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.

One example in the public policy arena comes to mind that illustrates the interaction of culture with other influences such as politics and historical relationships.

During a dialogue between a western state government and a group of deeply traditional Native American governments, it became obvious that the basic values of the two cultures led to sharply different characterizations of the problem under discussion.

The conflict concerned water, and the state interpreted the problem in the context of legal and jurisdictional systems. Against a background of regional demand, the state saw the issues as jurisdiction over the water source and its use for economic purposes. They spoke in the language of law, economics and hydrology. Future growth of the region was at stake.

Leaders of the native governments, on the other hand, interpreted the issue in terms of their community’s responsibility to sustain a source of water that played a central role in religious practices. They spoke in a language of story, ancient tradition and historical events of a spiritual nature (what western culture calls “myth”). Their concern was to continue traditional culture and protect the places of deepest importance to its practice. Time was not readily divided into past, present, future in this context. They had a sacred responsibility for the survival of traditions that defined a way of life.

But the representatives of these dramatically differing cultures shared goals and ways of thinking in this setting. For one, they both perceived their differences about this issue as a conflict that might be resolved through dialogue and negotiation. Both had the same fundamental goal – however they defined the nature and value of the resource – of having authority to control the water source and the waters flowing from it. Both had issues relating to internal decision-making and power dynamics among competing factions within their own groups. Further, they shared the desire for a productive relationship over the long-term.

Achieving success in the process required each side to be open to the other’s specific cultural style of interaction. The state negotiators could not assume that the burden was on the tribal leaders to fit into the non-Indian cultural style. Nor could they attempt to adapt their behavior entirely to the Native American style. Both extremes would be false, coercive in the first case, condescending in the second. Each group needed to speak from the integrity of its own values and cultural frameworks in order to have a productive conversation.

The two groups needed to help educate one another about their values and approaches to the water issue. In effect, they had to establish a common language to achieve the dialogue that could lead to agreement. Understanding cultural differences, especially differences in the way things are valued, was essential for communication, but once that step was achieved the dynamics of the negotiation process were conditioned far less by cultural issues.

Collaborative negotiation based on meeting needs and interests, as opposed to positional or adversarial negotiation, can be quite flexible in adapting to cross-cultural settings – provided the participants are open to understanding and respecting values and styles of behavior very different from their own.

In a 2008 post, Stephanie provided a list of some of the elements of a conflict resolution process that could vary in important ways in different cultures.

As we learn more about culture, we will continue to be surprised at what we thought was universal and in fact is not. . . .
For example, in many other cultures:

  • Confidentiality would not make sense;

  • Ownership of the dispute (and the responsibility to resolve it) would not belong to the individual;

  • Insight about how the problem came about would not be valued (this is especially surprising for those mediators with a therapeutic bent to their model of mediation);

  • Self-disclosure or discussing feelings would be inappropriate (particularly surprising for that same group of mediators).

The more we learn to question our assumptions about what is universal, the more culturally sensitive we can become.

Such sensitivity is essential on the part of all participants in order to create a process that they can trust as respectful and fair. Getting to that point can be extremely complicated and require preliminary dialogue sessions – perhaps a series of them – before negotiations to resolve conflict can be attempted.

A collaborative approach to designing the process ensures that the different groups are dealing with each other as partners and avoids the implication that one culture is superior to another. It challenges and hopefully removes unconscious cultural assumptions about how the process should work that could undermine any attempt to make substantive progress.

Openness to cultural differences, the desire to form mutually beneficial relationships, a willingness to engage in effective dialogue to resolve conflict and the ability and commitment to use an agreement as the basis for future action – elements such as these are prerequisites to negotiating agreements to meet important interests. But I would argue that these are not culturally unique. Culture determines the language, behavior and constraints as well as the content of values and needs that guide the participation of each side. Without the shared learning of how to communicate across cultural boundaries, reaching agreement about critical needs would hardly be possible, but that is one element among many.

Any discussion of culture and conflict resolution is controversial, and I’d welcome your ideas and experience to stimulate dialogue about this critical area.


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