Mediation and Culture

Mediation and culture as represented by three people taking part in a mediation session; one of whom is clearly a practising Muslim since she wears a hijab.

Last week, I discussed frame of reference and its importance in the mediation process. Today, I would like to outline its importance in mediation with people from different cultural backgrounds.

When mediating parties of different cultures, it is paramount that a mediator understands how change occurs in individuals (Ewert, Barnard, Laffier, & Maynard, 2019) or how people can change their minds. An important aspect of that understanding is cultural competence or “[an awareness] of the cultural biases that will be inherent in our practice of mediation [so we can] take steps to address them and adjust our approach accordingly” (Bishop, Picard, Ramkay, & Sargent, 2015, p. 346). Part of this cultural competence is to have a strong sense of self-awareness (i.e., recognizing your own cultural biases), an open attitude (i.e., being nonjudgmental to understand others’ cultures), and cultural skills (i.e., using culturally-relevant and sensitive skills with those from different cultural backgrounds) that, combined, will assist the mediator to deal with differing cultures (Bishop, Picard, Ramkay, & Sargent, 2015). For instance, the placement of chairs in some cultures would be important (e.g., in Japan, the highest-ranking person must be placed closest to the mediator), the titles of address might change from culture to culture (e.g., Middle Eastern clients prefer title and first name while in Germany, a client might prefer an address that recognizes gender and professional status such as Frau Dr. Schmidt), the beginning of mediation might be different (e.g., in the Philippines and some African Muslim countries mediation opening is often a prayer) (Moore, 2014), and the strict adherence to mediation start times and duration of the mediation session (.e.g. Chinese clients are ruled by time and often apologize for taking up time at the end of the session) (Lewis, 2018).

Another aspect of change when mediating with people from different cultural backgrounds is moving away from ethnocentrism (i.e., a person’s own culture is the other valid one) to ethnorelativism (i.e., all cultures are equal and valid) (Ewert, Barnard, Laffier, & Maynard, 2019). To assist parties to move from the former to the latter, the mediator can (a) help them understand that understanding others’ points of views will not cause harm to themselves; (b) model his or her own acceptance and integration of others’ cultural ways; (c) centre on the parties’ real interests and needs as the focus of the mediation (within each party’s frames of reference); and, (d) reflect an openness of mind and attentiveness when responses are unexpected or throw the mediator for a loop (Ewert, Barnard, Laffier, & Maynard, 2019). As in all mediations, the mediator should always pay close attention to language, non-verbal communication, and clothing as part of the move from ethnocentrism to ethnorelativism.

Transcending subjective culture or the client’s frame of reference is akin to cultural intelligence when the mediator is “skilled and flexible about understanding a culture, interacting with it to learn more about it, reshaping your thinking to have more empathy for it, and becoming skilled when interacting with others from it” (Thomas & Inkson, 2017, Becoming culturally intelligent, location 298). In other words, the mediator must recognize, accept, and get past the clients’ respective frames of reference and their related self-images even if they differ from the mediator’s own frame of reference and self-image so that there is clear understanding and empathy for each client’s cultural background and related worldview (Ewert, Barnard, Laffier, & Maynard, 2019).

When mediating with clients who differ in age or gender, many of the aforementioned conditions and variables are germane. Power imbalances can occur with clients from different cultural backgrounds but they are much more of an impediment when the mediator considers gender differences and generational differences. For instance, while regulating language may be a strategy in an intercultural mediation process (Ewert, Barnard, Laffier, & Maynard, 2019), the regulation of language by both mediator and parties would be more related to coercion and gender expectations than to the actual level of language used in the intercultural mediation. Often when the power-based conflict escalates with clients of different gender or generation, the mediator needs to move the parties from positions back to interests by having them focus on what is important for each of them and what is shared by each of them.

In summary, a mediator needs to be conscious of his or her own frame of reference (and self-image) while acknowledging and accepting the clients’ respective frames of reference. It is important to have a high level of cultural intelligence and to be open-minded to others’ differing beliefs, mores, and traditions. The skilled mediator also needs to focus the mediation on the interests of the parties and to model acceptance of others’ differing mindsets or worldviews whether those differences are grounded in culture, gender, or generation.

For further reading:

Bishop, P., Picard, C., Ramkay, R., & Sargent, N. (2015). The art and practice of mediation (2nd ed.). Toronto, ON: Emond Publishing.

Ewert, C., Barnard, G., Laffier, J., & Maynard, M. L. (2019). Choices in approaching conflict: Principles of dispute resolution (2nd ed.). Toronto, ON: Emond Publishing.

Lewis, R. D. (2018). When cultures collide: Leading across cultures (4th ed.). London, UK: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Moore, C. W. (2014). The mediation process: Practical strategies for resolving conflict (4th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Wiley.

Thomas, D. C., & Inkson, K. (2017). Cultural intelligence: Surviving and thriving in the global village. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler (Kindle edition).

#ConflictResolution, #ConflictMediation, #CulturalIntelligence