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Mediating with Cultural Competence

For most of my practice, cultural competence was facilitating cultural differences between the parties. But we must also consider how mediators ourselves contribute to conflict by an unwillingness or incapacity to examine our own biases. Starting with ourselves is the first step to cultural competence. 

This concept of self-reflection first began in the context of health care because of the significant consequences of a misdiagnosis. In addition, cultural bias has led to undertreating diseases in entire populations. 

Not a Goal but Lifelong Process

Cultural competence sounds like an achievable goal (e.g. completing driver’s exam or passing a class in cultural differences.) However, according to Tervalon & Murray-Garcia (1998), it is not so much an event as active engagement in the life-long process of self-reflection and critique. In that process, we not only learn about another’s culture but start by examining our own beliefs and cultural identities (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998). 

Cultural Humility

Tervalon & Murray-Garcia discussed this ongoing process of learning in the context of physician training outcomes. The authors found that future doctors needed to identify and examine their “own patterns of unintentional and intentional racism, classism and homophobia.” Continually self-critiquing and reflecting is best described as “cultural humility” (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia). 

Self-reflection with humility expands beyond the medical community. Portman (2009) examined self-reflection with school counselors for the purpose of mediating culture between students. It has also been studied in the context of supervisor/supervisory working alliances which improved with cultural competence (Crockett & Hays, 2016). 

The world-wide organization Preemptive Love defines cultural competency in three ways. First understanding our own culture, beliefs, and assumptions; second, having a willingness to learn about another’s culture; and last, readily accepting and respecting those differences.

Examining Our Own Cultural Beliefs

We are unable to respect differences of which we are unaware. It is hard to consciously analyze our own assumptions and unspoken rules about what is (and is not) socially acceptable. In pre-screening clients as well as during sessions, we should take a few moments to examine how we feel. Have our own assumptions been triggered? Why? By examining them, we can acknowledge that our social norm may not be accurate for them. 

Learning from Clients 

Humility is necessary for learning from others. We can show respect as follows:

  • Correctly pronounce names. Before the session, type “Pronounce [name]” in Google.
    • Listen to how people refer to themselves including pronouns beyond “he” or “she.” This includes “they” as a singular pronoun.  
  • Ask people how they wish to be addressed if we are not sure.
  • Observe body language, gestures, and other nonverbal communications. 
  • Imagine their experience the way we they have described it. This will help us to understand their culture from their point of view. 

Increasing Cultural Competence Outside of Mediation

We need to engage and build relationships with the people around us who are different. We need to make eye contact, smile, and say “hello.” When we begin to ask questions with caring curiosity, people will believe us and respond. 

We should challenge ourselves to learn more. We can take classes to help us learn more about different cultures. There are also cultural competency courses online. The State Bar of Wisconsin also has a power point on diversity training. 


We mediators listen well in sessions. But outside of sessions, especially in the current political climate, how well do we listen to someone with whom we significantly disagree? Do we ask how they came to their point of view with a sense of humility rather than cross-examination?

Assessing Our Own Attitudes and Biases.

Even without significant errors, the failure to self-reflect can prevent the best possible mediation. When I approached my first transgender mediation, I had not understood that cultural competence requires examining my own unconscious assumptions. The husband in the case was a now a transgender woman. While I had the best of intentions, my goal was merely to minimize errors. I practiced referring to her current name and double-checked pronouns in the legal documents for accuracy. But I never reflected on my own upbringing and how my emotions might affect the mediation. Such reflection would have allowed me to provide the best experience for the parties. 

In sum, the question is not about being “above average” but how to become “competent” defined as having the necessary ability, knowledge, and skill. The path is to continuously learn and reassess which is a lifelong process. 


1. See Racial Differences in Glaucoma Care (Ostermann, 2005) which found growing evidence of undertreatment in Blacks and other minorities in other health areas, especially surgical services for disparity in access to and use of eye care services for glaucoma.

2. Preemptive Love works across Iraq, Syria, Latin America, and the United States to reduce the risk and spread of war and to change ideas that lead to war.


Lisa Derr

Lisa Derr (U.W. 1987) is a mediator with Derr & Villarreal. She is chair of the Wisconsin State Bar Dispute Resolution Section and former president of the Wisconsin Association of Mediators.   MORE >

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