teams area (please contact Michael Doherty (email@example.com), Lydia Bleasdale (firstname.lastname@example.org), or Emma Flint (E.E.Flint@bham.ac.uk) if you don’t yet have access), and via this website.
The next hangout
Next time we’re delighted to be joined by David Yuratich and at least one of his students: they’re going to talk about academic community, and the impact a student-run ‘Law and Criminology Gazette’ had on students’ sense of belonging, academic engagement, and professional development. Do join us at 1100BST on Tuesday 19th May – email Lydia, Emma or Michael if you’re not on the MS Teams list.
This blog post was put together by Liz Curran, Lydia Bleasdale, Emma Flint and Michael Doherty.