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April 14, 2016

Travel Diaries: Bhopal- Moderating Debate, Challenges Faced


I got a call from an organization I had previously worked with. I missed it. Called back, they missed it! Finally after a series of such uncalled calls, I was talking to a guy in Mumbai. He informed about a conference that was scheduled to happen in Bhopal three days from the day they called and they asked me to chair it! Glory! 


In 2013, I had attended my first United Nations simulation in Indore. In 2014, when the organization came back to Indore, I applied for the post of a Vice-Chairperson. After a  set of interviews, I got selected and the conference happened. Here, I am in 2016. Never applied for the post in Bhopal but they say that I was recommended and so was offered the post even without application. So I accepted the offer. 

The procrastinator in me brought me to a situation when I had my tickets done for the next day but absolutely no preparation. But, thankfully, in Tim Urban's language, the Panic Monster helped me prepare just well in time. 

The next day, I was there in Bhopal. On the first day, with only an opening ceremony planned, my  role was largely ceremonial. But for the next two days, we were to conduct and moderate sessions as a chairperson. Usually in a mock UN, the participants are divided into multiple committees each simulating a particular agency of the United Nations and discussing and debating upon multiple agendas. A chairperson is appointed to each of these committees and the Chair has to moderate debate, direct it into the right direction and make the experience of the delegates more enriching and intriguing. So to sum it up, I was looking forward with great anticipation to two days of enriching debate and competitive discussions to find solutions to global issues. 


Overcoming my Fears

So there I was in my committee room, standing almost half in size. My greatest fear was that I was going to chair participants who were about 4 or 5 years elder to me. People looked at me and I could see that initial surprise, subsequent mockery and gradual awe on their faces. When I used to be a participant, I usually observed that the participants often make fun of their chairs like students  in class try to make a fool out of their teachers. I feared that now that I stood on the other side of table, I would be subjected to the same reaction considering that a large number of people were elder to me. But then I knew there was no space, no time to think about it. I started with the first session. 
I told myself that even though I was junior to them in age, I was placed higher in the hierarchy. My unrealistic arguments never convinced my rational self. The only thing that gave me confidence was the self conviction that I had researched very well and had done a lot of preparations. So I came over my fears and spoke up. Thank god, the awe on their faces remained. 

A couple of sessions passed and I realized that they were a lot of more professional than I thought, even though they were first timers in mock UN. They did not ever bully me, in fact, respected the hierarchy. The environment was very positive. In fact, by the end of the day, they started addressing me as 'Sir!' 


 But how did this happen? 

Mr. Herb Cohen,
World's Best Negotiator
World's best negotiator, Herb Cohen, has an answer to this- Power is Perception. We have much more power than we often realize and it is often important to project yourself as a powerful and influential ( even if you aren't) person in order to gain respect and subsequently win such situations. Introspection tells me that the reason the delegates actually respected me and held me high in their perception is because I never let my fears come on my face. In fact, I tried and stayed aloof, not inaccessible or unfriendly, but aloof. I never said but always projected that it was I who was going to chose the award winners. 
Having said that, the power-is-perception strategy in itself did not gain me all the respect but at the end of the day the content and learning did. While the power-is-perception strategy cannot gain you respect, not practicing it could have probably lose respect. 


Challenges Faced


Now, usually a committee constitutes of two kind of people- one, who have been to such debates and UN simulations before and hence have an experience. They might not necessarily be the most reasonable and logical participants but they generally, are the best negotiators. They try and use their expertise asymmetry to bring people on their side. And hence, they usually speak with a lot more confidence. Also, very often, an experienced participant tries to dominate the committee and its proceedings.   

Two, those people who have never  been to such a simulation before and hence, are unsure of what they have to do. They might be the most intelligent and smart delegates but they lack confidence and hence, even after being qualitatively better than the experienced ones, they do not speak up due to the fear of mockery. Their suggestions usually get suppressed by the dominating delegates. 

Moderating Debate!
Balancing between the two kinds of delegates is the greatest challenge that I faced. In my committee what happened was that the set of experienced delegates got together. When someone even dared to stand against them, the dominating participants used to attack them personally with remarks like 'Grow up! You are a kid now' for short heighted people and ''Fatty and dumb" for fat people. Out of the some who resist this personal attack and still stood against the dominating participants, the next degree of domination is making fun of their proposals. The dominating participants mock on the new delegates' completely sensible and logical suggestions and project as if they are senseless. 

Result- Very few participants dare to express any disagreement with the experienced participants due to the fear of making a fool of oneself. And the some who do, finally gets discouraged by the attacks and counterattacks of the dominating debaters and no more remain active in the debate. And even after observing all of it the Chair remains confined to his duty- moderation! 

So, I tried my best to stay confined to my mandate and yet, help the nervous first-timers by actually subtly but very effectively backing and adding legitimacy to their sensible suggestions by a tool called- Rephrasing. The tool worked with considerable success and resulted in the formation of a new alliance of the new delegates against the dominating participant alliance. 

But finally, its success was limited to in-committee debate. I could not and cannot moderate the interactions that happen in lunch and in breaks. So the block of the first-timers formed gradually disintegrated because of the interactions behind the scene. Left to observe, I saw the dominating delegate persuade the delegates of the other bloc to get into their alliance. The weaker ones were easily persuaded and as everyone saw that the newly formed Alliance was disintegrating, a negative environment formed and everyone left the first-timers alliance as momentum gained. 

I could see the leader of the first timers' Alliance trying extremely hard to get people back in her Alliance and win over. Continuous failures led to a great depression and she broke down. She was slowly losing hope. Well, I was always a secretive observer present everywhere but still nowhere. 

On seeing her miserable state, I went beyond my mandate and tried to pacify her. I told her that it matters but it does not matter that much that she need to cry. She was somewhat convinced and on my request, she still agreed to lead that now 4 member Alliance (only 4 members were left as all others had been persuaded by the dominating delegates.)

The break ended and the next session started. I was told and I listened pretending innocent as if I never knew, that there are just 4 people left in the first-timers Alliance and the rest had gone to the dominating delegates Alliance. 

The whole committee gradually moved towards its logical conclusion and the 4 member-Alliance failed to receive a 2/3rd majority and their proposal failed. The dominating participants get their proposals passed and they win. 

And as I saw the disparity persist, all that I could do was condemn. While I still regret and feel guilty that I could not keep the committee balanced and minimize the disparity, I sometimes think that persuasion is a skill and since the experienced participants mastered that skill, they deserved to win. Regardless of all these counters, I have always felt guilty of letting someone in my committee go to the extent of crying. On the other hand, my mandate clearly did not allow me to influence the debate. I was left with no choice but to let time fly and leave its shadow behind.....   

Regards, Abhimanyu! 
All feedback is welcomed at abhimanyusethia12@gmail.com !

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