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Tuesday
Feb262013

The Role of Cultural Sensitivity in Modern Mediation

A guest blog by Dean Vella*

The turn of the 21st century will no doubt be remembered as an age of rapid and dramatic globalization. This coming together of numerous cultures in the marketplace and beyond presents benefits to all. But there are, undoubtedly, also barriers that can arise as a result of cultural differences.

One such complication relates to the resolution of disputes between parties of divergent backgrounds. In order to find workable and sustainable solutions to such disagreements, today’s mediators must employ culturally sensitive courses of action.

The Case for Cross-Cultural Frameworks

Until fairly recently, many mediators have worked in a sort of ethnocentric vacuum, crafting solutions that appeal to their own cultural experiences and sensibilities. For example, observers note that Western culture’s emphasis on finding resolutions that are agreeable to both parties involved in a conflict is not a universally shared objective. In other words, other cultures may view conflict as an honorable way to settle disputes – even, in some cases, violent conflict.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean mediators should seek out or foster conflict. Rather, they must be cognizant of each party’s background. Further, it is critical for cross-cultural mediators to recognize that a “perfect outcome” may be one that in their mind and their culture is not necessarily viewed as the most desirable.

Efforts must be made then to update the criteria as to what makes a good mediator, with an emphasis on abstract thinking and cultural adaptation. Without this re-evaluation, lasting solutions will likely be harder to achieve in the new global landscape.

Collectivism vs. Individualism

One of the biggest disconnects in cross-cultural conflict resolution can stem from an inherent value-based societal structure. Some cultures, for example, may place much value on the rights of the individual, a philosophy that positions personal needs and rights as society’s primary concern. Collectivism, on the other hand, places more value on the interests of the group and less on personal goals and preferences.

This clash of collectivism vs. individualism may be apparent in formal mediation, where a Western framework typically requires that all parties to the dispute be present. However, in collectivistic cultures the term “parties” might itself be up for debate. In such cultures, people who are not directly related to the dispute may be the ones present for the mediation, while the actual individual involved may not be.

In the West, this might be seen as a lack of investment by the individual in question. In other cultures, however, it is pressure from the group that brings about the most change.

Seeking a Palatable Outcome in the Global Age

In seeking resolutions, Western mediators may consider a signed agreement as the ultimate end goal. These agreements are seen as legal and binding documents. Some cultures place far less value on signed contracts, which they view simply as proof that a relationship exists.

Every culture has deep-rooted beliefs that stretch far back. In an increasingly global age, these dogmas can add to the complexity of conflict resolution and present hurdles to reaching a resolution. Instead of attempting to bring about change by imposing their own ideas of what are – or are not – appropriate solutions, forward-thinking mediators recognize and encourage culturally appropriate outcomes.

*BIO

Dean Vella writes about business and negotiation on behalf of University Alliance, a facilitator of online negotiation courses, and effective leadership.

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