The interest for, and importance of, intercultural conflict resolution as a separate field of work, is growing, and in the last seven years, the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution has further developed its knowledge and expertise to also include this area. The centre is therefore ready to deal with the special challenges that are present when dealing with cultural conflicts.
We define intercultural conflict resolution as a field of work that combines non-violent conflict resolution with knowledge of, and understanding for, cultural encounters.
The cornerstone of our approach to intercultural conflict is a non-violent and dynamic view on conflicts and is based on the knowledge and experience which the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution has amassed and developed since its founding in 1994. One of the key aspects is the importance of recognition. We teach based on a practical- and experience oriented pedagogy.
The way we understand cultural encounters is based on a dynamic perception of culture. We see culture as an umbrella term for the way, we as people, see and interpret the world we live in. These views and interpretations influence our values, norms and the ways we communicate. Culture(s) are created, and continue to be created, by people who are part of dynamic relationships, with continued mutual influence. When we meet people from other cultures there is the potential for development and change. How we handle this meeting- or a possible conflict- will often be the determining factor for the outcome of the cultural encounter.
Conflict vs. Intercultural Conflict?
Why is it necessary to differentiate between regular conflicts and intercultural conflicts? Does such a differentiation not just cement the differences, and widen the gap between people? Are we all not just people, with the same basic needs for security, recognition and identity?
Yes, all indications show that we are basically the same and that our needs are universal whether we come from Denmark or Dharamsala, South Africa or Romania. But there is a difference in how we seek to have these basic needs fulfilled. Some of these differences can be culturally grounded and it is therefore relevant to discuss and work actively with the concept of intercultural conflicts.
But what is culture?
The Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution’s work on intercultural conflict is based on a broad definition of culture and emphasizes two dimensions of the term culture: practices and frames of understanding.
Culture is defined as: ‘practices between people in cultural communities’. Some examples of cultural communities are:
- Ethnic group
Practices are the visible and audible cultural expressions, for example:
- Occupational terminology
- Body language
Frames of understanding are the thoughts and feelings connected to these practices, for instance:
- Sense of right and wrong
When you experience a cultural encounter you often notice the differences between yourself and the ‘others’. But when dealing with conflict on a professional level it is important to also be able to see the similarities – that which connects the parties involved.
What is an intercultural conflict then?
Our understanding of intercultural conflict is based on our definition of conflict: Discrepancies that create tensions within and between people.
An intercultural conflict is like any other conflict with the difference that cultural differences are a part of and decisive for understanding and resolving the conflict. Examples hereof are, conflicts:
- based on misinterpretation
- caused by one person breaking norms
- based on the struggle for recognition and identity
- based on anxiety and insecurity concerning the ‘other’
Dealing with cultural or intercultural conflicts
In order to deal reasonably with conflicts of a cultural nature it is important to examine two aspects of the conflict: one’s own cultural self-understanding and one’s understanding of the other’s culture.
Cultural self-understanding is the image that we have of ourselves. Such self-understandings are often characterized by simplified idealizations and unreflective generalizations. These self-understandings are challenged in the encounter with other cultures. When someone enters our own cultural community and, for instance, instigates change, we are perhaps challenged in our own perception of being adaptable and open to new ideas. This realization of flaws in one’s self-understanding can result in disorientation, chock and even a sense of loss that challenges one’s identity. The first conflict is thus within one self, and this conflict can help to increase the true perception of one’s own culture by displaying the falsehood of the idealizations. This internal conflict has the potential of becoming an external conflict as well as people sometimes channel the frustrations they have onto the ‘other’, who they find directly responsible for the confusion and crisis.
To reach an understanding and become aware of some of the self-understandings we have of our own culture is essential for any work with intercultural conflicts. If we cannot see the glasses through which we look at others we allow room for essential truths rather than perceptions. Perceptions can be altered through negotiations and experience, essential truths cannot.
Just as we have filters, or glasses, through which we see others, we also administer filters to others, both negative and positive. These filters create cultural preconceptions which affect the way we deal with others. Cultural preconceptions are generated within one group regarding another group and are based on the stories that circulate within one’s own group, in history books or in the general public. These preconceptions have the potential for both positive and negative simplification. Buddhist Tibetans are often (mis)conceived as inherently peaceful people who are at peace with themselves and their surroundings. The true picture is rather that Buddhist Tibetans are as diverse as any other group, and that within this group are people who are capable of malice and envy just as is the case with all groups.
The problem with idealization, just as is the problem with prejudice, is that one deals not with the other person but with the preconception of the other person. These preconceptions often lead to conflicts as they start to crumble during an interaction or encounter.
The struggle for recognition
People have an intrinsic need to be recognized. Even people who struggle to fulfill the most basic needs of life, shelter, food and security are willing to fight long and hard for recognition. This struggle for recognition indicates a precarious balance between a person’s independence and dependence. It is a basic condition that everyone needs to be confirmed and recognized in order to feel like a part of the group, to feel like you are good enough and that you are a valid member of society. This cannot be achieved by the person’s own confirmation.
The dependency is mutual as everyone needs confirmation and everyone gives confirmation. This mutual bond is paramount. The struggle for recognition between people is also the struggle to assert one self and one’s values and views.
One problem with pre-, or misconceptions is that individuals cannot be recognized for what they are but only for how others perceive them, and this is not true recognition. Intercultural conflicts are often subject to the pitfalls described here as pre- and misconceptions are plentiful in these encounters. Two diametrical possible outcomes of this process are:
- Isolation and development of ghettos – the group isolates itself from the surroundings, reinforcing and reconfirming an acceptable self-image, as opposed to having to fight other’s perception of them.
- A positive development wherein people with different values and norms meet through dialogue and sound arguments on a common ground of recognition and equality, in which case it can facilitate a dynamic development of the individual as well as society at large.
When conflicts fueled by differences in values, opinions and attitudes arises and the ultimate goal is a society where different ethnic groups can live and work together, it is not adequate to recognize and accept the other persons values. One has to engage the confrontation and commence with sound argumentations and dialogue of said values. Only this way can the fruits of cultural diversity be harvested.
We maintain that one neither should nor can impose one’s own values and norms onto others. But in our experiences working with intercultural conflict resolution we have become aware of the necessity for finding new ways with which one can influence the values of others – a way to argue, constructively, based on values. What is needed is a new rhetoric!
The principle of presence
For any value based or value driven dialogue or argument to be effective there has to be a meeting of minds. What this means is that you have to base your arguments on values the other person can adhere to. Your arguments should be grounded in the value system of the other person not in contrast to said values. We all have different sets of values and these values are in a sense placed on a hierarchical scale. The inability to respect and recognize these hierarchal differences between people are often the seat of intercultural conflicts.
A threefold approach
At the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution’s educational courses on intercultural conflicts we have a threefold approach:
- It is important to understand what culture is, and how cultural differences can be the source of conflict.
- One must be able to differentiate between cultural conflicts and other conflicts, for example conflicts of interests.
- It is important to be aware of the potential emotional vulnerability present in intercultural conflicts.
- One must be aware of the tools that can be helpful. These tools come from the tradition of non-violence, from the New Rhetoric and from recent research done within the field of intercultural communication.
- Know from what vantage point you are viewing the conflict. Understand your own values, norms and traditions and how these influence your actions.
- Seek to illuminate your own cultural “blind-spots”. Perhaps you are reluctant to change or have other such cultural habits that you are not aware of that are obstructing the connection with the other party.
- The ability to act – to use the tools actively
- Recognize and confirm the other party
- Engage in dialogue
- Argumentation – the ability to argue about values and opinions constructively
- Conflict resolution – the process of opening and resolving conflicts
This threefold approach is essential in order to understand and to work constructively with intercultural conflicts.
Applied intercultural conflict resolution
When intervening in an intercultural conflict it has proven effective to, in addition to the classical elements of conflict resolution, also focus on the interpretations, expectations and values of the parties involved. Else Hammerich, the founder of the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution, and Kirsten Frydensberg, teacher and mediator at the centre, have together written the book Conflict and Contact – on understanding and managing conflicts. In the book they list a series of questions one can use as a guide for mediation and conflict resolution in an intercultural perspective:
- What happened? – Each party conveys the situation, the facts, as they see them.
- What did you expect? – Each party explains what they had expected should have happened in the given situation. It is important to be concrete, verbalize the specific breaches of conduct as they are experienced.
- How did you interpret the situation? – Both parties explain how they individually interpreted the situation.
- How did it affect you? – Both parties explain how the situation affected them personally.
- What’s important to you? – It is important for both parties to clarify what interests, values, needs and norms are at stake. This exercise can help both parties understand the reason for their own reaction, as well as understanding the reason for the other’s reaction.
- What do we do from here?- After successfully going through the questions above, both parties are better suited to find mutually agreeable ways of interaction.
(Else Hammerich & Kirsten Frydensberg, Konflikt og Kontakt – om at forstå og håndtere konflikter, Forlaget Hovedland, 2009. Author’s translation)
The Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution has practical experience with intercultural conflict resolution from as diverse settings as a large variety of workplaces in Denmark to teaching the Romanian police force how to interact with Roma people. As a part of a continued effort to develop this area of expertise, the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution has a task force with the explicit function of refining and further developing the competences already present at the centre.
The task force works by:
- Professional development and exchanging of ideas – The sharing of experiences, insights and knowledge, accomplished by extending the task force’s knowledge of and on culture(s), reading theory on the subject, engaging in debates, working with one’s own preconceptions, developing one’s own intercultural competences, sharing cases and examples, methods and other ‘tools’.
- Concrete cooperations – Working together on teaching assignments be it tailor-made solutions, open courses or mediation assignments.
- Projects – Participate in projects where the intercultural dimension is prevalent.
Some of the long term goals for the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution in this field are:
- To create ongoing collaborations with other major actors, with the centre providing methods and material to be used, for example, by educational institutions and courses on intercultural conflict resolution.
- To complete study trips to other countries with the expressed purpose of learning from other people’s experiences with intercultural conflicts and their competences in the field.
- To collaborate with one or more centers of conflict resolution in other countries who also work within the intercultural dimension.
- To produce easily accessible material on intercultural conflict resolution, to be used in education. The form being, for instance, a short book or interactive website.
16/6 2010, Erik Helvard, the Danish Centre for Conflict Resolution
Above text contains elements from:
Konfliktløsning i kulturmødet
Kirsten Frydensberg & Palle Bendsen
Konflikt og Kontakt- om at forstå og håndtere konflikter
Else Hammerich & Kirsten Frydensberg