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How To Handle Conflict In A Cross-Cultural Context?

Written by: Liu Liu, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Liu Liu

Where there are people, there are bound to be disagreements. Let’s face it, this is part of the human story. I have done meditation meetings where people openly expressed their different opinions and worked out a way forward. I have also been in situations where everyone says, “There is no problem.” but they just stopped talking and working with each other.

business people having a conflict

The major sources of disputes involve different needs, appreciating different values, different views on individuality versus community, dealing with emotions, misinformation or misinterpretation, and dealing with time, and unconscious bias toward certain cultures. These sources of conflict will also be present in the workforce, but the presence of various cultures may increase the potential for them to come to the surface in a harmful way.

When a disagreement arises, people from different cultures express it very differently. In a blog article “How different cultures say I disagree, Kai Hammerich listed how people from 13 countries express their disagreement.

how disagreement is expressed table

What did you notice? What kind of patterns did you see? What would you say “I disagree” in the way that makes you feel most comfortable?

The very diverse way people say “I disagree” is largely determined by their cultural background. Not every culture views disagreement and conflict in a favorable light. As you can see in this summary from Erin Meyer’s book The Cultural Map, some countries have no problem with the full display of emotions openly and see the disagreement as an intellectual exercise; while other countries are trying to avoid conflict like the plague and will do everything to protect and preserve the relationships from getting damaged.

When you look at the countries on both sides of the spectrum, those who are more confrontational tend to be task-oriented and individualist and the ones that tend to avoid conflicts are likely from group and relationship-based cultures.

disagreeing table

The cultural views on conflict also drive the behaviors in conflict situations. The relationship group culture focuses on trying to dial down the conflict in order to protect people from getting into an embarrassing situation and preserve the reputation of the group. The task-oriented culture sees disagreement as part of life and debate as an intellectual exercise to solve problems. It is a behavior of the individual and focuses more on the matter in dispute.

It is no easy task to put on your cultural lens when you are dealing with a conflict. It takes a conscious mind to remind oneself to apply cultural intelligence learning in the heat of things, literally. The overall advice for people in both cultural camps is to come out of your camp and move closer to the other side to reach out and build bridges of clarification and understanding. Here are some key principles for handling conflict in a cross-cultural context.

Key principles for handling conflict in a cross-cultural context

Cultural Awareness: Recognize and respect cultural differences. Understand that different cultures may have varying communication styles, values, and norms. Be open-minded and willing to learn about other cultures to avoid misunderstandings.

Active Listening: Practice active listening to understand the perspectives and concerns of others. Give your full attention, maintain eye contact, and avoid interrupting. This shows respect and helps build trust.

Empathy and Perspective-Taking: Put yourself in the other person's shoes and try to understand their point of view. Cultivate empathy and show genuine concern for their feelings and needs. This can help bridge cultural gaps and find common ground.

Effective Communication: Be mindful of language barriers, non-verbal cues, and potential misunderstandings. Use clear and concise language, ask clarifying questions, and encourage open dialogue. Avoid making assumptions and seek clarification when needed.

Respect and Tolerance: Treat others with respect, regardless of their cultural background. Embrace diversity and value different opinions and perspectives. Avoid judgment and be open to learning from others.

Mediation and Conflict Resolution: In cases of conflict, consider involving a neutral third party or mediator who understands both cultures. Mediation can help facilitate communication, find common ground, and reach mutually beneficial solutions.

Patience and Flexibility: Recognize that resolving cross-cultural conflicts may take time and require flexibility. Be patient and willing to adapt your approach to accommodate cultural differences and find mutually acceptable solutions.

Remember, building strong relationships across cultures requires ongoing effort and a commitment to understanding and respecting one another. By applying these principles, you can navigate conflicts in a cross-cultural context more effectively.

Also, check out these related Brainz articles on handling conflict

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Liu Liu Brainz Magazine

Liu Liu, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Liu Liu is a coach and manager with decades of experience, as a Cross-Cultural Intelligence Coach who specializes in helping international organizations and businesses to improve communications and cooperation among staff for better individual and team performance. He coaches managers and leaders working in a cross-cultural context to build trust, communicate effectively, and deliver results. He also coaches people on management, leadership, and career development. He is someone who helps you to imagine a greater possibility for yourself and supports you in achieving it.

As a senior manager in an international relief and development organization, he has worked with people in over 30 countries over his two-decades-long career. He uses a coaching approach to manage cross-country teams and complex programs to deliver results and impacts.

He is also an experienced trainer and facilitator who has delivered training on management-related and other subjects in over 30 countries.

With a cross-country marriage, developing a career in a second country, and working in an organization that has a reach of 50 countries, Liu Liu understands the importance and pitfalls of working cross-culturally and developing a career in an unfamiliar environment.

Liu Liu is an Associated Certified Coach(ACC), a member of the International Coaching Federation (ICF), and an Executive Contributor to Brainz Magazine.

He holds a BA(Hon) in International Studies and an MSc in Development Management.


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