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Practice Informed By Research: Cross Cultural Approaches Informing Mediation

Fostering the next generation of practitioners and theorists in the field of conflict resolution is critical to ensuring that the important work of peacebuilding continues.  Much of my career has pivoted between the work of academia – the ivory tower – and getting my hands dirty in practice.   This is the best place to be: one can see how research can be rendered into practice, and where practice can be informed by rigorous research.  A strong and vibrant conflict resolution and peacebuilding field demands this interplay.

My first entry into practice was as a family mediator (I was a disgruntled lawyer), followed by community mediation, which I still occasionally engage in. I also teach part-time, primarily at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University.  Most of my students are master’s students, and most of my classes are practice focused.

Having students present their work to colleagues and peers is an important activity in the development of a professional identity.  It helps younger and newer aspirants see how the profession is constituted, as well as provides colleagues new and fresh ideas of how the work can be done.  But, sad to say, it’s not done enough.  I’m often disappointed at how few student research sessions take place at conferences.

The Peace and Justice Studies Association (PJSA) represents faculty who teach mainly in the peace studies and social justice areas.   It meets annually.  I enjoy attending the conference to catch up with colleagues and learn something new.  The most recent meeting was in September in Philadelphia. I was pleased to be able to support two of my former students in presentations at the conference.   After learning about a research paper they had published in a peer review journal (impressive for a couple of master’s students), I encouraged them to present their work at the PJSA conference.

Laura Mahan and Joshua Mahuna had been my students in the course Reflective Practice.  They presented at PJSA on “Bridging the Divide: Cross-Cultural Mediation.”  The presentation was based on their article of the same title published in the International Research and Review: Phi Beta Delta Journal for International Scholars 7(1), 2017. In the paper and in their presentation, they analyzed contrasting cross-cultural perceptions that resolve intercultural conflicts and disputes. In particular, they contrasted Western-centric mediation techniques with indigenous methodologies.  A primary thesis was that by analyzing various global indigenous systems, they believe that that individualistic and collectivist mediation techniques often lack synergy between peoples in cross-cultural conflicts, which can lead to miscommunication. Their Cross-Cultural Mediation Model and methodology for managing conflict incorporates a wide variety of mediation techniques found throughout the world at every level of society and can respond to the deficiency present. In the end, their ideas can bridge the divide between often neglected indigenous approaches and Western ones.

During their studies at George Mason University, Mahan and Mahuna both felt conflict scholarship and the curriculum lacked discussion about cultural-exceptionalism and the significance of indigenous methodologies. Specifically, they felt a severe misappropriation of Western techniques into non-Western societies, especially as the divides even within these cultures require and demand different mediation methods to transform and re-integrate healing processes. Basing their Cross-Cultural Mediation Model on various European organizational mediation, American narrative mediation, Indonesian communitarian mediation, Native Hawaiian and Buddhist-Lao influenced techniques, Mahan and Mahuna strongly felt a need to return to bridging communication and cultural divides in a ‘dialogue through difference’ approach. They hope their methodology can act as a framework towards viewing and processing conflict in a new, more approachable and personable, way.

Mediators today in the U.S. are facing not only challenges that reflect ever-changing conflict, but more importantly, clients coming from a vast array of multicultural backgrounds bringing values and expectations that often challenge traditional American western mores and approaches.   The ubiquitous “principled negotiation” model developed by William Ury and Roger Fisher in Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In though having much to offer, was developed at a time when U.S. society was not the mosaic it is today.  Mahan and Mahuna’s approach, and those of other younger researchers, are important contributions to our field and provide those of us in practice with appropriate and contemporary responses to the changing nature of conflict and those conflicted in U.S. society.

Co-authors Laura Mahan can be reached at
[email protected] and Joshua Mahuna can be reached at [email protected].


David Smith

David J. Smith is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He teaches part-time at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University and is the president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian… MORE >

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