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Library  >  Article: The Intercultural Mediator
The Intercultural Mediator:
The nexus of practice and theory
by Jon Townsend, MA

Appears in the December 2002 issue of the
Pacific Mountain Network News

The intercultural mediator is both a working reality and an elusive concept. Each day mediators provide third party services along a broad spectrum of cultural differences. Along a parallel track, a continuum of scholarly thought has emerged regarding the role, behavior and practice of third party interveners working with people different from one another and from the mediator. At times, almost serendipitously, the practice and the theoretical coincide. However, more often than not, they diverge from one another and are thought to be at cross-purposes. As working mediators know, practice is often different from theory. The cool rationale of theory melts quickly in the heat of passionate discord. This article will merge aspects of intercultural theory with some of the practical considerations of mediation in order to provide guidance for the intercultural mediator’s work and practice.

The stamp “intercultural mediator” can be applied to any mediator who works with people who are different from each other by way of gender, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, or the like. Using a broad definition of diversity as a back drop, i.e., “all people who are significantly different from oneself”, a mediator at work enters a contested space amid a complex, kaleidoscopic whirl of interests, values, beliefs and behaviors. The mediator’s skills, sensitivity, awareness (of self and others) and patience will be summoned to the forefront of this whirling space of conflicting behaviors, substantive jousting, contesting statements and adversarial accusations.

The mediation process, the unique convergence where space, time, place and the parties’ world constructs come together, is the mediator’s defining moment. It is where the mediator will assist parties to understand one another, to be aware of bias towards process, persons, outcomes and behaviors. How the mediator shapes this kaleidoscopic space to create a larger third culture context that incorporates the parties’ values, constructs, beliefs and principles will to a large degree determine the mediator’s acceptability to the parties and the chances for success in the mediation. What basic intercultural principles and mediation practices will help the mediator fulfill this promise of mediation?

The following five general intercultural principles and mediation practices are offered:

  1. Flexibility
    Flexibility is an indispensable trait for an intercultural mediator. By flexibility, I mean a type of mental elasticity that allows the mediator to be a part of and yet apart from the cultural milieu into which she has entered. It is that adeptness to know when to question and when to listen, and an inner suppleness that allows the world to be seen as a series of meanings, not facts. Traits associated with this type of flexibility include wonder, awe and creativity. This ability to adapt and adopt is a acquired demeanor.

  2. Tolerance
    Tolerance is an underestimated asset for intercultural mediators. Tolerance is the freedom from bigotry or prejudice in regards to the views, beliefs and practices of others that are different from yours. Tolerance is also the developed ability to endure and to resist the harmful effects of bigotry and prejudice. Tolerance is often incorrectly viewed as a second class value and less important than its more publicized and recognized relatives: transparency, empathetic understanding and ethnorelative valuing. Tolerance, more than any one single principle, is the one trait that most mediators need to practice on a daily basis.

  3. Hope!
    The mediator should be the lighthouse of hope, a beacon illuminating the rocky shoals of treacherous waters and providing pathways for the parties to explore and travel. Without hope for something that is better than what the parties are currently facing, there is scant reason for the parties to venture out of what is familiar (no matter how dysfunctional and conflict-ridden) to something that is unfamiliar.

  4. Respect
    Respect allows the mediator to realize that process is negotiable, and that in order to acknowledge and understand the parties’ cultural beliefs and values, the party’s respective cultural protocols must be made explicit and discussed by the parties. In facilitating this understanding and discussion, the mediator provides the opportunity for the building of culturally relevant mediation structures that will reflect the cultural needs and values of the parties. Respect includes understanding that there is a richness of intelligence in the world and that there are many right ways of doing things.

  5. Inquisitiveness
    Inquisitiveness is a foundation piece for both mediation practice and intercultural communication theory. Some of the identifying markers are a keen interest in all types of learning: Learning about one’s self, about others, about how others see themselves. An inquisitiveness mediator will study his or her own cultural values and the histories and cultures of others, and will want to know “why” and “how”. These are questions that open doors, minds, and hearts.

    Inquisitiveness is indispensable for the intercultural mediator for two primary reasons:
    a) It provides information about one’s self and one’s self in relationship to others.
    b) It serves as a bridge for the parties in the room to walk across in their own exploration of who they are in relationship to the other.

These five basic intercultural principles and mediation practices will help mediators assist parties to create an operational third culture, build respective collaborative structures and distinguish between culturally appropriate and inappropriate behaviors. To a large degree, these five principles and practices will define the mediator’s position, behavior, practice, and acceptability and thus allow the mediator to begin to fulfill the promise of mediation.

These principles do not appear to be “hard-wired” or natural to us as humans. We must learn, practice and consistently refine our skills in these areas. Because all mediations contain greater or lesser degrees of cultural difference, the intercultural mediator will constantly recognize his or her current level of ethnocentrism (an attitude that one’s own ethnic group, culture or way of doing things is superior to all others), and will also constantly strive to move toward a more ethnorelative (an attitude which maintains that the basis of judgement is relative, that cultures cannot be judged or evaluated from a single or absolute ethical or moral perspective) understanding and practice. The mediator’s goal is to be aware of, and move away from not only his own ethnocentric behaviors, but also to assist the parties to do the same. Transformation takes place along a continuum and it is best understood as a process, and not an event.

With practice, these traits and characteristics become part of the intercultural mediator’s being, and will, over time, transform the mediator and in turn the mediation. At some point the intercultural mediator won’t consciously think about being inquisitive, she will be inquisitive; he won’t think about tolerance, he will be tolerant. She won’t just show respect, she will be respectful. He will not strive for flexibility, he will be flexible. This should be our ultimate goal: the confluence of practice and theory, where we “walk the walk” without conscious thought about each step we take. We become unconsciously competent as intercultural mediators.

This transformative journey can be a long one. I hope to cross the reader’s path as you take this walk.


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