Third Culture – Creating a Climate for a Successful Mediation

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

In “Cultural Competence – Transcending Culture Differences in Mediation,” cultural competence was described as an indispensible capability in a mediator’s toolkit. Cultural competence was presented as the ability for a mediator to not only identify, acknowledge and explain cultural influences on parties within a dispute, but to also transcend the cultural differences in a way that serves the dispute resolution process. Effectively, cultural competence involves a mediator’s ability to navigate cultural factors that are present in and bring to bear on a dispute and its resolution. A mediator aims to find a common ground across disputing parties with respect for and in spite of their cultural differences, and this common ground serves as a platform for resolving a dispute to optimize satisfaction of disputing parties. Therefore, a mediator’s cultural competence is essential for the mediation process and can make the difference between the success or failure of mediation.

While cultural competence is inarguably critical to successful mediation, it is not the only capability a mediator should have in his or her toolkit. A number of years ago, an interesting article was published in the International Journal of Intercultural Communication by Fred Casrnir. In the article, Casrnir (1999) introduced the ‘third culture’ and described what it is and how it influences communicative instances. Imagine a case in which two parties try to communicate. Each party has a unique cultural heritage that they bring to an interaction and this cultural heritage shapes their assumptions about and expectations of a communicative endeavour. Since parties in a communication bring different cultural heritages with them to an interaction, it is possible, if not likely, that the parties will have different assumptions surrounding and expectations of the communication. As might be expected, different assumptions and expectations open the door to miscommunication, misunderstandings and conflicts. In his article, Casrnir (1999) cites Smith (1996), who claims that: “intercultural exchanges are commonly assymetrical because of unrelated sets of expectations and definitions.”

If communication represents a purposeful ‘coming together’ of people with different cultural heritages, a key question is how to achieve the purpose of a communication productively, in spite of differences that have implications for communication effectiveness and success? To Casrnir (1999), ‘third culture’ represents a bridge between parties in a communication that enables parties to communicate productively. He defines third culture as: “construction of a mutually beneficial interactive environment in which individuals from different cultures can function in a way beneficial to all involved” (Casrnir, 1999, p. 92).

An important question, however, is whether parties in a communication are even capable of achieving objectivity that is necessary to foster a third culture. It might be suggested that the cultural characteristics of an individual are so deeply ingrained that an individual may have trouble attaining the level of perspective that is required to understand how their individual cultures affect their assumptions and expectations as well as the communicative relationship and the communication effort. Furthermore, achieving the necessary level of objectivity and perspective to foster a third culture would presumably be particularly difficult in the case of a culture clash between communicating parties.

The relationship between mediation and fostering a third culture is possibly becoming a bit clearer. As has been suggested, culture clashes between communicating parties are often the sources of conflicts and disputes. Yet, overcoming culture clashes can be difficult for disputing parties because a level of objectivity is necessary to do so. In a dispute, the parties are frequently unable, if not unwilling, to develop objectivity and even empathy that is necessary for the parties to arrive at a satisfactory resolution to their dispute. The inability or unwillingness of disputing parties to find a common ground upon which to build positive communication and understanding – or a third culture – is what leads these disputes to require outside intervention. In other words, the outside intervention is used to foster a foundation for communication about a dispute that will lead to its resolution.

Not surprisingly, there are two approaches to seeking outside intervention that will assist in fostering a foundation for communication about a dispute to lead to its resolution. It should be clear that one approach involves litigation and one approach involves mediation. Within the context of litigation, individuals rely on lawyers to act as extensions of themselves that will often reinforce and justify a disputant’s position and interests; this is frequently an adversarial approach that may result in perpetuation of culture clashes and reinforcement of cultural differences for the purposes of ultimately designating a winner and a loser. Or, in the case of litigation, culture might be ignored altogether, while the legal interpretation is privileged above the disputing parties, their interests and their cultural characteristics.

Mediation, however, relies on a different approach, central to which is the mediator’s effort to build a third culture á la Casrnir (1999). Thus, the mediator – an impartial or neutral party – identifies and respects cultures presented in a dispute and seeks to understand impacts of cultural differences on a dispute. However, a mediator aims to transcend cultural differences by fashioning a space – a third culture – wherein a mediator fosters productive communications – communications that move disputing parties towards a mutually satisfying resolution to a dispute. So, the key question that then arises is how a mediator might fashion such a space?

A key contention of this article is that a combination of a mediator’s professional training and cultural competence are critical for fostering a third culture. A mediator’s professional training values a conciliatory, agreement-focused approach to dispute resolution which, in essence, privileges neutrality and aims to optimally satisfy all involved parties. Cultural competence, as described in the Cultural Competence article, involves a mediators’ ability to identify and respect cultural differences manifested in a dispute and to navigate the differences in a way that allows all parties to feel understood and valued.

To conclude, this article suggests a new perspective, or frame, for understanding the role of a mediator. This article submits that a central responsibility of a mediator is to foster a third culture, wherein dispute resolution efforts can be undertaken productively and effectively. By combining professional skills that the mediator develops in mediation training and the cultural competence that a mediator must seek to uncover, if not develop in his or herself, a mediator is naturally equipped to create a third culture. In effect, it would seem that there is a natural fit between mediation and productive and effective management of communicative endeavours, with or without a conflict dimension, built on a third culture model. As a result, it is within a mediator’s interest and power to recognize, realize and to benefit from that fit in their own mediations and in a way that assists clients to realize their communication goals.

Follow Dave @TorontoMediator

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