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Conflict Mediation Across
Cultures: Pathways and Patterns

Author: David W. Augsburger
Copyright: ©1989. Publishers:
Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky
Book Review by: Cathy Bernatt

Conflict Mediation Acrocc Cultures

"Conflict is a crisis that forces us to recognize explicitly that we live with multiple realities and must negotiate a common reality; that we bring to each situation differing---frequently contrasting-stories and must create together a single shared story with a role for each and for both." (Augsburger 1992, 11)

Conflict Mediation Across Cultures: Pathways and Patterns is one of the most important and relevant books I've read. Its relevance to both my personal and professional development is beyond timely. I found myself reflecting on some powerful leadership and personal lessons I've experienced in the past two years.

I came to Japan in 1991 when I was 30 years old. My interpersonal development had evolved to the stage where I was very comfortable communicating my thoughts and feelings directly to others. Three weeks after coming to Japan, I participated in a 7-day Outward Bound Japan Leadership Training Course.

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There were seven participants, six Japanese and myself. On the final day of the course, we were in a circle, going around giving each other feedback. It came my turn to receive feedback from the other six members. The comment I remember as if it were yesterday came from a man about 35 years old. He said, "Cathy, I have never met anyone as open and honest as you. Whatever you think or feel, you just say it. (Inside, I was beaming and thinking, YAHOO, others notice my new competency!). But he wasn't finished: "And I'm very worried about you. (I was confused-what did he mean?) I asked him, "Why are you worried about me?" He replied, "I am worried that you will insult and offend people without ever even knowing it."

Eleven years later, his words remain at the forefront of my consciousness as I continue my journey in Japan. He had good reason to be WORRIED about me. The lessons and deep reflections I have learned are enormous in eleven years. And yet, I still feel like an embryo in terms of my competency in being able to narrow the cultural gap between my Western, individualistic, high-context cultural framework and the Asian, group-centered, harmony focused, low-context cultural framework.

"Facework" is the primary experience of interpersonal conflict; it is a universal human process, a ubiquitous concept present in the thought and life of all cultures. (Augsberger 1992, 73)

The ability to use face-honoring, face-compensating or face-neutral strategies in threatened relationships is a mark of interpersonal competence. (Augsberger 1992, 88)

The following story will demonstrate that my level of interpersonal competence at the time of this unfolding was far from desirable. Two years ago, I hired one of my Creating... staff to assist me and a very important client with the translation and input of data from a corporate climate survey we had implemented and were preparing to present to top management. After clearly explaining the terms, extremely tight time lines, requirements and my expectations, the staff member accepted the job. In the end, she was unable to meet the terms and time lines but did not communicate honestly her situation. She kept us believing she could meet the deadline, then asked for several extensions which caused many problems in the project completion for myself and the HR Director. After the project was finished, I asked her to meet together to debrief.

This staff had helped formulate Creating...'s values early on which included top quality, open communication, trust and life-long learning. My plan in the debrief was to review our stated corporate values and then explore with this staff what happened in this situation, identify the key factors responsible, and explore what we could learn from this to prevent a similar situation from happening in the future. I wanted particularly to focus on what happened for her when she realized she could not meet the deadlines, and what caused her increasing defensiveness and anger with my requests and questions as to when we would receive the data after the deadline had past.

In our one-on-one session, I was pushing her to look below the surface. At one point, she began to cry and at this point, she went into a state of shock and high discomfort. She told me she had never cried in front of anyone before, that I had crossed a line, that she was not interested in going so deep in exploring issues in future. For her she would prefer, as Augsburger so beautifully expresses, to "let the dispute flow to the ocean". (Augsburger 1992, 97) Augsburger in describing the "...low-context patterns of a culture with no collective consensus on manners or style of conflict resolution...the likelihood of making a bad situation worse by insisting on processing feelings, spilling out anxieties, and disclosing uncertainties is so much the greater." (Augsburger 1992, 97) My story puts me right in the center of that passage!

I explained that for me, it was a core part of the culture at Creating... to maintain the highest level of honesty with one another in order to grow and maintain a healthy, growing company, both personally and professionally. Though this staff chose to leave Creating... shortly thereafter, I was left deeply reflecting on how I had on one level violated her need for other-positive and other-negative face. I was imposing my self-positive face onto her. (Augsburger 1992, 89) Though, I learned from this situation, I continue to experience difficulty with this particular issue. As I continue to grow intrapersonally, I feel a stronger need for honesty and directness-to confront issues, deal and move on. One of the saddest realizations for me was that, in this situation, my causing this staff to lose face in the way I did, was unforgivable to her. I also reflected that for me, to move through life working so hard to save face would be intolerable. One culture's belief system is another's disbelief system. (Augsberger 1992, 91) What is key here is that too often, we cannot fathom that someone could actually think or feel "X", as it is not within our own framework as acceptable. Yet, as we operate in a multi-cultural world where borders are disappearing everyday, opening our minds to many other realities is absolutely necessary if our primary goal is mutual understanding and respect.

There are three other situations I've experienced in the last 2 years that are all of the same genre - focused on my attempts at conflict transformation strategy that ultimately did not achieve the results I had envisioned. The approach I took in all three cases was a direct, open, and humble one. But I was engaging individuals from three other cultures, Japanese, British and Australian and the way they received my approach had resounding similiarities that once more had me looking inwards to see how I might adapt my approach to enable them to hear me without defensiveness, fear or anger. As Augsburger says,"Any movement from the overt, or manifest, levels of a conflict to the expression or definition of the covert levels will increase emotional intensity, create threat, and stimulate internal conflict with resulting defensive behavior." (Augsburger 1992, 236)

These three cultures (British, Japanese, and Australian) that tend to "...prize harmony and uniformity...are more likely to turn toward avoidance, repression and displacement..." (Augsburger 1992, 237) In the British example, in the early stage of the conflict, displacement was his central strategy-to place blame outside for everything he felt rather than look inside and take ownership for his role. I wrote him a very honest and direct letter as a friend and also his senior (under the Japanese hierarchical structure even though he is 15 years my senior in age). As time went on, avoidance became his way to address my direct challenges for him to look within and stop placing the blame outside himself. On some levels, with the sense of elitist values he held, being CEO of a large multi-national company, and the British sense of protecting face strongly, I had crossed several boundaries and caused him to lose face to a degree that has resulted I think in his avoidance of me now. Though it has been his choice to create distance, I feel sadness at having lost the bond that we once shared and again wonder what I might have done differently to allow him to not lose face and yet stay authentic in my communication.

Most universally practiced response to conflict is avoidance and denial. (Augsberger 1992, 18) Rules and norms defining when conflict is acceptable, how it may be expressed acceptably and with whom it may be pursued are among the most crucial learnings we need when venturing into cultures strange to us. (Augsberger 1992, 24)

"The harmful and dangerous elements [of any conflict situation] will drive out those which would keep the conflict within bounds" (Coleman 1957, 14). Hence, a destructive conflict needs containment; a confusing conflict requires clarification; a creative conflict can be utilized; all conflicts require transformation that does not eliminate or control the conflict, but channels, alters, and ultimately transforms the relationship. (Augsberger 1992, 42)

Though I can continue with a never-ending list of personal tales and lessons, I would like to close by saying that this book has brought my self-reflection to a deeper level and with some new frameworks to better explain and understand some of the challenges I have experienced in the last few years. I recommend that everyone read this book!

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