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Taking part in a mediation: cultural patterns

Most people take for granted the ways they learn to interpret and influence other people's behavior in a conflict. What does that person's silence mean? How should you argue? How should you negotiate or reconcile? Was that person's remark rude, friendly teasing, or a real threat? What is your responsibility in the situation?

Understanding these cultural patternsóboth your own and the parties'ówill help you adjust how you mediate to fit a particular dispute. At times you may need to talk about those differences at the table, acting as cultural interpreter between the parties.

Below we outline some contradictory cultural patterns that can affect a mediation. Of course in real life, no one adheres to just one interpretation or approachówe all vary our beliefs and responses according to the particular situation. For instance, how you speak to a family member when you are upset may not at all be the way you deal with an annoying customer or your dictatorial boss.

The following chart summarizes some of the different ways that disputing parties may approach a mediated or negotiated settlement.


How should conflict be mediated?


Impartiality is key to fair resolution; if the mediator is not connected to any of the parties, they are likely to trust the mediator more.

Caring and involvement are important. The parties are more likely to trust a mediator they know and respect, someone who understands the nuances of the situation.


Negotiations require privacy, getting away from outside pressures; a neutral location which favors neither party is preferable.

Conflict resolution is most effective when it takes place in the location where the conflict occurs.


For serious negotiation, formal sessions work better. It helps to have distinct roles, explicit groundrules, and a clear process.

People negotiate better in an informal environment that resembles social interaction between acquaintances.


People should resolve their own problems. The mediator is there primarily as facilitator and referee.

The mediators, as experts or elders, have experience in settling conflicts. They should take an active role in forming the solutions.


The purpose of negotiation is problem solving; it is important to identify and discuss the key issues quickly.

Naming problems too quickly is rude. It is more important to build a relationship first and work up to the touchy issues.

PROBLEM-SOLVING Address one issue at a time.
Deal with several aspects of the larger situation at once.
Talk directly about some issues; skirt others.
Talk or act in ways that signal your feelings/position and wait till the other side takes the hint.

Decide who is at fault and determine appropriate restitution or punishment. A fair solution rights the balance.

Precedent and rules are the basis for decisions.

Everyone needs to give and take.

Satisfy each party's interests. A good solution doesn't just solve the immediate problem, it takes away the underlying sources of friction.

Change is good; creative new thinking will develop good solutions.

DESIRED OUTCOME The parties may consider the conflict resolved when they:
  • Restore balance.
  • Strike a bargain.
  • Achieve fairness or justice.
  • Reach catharsis, listen to each other.
  • Bridge the gap, clear up misunderstandings, open communication.
  • Restore a relationship.
  • Stop violence, attacks, friction.
  • Solve their problems.
  • Have their interests met.
  • Are able to cooperate on future tasks.

How should participants behave?


People should speak for themselves and be upfront about their needs and reactions. A good agreement takes into account the individual's needs, capabilities, and genuine assent.

Whether or not people are negotiating for a constituency, their actions will have consequences for others in their group (family, department, association etc.), and their decisions should be based on that wider group's needs. Personal opinions and reactions are secondary.


Heated argument escalates conflict and shows that people are out of control. It also interferes with listening and with finding solutions.

Heated argument is part of the truth-seeking process and helps bring out important issues. It shows how much people really care.


Participants should put aside their emotional reactions so that negotiation can progress through calm and rational communication. Being civil, objective, controlled, and reasonable shows you have a legitimate position.

Participants cannot be expected to let go of intense emotion until the negotiation shows some progress. Strong feelings are a sign of the legitimacy and importance of a concern.


Speaking is the way to organize information and discussion. People should take turns speaking, get a fair share of "air time," and not interrupt others.

Speaking is drama: the participants may tell stories, declaim, shout, talk over each other, gesture, stay silent or speak very quietly. The other side is convinced by evoking an emotional response in them.


Admitting that you have been wrong or backing down from a position can be unpleasant, but is appropriate in some circumstances.

Admitting error or wrongdoing is deeply shameful, for you and maybe for your whole group.

It is more considerate to go through a third party and not embarrass or anger someone by confronting them directly.

It is more honest and mature to express your anger or criticism to someone directly than to go behind the person's back.


The Same Action = Different Meaning


A person who remains silent when accused is probably guilty.

A person who loudly defends him or herself is probably guilty.

Apologizing means that you admit that the situation is your fault.

Apologizing means you regret that the situation is causing pain or disruption, not that you are actually to blame. The other party is expected to respond with a parallel apology or a reassurance. ("That's okay, it's not really your fault.")


Nodding and saying "mm hmm," mean, "I agree with you."

Nodding and saying "mm hmm," mean, "I am paying attention to you."


Silence is neutral or respectful. It means someone is not ready to speak or is deferring to someone else.

Silence means you agree with what is said.

Silence means you disapprove or have withdrawn from participating.


Looking directly at the person you are talking with is polite and respectful. Looking away can mean evasion, deception, or disrespect.

Looking directly at the person you are addressing may signal a challenge and can be seen as disrespectful.


Threats mean a real intent to do harm and warn that the conflict is escalating to the boiling point.

Threats are a way to let off steam without actually doing damage. They aren't meant literally.


Questions indicate interest and genuine concern.

Questions are a form of attack; it is intrusive to ask someone to say more than they volunteer.

Questions indicate the person is ignorant, or hasn't bothered to prepare for the negotiation.

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