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The Importance of Culture in Conflict Resolution

JAMS had the honor of supporting the 2013 ABA Mediation Week in October. The theme for the 2013 ABA Mediation Week was “Making a World of Difference.” JAMS partnered with local bar associations, community organizations and law schools throughout the week and held events in Atlanta, Los Angeles, London, Miami, New York, San Francisco and other locations.

At a Mediation Week panel discussion in New York, a panel of seasoned ADR professionals, including two JAMS mediators, a doctor of Anthropology, a New York Police detective and an organizational consultant, explored the role culture plays in conflict resolution.

The definition of culture cannot be limited to nationality, language or race. Culture must be thought of as how we define ourselves as human beings; how we create and give meaning to our experiences by constantly spinning a web of significance from our own environments. In the context of resolving a conflict, it is important to understand the environment in which and from which those involved are from. Why is this conflict important to them? Is it about money? Is it about the land? An apology, perhaps? One of the panelists shared an example of a high-stakes mediation where one of the parties simply needed an apology and nothing further. In this example, the culture that existed was so unexpected that unless the need for an apology was explicitly expressed, the mediation could have run the risk of intractability. Furthermore, it must be understood that culture is flexible, and continuously changing. We can think of our own country, for example, and just how different the culture is today than even a decade ago.

With this notion that culture is always present and changing, the discussion went on to point out the importance of “normalizing” the situation (or mediation). In the midst of a heated negotiation, it is the job of the mediator to harness the energy and guide the various styles of communication towards a more normalized playing field. Each party comes to the table with his or her own style of communication – or culture – and so ensues the mediator’s efforts to understand and raise awareness of that.

One of the key aspects of culture is non-verbal communication and the role it plays in conflict resolution. Another panelist emphasized the many non-verbal actions that can impact reactions during mediation. Crossing the arms, sitting back in a chair or a handshake are considered “micro-cues,” which has the ability to instill or diminish trust instantly, and not always intentionally.

As we think about culture on a small scale, we must also consider the larger and more international aspect of culture. When mediating internationally in places where the culture and style of communication varies from that of America’s, what should we be aware of? Some cultures speak slowly with frequent pauses, which can change the pace at which the mediation progresses. Then, there’s the significance of tea and coffee breaks; sometimes more than caffeine is gained when everyone stops and the environment shifts. Further still, there is importance of observation and active listening. It is often forgotten in American culture just how meaningful it is to stop and just listen.


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