Cross-Cultural Conflict

Cross-Cultural Conflict:

Building Relationships for Effective Ministry

by Duane Elmer

InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL  (c)1993

A helpful leadership resource for understanding one's own style of dealing with conflict and how it can clash with others--especially when working in a culture different than one's own.

"Which is the greater sin: to tell a lie or to lose your temper?" Elmer asks his readers.
North Americans typically answer "lying" because of the cultural value placed on accuracy and truth. Outside of the Western world the response is more commonly "lose your temper" because of the high value placed on relationships. (14-15)

Anytime we are in a situation with cultural differences, ambiguity is inevitable. Westerners find unanswered questions unsettling so our minds work to "fill in the blanks" with our own interpretation of events. Unfortunately the "interpretation we provide virtually always attributes a negative characteristic and motivation to the other person." (19)

Elmer outlines the five most common conflict resolution strategies used by Americans.

Handling Conflict the American Way

"The greatest problem among missionaries is relational breakdowns among themselves, and our greatest need is to help them deal with conflict by building positive interpersonal skills." (33)

5 Western Conflict Resolution Styles
  1. The Win-Lose Strategy
    • Sees things as "right" or "wrong"
    • Must find resolution as quickly as possible
    • Assume only one right position is possible in a situation
    • "The win-lose person is highly competitive and seeks to win whenever there is a difference of opinion. Win-lose people usually fail to see themselves in this category. Others, however, see it quite clearly."(35)
  2. Avoidance
    • Manages conflict by avoiding it
    • Can be a sign of wisdom and maturity or an unwillingness to discuss difficult topics
    • "Strategic withdrawal can be a very wise choice. Perhaps emotions have been running high, and if you confront you may act unwisely or lose control." (39)
  3. Giving In (Yielding)
    • Manages conflict by accommodating or "smoothing things over"
    • Often forfeit personal goals and values
    • Can be dangerous if the potential consequences are too serious
  4. Compromise
    • Believes it is possible to have everything
    • Expects everyone to give a little and "get a little"
    • Works poorly when either party has disproportionate power
    • "Compromise may be necessary or desirable in an emergency or when time is a critical factor." (42)
  5. Carefronting
    • "Directly approaching the other person in a caring way so that achieving a win-win solution is most likely."(42)
    • Must meet several conditions to work:
      • the two parties meet face-to-face,
      • each makes a commitment to preserve the relationship,
      • each works to creatively find a solution were both are winners, and
      • both are able to separate the person from the issue. (43)

Are these five strategies universal? What are the characterisitcs of American styles?

  • The active voice--we like its precision.
  • We assume we can speak "to a problem without offending the person."
  • Some cultures use the passive voice in order to avoid pointing out individuals, allowing them to "save face."

Options for more culturally sensitive and indirect methods of conflict resolution

  1. The Mediator: "Using a mediator, a third person who acts as a middle person or intermediary between two opposing parties, is a common indirect strategy for handling conflict in the Two-Thirds world."(67)
    • a respected, neutral, objective third party 
    • capable of being fair
    • serves to reconcile, interpret and negotiate
    • serves to integrate the two parties
  2. One-Down Position: "You make yourself vulnerable to another person or indicate that without their help you are in danger of being shamed or losing face."
    • Approach others with courtesy and deference
    • Use appropriate cultural formalities

  3. Storytelling: "The instructional, corrective and nuanced use of words."
    • At a natural place in a conversation, the telling of a story that indirectly deals with the situation.

Elmer's suggested principles for managing conflict:
  • Remember
    • that the majority of the world values relationships above other things.
    • most people do not separate the "person from the person's words or acts." (to critique one is to critique the other
  • In new cultural contexts
    • observe, ask questions, and seek to understand
  • Avoid making evaluative or "blame" statements when we are with people who are different.
  • Explore non-direct conflict resolution options in contexts where that may carry higher cultural value.
  • Find a cultural interpreter (a new friend in a new context) who can help you build cultural bridges. (179-180)

To learn more about dealing with Cross-Cultural Conflict, pick up these books by Duane Elmer:

Cross-Cultural Conflict by Duane Elmer

Cross-Cultural Partnerships by Duane Elmer

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