Bridging Cultural Gaps in Mediation - Dispute Resolution Journal - Vol. 56, No. 3
Donna Stringer, Ph.D., is president of Executive Diversity Services, Inc., a consulting firm in Seattle, WA. She is an adjunct faculty member on three campuses and a faculty member at the Intercultural Communication Institute in Portland, OR. Dr. Stringer is a social psychologist with over 20 years’ experience in cross cultural issues.
Lonnie Lusardo is owner and principal consultant with The Diversity Collaborative in Seattle, WA. In addition to work with many government agencies and national corporations, he conducts strategic diversity management training and cultural assessments for numerous law firms and courts.
Originally from Dispute Resolution Journal
A special technique exists in mediation that focuses on cross-cultural issues. Donna Stringer and Lonnie Lusardo call it “cultural mediation.” Cultural differences may not be the actual source of a dispute, but as the authors explain, these differences sometimes play a crucial role in the outcome of a mediation. For example, the simple act of listening or expressing one’s opinion is manifested in different ways across different cultures. A mediator who is aware of these subtleties and is sensitive enough to act accordingly is most likely to succeed in helping parties with different cultural backgrounds achieve a satisfying resolution to their dispute. In the following article, the authors outline a five-step process and provide helpful insights on how to bridge cultural gaps during the mediation process.
At its core, culture is little more than “the way we do things around here.” Most people are so programmed to respond to their environment that they tend to be oblivious to why and how they do what they do in relation to others. “It’s just common sense” is a standard phrase for confirming our cultural roots. Common sense, however, is generally common only when it conforms to the speaker’s experience.
At a time of conflict, especially when cultures collide, thoughtful, nonjudgmental questioning allows historical reasons to surface and be reasonably compared with the ways others do things to address similar issues.
Cultural anthropologist Morris Massey theorizes that humans form their cultural norms and values by the time they are 10 years old. Those core values, Massey says, remain intact throughout a lifetime unless an individual has a significant emotional experience that challenges them, such as falling in love with someone whose values are different, life-threatening illnesses, or significant losses.
In the absence of a reason to examine one’s core values, cultural programming becomes subsumed in the context of a constantly changing environment. Interpreted as “human nature” or “common sense,” cultural programming allows us to adjust to the challenges of everyday life. These differences are typically what lead to conflicts that require mediation. Cultural mediation offers a process to examine how and why people do the things they do.
While there are a number of mediation models, this article considers a five-step process. While these steps appear deceptively simple, they are not distinct steps and overlap as people move back and forth between them. We explore cross-cultural issues that can arise during each step and offer some tools for managing those issues.
A mediator is defined as an impartial third party whose role is to help parties identify needs, interests, and arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome. The final decision lies with the parties. The mediator is neither an arbitrator nor a counselor.