This is another old post from ten years ago. It is interesting for me to revisit these old posts. I see areas I see differently. I plan to clarify how my thinking has changed in future posts.
When I was a little girl, I remember being in the middle of my parent’s arguments, listening to the sound of loud voices and the crash of plates against a wall. It would seem there was so much discord in those sounds, but I also remember the laughter in the middle of the greatest conflict. I was raised to think of conflict as a natural part of living and not to be afraid of it, but to embrace it. Later, when I lived in Indonesia and India, I realized that conflict is handled very differently. Indeed, conflict is even defined differently.
The definition I use most often is one that comes from the transformative framework of mediation. Transformative mediation defines conflict as a crisis in human interaction. This definition fits very neatly into the differences in conflict I experienced in life and the differences in cultural perception. I remember the first time I experienced the resolution of a marital dispute by my father-in-law, Pitaji, from India. The dispute was between my husband’s younger brother and his wife. Munnu, his brother, was frustrated and yelling at his wife. Pitaji, my father-in-law, took Munnu aside and nodded as he yelled. It seemed to me at the time that my father-in-law agreed. Munnu’s tirade ended and there was calm again in the home.
My first impression was that this was not a good way to intervene in their dispute. But, later, Pitaji took Meera aside and talked to her gently. He listened first to her feelings and then made suggestions for her to follow that included feelings Munnu had expressed. He also had a private talk with Munnu. He tried to help Munnu see how unreasonable he had been and how his reactions were not a good way to handle the situation. This was my first experience with mediation. It wasn’t called mediation. But, it was the resolution of a dispute by a third party. It was a mediation that was an integral part of a culture. There were several items that were important in the mediation of this marital dispute:
- A recognition of the person in conflict,
- A cooling off period to let emotions settle,
- A discussion of the problems and,
- A suggested set of solutions to a problem.
Conflict in India, in my experience, is expected. It is a way to negotiate and a way to resolve issues. It is reflected in the marketplace, within the workplace, and within the home. It is characterized by loud voices and arguments that end finding a middle ground.
In contrast to India, Indonesians, and particularly the Javanese, deal with conflict very differently. In Indonesia harmony is valued. Maintaining harmony in relationships is also important. Because of this, conflict must be within the confines of maintaining harmony in interpersonal and group relationships. Loud voices are frowned upon. In fact, the angrier one feels, the more likely he/she will lower their voice to a whisper. Also, conflicts are managed indirectly rather than directly. By dealing with conflict indirectly, relationships are not hurt by words said in anger or haste.
There are as many ways to approach conflict across cultures as there are within our own U.S. boundaries. We often consider ourselves a melting pot of cultures. Some say we are a mosaic and some a salad bowl. So, how does culture and conflict exhibit itself here? In general, we don’t value conflict in our culture, especially in the workplace. In the workplace conflict is often ignored or handled directly and swiftly. Conflict is not talked about openly. Those who are in conflict are expected to have their conflicts privately and not have them publicly aired. In the workplace emotions should not be expressed in an exaggerated manner. Rather, they are to be expressed with an even tone of voice and fewer gestures. Those cultures in the United States who are more accustomed to expressiveness are frowned upon and individuals who practice expressive forms of communication in the workplace are often not provided opportunities to move into middle and upper-level management positions.
How do we, then, deal with conflict in a way that respects individual differences and choice? In defining conflict as a crisis in human interaction, we can understand that conflict often arises from differences in communication styles, values, and perceptions. Recognizing conflict as an opportunity to uncover the rich differences in thought is a step towards finding more effective ways to nurture diversity in the workplace. Mediation is one method that can be used to unearth the underlying cause of conflict. But, there are more conflict resolution techniques for managing conflict that include a variety of communication strategies, organizational design, and management of physical and emotional space. Ultimately, the design of an effective conflict management system must include a thoughtful discovery of the culture of the organization as well as the cultures that coexist within the organization.