MEDIATING ACROSS CULTURES: Interview with international entrepreneur Ashok Panikkar
I am pleased to present an interview with my dear friend and esteemed colleague, Ashok Panikkar, founder of Meta-Culture, India’s first conflict management consulting group. In this interview Ashok traces his cross-continental journey as a dispute resolution professional, describes the far-reaching mission of his ambitious new enterprise, discusses the state of the ADR field in India, and shares advice on communicating successfully in cross-cultural settings.
I’d like to begin at the beginning, Ashok. Tell us how your career in conflict transformation began.
Diane, I like to say that I came into this field with more than a lifetime’s experience in generating conflict!
I started out as a graphic designer who was way more interested in the psychology and sociology of communication than was healthy for any practicing designer. My first leap into what was, for me, meaningful work was when I started Alternatives, an educational center teaching workshops in critical and creative thinking. Through designing curriculum and helping individuals and groups explore their own cognitive and creative thinking processes, I got a better sense of how we use our intellect and imagination to make meaning of the world around us.
In 1994 I shut down my design firm, Design For Fun and Money, because it wasn’t quite living up to its name! I traveled around India, the U.S. and parts of Europe for almost two years, trying to both ‘find myself’ and explore the West. Mostly I was searching for a way in which I could integrate my interest in people, the thinking process, and my somewhat ill defined, but passionate, enthusiasm for social justice and equity.
In 1996 I started working as a consultant and trainer with the World of Difference Institute, an anti-bias program of the Anti-Defamation League in Boston. This launched me into the field of diversity and cross-cultural training. Doing this work I discovered that I was at my best when dealing with “difficult” participants in workshops and that I even, somewhat perversely, enjoyed dealing with conflict.
Soon thereafter I found work as a mediator at Mediation for Results (MFR), a Cambridge-based conflict resolution program. This was a turning point in my career and it was also the greatest learning period of my life. I found that I really enjoyed the process of mediation and was able to develop my professional skills through the incredible working opportunities that came my way and the courses that I was fortunate enough to attend. Now (despite a thankfully brief break in 2004, when I worked as a corporate trainer with a large consulting company) I consider myself to be professionally saved and in a state of relative bliss.
So how did you get from there to where you are today?
MFR was, then, primarily doing landlord-tenant mediation. I soon discovered that there were great opportunities in training the staff of homeless shelters, city and state administrations and other organizations in communication and conflict resolution skills. I also found that my training clients were inviting me to mediate disputes amongst their staff, and that soon I was also being called on to help design conflict managements systems for their organizations. I was fortunate that I was able to leverage the many professional situations I came across into opportunities that allowed me to work in areas that intrigued me.
I left MFR in early 2004, to join that, earlier mentioned consulting company. This experience made apparent a few things: 1) I was far too interested in mediation and consulting to restrict myself to only training; 2) after ten years in the U.S. as a student and an employee I was chomping at the bit to start my own organization. I realized that it was obvious that there were many people and organizations that could use these relationship- and life-transforming skills. I also recognized that regardless of the opportunities in the U.S. (and despite enjoying my intellectual and social life in the Cambridge/Boston area), the place where all the action was gravitating to was Asia.
I realized that this was my big chance to create an organization that I could live with-- an organization that manifested the ideas and values that I had been espousing all these years. If I were “New-Agey”’, I would say that the confluence of events that lead to my deciding to leave MFR and the unmitigated frustration that I felt at trying to fit into a “large” consulting business was the universe’s way of telling me something! Regardless, the message got through and here I am sitting in my new office in Bangalore, two thousand feet above sea level, while you are enjoying the New England summer.
Please tell my readers about the mission of your new organization, Meta-Culture.
Meta-Culture is in the process of creating India’s first integrated conflict management group. The vision is to help people develop skills of discourse that are non-adversarial and built around the principles of dialogue rather than debate (even though there are situations where, for instance, Socratic debate can play a very useful part in helping to clarify ideas and challenge the mind). In doing so we can change the climate and culture of discourse so that individuals, organizations and societies can respond to differences with understanding and skill instead of doing so from anger, ignorance, fear, animosity or misplaced righteousness.
Our mission is to engage in or promote activities that can help advance this vision. To this end we are engaged in consulting, research and education in the areas of ADR, especially mediation; facilitation; coaching; design of conflict and dispute management systems; and consensus building. Right now our focus is to establish Meta-Culture as a sustainable consulting practice. Very soon we will be setting up a separate division that will service the NGO and governmental sectors.
To make all this happen we need to recruit and train exceptionally competent and committed people. That is our real challenge.
So here is a shameless plug: If there are any passionate and talented people out there who would like a once in a life time opportunity to help pioneer a new field in one of the most interesting and fastest growing regions of the world, just give me a buzz. This is an opportunity to not just participate in conflict transformation, it is an opportunity to transform ourselves.
In parts of the U.S., while mediation has become a better known and increasingly appealing alternative to litigation, there are still plenty of Americans who remain unfamiliar with it. What about in your corner of the world? What is the state of the dispute resolution field in India at present?
ADR and mediation are relatively unknown in this region, despite the judicial system being extraordinarily slow and often inefficient. The only form of ADR that people have heard about is arbitration. As a profession, ADR is very underdeveloped with not even a professional body to speak of. I am in discussions with another ADR organization in India about the possibilities of creating a promotional and regulatory body for conflict resolution professionals.
The good news, as my friend George Mathews who runs a successful consulting business here in Bangalore puts it, is that once folks understand the concept, the value proposition of the work Meta-Culture does is both obvious and very clear. I actually got my first client while in conversation with an industrialist at a dinner party who, after quizzing me about my work for about fifteen minutes, told me that his COO seemed locked in a very difficult conflict with the head of marketing and...could I do something to help.
Needless to say, that conversation lead to his company hiring Meta-Culture to deliver conflict management training programs for the entire management team and conduct mediation between a few sets of senior executives who were stuck in seemingly intractable conflicts. We are also developing an integrated conflict management system that they can implement across the company. This is a dream project that we were extraordinarily fortunate to get within weeks of setting up operations.
However, despite this initial success, I am under no illusions that a tremendous amount of proselytizing and education will have to be done to create awareness and acceptance of the field.
Why did you choose Bangalore as the place to build your business? What makes it an ideal environment for developing a project like this? (And should the rest of us think about moving our own practices there?)
Of course you should all move your practices here! I would love the company of my peers.
I moved to Bangalore mainly because it was a city I knew well. It also has some advantages given that it is probably the software capital of Asia and probably the world today. This has changed the business landscape of the region and brought an influx of the best and the brightest into this once sleepy (and once pleasant) retirement town. In addition, with the opening up of the Indian economy after four decades of being a semi-socialistic “command economy”, the local businesses and the NGO world have had to shrug off their creaky, bureaucratic ways of functioning. With the working environment becoming more complex, there is a now a greater appreciation of professionalism and a greater demand for sophisticated services.
You’ve certainly had plenty of experience as trainer, educator, and facilitator in countries around the world. At the same time you lived and worked almost exclusively in the U.S. for over 10 years prior to returning to India in March. What are the challenges you anticipate as you translate your experience in America into your current work?
One early challenge has been in dealing with a different work pace and ethic. While corporate India is quite professional, many of the ancillary services function at a rather casual pace. To someone coming from the US dealing and following up with governmental agencies, banks or even vendors and suppliers like printers and computer maintenance folk can take up a lot of your time. It can also be very frustrating. I have to keep practicing my own deep breathing to survive some of these delays and challenges. At a content and methodology level, partly because of the culture of therapy and talk shows and the like, folks in the US are, within reason, open to sharing things in classrooms, trainings or mediation sessions that might be wholly unthinkable in a more traditional and private culture.
For many people in India even addressing private issues in front of a third party may be seen as threatening or inappropriate. On the other hand things are changing in urban India and during the mediations that I have conducted these past months we haven’t encountered many ‘cultural’ reservations and when we have, we have been able to demonstrate that the benefits of following an ‘unusual’ process far outweigh the initial discomfort of trying out a different style of discourse. I would be surprised however if we don’t discover, in time, that we have to fine tune, adapt or even radically alter many of our techniques or even methodologies. At a more prosaic level, all case studies have to be localized and the situations and people described have to be those that participants can identify with.
Being away from India for ten years is both an advantage and a challenge. While there is little that I am actually surprised by, I am still able to see many things from the viewpoint of an outsider. On the other hand there is definitely some re-orienting that I have to do as I switch back to working with a population that is quite different from the one I have worked with these past ten years.
As we all know, as technology has rapidly evolved, the world has become smaller. Nations are increasingly interdependent upon each other for many reasons—economic, political, cultural. How do you see the communication and training needs of businesses, nonprofits, institutions and others changing in the future as globalization continues to move forward?
Ah, the unstoppable juggernaut of globalization! Changing forever everything in its wake—people, values, relationships, social institutions, and modes of working and living. Yet it does seem that given the rampant technological changes, the impact of “free” trade on societies, and the social and cultural changes that they bring about, many opportunities will be created for those who can help individuals and societies navigate through these turbulent times.
More than ever there is a need for those who understand and are skilled at mediating across cultures that have been thrown together, either because of economic compulsions or the seemingly magical compression of time, space and distance that many of these new technologies bring about. The need for people and organizations who can work as bridges between the commercial needs of corporations and the emotional and social needs of individuals, communities and societies will grow. The world may indeed be shaken up, and individuals and communities across the globe will continue to pay the costs of these tsunami-like changes perhaps for generations to come; however, professionally, many of us will find that our services are in great demand.
What would you suggest they do to meet those needs? Problems arise from time to time in international or multicultural relations, whether those interactions are business, political, or social. What are some of the mistakes that individuals commonly make in multicultural settings and what are some preventive strategies to avoid communication snafus?
Is there a mistake we DON’T make in multicultural settings? I have come to accept that all encounters between people are inter-cultural. I guess it may be possible that in wholly homogenous environments the person you talk to or interact with—your spouse, neighbor or cousin—can be counted on to share your sensibilities and assumptions. But are there any such places left? And with the plethora of choices and experiences that even those in a family have today, what are the chances of sensibilities or perspectives being wholly similar even amongst people who grow up together?
It is safe to presume that the assumptions we bring to the table are usually unique and generally limited to our own individual experience of the world. When assumptions collide, sparks fly and when sparks are ignited there is always a place for those who understand the relationships between sparks, smoke and fire. Enter the conflict or dispute resolution professional who knows what it means to be in a cultural cross-fire and what it takes to get out of one.
Here are some basic useful preventive strategies:
DO NOT PRESUME that the other person will understand you even if you are, nominally, speaking the same language. Especially when you think that you are speaking the same language!
Similarly DO NOT PRESUME that you understand their actions or words. Again, do not be fooled by speaking ‘the same language’.
ALWAYS CHECK to see if what you heard or saw them say or do really was what they had intended to communicate.
DO NOT RUSH TO JUDGMENT. If you find yourself getting upset or angry, step back and check in with them about their intentions. Especially in cross-cultural situations, because of a lack of familiarity with the other’s communication style we can find it difficult to decipher their intentions and confusions can arise about what they are trying to say.
Always BE CURIOUS about what their story might be and what their assumptions are. Asking them might surprise you.
These may seem very simple, but trust me, it is very difficult to stay in a mode of curiosity and to not be non-judgmental when you feel threatened and are upset.
Looking back at what has been an impressive career, can you think of an experience that was particularly inspiring or transformative? What made it that way?
Thank you for being extraordinarily generous but, seriously, I don’t consider my career, thus far, to have been particularly impressive. I do, however, have many inspiring experiences that I could share. Many of these are experiences during mediation, where I continue to see relationships transformed through the simple act of listening and the slow but sure dawning of genuine understanding and empathy.
I do remember an example of a difficult training in 1997. It was a mandated training for teachers and administrators at a public school in Boston that was under fire from the community and the press for a spate of racial incidents in the classrooms and playgrounds. We, the trainers, had walked into a less than warm welcome. This was a "captive" group that was determined to be uncooperative. The ones who deigned to speak to us told us that they were there because the Principal forced them but were darned if they were going to participate. They also refused to introduce themselves or do any of the ice-breaker exercises.
It took a lot of cajoling and coaxing, but we finally managed to persuade them that we were not there to judge them and that we were truly open to hearing what their story was. They then told us that they resented being asked to undergo a mandatory training and did not appreciate the implications within the community that they needed to be taught how to become “good” or “non-racist” human beings. We had to put them at ease, invite them to share their concerns and fears and respond with much empathy. We also jettisoned the agenda and came up with one that would do justice to the climate in the room and engage the staff as collaborators in a joint project. It was then that we were able to begin working towards the primary reason we were sent there, which was to help build a school environment that was respectful and where minorities could feel safe and be nourished.
It was a powerful experience and made me so much more appreciative of how vulnerable we all are. I realized the importance of being sensitive to the vulnerabilities of all parties in the room and the need to work, always, from a place of humility. It also showed me that when we respond to people with genuine curiosity and empathy, deep understandings happen and powerful connections are made. Not just conversations are changed but people and relationships are transformed. What more could any one ask for?