The Mediator's Toolkit: Cultural Competence - Transcending Culture Differences in Mediation

by Dave Aschaiek
November 2011

Karen Ekstein, MBA, Ph.D. (author) assisted David Ashaiek with this article.

Dave Aschaiek

The concept of ‘culture’ has various meanings and definitions. One such definition is as follows: culture refers to “customary beliefs, social norms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time” (Merriam-Webster). So, though culture is frequently interpreted in terms of characteristics related to national or regional origins of an individual or group, this perspective is limited.

Academics from areas of study including psychology, sociology, anthropology, business studies, and communications, consider how culture influences individuals’ thoughts, actions and interactions. A respected professor emeritus at Maastricht University, Geert Hofstede, has published widely cited research in which he identifies ways of describing national cultures. As well, Hofstede considers the implications of national cultural characteristics on business-related practices and relationships. In particular, in his many studies, Hofstede submits cultures of countries and regions are describable along the following five dimensions: power distance, individualism, masculinity, uncertainty avoidance and long-term orientation. The central conclusion of Hofstede’s research is that the way in which a country is characterized in terms of the five dimensions explains, if not predicts, business behaviours and practices of people in and from those countries or regions.

It is worth questioning the notion that the cultural characteristics of a country or a region will explain how all people in that country or region will think, act, or interact. At the same time, there does seem to be some validity to the notion that inattention to the cultural differences can offend if not compromise the success of relationships and interactions. For instance, in business school students are reminded that cultural differences can, perhaps in some cases more than others, influence business practices and affect success of cross-cultural business interactions. Classic examples include Japanese businessmen interpreting pointing using the index finger as an insult or a Chinese businesswoman giving a gift in order to establish a business relationship. A key takeaway from these generic examples of cultural differences and Hofstede’s research is that successful interactions with people of different cultures than our own demands consideration of cultural differences and respect for these differences, at least in order to find a common ground upon which to build relationships and interactions.

A key implication of the definition of culture provided above and the discussion of Hofstede is that culture functions as a foundation for clustering people together based on common cultural characteristics and distinguishing them from others based on dissimilarities in their cultural characteristics. However, as per the definition of culture featured above, while a person’s country or region of origin can influence that individual’s culture, it is not the only influence on his or her cultural identity. Rather, cultural identity is shaped by a multitude of factors, including religious beliefs, ethnicity, schooling, social affiliations, social class, interests, gender identity, neighbourhood, profession, organization, department and workgroup in which one works, etc. The possible influences on an individual’s culture, as such, are endless.

As a result, people from the same national cultural background may share certain cultural characteristics, but may have radically different cultural identities; this is because of the combination of cultural characteristics making up each person’s respective cultural identity. Further, because an individual’s cultural identity will influence his or her thoughts, actions and interactions, differences in cultural identities across parties in a communication or interaction can affect the effectiveness of their communications and interactions; this can happen in spite of having shared cultural characteristics, such as those related to religion or national background. For example, cultural differences can influence both assumptions and expectations of communicating parties to the extent that it leads to misunderstandings, to miscommunications and to conflict. As Geert Hofstede states: “Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy. Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.”

Not only do cultural differences reasonably contribute to, even cause, conflicts, but they can also affect the ability or willingness of interacting parties to resolve differences. More specifically, the influence of culture on an individual’s perspective (i.e. assumptions, expectations, beliefs), can be so strong it blinds an individual to the existence of alternative points of view. In effect, cultural differences can contribute to the unwillingness of parties in an interaction to admit there might be another way of perceiving a situation or set of circumstances. In some cases, cultural differences can contribute to the inability for parties in an interaction to see another perspective on a conflict or dispute. So, not only do cultural differences across disputing parties influence how each party thinks, acts and interacts, but it also affects the potential for discord and the possibility and success of dispute resolution efforts.

A question that might arise is: what does this have to do with mediation? As has been suggested, a key source of conflict is different perspectives. As also suggested, different perspectives often arise out of cultural differences. Thus, a mediator’s ability to navigate the cultural differences across disputing parties is paramount for success of dispute resolution. That is, a mediator facilitates discussions across parties in spite of cultural differences that contribute to barriers to understanding and communication that led to the dispute in the first place. And, this ability to navigate cultural differences is necessary if a mediator is to assist in discovery of a resolution that appeals to all disputing parties. In effect, ‘cultural competence’ is an essential skill in a mediator’s toolkit.

Cultural competence is a term that refers to the capacity for an individual or group of individuals to navigate cultural variations with sensitivity and poise. Cultural competence is a central skill a mediator must master. Cultural competence refers to a mediator’s ability to: (a) understand how culture and/or cultural differences permeate a dispute; (b) find ways to overcome cultural differences insofar as to find points of agreement to build on in dispute resolution efforts. As such, the mediator is charged with the critical task of facilitating the dispute resolution process in a way that respects cultural differences, but that focuses on resolving a dispute to satisfaction of all parties.

To conclude, whether culture is derived from country of origin or a multitude of other sources, it has an influence on thoughts and actions of people. Given these influences, culture can be seen to have a prominent role in and influence on people’s interactions, including their disputes. If the crux of the mediator’s role is to assist disputing parties to find points of agreement from which to build dispute resolutions, and to do so in spite of cultural differences, cultural competence is one of the essential capabilities in a mediator’s toolkit. Cultural competence is not about a mediator suppressing, explaining, or paying lip service to cultural differences that exist between parties in a dispute. Cultural competence is about acknowledging implications of cultural differences for a dispute and its outcomes, and then transcending them in a respectful and productive manner to arrive at an optimal resolution for all disputing parties.

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