FAQS

the organization

What is Meta-Culture's organizational structure? How is it funded?

Meta‑Culture is made up of two entities: the first, a consulting and training center and the second, a non-profit trust registered in August 2006, under section 80G of the 1961 Income Tax Act.

Meta‑Culture operates on a fee-for-service model through our consulting and training work. The non-profit Trust received its first significant project donation on August 2012 from a private donor. The training and consulting projects allow us to subsidize key social sector projects of regional and national importance.

 

Meet the Team

Why does Meta‑Culture hire foreigners as consultants and trainers?

While Conflict Resolution is an established academic and professional field in the United States, Australia, and Europe, in India it has not yet taken root. There are few, if any, post-graduation programs in Conflict Resolution, and none prepare individuals to become practicing Conflict Resolution professionals. For this reason, while the field is still new in India, Meta‑Culture must seek practitioners from outside the country.

That said, Meta‑Culture is committed to establishing the practice of Conflict Resolution in India. We welcome young Indian professionals as staff and interns, and give them an opportunity to work and train with us. In this way, we expose young Indians to the field and help them develop sophisticated Conflict Resolution skills. We also try to attract Indians who have had relevant training and experience abroad.

 
How can you work on a conflict if you don't have content expertise?

Meta‑Culture consultants are trained experts in process - we know how to bring together groups of people who are "stuck" in unproductive interactions and not only get them unstuck, but help them work together towards creative, satisfying, and sustainable agreements. As process facilitators, we learn enough about the content to understand the vocabulary, the points of contention, and the various perspectives, and to successfully facilitate intelligent and productive discussion. We don't need to be content experts to do our job - we are not required to provide counsel on technical minutiae or take decisions on technical issues.

That said, many multi-stakeholder processes involve complex topics. Meta‑Culture consultants have experience facilitating processes in a wide range of areas, including technology, manufacturing, nuclear power, infrastructure and development, natural resource management, health policy, religion and ethnicity, race and gender, education, police-community relations, and domestic and family matters. While not being specialists in these areas, we have successfully brought together and created consensus among those who are. When we take up work in a new area, we dedicate time to research and stakeholder interviews, and work closely with area experts to gain an understanding of the issues at stake.

 

Partners

Why does Meta‑Culture form partnerships and affiliations with organizations outside of India?

Cutting edge developments in Conflict Resolution theory and application are not happening in India, so it's important for Meta‑Culture to be connected with leading academic institutions across the world, practitioner organizations like the Consensus Building Institute, and practitioner forums like Mediators Beyond Borders and the Company-Community Dialogue Facilitators Forum. These connections enable us to keep up with current research and practice, continue learning, and collaborate with the world's best thinkers and practitioners.

Besides trying to change the culture of discourse in India, Meta‑Culture also aims to be a pioneer in the field of Conflict Resolution globally. Through blogs, conferences, forums, and partnerships, we provide valuable thought leadership based on our experiences in South Asia's complex and changing environment.

 

Statement of Independence, Impartiality and Confidentiality

How can Meta‑Culture not take a stand on critical issues? Is it really possible to be neutral?

Meta‑Culture does take a clear stand on a very critical issue- the importance of effective collborative problem solving processes. This is something we feel very strongly about. However, as process mavens we cannot be invested in or committed to any outcomes that might result from that process. This, more than anything else, helps us be neutral.

While it is impossible for human beings to exist without opinions, as facilitators our primary commitment is to help groups engage in constructive conversations and decision-making. It is therefore essential to the integrity of our practice that we show no favouritism to people, issues, or outcomes. Some would call our stance omnipartial. That is, we are partial to all perspectives in the processes we facilitate.

Meta‑Culture consultants will never decide outcomes or take a stand on the issues under consideration. We are not judges, arbitrators, or activists. Our job is to help parties have a constructive conversation. Being sticklers for good processes, we take seriously our responsibility to design, implement, and protect the

community

Given the deep divisions and caste and class distinctions in Indian society, how are we even going to talk with each other?

These distinctions have real impacts on the lives of both individuals and groups. We live in an increasingly heterogeneous society where competing interests and worldviews make coexistence and decision-making difficult. Groups wield unequal power, and often think that without litigation or protest they will be denied their rights. Such a climate can easily deteriorate into one of competing "victimologies" and increasing violence. There must be better communication and decision-making processes to help communities address complex questions about how to live together in ways that do not further polarize them.

So what are we going to talk about? All the problems as people define them, and the things that stand in the way of cooperation and co-existence.

 
What about power differences? Is it possible to have a dialogue with people who have more power than you?

Power differences are a fact of life, and no Dialogue starts out with parties being equal. A skillful Dialogue facilitator works with power differences, openly acknowledging them and encouraging the parties to talk about them. The facilitator also helps parties with less power to speak their truth, engage in fair negotiation, and gain influence in the context of the Dialogue.

 
There are so many layers to the conflict. History, economics, religion and culture muddy the waters, and are further complicated by problems within communities themselves. How can there be Dialogue between communities that are themselves fragmented?

The Dialogue process has been used in complex conflicts around the world to create understanding and reconcile differences between highly polarized communities and the many subgroups within them. Dialogue has been used successfully in South Africa, between black and white South Africans; in Northern Ireland, between Catholics and Protestants; in Nigeria, between Muslims and Christians; and in the U.S., between blacks and whites, as well as Christians, Muslims, and Jews. In fact, Dialogue is the only process capable of managing such complex divisions.

 
This method of conflict resolution will never work in our society / community / organization.

Every society, community, and organization is indeed unique. Certainly, no single method of resolving conflicts will work across the board.

But the field of Conflict Resolution does not promote a single method or modality - and that's what makes it so widely applicable. It encompasses a range of processes and tools that can be customized and creatively applied for the cultural context where it is needed.

Still doubtful about whether Conflict Resolution will be effective in your context? Ask yourself:

  • Are the ways you currently handle conflict getting results that you (and others) can live with?
  • What are the costs of your usual approaches to conflict - litigation, protest, or trying to "convince" others that you are right?
  • What are the costs of avoiding conflicts, wishing they'll go away?

Now ask yourself: What would it cost you to try something different?

companies

We don't have time or money for this.

Yes, conflict intervention requires investing time and money. But before deciding against it, ask yourself:

  • How much time do you and your colleagues spend dealing with conflict now?
  • How much time (and energy) do you spend trying to avoid conflict - you know, pretending that there's no problem?
  • What if you calculated all that time in terms of money? How much would it be?
  • What about the other costs your company is incurring because of conflict - missed opportunities, productivity loss, attrition?
  • How much time and money could you save if you put this conflict behind you?

You should now have an idea of the real costs of conflict to your company. So while you do have to pay us, we assure you that our intervention is far less costly than your conflict.

government

In India, we have our own traditional systems of resolving conflicts. Why do we need to borrow methods from the West?

Like in other parts of the world, various communities on the Indian subcontinent have indeed developed traditional ways of resolving disputes. While the specific ways may differ depending on the locality or group, most tend to involve basic approaches like "avoidance, coercion, negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and adjudication" (Nader and Todd 1978; Pendzich et al. 1994).

In simple homogenous societies, there are shared ground rules and the power structures are clear. When the chief, elder, or local governance body makes a judgment, the community usually accepts it as fair. Non-compliance can have serious consequences!

To settle disputes, traditional elders and local governance bodies typically draw on knowledge of their local history and environment, which works as long as the situation is familiar and predictable. But traditional knowledge is not so useful in resolving complex modern disputes involving unfamiliar people and practices.

For a range of reasons, traditional leaders are having an increasingly difficult time managing the conflicts of today:

  • Used to managing conflict within their micro-communities, traditional leaders do not have the experience, knowledge, and skills to address the complex societal challenges of the 21st century.
  • Increased urbanization and mobility have created new challenges within families, communities, and the larger society.
  • Communities are hardly ever homogenous anymore, but rather display great diversity across class, caste, language, religion, and education.
  • The generational divide makes it difficult for elders to understand the experiences and aspirations of their children and grandchildren.
  • Technology has changed the ways that people communicate with and relate to each other, thereby altering traditional relationships, expectations, power structures, and knowledge transfer. For example, people feel more a part of online communities than they do their own neighborhoods. Adolescents eschew the knowledge and wisdom of their elders, preferring the results of a Google search.

Because the problems themselves have changed, the old solutions will no longer work. Elders and local governance bodies can no longer make decisions based on traditional customs and enforce unilateral decisions. Not only must their judgments fit within current cultural and legal norms, community members are less inclined to heed them.

This is not to say that elders and traditional leaders do not have an important role in preventing and managing conflicts in their communities - they do, especially in societies where they are held in much esteem and have the necessary trust and credibility. Traditional leaders can greatly enhance their effectiveness by learning contemporary dispute resolution processes and skills.

TEAM BUILDING AND ALIGNMENT

If I am part of a multi-stakeholder process, will I participate as an individual or as the representative of a group?

Both. You are invited to the process because you represent a particular group or organization, but participating purely as a "representative" binds you to the will of your group. Ultimately, Meta‑Culture's multi-stakeholder processes engage individuals - their personal experiences and perspectives.

It is a fine balance between communicating your group's needs and interests and sharing your personal experiences and interests with other participants. A good process allows you to, while advocating effectively, introspect on and share your own thoughts, while making clear that your personal ideas do not necessarily represent the stakeholder group to which you belong.

 
How will participation in a multi-stakeholder process affect my legitimacy as a leader? Will I lose credibility with my organization or constituency if I engage with stakeholders to which my own group is opposed?

The first choice you need to make is whether to be part of the process. If your group's beliefs, ideology, or way of working are fundamentally against dialogue or constructive collaboration, then it will be difficult for you to participate in a multi-stakeholder process.

Once you've decided to participate, as a leader you have two responsibilities:

  1. To represent the interests of your group, giving voice to their aspirations and concerns.
  2. To participate in good faith, using your own wisdom to help move the group to where it needs to go.

As a participant in a multi-stakeholder process, you have a unique opportunity to rise above typical adversarial behaviors - like "selling" your group's perspectives or demonizing another group - and instead develop an understanding of the perspectives, interests, and limitations of other stakeholder groups.

Here's where things get tricky. Others in your own stakeholder group, who are not part of the process, may be louder and more aggressive than you. They may not be open to what you have learned, and may resent you for empathizing with the "enemy" or starting to think and behave differently.

This situation is normal, and part of the way in which a multi-stakeholder process develops. If the more adversarial members of your own stakeholder group are not hearing your perspectives, we bring them into the process, too! As the process goes forward, all critical perspectives are thus brought to the table.

Consensus Building

If I take part in consensus building, won't I have to give up what I want?

The purpose of a consensus building process is not to strengthen or concede to individual stakeholder interests. It is to develop the capacity of a multi-stakeholder group to discuss competing differences, identify common interests, and develop agreements that are better than the "no agreement" alternatives.

Consensus building offers all parties the potential of real benefits, while reducing the frustrations and costs that come with more adversarial approaches. It is the facilitator's responsibility to help parties negotiate an option that best meets their collective set of needs, and to ensure that no agreement forces any party to give up his/her own key interests.

 
What precisely can stakeholder collaboration accomplish?

Collaboration (as opposed to competition) presents the real possibility of yielding several tangible benefits:

  • Improved relationships and trust between stakeholders.
  • With increased trust, differences are easier to address when they arise. Conflict resolution is less adversarial or costly.
  • Together, multiple stakeholders generate creative ideas and initiatives to make real and sustainable improvements.

For example, after less than a year of engagement, the Garment Sector Roundtable (GSR) formed two multi-stakeholder Work Groups to:

  1. develop a supervisory training school for women garment workers, and
  2. conduct joint research on the causes of labor turnover and shortage. Both initiatives have direct and tangible benefits for manufacturers, workers, and communities.

Multi-sector collaboration can also make an impact on public policy. When businesses, trade unions, NGOs, and academics speak in unison, government policy-makers are compelled to listen.

Company-Community Dispute Management

It's too late for conflict resolution. We need to go to court / take to the streets.

When your organization or community is immersed in conflict, it always looks bad. Communication has broken down and parties seek to hurt each other in increasingly aggressive and costly ways. In company-community disputes, work stoppages, labor strikes, bundhs and violence delay projects, damage reputations, and put people out of work.

A trained and experienced conflict resolution practitioner with no investment in the conflict can bring a fresh perspective to the situation, identify leverage points for change, and help disputing parties get unstuck. Practitioners' expertise is in shifting parties' perspectives on the conflict and increasing their chances of resolving it.

Ask yourself: What are the costs of continuing with the conflict? What will you lose by trying something different? What might you and your organization / community gain by putting the conflict behind you?

 
Why should I sit at the table with someone I don't trust?

While trust is important, it should not be a condition for parties to engage. Many potential conversations never happen because the parties are waiting for each other to demonstrate they are trustworthy. But in a situation where there is conflict, or where stakeholders have competing interests, it is unrealistic to start with trust. Trust takes time to build, and can only happen through a sustained process of positive engagement.

Meta‑Culture consultants help build trust between parties by:

  • First engaging with parties one-on-one to gain their trust in the process and thereby the facilitator, and then helping them engage with each other.
  • Creating a safe and structured environment for dialogue and exploration of options.
  • Establishing discussion and decision-making ground rules, and holding all parties accountable to them.
  • Facilitating conversations in a fair and skillful manner that allows all participants to express their needs and interests.

Facilitated Meetings

Why do we need someone to facilitate a meeting?

Rarely do writers and artists have meetings! But in an organization - where there is a convergence of minds, experiences, and skills - meetings are a must. It is in a meeting that ideas are generated, plans formulated, deals made, and relationships strengthened. Sometimes the very fortunes of families, corporations, or even nations are at stake!

A meeting that yields unwise decisions or frayed relationships can continue to haunt you long after you've forgotten about the bad coffee.

When the stakes are high, a lot depends on a good meeting. Can you afford not to have it professionally designed and managed?

 

Facilitated Dialogue

What's the big deal about facilitation? We know how to run meetings. Why pay for someone to help us talk?

What most people think of as dialogue is not Dialogue. What usually passes for dialogue are parallel monologues, adversarial debate, and unproductive sparring between opponents. Such "dialogue" is likely to break down without the parties having achieved anything meaningful or constructive.

Dialogue, in the way we use it, is not just any conversation. It is truly an uncommon conversation. It is structured, strategically-designed, sustained over time, and facilitated by a skilled third party who is impartial and has no stake in the issues or outcomes. These elements must be present for a dialogue to be a Dialogue.

 
What precisely will the Dialogue process address?

Dialogue is an unusual opportunity to talk about things that matter to you, to be heard, and to hear others. Dialogue encourages individuals in a group to get real - to talk about key differences at the level of personal experience, and about how these differences contribute to misunderstanding, lack of cooperation, tension, and anger.

The point is that, while individuals may still disagree on certain issues, they'll come out of the Dialogue with a more human appreciation of each other. This understanding is the foundation for exploring common interests, finding ways to collaborate, negotiation and coming up with solutions that work for everyone.

 
What are the tangible benefits that we'll get from the Dialogue process?

Participants in Dialogue can get the following benefits:

  • Deeper understanding of the differences that fragment communities and contribute to tensions.
  • Clarity on the issues underlying internal divisions and external tensions, and ideas about how to change them.
  • Greater empathy for perspectives different from one's own and insights into why "others" behave the way they do.

In addition, Dialogue can and often does lead to concrete action. Action that comes out of Dialogue is collective, and thereby tends to be more effective than that initiated by any single group. It is creative and involves multiple stakeholders who would never have thought it possible to work together.

Mediation

What are the advantages of mediation over court litigation or protest?

Compared to adversarial approaches to dispute settlement, mediation costs far less time and money, causes less damage to personal health and relationships, and results in more satisfying and sustainable outcomes.

In addition, unlike litigation and protest, the mediation process is 100% confidential, and so avoids unwelcome publicity. Discussions that take place during mediation do not impact any current or future litigation, and settlements reached (which they are in more than 85% of cases) do not set precedents for future disputes.

Even when the mediation process breaks down (and it sometimes does), it invariably provides parties with insights and understanding that encourage their continued negotiation even after the mediation stops.

Mentoring and Coaching

I'm concerned that if I ask my management to sponsor coaching sessions, they'll think it's because I'm having trouble in my job.

Coaching is not the same as a performance improvement plan for struggling employees. The purpose of coaching is to enhance the skills of senior managers and organizational leaders whose professional learning and developmental needs cannot be met through regular training programs. Those best served by coaching are experienced professionals who want to maximize their potential by focusing on areas of critical need.

The Meta‑Culture coaching process also honors confidentiality. In certain circumstances, and then only with the individual client's consent, Meta‑Culture will report to the client's management general information about his/her coaching program and progress. But more specific and sensitive details about the client's needs, challenges, program, and progress remain confidential.

Training

What is the Return on Investment of training programs in dispute communication and collaborative negotiation?

A 2-day course can at best be an introduction. What "sticks" with participants after the training depends on how they use what they've learned over time, and the support they get from their environment to do so.

For this reason, and because changes in communication and negotiation skills are difficult to measure quantitatively, determining the ROI for our training programs is complex. It's possible, but requires rigorous follow-through with the same participants over time. We're happy to do it if you're ready to invest in it.

What indicators might we look at to determine ROI for our signature courses?

For our Conflict Management-1, we would track:

  • Feedback from managers, peers, and subordinates about participants' functioning and ability to handle interpersonal problems that arise.
  • The number and types of issues that participants manage successfully at their level versus escalating to their managers or HR.
  • The number and types of complaints that are registered against participants, formally or informally, by colleagues, employees from other teams, clients, and/or vendors.
  • In cases where participants manage teams, the attrition rates in those teams.
  • Participants' own feedback about their confidence and success in handling workplace issues.

For Collaborative Negotiation, we would track:

  • The substantive results of negotiations with internal and external clients, vendors, and suppliers.
  • Instances where the participant was able to bring value to the deal that didn't hitherto exist.
  • The non-substantive results of these negotiations, including improved relationships, requests for additional proposals, referrals to new potential clients, and recognition within the organization.
  • Participants' own feedback about their confidence and success in handling difficult negotiations.

Assessment

How is the assessment that you do different from any other investigation in a conflict situation?

The quest to unearth reltional and contextual complexity is what distinguishes a conflict assessment from any other type of investigation, whether it is justice-oriented, journalistic, or academic.

Instead of seeking to determine the truth, a conflict assessment aims to uncover multiple truths, i.e., the truth of each stakeholder involved in or impacted by the conflict. In doing a conflict assessment, it is not uncommon to find that individuals from different stakeholder groups hold drastically different views about events and their root causes. Even different individuals within a particular stakeholder group often have divergent perspectives. While these layers of complexity are critical to conflict assessment, justice-oriented and journalistic investigation, in attempting to find classic victims and oppressors, typically fail to identify and grapple with them.

Conflict assessment further differs from other investigative approaches in the following ways:

  • It is balanced and open to the unexpected. Rather than begin with a thesis or set of assumptions, the practitioner starts from a conscious place of not knowing.
  • Its purpose is to understand a particular context thoroughly enough to propose appropriate interventions. The practitioner therefore acts as an independent investigator, who is not bound or biased by the institution she represents or the audience to whom she must report her findings.
  • A conflict assessment is entirely confidential and non-punitive. Unlike a criminal investigation that uses stakeholder testimonies punitively, or a journalistic or academic investigation that may quote them in a publication, a conflict assessment offers stakeholders the protection of confidentiality and non-attribution.

diversity management

Why should historically marginalized groups trust that dominant groups will live up to the agreements that come out of any Dialogue or Mediation?

The beauty of Dialogue and Mediation is that nobody is forced or pressured to agree on anything. This has the effect of making any agreement that does come, one that is freely entered into and hence sustainable. Furthermore these processes are transformative in that while people may come into Dialogue to with a uni-dimensional perspective that leads them to avenge, punish, vent or persuade, the process helps them develop a multi-dimensional perspective that leaves many of them with a better understanding of the 'other'. This deeper and more complex understanding builds empathy which, in turn, provides the basis for richer and more sustainable agreements.

dialogue

What precisely will the Dialogue process address?

Dialogue encourages individuals in a group to get real - to talk about key differences at the level of personal experience, and about how these differences contribute to misunderstanding, lack of cooperation, tension, and anger. While individuals may still disagree on certain issues, they'll come out of the Dialogue with a greater appreciation of each other. This understanding is the foundation for exploring common interests, finding ways to collaborate, and coming up with solutions that work for everyone.

Dialogue can and often does lead to concrete action. Action that comes out of Dialogue is collective, and thereby tends to be more effective than that initiated by any single group. It is creative and involves multiple stakeholders who would never have thought it possible to work together.

organizational Audits

Why do I need an external agency to do an organizational audit? Our HR department is responsible for assessing organizational needs.

It is difficult for an organization to get an accurate assessment of the internal factors influencing communication and relationships. Not only are senior managers and HR staff themselves steeped in the organizational dynamics, it is unlikely that employees will be candid with them about their real perspectives and concerns.

As an objective outsider, an external consultant is perceived as "safe" and can therefore probe more deeply into employees' real opinions on sensitive issues. Using skillful inquiry and objective analysis, Meta‑Culture consultants provide organizations with a real picture of the organizational health, and often identify areas requiring attention that HR is unable to pick up.

 
But we don't have a conflict. So we don't need conflict resolution.

The methodologies of Conflict Resolution are not restricted to clear-cut conflict. For example, Dialogue is not only for exploring differences, but for identifying and acting on common interests. Consensus Building is not only for bringing disputing parties to an agreement, but for helping teams improve collaboration, or multiple stakeholders make a joint decision so as to prevent conflict later.

Conflict Resolution is about good process, and that's something all critical conversations require. Through an audit or assessment, our consultant can identify which methodologies are most appropriate for your situation and will best serve to improve relationships, collaboration, or decision-making.

Systems Design and Implementation

We already have a grievance mechanism. Why do we need a new one?

Conventional grievance mechanisms tend to be escalatory, investigative, limited in the types of disputes they can address, and slow to produce results. In addition to being ineffective, they often create a blame situation where one or more employees end up feeling defensive and disempowered.

Meta-Culture's organizational dispute management systems empower employees to take responsibility for their disputes and equip them with dispute resolution skills. In preserving and even strengthening relationships between co-workers, managers, and subordinates, the systems we design save organizations time, money, and resources demanded by conventional grievance systems and litigation.

Strategic Relationship Scaffolding

Why would the start-up I'm investing in need conflict management when it's so new?

Start-up companies require support at the outset to establish mechanisms for managing tensions and disputes that will crop up later. Companies that attract venture capital funding are often faced with relationship management problems. These problems are particular to VC-funded companies because:

  • They are usually start-ups where the organizational structure and culture is not well established.
  • The founders often have dominant and dynamic personalities that clash with members of the Board, Senior Management or funders.

Why put your investment at risk? Get the start-up you've invested in to start thinking today about how to manage conflict tomorrow.

Change Management

How can I communicate the rationale for changes to my team when, top management does not tell me anything?

Change becomes more anxiety-producing for employees when they aren't clear how it will impact them. Top management too often makes the mistake of delaying communication to employees until they themselves are crystal clear about the change process. The result? Rampant rumors, anxiety, and attrition.

Delayed communication also puts pressure on middle management. Without any information from the top, they are ill-prepared to field questions and address the concerns of their team members, who begin to resent them for lacking transparency.

A good change process involves constant communication, even when there's nothing specific to communicate. Meta‑Culture consultants help management teams develop skills and put in place mechanisms to explain ambiguity and actively listen to employees' fears and anxieties. The change is still tough, but employees feel reassured that management is keeping them informed and taking their concerns seriously.

META SPEAK

The funny thing about the field of communication and conflict resolution is that the language and vocabulary are so commonplace that everybody has their own definitions of terms. Not to mention theories of what would work. Take the word ‘dialogue’ for instance- everybody thinks they know what it means and how to go about doing it. Yet those of us who are practitioners understand it in a very specific way. This gap in understanding needs to be bridged if we are to address the complex issues we face as a society.