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Traps in Cross-Cultural Mediation

Traps in Cross-Cultural Mediation

What are some of the traps cross-cultural mediators can fall into?



Full Transcript

I think the risk is, as I say to my daughter sometimes about herself and her partner, if you’re pink and he’s blue, make sure you don’t become purple. Keep your boundaries. Don’t leak all over each so that you melt into one blob that doesn’t distinguish either of you. Aboriginal people talk about white mediators who become blacker than they are. They start to behave like blacks and they say, well hang on sister, I’m the black one, you just stay on your side of the line, this is unhelpful. I know what you’re saying, I don’t know if there was any risk if you stopped it, you felt something that they might to do to each other and I think you did something that is at the heart of mediation.


We promise, I promise explicitly, some people promise it implicitly, we promise that whatever happens in this mediation, we won’t make it worse. And you might of felt intuitively or more than intuitively, consciously that this was going to make things worse. And that’s a reason to stop a mediation. Sometimes if you’re going to stop a mediation you can say, “Look, I’m going to bring this to a stop today and I’ll communicate with both of you and see if you’d like to start up again on another day. Because I fear that if we continue as we are, I’m going to be sitting here with you while things get worse. And I don’t want things to get worse. They’re bad enough already.”


It’s possible sometimes to ferment as a mediator, and I’m sure that you weren’t doing that and I hope that I don’t do it either, but it possible that sometimes the dynamic becomes destructive in which case it’s good to say, “We do implicitly promise that we won’t make things worse. I have a feeling it’s getting worse. It’s worse than it was an hour an ago. Can we just agree to stop today. All recap on the progress we did make. And I’m going to ring you overnight and see if and when you’re ready to meet again.”




“And if you might meet in a different setting, I might change the setting so we’re not back in the kitchen where these ugly words were said, we might be in the other persons kitchen or whatever. Let’s get back together again and see if we can progress from the moments we were progressing from earlier” and so on. And now the cross-cultural elements, something I like mediators to know is that, and this part in the way of intentionality as well, is that you need to know what you mean by what you say and you need to be able to explain it at any given moment. If a party says to you, “What do you mean by that mediator?” You’re not allowed to say, “Just what I say.” You have to say, “When I say that I mean” so you model that.


The other thing in mediation that’s critical cross-culturally is what is normally implicit in people speaking within in the same culture. Must be made explicit from time-to-time in people working across cultures. So you have to be able to say, “Mr. Aled, I think when Mr. Johnson said that, he meant X. I think you think he meant Y. And when we in English say X we usually mean don’t be silly. We don’t mean you’re a liar. I have a feeling you heard that as if he were saying to you that you weren’t telling the truth. Now Mr. Johnson am I right about that?” Mr. Johnson say’s, “No, I’m telling him he’s an effing liar.” Well then it’s on for young and old. You can’t rescue some people.


But if he says, “No, that’s exactly what I meant. I meant come off the grass. I didn’t mean don’t tell fairy tales.” And Mr. Aled will say, “Ah, I didn’t know that. Somebody said that to me at work and I had a fight.” Well now that’s wonderful. We’ve now learned something. What is implicit culturally is what we take — ouch, I’m just having another cramp — is what we take a particular meaning to be. But across cultures it can appear to mean something more akin to what it would mean if it were translated. It’s a very complex change.


But remember one person in the room could be mono-cultural and the other one is also mono-cultural but is becoming bi-cultural because this person is an English person speaking English in an English setting. This person is Turkish, speaking English in an English setting. So they are more bi-cultural than the other one. So they’re seeing it two ways. This guy thinks there’s only one way to see it. And you’ve got to consider that.

About the mediator

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Joanna has been working with groups as a mediator for over 20years in highly sensitive inter-racial and political settings all over the world. In 2001 she became chairman of LEADR, Australia’s largest non for profit dispute resolution organisation and in 2006 became a visiting fellow at LEADR. She was a member of the administrative appeals tribunal for 10 years and later a member of the National Native Title Tribunal where she mediated land cla... View Mediator