Culture And Conflict Resolution

From John Folk-Williams’s blog Cross Collaborate

Colorful Flag 300x225 Culture and Conflict Resolution

Image credit: Martin Bangemann –

Stephanie West Allen recently posted an informative article at Brains on Purpose on neuroscience research about the ways in which brains of people in different cultures function in distinctive ways. References to her own earlier posts, especially What’s Universal in Mediation, as well as the work of Geert Hofstede on cultural difference are well worth exploring.

Her post has set me thinking about a general problem I’ve often run into. Stephanie is well aware of this issue, and I want to say immediately that I’m not talking about her post. She is one of the pioneers in educating lawyers and mediators about cross-cultural issues and knows better than most of us how complicated the issues are.

It’s a given that cultural differences must be understood and respected to achieve effective communication. Those differences concern basic values and beliefs that shape worldviews and guide choices for action in all walks of life. When values at this level differ in fundamental ways, misunderstanding of motives and interests is common, and clashes between groups become more likely and resolution more difficult.

But it is possible to exaggerate the effect of those differences on the process of reaching agreement itself. When culturally distinct groups see themselves in conflict, that perception often has a history of adversarial relationships behind it, tensions about interests that are considered incompatible by both sides, or even overt political domination of one group by another. Any conflict interweaves a complex set of influences.

When it comes to conflict resolution, I think of cultural differences as the most significant barrier to communication and hence to initiating any effective effort of the groups to come together for the purpose of resolving problems. Isolating the influence of culture on conflict as negotiation as a whole may be necessary to help one group learn about the unfamiliar values and ways of thinking of another. That process of study, however, can create an impression that cultural characteristics are more fixed and resistant to change that they actually are.

For educational purposes, separate dimensions and categories are useful to explain the nature of cultural differences – dimensions like a sense of time, the degree of individuality, expectations about authority, forms of social interaction, and the like. Unfortunately, this sort of study has led to overemphasis on composite and artificial concepts such as the Arab mind, the Native American worldview or any number of simplifications that sweep together numerous localized cultures and traditions into a single, “typical” cultural character.

In reality, no culture has survived over centuries without extensive change born of the necessity to adapt to new circumstances – such as new political realities, natural environmental changes, migration, influences of other cultures or the availability of new technologies.

A willingness to get together with representatives of a different culture to resolve conflict is also a willingness to consider adaptation to change. Rigid cultures resist change and are unlikely to show that degree of openness. Read more »


John Folk-Williams

I’m John Folk-Williams, the publisher and editor of Cross Collaborate. Since the early 1980s, I’ve been a practitioner and writer in the field of public policy collaboration, interest-based negotiation, mediation and the involvement of citizens in the decisions that affect their lives. A site like this is itself a collaboration… MORE >

Featured Mediators

View all

Read these next


Principles for ADR Provider Organizations

This document is available at Principles for ADR Provider Organizations

By Managing Editor

Conversation, Kindness, and Democracy

Conflict Remedy Blog by Lorraine SegalKindness and Conversation are essential to democracy. Recent events in Washington DC have been difficult to witness. I watched in horror on January 6th as domestic...

By Lorraine Segal

Peter Adler: Experiences Leading to Interest in Mediation: Conflict in India – Video

Peter Adler describes his Peace Corps experience in India and how it may have led to his interest in mediation. He lived in a community with much violent conflict between...

By Peter Adler

Find a Mediator