A Mediator’s Cross Cultural Dynamics Involving Latino’s

Once the mediator has self evaluated thoroughly and has a deep understanding of his own knowledge and skills, the next step is to take into consideration the cross cultural dynamics. As a foreigner, the mediator must understand the commonalities and the differences between the two cultures: the native one and the new one. The elements that the mediator must consider in order to be successful are the mediator’s individuality amidst the Latino cultural diversity, the mediator’s role under Latino clients, the mediator’s involvement in the conflict, the Latino family dynamics, the formality and informality in dealing with Latinos, and collectivistic patterns that the mediator must consider in order to be successful.

A. Mediator’s Individuality and Latino Cultural Diversity

One of the first issues the mediator may be confronted with is the mediator’s awareness of his own individuality and singularity amidst the Latino cultural diversity. The mediator is only one person, but the Latino community is diverse and it’s lifestyle may be different from the mediator’s personal experience. If the mediator is capable of seeing the diversity within the Latino community, the mediator will be more effective at understanding and managing their differences. The first step in implementing cultural awareness changes is for the mediator to be aware of the mediator’s own uniqueness in terms of, among others, expression of emotion, body language, style of communication, importance given to the guidelines and/or structure of mediation, and comfort with conflict. The mediator should be aware of how his own behavior can affect the participants’ interaction in mediation. (1)

Before starting to speak about the “Latino” culture, the mediator must be aware that Latino or Hispanic term are meaningless labels without a better understanding of the ethnics, the national history and a unique family’s story of their background and acculturation:

“The experience of a person from El Salvador who has come to this country seeking political asylum is vastly different from the migrant farm worker from Mexico or the person from Puerto Rico or Cuba, or the person from a Spanish family which migrated to this country in the 1880s, yet all are linked by the variations of Spanish language, just as Americans, from the Bronx to New Orleans to Los Angeles, all ostensibly speak the same language. Cultural diversity within this minority population makes is as hard to speak with any authority about ‘All Hispanics’ as it is to speak about ‘All Whites.’” (2)

Regarding anthropological terms, Latinos may be described as having an allocentric culture, that is, one in which the interests of the group and relations among group members take precedence over individual concerns or internal psychological states. This general interpersonal orientation helps explain the centrality of some cultural values. The most salient of these values is familismo, which places the multigenerational, informal extended family at the core of the culture. Family thus extends vertically to include grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins (to the fourth generation), and laterally to include godparents (compadre, comadres) as well as close family friends (cuatismo). Thus, la familia refers to the kin network, as opposed to la casa, which denotes the immediate or nuclear family. (3)

Accordingly, as John Paul Lederach says in his article “The Community Board Program,” the mediator must situate the conflict in the disputants’ “frame of reference.” (4) The mediator must know how a person interprets the limits and context of the conflict.” A cross-cultural mediator is always aware of the context of the cultures involved in the dispute and uses “appropriate cultural-syntonic” (5)methods to conduct the mediation sessions.

As Alison Taylor and Sanchez say in Out of the White Box: Adapting Mediation to the Needs of Hispanic and Other Minorities within American Society, unless we have a true understanding of the cultural background and worldview of the participants, as well as the realities they face, we will be ineffective in creating outcomes that are culturally consistent and able to withstand the economic and social pressures that will be placed on them. (6)

As Irving Benjamin says in Family Mediation and Cultural Diversity: Mediating with Latino Families, Latino families distribute on a continuum regarding group identification. Some families identify passionately with their Latino origin. Others repudiate that origin, while most fall somewhere between these extremes. (7) The ones who identify easily with Latino origin and values will operate more collectively and will give much more importance to the relationships. Furthermore, they will probably feel more comfortable with a Spanish speaking mediator who is a trusted part of his community while the ones who repudiate the Latino origin will tend to operate more individualistically and use and external and more neutral mediator as the appropriate one.

Once the mediator is aware of the mediator’s singularity, the mediator can ask himself: What is my role as mediator within this singularity? According to John Paul Lederach, the parties in a mediation do not know the mediator in the North American model of mediation. In other societies, it is important that the mediator is known by the group or community. Differences in the expectations of the mediator’s anonymity can create misunderstandings with diverse populations unaware of the North American model. The North American model also assumes that the parties can manage the conflict in the mediation session and that the conflict can be solved without reference to a larger group context. Of course, not everyone shares these beliefs. While American parties at the mediation table will probably be self-sufficient, self-directing and autonomous, the most frequent reaction to a mediator by the Latinos was to “tell us what to do” or “give direction”. (8) Among collectivists, there is a tendency to prefer evaluative mediators who are familiar with the context of the parties’ dispute and who can suggest resolutions that will restore harmony both to the disputants and their relevant groups. (9)

Several other articles suggest related trends among Latinos. Generally, Hispanics prefer a more evaluative mediator during disputes. Mediators are often directive, advocating settlements that accord with notions of justice commonly accepted in their societies. (10) Before involuntarily adjusting to fit this overview, the mediator should start out by discovering what the disputants want the mediator’s role to be.

B. The Mediator’s Role

Mediators in the United States should become familiar with the individualistic cultural assumptions and recognize collectivists’ assumptions about conflict and resolution differ. In this manner, mediators are capable of helping both individualist and collectivist parties.

The identity of the mediator, culturally and with regards to the family, may be important to the Latino community. It might be desirable for the mediator to be familiar with the family, a virtual negative requisite in the so called ‘Anglo’ mediation model and usually grounds for disqualification. A mediator who comes from within the social network of the parties may be preferred. (11) In her discussion of differences between the Anglo-American model of mediation and the model used in four non-industrial societies, Merry submits that non-industrial mediators are generally known by the disputants and often have high community status and considerable power…Mediators in non-industrial societies bring to the mediation session considerable knowledge of the events in the dispute and the character of the disputants…Non-industrial mediators are often quite directive, advocating settlements that accord with notions of justice commonly accepted in their societies…In non-industrial societies, the authority to intervene in conflict situations rests on kinships connections, political position, religious merit, previous experience, and knowledge of customs and community. (12)

C. Personal Involvement and Garnering Trust

Personal involvement is important for establishing credibility with the Latino community, whereas in the Anglo model, neutrality and professionalism is crucial to obtain trust. Augsburger states that the mediator should be a trusted part of the community. (13)Moreover, Lederach affirms that mediators are recognized communal leaders or trusted go-betweens from the social context. They are personally embedded in the social networks and remain in relationship with parties in the dispute both during and after the resolution. (14)

The mediator’s credibility is vital and his technical expertise is often valued as criteria for trust in both the Anglo and Latino cultures. However, under the Anglo mediation model, the mediator’s role needs to be is as an impersonal expert. The mediator must also preserve the mediator’s neutrality with the parties. On the other side, among Latino families, rapport is likely to involve more than merely developing trust. It means moving from the status of outsider to that of insider, with whom private family matters may be freely discussed. (15) To that end, practitioners need to develop a personal relationship with key family members. Such personal involvement places demands on oneself not normally experienced in dealing with white clients, including issues of self-disclosure, the boundary between professional and personal, and established notions of professional expertise having to do, for example, with public touching and displaying affection. (16)

Alison Taylor and Sanchez recommend outreach to the Latino population by finding appropriate people within the Latino community to train as informal mediators or co-mediators. Priests and other spiritual leaders, elders of the community, and godparents are examples of people qualified to be trained. Bringing in entire extended families when there is a family-related dispute can serve these families better than the standard model of mediation, which requires a professional atmosphere of confidentiality and only the biological parents in the room. (17)

Irving, Benjamin and San-Pedro, in Family Mediation and Cultural Diversity: Mediating with Latino Families, suggest that practicing mediation in a more culturally acceptable way will help mediators work better with the Latino population. Personal involvement, warmth, patience, a slower and more tolerant pace, a more accepting atmosphere, the offer of home-based programs, and respect for the values of the culture will help mediators work better with this population. (18)

D. Latino Internal Family Dynamics

In understanding Latino clients, it is helpful to be aware of the internal family dynamics of their culture. The portrait of Latino family systems involves concern with components such as values, conduct, and comparison to majority family norms. Latinos may be described as collectivistic society. (19)This generalized interpersonal orientation helps explain the centrality of at least some cultural values. One of the most prominent of these values is familismo, which places the multigenerational, informal extended family at the core of the culture. (20) These values make for extended family systems that are extraordinarily close and cohesive. (21)Related values serve to promote harmony and goodwill, and avoid or at least control interpersonal conflict. Latinos are caught in a dilemma, sensitive to insult or criticism that might offend their pride or honor, yet prohibited from direct confrontation. Accordingly, interpersonal conflict is likely to be handled indirectly, either through avoidance or involvement of a compadre or priest acting as an intermediary or go-between. (22) This collection of values serves to promote social relations marked by closeness, harmony, cooperation, and sensitivity. Some of this is explicit, with social interaction normally friendly, spontaneous, and emotional.

Latino culture is generally characterized as high-context. This is intended in three senses: centrality of close social relations; reliance on control over external social contexts; and pervasive use of indirect form of expression, especially nonverbal cues. This method of organizing social relations has two consequences. One is that in handling conflict Latinos typically resort to a short series of rapidly escalating steps. Should the efforts of a go-between fail, confrontations can be bitter and prolonged with violence a real possibility. The second consequence is that Latinos make a clear distinction between insiders and outsiders. Although the boundaries within the extended family are permeable, those between the extended system and outsiders are rigid and relatively impermeable. Marital difficulties, for example, if they are discussed openly at all, are only discussed with extended kin, as opposed to strangers.

Among Latinos, with their extended notion of family, inclusion of extended kin and compadres may be both typical and useful in mediation sessions. This may be especially important in an effort to maintain family unity despite divorce, for example, to restore harmony, and to promote relationship and community healing because the ones who attend mediation will be more able to appreciate the full significance of the choice the parties have made in using mediation. (23)Moreover, the communal approach will probably help the extended kin to save face by participating in the mediation.

E. Formality and Informality in Mediation

In collectivist societies, outdoor and informal indoor mediation settings are common, but the use of first names among strangers or persons of unequal status is not. (24) Mediation, as practiced in the United States, certainly is less formal than litigation. However, people from collectivist societies may be intimidated by the commonly used formal office settings. Collectivists also may insist upon using titles when addressing mediators and other mediation participants, while expecting similar manifestations of respect in return. Possible accommodations to collectivists could include informal office settings, non-office mediation venues and the use of last names and appropriate titles for everyone throughout the mediation session. (25)

F. Collectivist patterns

Among collectivists, negotiation styles tend to be indirect, spiral and relationship-oriented. At the outset of a negotiation, considerable time may be spent establishing a relationship of trust upon which further negotiation can be based. Interests sometimes are expressed through the use of metaphors and body language and can be missed by someone unfamiliar with the relevant cultural context. Issues often are seen as interrelated, thus requiring a holistic approach to resolution. A holistic approach may lead to a spiral negotiation technique whereby issues are resolved hypothetically or tentatively and later revisited to evaluate the proposed resolutions’ compatibility with a comprehensive agreement. Resolution options are considered not only on the basis of their effects on the disputants, but also in view of the likely effects on groups, which may need to be consulted before a final agreement is reached. The mediator may need to gather communal as well as individual perspectives before identifying the parties’ interests. Collectivists tend to be more interested in the restoration of overall harmony than in written agreements, especially where in-group relationships are concerned. (26)Accordingly, in order to succeed, the mediator will need to have a more holistic view of negotiation than the Anglo-American model. Moreover, the mediator should recognize that seemingly independent issues at the mediation table may be intertwined in ways that make it impossible to deal with them separately. (27)

End Notes

1 See Josefina Muñiz Rendon, When You Can’t Get Through Them, Cultural Diversity in Mediation, available at http://www.mediate.com/articles/rendon.cfm

2 Alison Taylor and Sanchez, Out of the White Box: Adapting Mediation to the Needs of Hispanic and Other Minorities within American Society, Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 1991, 29 (2), 104-127.

3 Irving H, Benjamin M, San-Pedro J, Family Mediation and Cultural Diversity: Mediating with Latino Families, Mediation Quarterly, Volume 16, # 4, Summer 1999, p 327.

4 John Paul Lederach, Conciliation Quarterly, The Community Board Program, Vol.5 # 1, San Francisco, CA.

5 Id at 1.

6 See supra note 22 at 104-127.

7 See supra note 17 at p 332.

8 John Sarmiento, Culturally Responsive Alternative Dispute Resolution for Latinos, available at http:www.mediate.com/articles/sarmiento.cfm, September 2000.

9 Brishkai Lund et al., Conflict and Culture: Report of the Multiculturalism and Dispute Resolution Project 4 (1994).

10 Avruch, K., & Black, P., The culture question and conflict resolution, Peace and Change, 1991, page 85.

11 Duryea, M, Conflict and Culture: a literary review and bibliography, Victoria, Canada: University of Victoria Institute for Dispute Resolution, 1992.

12 Merry, S., Mediation in nonindustrial societies. The process and effectiveness of third party intervention. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989, pages 85-86.

13 Augsburger, David W., Conflict Mediation Across Cultures, Pathways and Patterns, Westminster, John Knox Press, 1992, page 201.

14 John Paul Lederach, Assumptions, MCS Conciliation Quarterly, (Summer): 2-5.

15 Falicov, C.J., Mexican Families, in M. McGoldrick, J.Giordano, and J.K.Pearce (eds), Ethnicity and Family Therapy. (2nd ed.) New York: Guilford Press, 1996.

16 See supra note 26 at 332.

17 See supra note 22 at 104-127.

18 See supra note 26 at 332.

19 Walter Wright, Cultural Issues in Mediation: Individualist and Collectivist Paradigms. available at http:www.mediate.com/articles/wright.cfm

20 Devore, W., and Schlesinger, E.G. Ethnic-Sensitive Social Work Practice. (4th ed.) Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1996. 21 Dana, R.H., Multicultural Assessment Perspectives for Professional Psychology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1993.

22 Dana, R.H., Multicultural Assessment Perspectives for Professional Psychology. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1993, page 328.

23 Gold, L., Influencing Unconscious Influences: The Healing Dimension of Mediation, Mediation Quarterly, 1993, 11, 55-66.

24 Kimberlee K. Kovach, Mediation: Principles and Practice 23-27 (1994).

25 Walter Wright, Cultural Issues in Mediation: Individualist and Collectivist Paradigms. available at http:www.mediate.com/articles/wright.cfm

26 See John Paul Lederach, The Mediator’s Cultural Assumptions, Conciliation Quarterly (Mennonite Conciliation Svc., Akron, Pa.) Summer 1986, at 2-5.

27 Steven Weller, John A. Martin, and John Paul Lederach, Fostering Culturally Responsive Courts, The case of family dispute resolution for latinos, Family Court Review, Vol. 39 no. 2, april 2001, page 197.


Rene Llapur

Rene is an Argentinean bilingual (english-spanish) ADR professional. Attorney (admitted in Buenos Aires Bar Association), he holds an LLM (Master in Mediation) at Pepperdine University. Currently, he holds his private practice in family businesses conflicts and also teaches ADR in Argentina and Latin America. MORE >

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