Adaptability & Fried Pickles

by Jeff Thompson
February 2010 Jeff Thompson

Adaptability and having an open mind is something as a mediator and conflict resolver I am always reminding parties or clients to keep in mind while they negotiate or plan their next interaction with another party.

Recently I had a few reminders to practice what I preach.  I have been traveling recently and have come across a few things that for a native New Yorker, seemed a bit strange.  First, being the attempted reflective practitioner that I say I am, I remind myself not to fall into the trap of labeling others and falling prey to attribution biases or selective perception. 

Some examples of these differences have shown up in emails, conversations and just being mindful of my surroundings. It is important for me to be conscious of these differences of how I view things.  The circle of conflict reminds me that the way I see things might not necessarily be the same way as the other person see’s it.  If I fail to acknowledge this, a potential result could be the manifestation of a dispute or conflict. 

Before delving into the circle, I want to say that each of the contributors to wheel do not have to be look at as harbingers of conflict.  Instead, they can also be viewed as reminders of the beauty on this world in that  each of us are unique, different and see things potentially different from us.

The five differing types of conflict comprising of the circle are:

Relationships:  While recently speaking with a group of Bhutanese refugees (see this NY Times article), I had to go through great lengths just to prove I was there to genuinely assist them (I was working in my role as a Detective for the NYPD).  I took for granted that they would welcome me right away based on past experiences with other groups.

Value:  Do I think this person in Omaha really cares about how my day is going or how the weather was in New York?  Maybe they really are looking for small talk when I thought they were just using the standard greeting.  Based on their stare after the question, I realized they really did want to know these things.  By the way, it was nice having that small talk.

Data:  Recently I was discussing the pros of using ODR (Online Dispute Resolution) software with a colleague via email.  I was discussing the computer requirements needed to run the program and the steps involved to launch it.  I looked at the information and stated it would be simple for us to get it started and it would take only minutes for me to give the person a walk through. 

One hour later, I realized what I thought was an easy process was not the case for others because of the learning curve and experience.  I failed to think if the other person knew all the terminology I did and knew how to navigate the web the same way as me.

Structural:  Remember the saying, “Different Strokes For Different Folks”?  Well, during a private presentation, I realized I was talking to a group of higher rank and thus certain formalities must be adhered to in order for the people to fully understand the topics I was discussing.  Although I am a big supporter of treating everyone the way I wish to be treated, I also realize due to culture and structure, in organization for this situation not the country or region, I had to be able to communicate way that acknowledged their status.

Interests: While in Australia I gave a few public talks.  The topics to be covered were what I believed to be two equally interesting topics.  The first being how as an NYPD detective, I was the coordinator of a program that ‘thought outside the box’ when designing a program to reach out primarily to the young Muslim community to create understanding and establish lines of communication that either had not been created yet or could have been solidified (read more it here). 

The second topic was in regards to me mediating dozens of credit card debt related cases this year as part of a program with Safe Horizon and the New York Court System in Manhattan.

The audiences at both talks quickly showed their overwhelming interest in the first topic and not the second.  It is important to note the audience was drastically different as well, one was to graduate students at Bond University and the second talk’s audience, at the Centre of Peace and Social Justice at Southern Cross University, consisted primarily of people from the scholarly background and local government.

I realized this by gauging the people’s interest during the talk and the questions they ask which then allowed me to adapt the presentation to be primarily on the first topic.

As I mentioned above, I have been to Omaha a few times recently as well as Council Bluffs, Iowa.  I went to Burger King (‘Hungry Jacks’ for all my Kiwi and Aussie friends) and I realized when going to for a drive to Burger King for a burger takes on a whole new meaning now.  See the picture below and you will see how I noticed two things: 1) that someone took their tractor to Burger King! And 2) I was the only person amused by this and taking a picture on my mobile as if there was a UFO landing in the parking lot (‘car park’ for the Aussies and Kiwis).

Finally, as I referenced above, albeit tongue-in-cheek, to Hungry Jacks and ‘car park’, there are slight differences in languages and cultures even when they speak English!  When negotiating, mediating and providing other conflict and communication related services, I found one way to get buy-in and in building rapport with audiences, clients and perspective clients is to speak their language… to a degree. 

Acknowledge the language of another culture and region too little could display ignorance, while too much could look like I am pandering or mocking.  How do you know when it is too much or too little?  Well, based on experience, all I will say it is a trial by error method. 

For me, I try to blend in acknowledging and embracing the culture of where I am (examples include drinking Bhutanese tea, saying “no worries” in Australia, and eating fried pickles in Omaha- yes fried pickles are a must!) as well displaying where I am from (saying coffee in my perfect New Yawk accent and speaking from my experiences of being a NYPD detective).

I have had the joy and pleasure of meeting and embracing many cultures in my short life, actually I am getting old- turn 31 in a few months (dear god!) of which I think I have accumulated a love and appreciation of each of them while also maintaining traits of my New York base. 

To end this blog that might have been incredibly insightful or pointless, who knows or cares but I will end with a quick story of where adaptability does not always work.

It was my first visit to the Gold Coast, Australia and after multiple visits to Hungry Jacks and other fast food establishments (Burger King for the Yank readers) I realized they call ketchup not ketchup but rather tomato sauce.

So, one sunny day after walking from the beach to a certain Hungry Jacks, I said to myself, “Jeff, embrace the Aussie culture, remember to ask for tomato sauce, NOT ketchup.  I will be soo cool and accepted by everyone!”

I build up my confidence; walk up to the cashier and say, “A veggie burger, coke and chips (not fries!) please.”

The cashier replied, “8 dollars 50 cents please.”

I then add, “Oh, could I also have 3 packets of tomato sauce,” to which she replied, “Oh, you mean ketchup?”


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Biography


Jeff Thompson, Ph.D., is a professor at Lipscomb University, researcher, mediator, and trainer. He is also involved in crisis and hostage negotiation as well as a law enforcement detective. His research includes law enforcement crisis and hostage negotiation in terrorist incidents. He received his doctorate from Griffith University Law School having researched the impact nonverbal communication has in conflict situations with respect to developing rapport, building trust, and displaying professionalism.

Dr. Thompson has presented and trained on the topic of conflict, mediation, (crisis and hostage) negotiation, communication and nonverbal communication internationally for a variety of audiences including police personnel, government officials, judges, attorneys, physicians, sales people, business professionals, and both graduate and undergraduate students. He has also been published in numerous professional and academic publications.

He is the co-chair of ACR's national Crisis Negotiation Section, and he is an ad-hoc reviewer for multiple academic journals. He received his MS in Negotiation and Dispute Resolution from the Werner Institute, Creighton University School of Law.

(All posts by Jeff Thompson represent his personal reflections and opinions and not that of any organization.)



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