An Introduction to Uncommon Ground

Jan 16, 2021


Introducing Uncommon Ground – a Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and CAMP Arbitration and Mediation Practice initiative – that looks to develop the individual and organisational capacity for deploying dialogue as the primary method for resolving conflict. Using a multi-disciplinary framework, including principles of dispute resolution through mediation with its emphasis on self-determination and collaboration, we are building an approach to effectively catalyze dialogue and would like to share the broad outlines of this work with.

This is an edited version of Dr. Krishna Udayasankar on Uncommon Ground – a Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and CAMP Arbitration and Mediation Practice initiative that looks to develop the individual and organisational capacity for deploying dialogue as the primary method for resolving conflict. Using a multi-disciplinary framework, including principles of dispute resolution through mediation with its emphasis on self-determination and collaboration, we are building an approach to effectively catalyze dialogue and would like to share the broad outlines of this work.

Dr. Krishna Udayasankar holds a BA.LLB (Hons) from the National Law School of India University and a PhD in Strategic Management from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.


In its previous iteration, Uncommon Ground was a book and subsequent TV show which brought together leaders from across the Samaaj, Sarkaar, and Bazaar i.e. society, state, and markets, to engage in dialogues to find some degree of common ground. Those were important conversations to have, in order to facilitate discussions at the influencer and leader level. However, Dr. Krishna Udayasankar asks how we can further those ideas and engage with them in our everyday lives. What are the ways that we can build that societal muscle and engage with these issues in our interactions, so that we can work towards positive outcomes?


Dr. Udayasankar is a Bangalorean of Tamil descent, and says that he loves festivals because he gets to enjoy both the Kannadiga and the Tamil side of the food that’s prepared. One of his favourite dishes is tamarind rice, puliyogare, the way his mother makes it. She boils the tamarind in oil and spices for four hours until it forms a kind of sauce. Then she adds the rice and allows the mixture to marinate for a couple of hours before adding dry species, and serves it. Dr. Udayasankar describes a bite of the dish – a seedless red chilly which has been marinating for hours along with a burst of tamarind that fills his mouth. Our reaction to this description, he tells us, comes from the ‘thinking’ part of our brain. When we talk about food or other things that we may enjoy, or when we hear about someone else’s experiences in a way that we relate to, our brain’s mirror neurons are triggered. Certain triggers help us learn, relate to one another, or co-experience things that others are experiencing. Mirror neurons are intrinsic to social interaction and the social behavior of mammals, including humans. This social function is located in the same part of the brain as the cognitive or rational part, which is not to say that emotion and instinct don’t play a role in it as well.

The emotional brain is where we process most inputs from, whether they are responses or threats. This triggers the instinctive brain which typically gives you three responses – flight, fight, or freeze. For example, if you are taking a jungle walk and you run into a particularly nasty looking panther, you may decide to run instead of freezing or fighting. The instinctive brain makes sure that the adrenaline runs through you, and you are able to think on your feet and even run faster than usual. This knowledge of neurobiology helps us because it’s an important connection between the social and the rational, cognitive functions of the brain. If we are able to get the human brain to experience a social engagement, interaction, or experience, that will trigger the thinking brain which allows us to understand and balance all the messages that the emotional and instinctive part of the brain are putting out. That social process we are trying to use, on the basis of this science is the dialogic process, states Dr. Udayasankar.

The Dialogic Process

What is dialogue? The dialogic process is a social process that we are using to trigger neurobiological functions towards a determined end, but what exactly is a dialogic process? Dialogue could mean lines from books, entertainment, audiovisual experiences, or simply two people exchanging words, an interaction through communication. ‘Dialogue’ comes from ‘dialogos’, a Greek word which broadly splits into ‘dia’ i.e. through and ‘logos; which can mean ideas, words, speech, or even thoughts depending on the context. When you put these together, the meaning implies a certain degree of community, relationships, and cooperation. In Indian languages as well, there is a sense of coming together and co-creating, cooperating in an exchange of ideas and words. So the notion of dialogue in itself has to do more than just speaking or exchanging words. It is rooted in the co-mixing and co-mingling of ideas in order to create something. This is reflected if we take a social-constructionist view of dialogue, which informs a host of applied disciplines including management sciences, leadership or behavior. It is a process that provides a space where multiple ways of looking at a situation can be brought together, people can vocalise different perspectives, and there is an end goal to it that may be actionable. Whether it is something more intangible like advancing our thinking and knowledge or coming to a conclusion on next steps, the process of dialogue involves coming together, communicating ideas and perspectives, and drawing benefit from the multiplicity of perspectives involved in order to create new possibilities and alternatives. 

Dr. Udayasankar asks how we can use this approach, involving dialogue that allows for different perspectives and communicating those to achieve an end goal. He gives an example of a restaurant where two chefs are having an argument because each needs to use an orange in their dish and there is only one left. In this situation, the first solution that might occur to us is to divide the orange and give half to each chef. But another approach would be to ask the chiefs what they want to use it for and how much they need. This information can help us reach a solution that may address both people’s interests. It’s possible that one chef only wants the peel and the other wants the juice of the orange. In this case, we had the opportunity to metaphorically create two oranges, where there was only one. This is important because often when we look at a conflict or problem, we tend to find solutions that distribute value. But when we move from a question of “what” to asking “why do you want this”, it allows us to look at various other options. There could be several other solutions to the orange problem – perhaps someone could go out and get another orange or perhaps one chef can be persuaded that the recipe tastes better with an apple instead. But we will not figure out any of those solutions unless we move from ‘what’ to ‘why’. In today’s world, when positions are so often presented as binary, it’s important to see that there’s actually a multiplicity of views and dimensions in any given situation, even in conflicts. The idea of Uncommon Ground, says Dr. Udayasankar, is to understand the elements that we can use and evolve the skillset to be able to see these solutions. 

The other element of the dialogic approach is to be able to put multiple perspectives on the table so that when we take a decision, we benefit from an abundance of ideas and address as many needs and concerns as we can. In the case of the orange problem, we also need to involve the chefs in this process. It is their decision and if they are engaged in finding a solution together, it will also improve their relationship and efficiency. Our goal is to co-create a consensus or instead of simply splitting the difference. Rather than simply looking at a way to solve the problem, if we use a dialogic approach we can identify the underlying needs and concerns and find a sustainable and lasting solution.

However, what if there is a power difference, which often happens when different stakeholders come to the table. What if both chefs did not have equal say in claiming the orange? This is one of the most important things that we face when implementing this method. Power equations may be different, but the aim of the process is to give a voice to everybody who is impacted by the final decision. There will be invisible stakeholders, people who are not part of the discussions but ought to be, as well as invisible influencers i.e. people who don’t have much to do with the situation but have a huge impact on it. So we must make sure that the process allows for the vocalisation of all perspectives. Biases may also lead us to see a situation in a particular perspective. We must be aware of our own bias and understand when inherent or unstated biases may be playing a role in the communication process.

Building Societal Muscle 

Dr. Udayasankar says that his aim is to be able to build a societal muscle for engaging in this process. These elements are crucial in terms of creating the space, generating multiple perspectives, sharing information, being able to listen, and actionizing new solutions or alternatives. Building that societal muscle is not just about being able to get people to think from the perspective that this is possible, but also to equip people to be able to engage with the process and realise that we don’t have to necessarily share similar views in order to achieve common goals. With Uncommon Ground, we try to change perspectives and get people to think differently about what can be achieved through a dialogic process, and then invite them to engage and develop skills by which they can continue to do this, says Dr. Udayasankar. So far, they have worked across the Samaaj sector, with young changemakers and NGOs. They have also been working with women in rural Karnataka along with Buzz Women, an organisation building human and social capital in the area for over eight years.

Together they worked on engaging women with interventions and games where they had to look at a conflict as a problem to co-solve. For example, one of the biggest conflicts for women at home is about money, which usually starts with accusations of spending too much or not earning enough. So the idea was to shift the conversation to identifying the problem at hand i.e. not enough money, and then finding a solution together, as a team. They were able to re-examine their existing curriculum and incorporate these exercises without increasing the time of the sessions for women. With this curriculum, they hope to reach 2.25 lakh women over five districts of South Karnataka. In the case of one woman who had undergone the course, she was able to solve a 15-year-old family property dispute because she was able to build the skill and took charge of the problem to look for sustainable solutions. They are now working to develop a module for women to have the capacity to facilitate the dialogic process in groups and communities themselves. Dr. Udayasankar shares that they are also looking to develop the practice support and community building verticals, and experimenting with different ways of doing this.

Moving Beyond Binaries 

Everyday, we negotiate various kinds of micro and macro-conflicts. The intent of Uncommon Ground is to build a structure around this as a method so that it can also have a learning component for those who want to get better at it and become more aware of how to build their capacities in this direction. Practice is a big part of behaviour change, and learning to listen or learning to dialogue, taking a leap of faith, suspending bias, and sometimes even suspending that instinct to react immediately, are all very instinctual. It takes a tremendous amount of practice to curb these instincts, which is another facet of the work of Uncommon Ground. 

Dr. Udayasankar mentions Sriram Panchu, one of the pioneers of mediation in India, and his thoughts on the use of mediation to be able to resolve conflicts. These ideas are not new – in villages you don’t go to court, you still try and figure it out with the village elders and have a dialogue. It’s based on the idea that we must put our heads together to figure out the problem and come up with a solution that is based on cooperation and understanding. These are not new ideas, but the goal is to be able to bridge this uncodified but culturally held element with the very formally defined, commercially tested, well-used method of mediation on the other. If we take the example of the farm bill, three different newspapers give completely different impressions of it because perspective position is reduced to a headline. But behind it are the nuances that a dialogic process can hopefully bring out. When those nuances are brought out, it is possible to focus on a solution rather than just deciding who to agree with. We must move away from binaries of right and wrong to ask, “How do we fix this?” says Dr. Udayasankar. How do we make everyone happy? How do we give everybody what they really need? How do we address their concerns?

One of the objectives of the Uncommon Ground project is to be able to influence our response to issues like the farm bill issue, in a manner where dialogue is possible. Right now, our instinctive response is not to be able to facilitate a dialogic process. When a conflict begins, we have systems in place that support the resolution of that issue through the dialogic method. This is a classic example where this process is far more amenable to the resolution of the issue than a formal court system, but that is the response mechanism that we know. However, if we as a community were able to set up systems from the get-go so that our response to it would be different and would allow a facilitation of dialogue, that’s when we would see real change. 

As Rohini Nilekani suggests, we need to encourage a culture where we can go beyond binaries, and to find good, simple, understandable methodologies by which we do so. Everyone understands this concept at an intellectual and emotional level, but how do we do it? The Tällberg Foundation in Switzerland’s tagline is, “How on earth can we live together?” and they mean every word of that because the planet’s sustainability is what they care about. So how on earth can we live together? I think the weariness that has settled in as a consequence of our increasingly polarised world is exactly the wedge we need to push in a new positive energy of dialogue and conversation. 



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