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Conflict and Culture

The cultural background of the […] [participants] – primarily their ethnicity or gender – is seen as a factor in preferring certain processes over others, and setting particular goals – for example, community harmony or individual recognition and reward. 

Julie Macfarlane

There is culture that every human being possesses. It includes different elements, notably history, arts, social structure, language, customs and traditions, gastronomy, values, etc., the common culture of a group of people such as their ethnicity or gender. There are many cultures, as well as multiple cultures within which other cultures exist and interact. 

How we engage in conflict and resolve disputes depends on a range of factors. Dispute resolution, whether accomplished through direct problem-solving (negotiation) or assisted problem-solving (mediation) involves a fascinating interplay of tree dimensions. […]. What is required is an integrated approach which emphasizes the interconnectedness of three main dispute resolution features: attitude – process – skills.

These three dimensions are intimately related. Together they provide useful insight into what defines and influences conflict engagement and dispute resolution.

Mediators in general do not come to the conflicts of participants free of their own values and attitudes. It is important and necessary mediators undergo a self-assessment test if they are to be helpful to the participants. Indeed, people from different ethnicity might have preferred a different process in different parts of the world.   

From an ethnicity and gender point of view, it is possible that the participants needed to fight and compete to get their needs met for they may have a much tougher approach to conflict. History being one the dimensions of human existence, their history may cause them to adopt a one-dimensional stance toward all conflict situations.

Could mediators’ own personal style and tendencies when they themselves are in conflict with ethnicity or gender, be the most essential areas of insight?


It is undeniable that all mediators have been marked and influenced by their previous experiences with conflict, so have been the participants. The environment in which the participants were raised may dictate their processes’ preference. 

Mediators and participants would be inclined to choose the approach to conflict that is wisest in the situation at hand. However, mediators must be aware of their own tendencies if they want to avoid a situation that appears different from the reality or the situation with their own unconscious preferences. For example:

  1. if mediators favor value harmony and cooperation, will they influence the parties to reach a premature or inadequate agreement which might lack in durability? 
  2. if they value strength and assertiveness, will they encourage the participants to stand firm, overlooking the value of the agreement that satisfies them partially, but not necessarily all, of their interests?

The real goal of mediation is to create the best opportunity for the parties to reach an agreement that satisfies the needs and meets the interests of the participants to an acceptable level. Mediators must have the skills to manage the emotional climate of the mediation and to help parties understand the importance of the dispute at hand and about each other.

Mediators need deep understanding of the dimensions of conflict to help the participants explore their real and perceived incompatibility. When mediators are successful, they offer participants an opportunity to maximize their interests while minimizing the scope of the conflict.

Conflict can be healthy and useful if it is dealt with openly in a fair process that prevents escalation into violent behavior. Most conflicts are motivated by the values and emotions of the parties involved. When mediators can read and understand the emotions, they are better able to intervene skillfully. How?

Firstly, the top priority would be to establish a positive and clear communication between the parties. Secondly, the messages must be translated between the foreign language of the sender and the foreign language of the receiver to assure actual understanding, i.e. verify if there is a common zone. Thirdly ethnicity and/or gender differences must be understood, considered, and factored into the mediator’s approach to ensure clear communication. It is a fact that not all groups speak and understand alike for communication is a complex process.

At one end the sender sends a message to the other and the receiver must decode the message with all the difficulties involved and affect how the message is received. The use of language that is unfamiliar or inappropriate to the cultural and educational background of listeners will interfere with their ability to understand the messages.

In a case of conflict, effective communication requires that the parties increase their actual knowledge of the conflict and the options for resolving it by sending and receiving messages accurately. The attitudes and assumptions about each other get in the way of developing real knowledge.

For that matter, the concept of constructive communication is the foundation of conflict resolution. Thus, when dealing with ethnicity and/or gender, inter-cultural communication, and cultural dimension theory play an important role. 

Essentially, mediators must be curious about the parties and attentive to them; understand their message; learn; establish trust (most important); foster a supportive emotional environment; let them know that they’re willing to listen; be heard; be understood; be open; encourage them to express themselves. There are several techniques that mediators can muster and apply to improve their own communication skills and those of the parties. For example: questioning and listening skills. 

Without going into lengthy detail of the mediation process, I would admit that there are five great categories of questions. If questions are perceived as a vector that is designed to catch or receive information, then, each of the following type of questions represents a different degree of openness in the funnel of questions:

General questions are considered most open; opinion seeking questions are open; fact-finding questions are considered somewhat open; direct or forced choice are mostly closed; leading questions are closed.

With Empathetic listening, a concerted effort can be made to understand the situation and its importance to the parties. Encourage the parties to go into more depth and uncover what it is that is important to them.

Paraphrasing allows mediators to reflect the feelings and emotions they observe. May help reduce the intensity and show that they understand the effect of the situation on the parties.

Clarifying will help organize the information and move the process forward, ensure mediators have a good understanding of the situation and show their willingness to understand what is going on. 

Regularly Summarize the main points using the same words the parties used and of course, Reframing, will capture the essence of what the participants said without any negative overtones the participants may have expressed and restate the message in a positive way.

When dealing with ethnicity or gender, mediators ought to understand the intercultural phenomenon and inter-cultural approaches, which tend to acknowledge and accept cultural pluralism as an element of society, foster a society where citizens enjoy equal rights and equality and develop harmonious relations between different ethnic groups. 

Therefore, knowledge of the Cultural dimensions Theory of Geert Hofstede is indispensable especially the concept of Individualism vs. Collectivism. The former means the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups, and the latter refers to the group. And Masculinity vs. Femininity is the distribution of emotional roles between the genders.


The mediation process and its parties (ethnicity or gender) deserved complete undivided attention of the mediators as this attention is certainly necessary for the mediators to learn about the dispute, the participants and to manage the process accordingly. 

Any system of influence goes to the heart of fairness and should not be dismissed by saying that a good mediator can mediate any conflict.

To overcome this problem, it is recommended firstly, to improve the mediators training in intercultural work in order to increase mediator’s sensitivity and awareness. Secondly, increase mediators training in methods for addressing power issues so that more tools to use in mediating cases with weaker and stronger parties. Thirdly, changes in the procedures before mediations begin, in order to slow sign of imbalance which, may affect the fairness of the process by having a special pre-mediation orientation meeting, which I undertake every time I conduct a mediation. For that matter, I recommend practice of a) awareness, b) working assumptions and c) behavior.

What does that mean?

awareness: be conscious of tendencies toward stereotyping and leveling, acknowledge the limits of one’s ability to understand how others see the world.

working assumptions: participants may have different expectations and needs that mediators would in that position, so what mediators say may not be understood as mediators may not understand what participants say.

behavior: inquire respectfully about how people in different cultures view the issue, the time to learn about people as individuals and check out the assumptions that are related to ethnicity and gender. 

One of the most serious pending issues in the development and expansion of mediation is the effect of differences in culture on the outcome of the process.

Several scholars have suggested that traditionally disadvantaged groups such as the poor, people of color, women and gays will fare worse in mediation. In other words mediation is a private, non-reviewable process, bias and prejudice will be more likely to emerge and produce unfair results.

I vehemently dismiss those concerns. Competent, well trained mediators can and should mediate any dispute between people of different culture and ethnicity and/or gender. To avoid any misunderstanding or disparity in mediated outcomes, sometimes it is recommended to have co- mediators from different culture or gender for a well-balanced mediation.

As an intercultural mediator, I have had many mediations of that nature and I can attest to that. Whatever the process the participants may choose the ethnicity or gender of the participants or the mediators should not and must not affect the process and the outcome of the mediation.


William Cornet

William Cornet is an accomplished mediator and lecturer in the theory and practice of dispute resolution especially, mediation, conciliation, negotiations and meeting facilitation (“ADR”). He has an extensive background in ADR training and delivers conflict management system design. William has conducted thousands of mediations, facilitations and other ADR events for… MORE >

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