Vikram (“Vik”) Kapoor is the coaching manager for the Office of the Ombudsman for United Nations Funds and Programmes, where he is building conflict capacity in over 40 countries for three UN agencies.  He is also a mediator for the Green Climate Fund and a millennial coach in private practice, with clients on six continents (www.extra-m.com).   

Vik was previously the Ombudsman at the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), where he served over 10,000 disaster employees, and he has also taught upper-level law students as an adjunct professor of ADR at Howard University School of Law.  He explains that “over and over again, I was able to progress thanks to the help of sponsors and champions who saw something in me and wanted to develop it.”  He recalls a time that he was asked to go speak to FBI Headquarters on ‘dialing down the drama.’ “My boss at FEMA, Cindy Mazur, nonchalantly just told the FBI that she was sending them ‘one of our best’ and I hated to let her down so I went.” That day he learned that instead of talking to a handful of people, he was set to speak to an auditorium full of 500+ personnel, “which essentially launched my speaking career.”

He has served as Co-Chair of the Rotary International – Mediators Beyond Borders Working Group, where he again enjoyed early support from champions such as Ken Cloke, Prabha Sankaranarayan, and Steve Goldsmith, and he currently works on MBBI’s efforts to support displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh.

How Cultures Comes Together

He explains why he does this work: “Conflict impacts all of us, and yet many people suffer in silence instead of actually engaging in conversation and resolution.  Mediation and facilitated conversations help to clear the air, potentially allowing for a ‘reset’ in the relationship.  Along the way, people learn new skills and develop greater awareness of themselves, which hopefully allows them to better address tense situations in the future before they devolve into a major conflict.”

During his work with the UN in 2020, Vik had the opportunity to deliver trainings in Nairobi, Kenya, and Istanbul, Turkey for UN employees from 14 countries.  During this “world tour” which was cut short due to the COVID pandemic, Vik learned some very powerful lessons in humility.  He noticed that “coming in and pretending to know everything was going to get me in trouble, so I came in with a ‘beginner’s mind.’ I made it clear that I needed help from the participants to understand what would be most helpful.  I wrote out my sense of the operating principles of our work from a Western mindset and asked people to bring their own ideas and notions that are informed by their unique contexts and cultures.” He did this by giving people Western quotes to symbolize the many principles of conflict coaching and then asking them to add their own culturally-specific quotes, thereby creating a montage of quotes that really spoke to the global fundamental principles of self-determination, curiosity, going slow in order to go fast, and dealing with emotion.  This experience demonstrated how cultures could come together in diverse ways – a telling lesson that acknowledges our inherent limitations and our need for more collaborative and facilitative learning.

Early Years

Vik’s ADR journey began when he was just six years old.  “I learned early on as an only child that I was pretty good at mediating disagreements between my parents.” He took that learning with him into a 15+ year stint with Model United Nations (MUN), where he went on to run educational simulations for underprivileged youth around the country. “I absolutely loved my first job out of college running MUN conferences at UNA-USA (later acquired by the UN Foundation), especially because I got a nifty pass to sit in on UN meetings. This was pre-9/11, when even interns could walk through the Secretariat building without hindrance,” he explains.  Those early years had a profound impact on him and he leveraged his MUN experience to land a volunteer job as a court mediator before law school. “I was way out of my league, settling court cases that were quite emotional in nature, but again people believed in me and pushed me forward.”

Vik’s mediation experience set him up for a career in the law and he completed his JD at Georgetown University, where he was captain of an international mediation team and the student liaison to the American Bar Association’s Dispute Resolution Section, which provided him a platform to engage in a circle of well-established mediators within the conflict resolution world.  “Suddenly I was attending Council dinners with giants who wrote many of the ADR textbooks and who were leading the charge in promoting ADR globally.”

Vik began his legal career as a plaintiff’s side class action attorney, where he had broad latitude to argue in court and represent parties in mediation.  This was a tremendous opportunity for him to quickly learn the ropes in high-stakes litigation.  “I fondly remember being beaten by (and beating) some heavy-hitter litigators in California, and it taught me a lot about myself,” he says.  During this time he also became very active in MBBI and also launched a global non-profit to help educate people about international child abductions.  After two years of doing litigation and volunteering for MBBI, Vik relocated to Washington DC to serve as an ADR Attorney Advisor for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), where he quickly took on increasing levels of responsibility until he became FEMA Ombuds.

Bringing It All Together

All these experiences combine to provide Vik with unique insights into mediation including new cutting-edge ADR processes, such as hybrid Med-Arb processes, conflict coaching, and ombuds work. Vikram explains that his legal background is certainly a strength in hindsight.  “I think as a practicing lawyer, I was less creative and more rigid about the rules that I am now. In fact, when I was representing parties in mediation, I was more technical and formal at times, as we squabbled over dollars, but my prior experience as a court mediator did help to give me a broader perspective around restorative justice and healing.”

Vik’s expertise goes well beyond the legal field. His interdisciplinary training – from hostage negotiation to appreciative inquiry to trauma recovery – has helped him to be a better dispute resolution practitioner. “Though I have studied a lot of psychology and human behavior on my own, sometimes the parties want me to engage in evaluating a case, and a ‘lawyer’s mindset’ is helpful in those instances. Being able to read legal briefs and at least understand the nuances of the arguments myself helps me to better serve the parties involved.” 

When one party is not willing to mediate, Vik can still help the willing party through conflict coaching, thereby empowering them to more constructively address their own conflicts. “Conflict coaching is really the future, particularly in the workplace, as we arm people with the necessary skills to be more conflict competent in every area of their lives,” he explains.

Future Endeavors

Vik is currently editing his forthcoming book on self-coaching, tentatively called, “First Serve Yourself: how young leaders around the world achieve dramatic success.” (to be published by New Degree Press in April, 2021).  

In his book, he teaches people about his coaching toolkit and references interviews with leading experts in the coaching field and young leaders who employ these coaches’ techniques. As he knows that “nobody learns anything by only reading a book,” Vikram is planning to engage his readers beyond the book in an online community of practice, thus helping his readers improve their lives through regular self-coaching. 

For example, in his book he references (leading global coach) Marshall Goldsmith’s “daily questions” technique, which Marshall borrowed from Benjamin Franklin’s early work on virtues.  The premise is that we can clarify our priorities and digest them into a series of questions that we can then ask ourselves to measure how we are doing on a daily basis.  Vik asks himself questions like “did I start my day with love in my heart,” “did I do my best to connect with those who bring me joy today” and “did I declare victory today.” (a question about gratitude), in addition to about 20 more questions.  He explains that while “the questions might sound simple enough, the practice of ‘testing’ yourself on a daily basis creates amazing positive momentum and really has helped to boost my happiness and fulfillment.  The research shows a clear link between happiness and collaboration, so I am doing the hard work to reduce the drama and conflict in my life so I can serve others more effectively.”  These moments of reflection foster a greater sense of accountability and anchor us to our top priorities in life. 

Vikram has also integrated mindfulness as one of his core practices in his life. He developed his practice after noticing that top mediators like Ken Cloke and Tony Piazza swore by meditation, and he took the plunge by participating in a Vipassana retreat – a 10-day silent retreat that involved over 100 hours of meditation. 

Vik believes that practicing a bit of meditation daily gives him a sense of ease and control in his life, and allows him to re-charge, especially during times of existential crises such as the pandemic in 2020.

Article by Elizabeth Gamarra, MBBI Writer