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Challenges to Starting an American Middle-Eastern Cross-Border Mediation Center

A Question of Setting Boundaries and Taking Calculated Risk

Starting a cross-borders mediation center between the US and the Middle East requires interacting with professionals on both continents. In our case, Lebanon is the example to Middle Eastern culture, as there was an attempt to make Lebanon the base, and Lebanon is also where most interactions have been taking place.

Despite appearing differences within both cultures, it seems when programmed patterns are utilized, and no longer serve, professionals shift their behaviors to the total opposite. Ironically, advanced stages of communication reflect attributes that resemble behaviors that were stereotypically deemed the opposite to those cultures.

Witnessed shifts were related to approach, values and following laws.

When analyzing the communication styles of Americans and Lebanese, the US approach is direct, while the Lebanese approach is subtle. With a direct approach things are said explicitly. Its advantage is that the other party knows exactly where they stand. However, with the Middle Eastern approach, when delicacy is not possible, people resort to silence. In that case, even though ambiguity could create conflict, it leaves room for future collaboration having not stated a clear position. However, because Americans initially intend to act in a straight forward manner to create trust, once trust is created, the switch happens. Delays with responding could later take place and as a result subtle approaches will be used to keep the other person’s interest up while assessing possible alternatives. 

On the other hand, Middle Eastern people, use subtle approaches in the beginning believing that this enhances friendliness. They act this way without voicing out their clear interests, deeming such clarity as improper. They believe gentleness creates trust. Yet, at later stages, they start communicating more directly when they wish to avoid losing opportunities they wish to maintain. 

Nevertheless, when communication styles switch from direct to subtle, feelings of doubt could creep to the opposite party. And when communication switches from subtle to direct, clarity is used more to state positions, rather than to clearly state concerns or interests, which could leave things quite ambiguous.

The second shift I find is related to core values pertinent to each culture. In the US, most core values revolve around human rights and anti-discrimination. In the Middle East, core values revolve mostly around respect for authority. 

In the US, demonstrating adherence to antidiscrimination principles is very essential in the beginning. Yet, at a later stage, establishing authority becomes important. Middle Eastern people act oppositely. They seek to establish authority in the very beginning, worrying later about demonstrating fairness. Having started their relationships with themes of fairness, and having later reverted to establishing authority, creates a potential to power struggles with Americans. Such power struggles stagnate communication processes. 

On the other hand, having established authority at early stages, and shifted later on to concepts of fairness, Lebanese would handle such themes in a subtle manner without much clarity, because such themes and concepts are not spoken of explicitly out of courtesy.

The third shift I find is related to following rules, versus negotiating rules. Due to the 15-yr civil war (1975-1990), and the series of assassinations, 15 years following the end of war, the Lebanese, on different occasions, wisely and occasionally had to lay on the side few laws, and instead, negotiate different mechanisms to avoid unnecessary disputes. By doing this, they relied heavily on advanced negotiations tactics, which to them, is an automatic and a routinely used way of living.

In a country like the US, where the rule of law is strong, there is little room for negotiations. Even within organizations, there is a code of conduct which defines rules and regulations. Irrespective of whether those are followed, there is a constant attempt to identify internal rules, and one almost always could find written organizational guidebooks, in an attempt to avoid ambiguity. Yet, once rules are fully followed, and problems persist, Americans usually revert to strategic communication, in an attempt to smooth out differences. 

Under the same token, Lebanese commit to rules when rules are a result of negotiated agreements. It’s negotiated rules that Lebanese adhere with. Therefore, with the Lebanese, negotiations happen first, and then commitment.

This makes us realize that humans are the same, and that a switch is inevitable. It’s programming that makes one comply to certain behaviors at the initial stage of those relationships. Once each person fully utilizes their culturally dominant pattern, they revert to opposite behavioral patterns. In other words, as they extinguish their resources, and there becomes no further room, for example, for being straight forward, or for being political, a natural switch takes place.

Yet, the question that persists: to what extent is any group of people addressing underlying concerns clearly along the way, and framing their interests aloud? When those groups choose to resort to clarity at any point, are they addressing real concerns?

We then realize that challenges to starting a cross-border mediation center between the US and the Middle East, are not race related, since they merely are related to the type of shared information, and not necessarily tactics used, nor values, nor the manner of conduct. Irrespective of used approaches, core values or negotiated rules, sharing concerns clearly is what I find missing. Even when clarity is used, it merely is used to state positions rather than disclose true concerns.

While transparency is at the top of the list of missing items, it is having a clear process that helps transparency flourish. The solution is agreeing intentionally on common terms and approaches for communication. Having a negotiated process where all parties participate with its making, will create a healthy atmosphere of transparency. 

This creates healthy boundaries and makes each party realize when they have unintentionally violated the other. Each person then would take charge of what they’ve agreed to.  Solutions lie in setting terms in the very beginning, and making sure participants are involved with setting those terms, so no hurdles arise. However, prior to baring the pain of placing a process, one should take into consideration another element. One should calculate the risk. 

Calculating risk makes commitment become real and firm. Taking a calculated risk, means participants, whether funders or board members, ought to ask themselves whether the interest is worth the cost, shall the cost be time or effort. On the center’s side, calculated risk means assessing the value each participant adds, and assessing the risk the withdrawal of each participant entails at any specific stage of the center’s development.

While setting boundaries ensures mutual respect, taking calculated risk ensures confident progress. Nevertheless, not setting the right pace nor taking the time to build trust could impede successful endeavors, and even end ones that started.

Demonstrating themes of transparency, dialogue and teamwork spirit is on the center’s priority list. At the heart of cultural transformation, an activity the center firmly plans to engage with, is effective dialogue, and finding the balance between being genuine, and protecting one’s own interests, without impeding other people’s interests.

Trust flourishes only when boundaries are clear, for one’s focus increases when one feels safe. One does not feel safe when boundaries get constantly breached. It makes no sense to start a cross-borders mediation center when an understanding of personal boundaries is not present. That’s not only because poor boundaries create trust issues, but also because many cross-border issues revolve around understanding differences, framing what we want, as well as what others want. Signs to a strong boundary are clarity, transparency, and most importantly, committing to words of honor.

Entering this new era of an open world, where globalization is growing, trust is becoming more essential. When boundaries are placed correctly, mistakes are less likely to happen. And, if they arise, they clearly standout, and get easily tackled. People often possess good intentions, but refrain from consciously creating trust, nor setting boundaries. Within this world’s busy schedule and highly competitive nature, do people care to put time and effort to create trust? A question yet to be answered by highly successful professionals.


This article in no way targets any specific individual or entity. It merely sums up few observations covering interpersonal interactions through a certain period of time. It in no way intends to make conclusions about any culture or peoples. It only draws personal observations.


Alia Ismail

Alia Ismail has substantially dedicated and continues to dedicate her time to enhance international commerce by building a solid foundation to start a cross-border American Middle Eastern Mediation Center with two office bases in the US and Lebanon. With an extensive financial advisory background and solid relationship-building skills, Alia aims… MORE >

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