Teaching Effective Communication. Member Spotlight: Shelley Larson

Shelley Larson is a Dispute Resolution Specialist with Pollack Peacebuilding Systems, the Founder and CEO of SBL Communication, and a professor of communication and leadership at Oakland County College. She completed her Master’s degree in Communication from Eastern Michigan University and Graduate Certificate in Dispute Resolution from Wayne State University. Shelley first discovered the MBBI network through her colleagues at Pollack and joined as a member in the summer of 2021. She’s most interested in MBBI’s committees that tackle issues around climate change.

Supporting Youth

Shelley began her career in communications management in the nonprofit sector, first in family services with the Michigan Adoption Resource Exchange which helps difficult-to-place children find families. She then worked in public relations for Girl Scouts of the USA, further developing her passion for supporting youth. She identifies these experiences as what made her more interested in working in conflict resolution. Reflecting more specifically on her time with placing children in homes, she came to realize that the standard parenting time that people are provided by the court system won’t be sufficient for every family. “If they just had a mediator, their lives would’ve been a lot better.”

Today, Shelley continues to support younger generations through her work. She says that one of the most fulfilling parts of her professional life is her role as a professor of communications, helping her students become more mindful of their audience and how they’re engaging with them. Her courses are effective learning opportunities where she’s able to make a large impact and reach the most people, providing skills that are applicable not only to students’ degree programs but for their lives as a whole. “Hopefully, bit by bit, I’m also helping them build healthier relationships and contexts in their professional lives.”

On the other hand, one of the more difficult aspects of Shelley’s work has been related to her courses on language and its role on culture. It has been challenging to explain to others why some terms are offensive. “You can’t just wipe the history away and pretend it didn’t happen.” However, some students have expressed frustration because they no longer know how to date or communicate with others without being able to access that language, particularly when engaging with women. As a teacher in southern Michigan, she engages with diverse communities that don’t always communicate in the same ways, but she finds the role of educator extremely important in introducing these sensitive topics in order to create greater respect for each other. 

Changes in the Field

Shelley notes that mediation wasn’t discussed much when she was completing her undergraduate and graduate education. The world is now becoming more aware of the critical role of dispute resolution, as we look at the effect of the pandemic, the various conflicts in different countries, and today’s politics. As a result, mediation processes and peacemaking are becoming more formalized. As a dual American and Canadian citizen, she was also able to learn more about how Canada has emphasized the importance of mediation to bridge differences of opinion in a culturally sensitive way, especially in light of the country’s past treatment of indigenous populations. “I didn’t realize how complicated life was. The world is more global now, but back then, we really lived in little bubbles.”

On Perseverance

Despite the difficult conflicts mediators often face in this field, she believes that as long as you are able to have parties listen to each other, there will be movement towards a better outcome, even if there isn’t a resolution per se. The core of the matter for Shelley is determining how to bring everyone to the table to have those tough conversations. “It all connects back to why I’m a professor of communications. It’s about guiding a conversation where everyone can feel safe and share their thoughts.”

Shelley encourages others beginning their careers in this field to believe in themselves more. “I saw my passion for dispute resolution for decades before I did anything with it! You have to have the strength to keep going. You can’t do it if you stop.”

Article by Chloe Pan, MBBI Writer