Eleven devotees—including four disciples of Srila Prabhupada—attended an ombudsman training event hosted by ISKCONResolve at Boston’s ISKCON temple this September 10th to 12th.
Established in 2002 by a decision of the GBC body, ISKCONResolve’s ombudsman office is a service for ISKCON devotees to help them deal with conflicts and concerns that they have with the organization.
“We were going to GBC meetings for a number of years and seeing how much time they were spending on conflicts,” says ISKCONResolve co-director Brahma-Tirtha Dasa. “We could see that it was such a drain. When people get into conflicts, they get very narrowly focused, and we could see that it was such a distraction to the mission. So we felt that this would be a helpful service.”
The Boston training was part of ISKCONResolve’s efforts to make their ombudsman service available to more devotees in more locations around the world.
The speakers, including prominent professors from nearby Boston Universities and ISKCONResolve ombudsmen, taught negotiation theory and negotiation skills, as well as essential communication skills such as empathic listening, reframing, summarizing, open-ended questions, and body-language.
During the full six hour days, attendees also learned about the four cornerstones of an ombudsman’s work—confidentiality, neutrality, independence, and informality.
“Our ombudsmen are confidential—devotees can talk to them and know that their identity and what they say is kept private,” says Brahma Tirtha. “They’re neutral—they don’t take either the side of ISKCON or the side of the person coming to them with a complaint; they are advocates of a fair process rather than of any particular party. They’re independent—meaning that they are not part of the ISKCON hierarchy. And they’re informal—they deal with issues and investigations in a quiet, off-the-record way.”
Much of an ombudsman’s work is helping people help themselves. While most people in the midst of a conflict or other distressful situation often think that they only have one or two options, an ombudsman helps them see that they have far more, and helps them look at those options in a more calm, level-headed way. They may coach their client in what to say to someone they have a conflict with—for instance, their temple president—and how to say it. They may even conduct a mock discussion, playing the role of the temple president themselves, to help their client prepare.
“Ombuds work is not always just taking on a person’s problem and saying okay, I’ll look into this for you,” says Brahma Tirtha. “A lot of it is empowering people to deal with their concerns on their own.”
In an organization like ISKCON, an ombuds service is also very important in taking down the barriers to people being able to voice their legitimate concerns.
“Across the board, in universities, corporations, and governments, there is a big problem with reporting—it’s not something new to ISKCON,” says Brahma Tirtha. “People may be a bystander and see something illegal or inappropriate going on, and they don’t report it because they are afraid of the reactions, or because they don’t want relationships to break down.”
Progressive organizations, however, want their members to feel secure and to be able to voice their concerns—and they realize that everyone’s not always going to do that to an officer of the organization.
“That’s why they have ombudsmen who, by dint of their confidentiality, are safe havens that people can go and talk to,” Brahma Tirtha says.
He gives an example: One young woman, who had heard about ISKCONResolve through word of mouth, contacted them. She explained that she lived in an ISKCON community where almost everyone was a disciple of the same guru, a sannyasi. She was very concerned, because she had noticed him spending a lot of time with another young lady devotee.
“He was in his sixties and she in her twenties, so she didn’t feel like she could talk to him about it,” says Brahma Tirtha. “Neither was she very comfortable talking to other devotees in the community, because she feared they would not take her seriously or label her an offender.”
The ISKCONResolve ombudsman, however, could help and laid out the different options that she could consider. In this case, she chose to have the ombudsman—who happened to know the sannyasi—talk to him about it.
So the ombudsman called the sannyasi and explained, “Some member of your community has voiced this concern,” careful not to even mention a gender, to protect their identity.
The sannyasi responded well, and considerately, to this. “It’s true,” he replied. “This young woman has been going through some very serious challenges in her life recently, so I was trying to help. But if one person has contacted you, I’m sure that many others feel it’s inappropriate. So I will ask a senior householder couple to spend time with her instead.”
“Now, in the past, either nothing would have been done, or there would have been three GBC members doing an investigation, everybody in the community would have been up in arms, and the sannyasi would have been embarrassed,” Brahma Tirtha says. “In this case, however, the devotee who had voiced her concern was very happy, the sannyasi was able to save face and just get on with his sannyasa dharma, and no one else in the community knew anything had ever happened.”
ISKCONResolve also deals with interpersonal conflicts, conflicts over resources and finances, and larger conflicts that may be splitting up an entire community.
“Really the ombuds service is a way of helping devotees get on with their lives—because conflicts can be so distracting,” says Brahma Tirtha.
ISKCONResolve hopes to gradually train enough ombudsmen to serve the entire ISKCON society in a timely fashion.
Already, at least seven of the eleven devotees who took its Boston training are willing and deemed appropriate to serve in an ombuds role in North America.
Another training for European devotees is soon to follow, from October 15th to 17th in Budapest, Hungary.
For more information, please visit: http://www.iskconresolve.com/
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