AuthorJoanna KALOWSKI BA (Hons) Dip ED; Director, Joanna Kalowski and Associates.
Publication year2019
Published date01 December 2019
Date01 December 2019
I. Prologue: A cautionary tale for mediators

The dispute in question involved a couple who migrated to Australia 40 years ago, hardworking people who had attained the middle-class dream of educating their children, buying a house and saving for their old age.

It was not only about their separation and divorce, but also their two adult children from whom they were estranged. The children had fallen into dispute with one another, each claiming the other was treated better than they were, so money and future financial dealings were soon in issue. Worst of all, the children refused to allow their elderly parents to see their grandchildren until all outstanding financial matters were settled.

Some of the most respected mediators and lawyers in the city had done their best to assist the parties in what had become a bitter, public family dispute.

The mediators and lawyers strategised together, to no avail. The dispute seemed intractable, the four parties fixed in their respective positions. Every glimmer of a breakthrough would inevitably be followed by another impasse, engineered either by one of the parents or one or other of their children.

The mediators and lawyers all gave the matter their full attention, watching appalled as the meagre finances of the couple in dispute were whittled away in time and cost.

Just when everyone had given up hope, there was a breakthrough.

A senior figure in their community appeared out of nowhere and summoned the elderly couple to his home. Such is his authority that they did not demur: both went despite the tensions between them.

He called on both of them to put a stop to this damaging matter, and reminded them that there was talk in the community and that they risked bringing their community into disrepute.

He offered his services to bring the family together for a meeting; he offered financial assistance if they needed money to solve outstanding problems. He reminded them that he had helped them in the past and trusted them to repay loans if loans were what they needed.

Overnight, the dispute was over. The elderly couple began to communicate. Although living apart, they began to take care of one another: she left soup on his doorstep when she heard he had taken ill; he called to see if she was all right when he had not seen her for a while taking her morning walk. With this restoration of contact, tension seeped away, and soon they were able to approach the children and their families together and bring about a sensible ending to the damaging elements of the dispute that were about money.

1 The lesson for the mediators – and I was one – is that sometimes culture trumps all, and it is in the name of culture that an outcome can be crafted. Only an insider has the standing, the authority, to embody that culture.

2 The insider is hardly neutral, quite the contrary, yet something shifts when the parties are reminded of the bonds of culture and belonging.

3 The question remains: what is open to the rest of us, those of us who try to maintain neutrality, and who do our best to understand culture and its impact on attitude and behaviour in a conflict situation?

4 Perhaps it is only to bring about willingness to co-operate and a climate of openness and empathy between people in conflict. We do so by having a clear view of our role, and a grasp of some essential tools.

5 This article is essentially a practitioner's compendium of useful learnings and tools, rather than an academic critique, although there are frequent references to the work of leading thinkers in the field. To those it is hoped mediator-readers will add their own, so as to enlarge their range of approaches and techniques.

II. Introduction

6 How people interact, argue, manage conflict and negotiate – and even whether they are prepared to speak up and describe a conflict and what lies behind it – is as diverse as the settings in which the talk takes place and the people doing the talking. Taking account of that diversity is one thing: understanding its impact on interactions and the potential for collaboration is quite another.

7 Marc Thomas,1 a French academic, writes:

As human beings, we are constantly in search of an equilibrium between our identity and our relationship with those we encounter, and those encounters confront us with the wrenching awareness of our differences as well as reassurance that we are have similarities. That instability, that tension can be constructive or destructive, depending on context and the extent to which we are prepared and supported as we take risks.

Viewed in that light, the intercultural can be seen as the lived experience of all that is strange. It changes us and our view of the world. It makes strangers of us all – hardly a comfortable place to find ourselves.

All individuals and groups draw their identity from multiple cultural sources – if only we become aware of them. This tangle of sources of belongings can, if we permit it, lead to the possibility of multiple levels of affinity between people and groups, depending on the stakes and the context.

The goal of multi- or pluricultural policy has been an idealistic one: an attempt to live together with minimal friction, to work together

despite our differences, to create a functional whole despite the disparity of the parts.

All of this requires individuals to transcend, not abandon, their own cultural systems, so that conflict and disagreements are seen not as threats but as challenges. Viewed that way, communication and interaction are not so much hampered by difference but can add a new dimension to the very idea of ‘different’.

Intercultural experience is not just a phenomenon of national cultures and of ethnicity, but exists also at the level of generational, social, professional, philosophical, religious, political and economic differences. The promise of intercultural effectiveness is precisely to enlarge the capacity to engage and be effective at many levels of diversity.

Members of a heterogeneous group can proceed constructively together in a satisfactorily intercultural way if they can agree on a three-level framework:

1. To question and make adjustments as doubts and tensions arise;

2. To analyse similarities and differences in both co-operation and conflict;

3. To stand back and analyse communication to identify what created conflict and cooperation (meta-communication).

The goal of this framework is to foster mutual recognition, and to continually create the conditions for working together, on the understanding that the intercultural is learned by experience, and is circular and iterative:

Trial → Observation → Analysis → Conceptualisation →

This process leads to trialling new approaches, and group members become active learners, ultimately producing the very competencies they need.

Intercultural learning results from being constantly confronted with other points of view, with the reactions of people living the same experience in the same moment, yet interpreting it differently. Conscious acceptance of undeniably different points of view is precisely what makes this learning intercultural.

Three indispensable conditions underpin the development of intercultural competence:

  • • Empathy

  • • Preparedness to work on differences and conflicts

  • • The will to co-operate

8 This article also explores the tools available to us when working cross-culturally. We must always remember that, as mediators, we remain outsiders who lack the authority to impose change and so must strive to make parties feel secure enough to express themselves in difficult and often hostile circumstances so that they can be empowered to make the changes they need.

III. Culture: Towards a more nuanced understanding

9 Mediators are often trained to believe that it is the process, scrupulously managed and applied, which will take parties from conflict to settlement, whoever they might be. Experienced mediators look beyond process and techniques in the search for ways to manage the dynamics of conflict resolution.

10 The intercultural dynamic requires such a search. In the preface to his book, The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution,2 Bernie Mayer writes:

What makes a successful peacemaker or conflict resolver is not a set of processes, methodologies, or tactics; it is a way of thinking, a set of values, an array of analytical and interpersonal skills, and a clear focus.

With this as a starting point, mediating in an intercultural setting challenges mediators to move beyond stereotypes and strive to understand not merely the issue that has brought parties to the table but also something of the people at the table. Mediators may well have been chosen for their experience in various fields of law and business, but what do they know of people and culture?

11 Intercultural mediation is an opportunity to expand the understanding of self and other, and to be fully engaged in the role of mediator both personally and professionally. They bring whatever professional experience they have gained, whatever life has taught them, to the moment in which parties need guidance to untangle the “what” from the “how”, and fact from assumption.

A. Cross-cultural versus intercultural

12 Across the English-speaking world, the words “intercultural” and “cross-cultural” are often used interchangeably. However, sophisticated mediators can benefit from making some finer distinctions:3

The intercultural is best defined as contact between people of different backgrounds where one enters the other's society for a time-defined stay, for a defined purpose.

[The cross-cultural, on the other hand, defines] an interaction between people of different backgrounds living in long-term, open-ended contact with one another in the same society, where that society's policy is multiculturalism, bi-culturalism or equality.

[emphasis added]

For the purposes of mediation, these definitions matter.


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