Is intercultural mediation and conflict resolution different?
Honestly, throughout my work as a mediator, I have only carried out a few mediations that were NOT intercultural.
Now, this may be related to the fact that I do many of my mediations in Singapore. Different cultures come together there. But even Switzerland is now very international - a great number of interactions between people have an intercultural aspect. Different languages, religions, skin colors, generations, value systems, etc. come together almost everywhere.
So why is intercultural mediation still seen as a 'special case of mediation'?
This may have something to do with the fact that when different cultures meet, even more attention has to be paid to non-verbal cues, emotions, underlying value systems, power structures, etc.
What is an essential ability for every mediator - namely, being able to communicate 'well', i.e. being able to actively listen and paraphrase, use questioning techniques and relate to all parties, build rapport and and make them understand each other - is even more important in an intercultural context . The shaking of the head may serve as an example: depending on the cultural environment, it is as a negating gesture or an approval. Misunderstandings arise very quickly!
Furthermore, negotiating 'fair' options is usually more difficult between different cultures than in a homogenous setting, since value systems and power structures can greatly. differ. What is considered unfair ‘here’ may be considered normal and even fair ‘there’.
Likewise, differently (perceived) power structures are often very relevant in decision-making. Still, it is important to find a solution that is acceptable to all parties involved. This requires a high level of cultural intelligence.
For me as a mediator, it is important that I do not focus on cultural differences as such and see them as the cause of every conflict. Cultural differences can cause conflict, but are rarely the sole or direct reason for a dispute. Only by digging deeper and understanding what the actual needs and interests of the individual parties really are can conflicts be resolved. We should not allow ourselves to get caught up in cultural differences!
Finally, the mediator with his or her own cultural background also plays a role which must not be neglected. In my environment, this is often a 'third culture', i.e. a different culture than that of the parties directly involved in the conflict. My own culture also brings other values and experiences into the process. More often than not, this has helped to find a solution.
If you need support in resolving a current conflict or are interested in improving how you or your company deals with conflicts, please contact me for a first discussion about conflict management, (conflict)coaching, or mediation.
This blog post was originally published on June 10, 2022 by Beatrice Herrmann on commercialmediation.ch but is still very relevant.