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An ‘Authentic’ Approach to Mediation

An ‘Authentic’ Approach to Mediation

We’re told to be ourselves when mediating, we know it’s important to bring our authenticity into the mediation room yet the pressure of getting everything right, appearing competent, having all the answers and being in control can often undermine our sense of authenticity. So how do we do it? Ashok has some suggestions and shares them with you in this interview but if you just want to be inspired watch it anyway.

This is the second interview with Ashok, if you missed the first check out 'Building a Mediation Business in India'.

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Full Transcript

Davies: One of the things I try to accomplish through these interviews is to inspire you. If you watch this interview I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. My guest is doing extraordinary things in the field of conflict resolution in Asia. If nothing else watch this interview for some inspiration. But if you wanted something more from the interview then keep watching because coming up, why is authenticity such an important quality a mediator needs to bring to his or her work and how do we allow ourselves to be authentic? Even if it means we make a blunder or two in the process? All of this and more, here’s the interview.

So where I want to go next is thinking about what are the dispositions that are important for mediator effectiveness and what are the sensibilities that we must cultivate, must develop continually as mediators? And I’m asking you this because reading a little bit of background about you I think this is something is of interest to you. But interestingly reading on your website you describe, well now I don’t know if it’s you describing yourself or whether it’s someone else describing you as the office clown and it kind of got me thinking of the kind of character, the humility, that an office clown, it’s okay. I’m not this sort of particular way, I’m happy for people to see me in this way and I was wondering to what extent is that a disposition that you think makes this work or makes you and this work a good fit? I’m sorry, that wasn’t very coherent, I’m sorry.

Ashok: No, no, well, there are many different ways I could go with that so stop me if I’m rambling OK? [laughs] So it’s very interesting, yesterday I took two young people who are new in Meta-Culture to a training that I was doing for a company and the first thing they said to me after we finished was you speak to them exactly, no you speak and behave exactly the way you do with us in the office. And for me it’s like yeah! I make your lives absolutely difficult in the office. I pull your leg. You don’t know whether I’m joking or serious and I do the same with my clients. And the reason why I mention this is somehow this work, other people doing this work, have started seeing themselves as a combination of Dalai Lamas and Mother Teresas. And I think that’s inherently problematic. To become peaceniks who are vegetarians, Zen Buddhists and are so careful about offending anybody you can’t do this work if you are walking on egg shells. Conflict is such an intimate activity. As anybody who does this work understands the only way you can change the way people are stuck in predictable patterns of behaviour, destructive patterns of behaviour, is sometimes to jolt them out of it. You have to be provocateur, you have to be honouring the incisive, you have to make people laugh.

So for me my approach towards facilitation and mediation is as a clown as a jester, as a fool, and as a part-time Socratic questioner. It’s all of this. And for me I come from the visual arts and I come from creative writing. And I won’t be seen as, seeing the arts, as integral to human development and to learning. If arts are integral to even understanding one’s self. And for me mediation, conflict resolution, is just a another way to help people understand themselves better and to help people change the kind of behaviors and the kind of mindsets that are not healthy. And what better way to do this than to shake things up? Stir the pot, don’t just stir the pot. Spill the soup all over the place and get people to clean it up. It’s great fun! Well, I’m guessing I won’t get any new clients from your visitors to the website, but frankly I will not compromise on having fun doing what I do. I love this work.

Aled: I’m gonna challenge that last point because I tell you what if I had an organisation and I needed [laughs] . . . is that wine that you’re putting away there on a Thursday afternoon?

Ashok: [laughs] I love it! Everybody thinks that, but it’s a lovely bottle for water. And it’s also because I was told that you shouldn’t drink water in plastic bottles because of something that happened, I don’t know the science of it, but glass is great! And it’s a lovely elegant looking bottle. It’s incidentally, it’s Jacob’s Creek. And don’t get paid by them to advertise them.

Aled: Brilliant, brilliant. Well, anyways that’s your story and you’re sticking to it, right? It’s water in a Jacob’s Creek bottle. I like that. I like the reasoning as well. You can’t drink out of plastic bottles, it works for me. It works for me. But coming back on a serious note Ashok, I think one of the common themes that people appreciate is authenticity and I think what you’re touching on is authenticity. As a mediator particularly in any sort of client interaction. I remember starting out, I feel much more liberated in terms of how I interact with people I don’t get preoccupied by status anymore. I am myself, I don’t care what I say, when I way I don’t care what I say. I’m trusting that I say the right things at the right time and if I think I’ve said something that’s offended someone I’ll check it out.

Ashok: Absolutely.

Aled: But there’s something I also read which I really endeared me to you was, where is that, you’re allergic to conventional wisdom and political correctness. I think there’s a lot of truth in what you say around the image that this field has developed in terms of being Mother Teresas and who’s . . .

Ashok: Dalai Lamas.

Aled: Dalai Lamas. Oh wait, I’m going off tangent here, there’s a great twitter person I follow called Dai Lama. And Dai is a Welsh, shortened version of David. So Dai Lama. But anyway . . .

Ashok: [laughs]

Aled: Little plug. I don’t know who Dai Lama is, that’s not the point.

Ashok: [laughs]

Aled: But I think that’s an image I’m doing my very best to challenge, but I think authenticity’s really an important characteristic and important disposition. So my question is, if we’re starting out as mediators for us to be able to be our authentic self in the company of others and in a difficult situation, in a difficult conversation, is that something that only comes with experience? Is this something you’ve always done? How do we let go our preoccupation of those sorts of things? So that we can be authentic? So that we can be ourselves? So that we can say what’s on our mind without worrying about offending anyone?

Ashok: When I was in college there was a line that I came up with for myself. Which is, if you can’t join them you might as well beat them. In other words, some of us, we’re born misfits. We just never fit in. We never fit in with the families that we were born in. We don’t fit in with modern culture. Even among people who liked us and cared about us we were the outliers or the outsiders. And my initial grounding or training in the arts increased that sense of being partly outside everything. And I got comfortable with not fitting in at one point in my life and when I discovered conflict resolution and I got into it, it was so much easier for me to not take on the trappings of the field, but to fit the field to the kind of person I was.

So, as far as I was concerned mediation didn’t come with a set of instructions as to how to behave as a mediator. But what I learned, whether it’s in mediation or consensus building or whatever it was, there were really important processes. Skills, tools, and a knowledge base that I needed to be very good at. But once I internalised it, what’s really important is the kind of person I am, and I loved your use of the word ‘authentic’, and all my knowledge, all my skills have to flow through this real me. And once it flows through this person then I think people respond to it because I’m not putting on any kind of an act. I’m not even trying to wear the hat.

I am the mediator and everything that comes out of me is as much me as the mediator talking and at that point in time it gives you extraordinary flexibility, to be honest. To be honest with yourself and to be honest with the group. And frankly, one of the best things for me is that no group, and I might regret this sometime, but no group fazes me because I’m responding completely honestly to whatever is happening in the group at that time. And if I’m struck by someone’s pain or someone’s challenges I genuinely understanding it and being empathic. If I find that someone is tripping themselves then I know that I can use humour. Or I can maybe challenge them in a way that they don’t expect to be challenged in order to get them to see something differently. It’s a combination of playing football and choreographing a musical.

Aled: Fantastic. I tell you what this is really, really brilliant stuff. I’m just having some light bulb moments, Ashok. I’ve only recently, I say recently, probably in the last two years, had the experience where I’ve allowed myself to be really authentic in a professional context and you touched on it why that’s happened for me. And it’s happened because I feel, in the last few years, I’ve been able to internalise these values and principles, these skills. I feel totally at ease. I don’t get fazed because I’ve internalised these things. And I loved your description of it just flowing through you. These skills, this knowledge, these values, just flowing through the real me, out of the real me, I’m paraphrasing that. That’s really powerful as an idea.

Ashok: And one thing I’m not is perfect. I will make mistakes. I’ve made huge, huge, blunders, but I can roll with it. I can roll with it because hey, I did this because I was hoping to achieve that, but obviously that hasn’t worked so let’s see what else works now. I don’t have to live up to anybody else’s standard.

Aled: Great. That’s really, really powerful. It’s also got another question going in my head. Thinking about then, so what would you say are the most important things that we need to internalize to maximize the chances of us being authentic?

Ashok: This is again a very long question. We could have a two hour conversation on just that, but I’m going to bring into the conversation a couple of concepts that I think your readers or your listeners may like. I think it may somehow answer some of the questions that you’ve raised. One is I think we need to find a balance between being sensitive to emotions, being analytical, being able to deconstruct the conflict, and to understand the stakeholders and map it, and we need to also bring in two other elements other than this. We need to also insure that the voices that are not heard get an opportunity to not only be heard, but to also, okay. I’m trying to grow a few ideas. While trying to bring the voices to the table, every voice that’s relevant it’s also important to also have those voices challenge themselves, so let me say what I mean by that. One of the problems, one of the differences in Meta-Culture’s approach to doing this work is when we talk about bringing voices to the table, we are not merely talking of respect, we are also talking of clarity. In other words, it’s not enough to give say minority voices or the disadvantaged an opportunity to articulate who they are and what their needs are. It’s also important to use the dialogue process to achieve greater clarity about things people have taken for granted. So for the work we do we use critical thinking very, very comfortably. We’re constantly respecting voices and challenging them. Because the ultimate goal for us is not merely to respect different voices, but it’s to take the conversation to a completely different level.

To change the way we look at ideas, look at context, and get to the root or the essence of a conflict. To give you an idea, to give you sense, when we talk about integrity. Now in conflict very often the concept of integrity comes up and people are accusing each other of not having integrity or not being honest or being disingenuous. That concept is a very, very rich concept. And the problem is that I don’t believe most people really understand what integrity is at a deeper level. It gets somehow distilled into a very simplistic sense of being honest or being dishonest. Being transparent or not being transparent.

Whereas, we don’t have enough time here, but in our workshops we actually explore the concept of integrity and it comes down to understanding who one is or what particular value is at the core. The essence of an idea. And integrity becomes living the essence of the idea. And when you look at it that way it changes the notion of what ethical is or even moral is. It’s all about being able to see the absolute clarity because you’ve done the homework as to what is at the root of the concept like for instance, equality, or love, or patriotism. And then integrity becomes the ability to live up to that deeper understanding of that concept. Am I making sense?

Aled: You’re making wonderful sense. So, I mean I can see we could do an entire interview, there’s a course on critical thinking and . . .

Ashok: Absolutely.

Aled: . . . the usefulness of that in conflict resolution mediation and maybe we need to have another conversation about this. So thinking back to the things that we need to internalise to be authentic, right? And we talked about being sensitive to emotions. You talk about also being analytical in the way we think and so on processing information. Being able to deconstruct conflict, to imagine us having some understanding, a deeper understanding of conflict dynamics and so-on. Understanding your stakeholders, understanding the market that you’re working in and then you talked about voices, making sure that voices are heard and there’s something about, if I’m thinking what is that as a value that I need to internalise? For me it’s something about compassion, something about humanity, manifesting and wanting to ensure that everyone’s voice gets heard and also that you start exploring and the deeper meaning behind the things that are important for people. Have I summarised that okay?

Ashok: I think that’s great. And I think, just to add to it, when I say hearing voices, I mean not just mechanically hearing those voices, but being able to help people to discover their voices at a deep level. Because it’s one thing to just put the voices and the ideas and perspectives on the table, it’s another thing entirely to take each of those and push them to the edge so that the people who feel that they’re not understood, begin to understand themselves in a way they never understood themselves. And that makes it so much easier for other’s to understand them.

Aled: Okay.

Ashok: So it’s such absolutely satisfying, satisfying is not a satisfactory word, it’s an absolutely sexy process.

Aled: It is.

Ashok: I can’t think of a better high than being involved in a process like that. I learn so much and that learning is completely collaborative at that point in time.

Aled: Yes, and that’s where I can see the benefit of authenticity.

Ashok: Yeah.

Aled: You’re not-, in those moments, it becomes a shared experience, it becomes a new experience, a collaborative experience for everyone in the room, for everyone involved. I can see the real value in authenticity. It’s almost as if, and here’s another thing that springs to mind, curiosity. I imagine you would need to be incredibly curious to even pursue an inquiry where you would want to deeply understand meanings of integrity. It would require an intense level of curiosity.

Ashok: Absolutely, and that’s what makes our work so wonderful because you cannot, not learn.

Aled: Yes.

Ashok: And that’s what I tell my colleagues. I say ‘You are not practicing a trade. I mean that is the most elemental, superficial, most superfluous way of describing what you’re saying, and if you are only trying to do that you’re missing out on an incredible amount of fun.’

Aled: Absolutely, absolutely. You talk about learning. This is what I love about doing these interviews. I have experiences really are, this has been up there as a high in terms of a learning experience for me, not that I needed any sort of reigniting a passion of mine, but it’s been a really good reminder of why I’m doing what I’m doing, what I love doing about it, and why authenticity is such an important quality and not necessarily a quality, a state of being. A state of mind, present, being really, really present in the moment, not anywhere else. Right here, right now, in the moment, talking about the things that are important.

Ashok: Absolutely, absolutely.

Aled: Wonderful. This has really been a wonderful learning experience. I really appreciate your time in this. We’ve gone a little bit over.

Ashok: No problem. Can I just add one little thing that we are doing in Meta-Culture which we are very excited about?

Aled: Definitely.

Ashok: We have started a new project and it’s called the ‘Public Intelligence Project. This is for the first time moving away from our role as practitioners and what are doing is we are setting up a research and advocacy centre that is going to explode the intersections of freedom of expression, dialogue, critical thinking and the management of diversity, and the creating of a culture of democracy. And this is necessitated, I think, rather the roots of this, and it’s been brewing in my mind for awhile, but we got it off the ground in January. We have a full time person who works on only this. It’s primarily because I think the field of conflict resolution has been focused so much on advocating for dialogue and advocating for mediation or whatever, but not advocating for something that’s fundamental for dialogue or mediation, which is free-speech.

So we are going into countries which are for instance, extraordinarily repressive, and trying to promote mediation without looking at the political system at all. We want the commercial mediation projects so we go in there and we try to do commercial mediation or family, politically innocuous work without considering that the larger system, the larger political or social system does not encourage people to think with freedom or openly or express themselves. And I see this as one of the biggest problems that the field is likely to encounter in the next ten to twenty years. Which means we cannot be advocating for dialogue alone. Or mediation alone.

We have to be advocating for a center democratic approach which is different from a theocratical approach or a autocratic approach where the rights of the individual to decent express themselves without fear and without being afraid of repercussion is absolutely important. So it’s kind of like bringing together my interests in democratic cultures, democratic societies, with what it takes to manage diversity. And managing diversity is very different from keeping the so-called peace. Which many European countries have tried doing in India, tries to do. Which is somehow quell the dissent so that somehow you don’t have rights on the street while not encouraging an open, honest, reflective dialogue among participants in that society. So this is something that we really want to study about, work with researchers, as well as develop curricular that we can take to schools and colleges to try and get the next generation to understand the importance of dialogue and free thinking, and free speech in creating sustainable democracies.

Aled: Okay.

Ashok: We’re crazy, huh?

Aled: Not at all. Public intelligence project. How do the people watching this interview right now find out more about that?

Ashok: The website. Absolutely write to Meta-Culture right now, but within the month or so we should have the website up and running and once that happens people can get in touch with us and we will reach out to as many people who are interested in democracy, dialogue, and we want to in fact mobilise mediators to not be neutral about repression, to not be neutral about the silencing of voices because that’s one thing we cannot be neutral about. It is allowing and giving people the right to think for themselves and to express themselves. Without that any dialogue is a sham.

Aled: I feel a few interviews coming up, Ashok.

Ashok: Go on.

Aled: Very interesting, I know people watching this are going to want to find out a bit more. Where do I start? Where do I stop? First of all, I know people are going to want to get in touch with you. Actually, I just want to do a bit of a plug. I want to do a plug. Ashok, people watch these interviews from all over the world. I know because I get that information. If you’re watching this now you’re a lawyer. You have a law firm in Bangalore or you have clients in Bangalore. Or you have whatever, in India? Get in touch with Ashok, just to say hello, just to say thank you, just to find our more about the work, just to go on his website and look at his beautiful illustrations. You’ll want to pick up the phone. Ashok you’ve been very inspiring. I know this is something you’re really passionate about. It’s oozing through the Skype interface. So please get in touch just to say thank you at the very least to Ashok. What’s the best way? Through the website? Any other way?

Ashok: Email is best. The easiest email is And just to say we don’t do this work only in India. I’m going to Bangladesh next week and we have a project there. I was involved in a project in Greece working with immigrant issues three months ago. I’ll be in the UK in September. We are actually involved in projects all over the world so I’m happy to connect with people form anywhere. I’m curious about people and the work that they do.

Aled: Ah, thank you for clarifying. So it doesn’t matter where you are, who you are . . .

Ashok: No.

Aled: . . . get in touch. That’s the message. Loud and clear, wonderful. I’ll put all of your contact details below Ashok. I just want to say a big thank you. It’s been wonderful connecting with you, getting to know you. I’m really excited about meeting up with you and drinking water out of a wine bottle.

Ashok: [laughs] Of course.

Aled: So . . .

Ashok: I hear the English water is very heady. [laughs]

Aled: When this interview finishes we’ll line up our diaries because I really look forward to meeting you. Thank you very much Ashok.

Ashok: Thank you Aled. You’re a great conversationalist. I loved talking with you.

Aled: Brilliant. All the very best.

Ashok: Okay. You take care. Bye.

Aled: Thank you.

About the mediator

Ashok Panikkar Profile Pic

Ashok is fond of saying that, while he is no Mother Theresa or Gautama Buddha, he is utterly fascinated by the intricacies and nuances of conflict resolution and peacemaking. A facilitator for 25 years, he has been called many names, including “agent provocateur.” The many hats he wears include mediator, facilitator, educator, and office clown. When asked why he does this work, he says: ‘Conflicts are early warning signals that things ar... View Mediator