Karen Farzad is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program.  Karen was most recently the Senior Director of Programming at Columbia/Barnard Hillel.  She can be reached at karenfarzad@gmail.com.

As a Hillel program director, I staffed the late-night weekly meetings of our student executive board.  The students ran the meetings, with my participation where necessary.  Halfway through one particular meeting, I noticed an unusual amount of tension in the room.  Whether it was their frustration with the topic of discussion, stress about their midterm exams, the late hour and long agenda, or some combination of all those factors, it quickly became evident that the students had passed the point of being productive.  Patience was thin, and negativity was high.

 Almost tempted to let the status quo prevail, luckily I recalled a lesson learned in a Wexner leadership session a few years earlier about effecting change by “controlling the temperature” in the room.  I saw an opportunity to challenge the students, lower the temperature of the group and get things back on track.  

I cut in to announce my plan: we’d take a short break, and then everyone should write down their answer to this question:  What inspires you to be here?

It was a simple question, and I wasn’t exactly sure their answers would be sufficiently sincere to achieve the outcome I was seeking.  But sure enough, as I read their very thoughtful answers aloud, the group’s mood improved drastically.  The students looked reinvigorated and at ease.  We took a moment to appreciate the collective inspiration they had just expressed, and the meeting proceeded smoothly.  My takeaway: don’t underestimate the importance of perspective on group dynamics.

In subsequent impasses with students or colleagues, I have again attempted to control the temperature of the room, sometimes more successfully than others.  As an aside, I kept those slips of paper with the students’ answers in my desk drawer.  Turns out they were a great reminder of why I believe in and am committed to the work that I do.