We live in an era in which face-to-face communication appears to be dwindling in favor of electronic and social media interactions. News and social media outlets tend to feed our biases for one end or the other of the political spectrum. A rising desire for “isolationism” seems to be indicative of a need for the safety of a community comprised of those who are similar to oneself (and who are therefore relatable). How do we bridge the gaps? Is unity possible, or even desirable?
What does Culture have to do with it?
When I use the work “culture”, I focus not only on race, ethnicity, and national origin, but also on family of origin, gender, education, personality, and a myriad of other factors that unite us and differentiate us from each other. Especially important to the dispute resolution context is the issue of communication styles.
Last weekend, I taught a class on Skillful Conflict Engagement to students enrolled in the City of Seattle’s People’s Academy for Community Engagement. My segment on cultural differences focused on “direct /indirect” and “emotionally expressive/emotionally restrained” communication: Direct communicators confront problems head on and tend to value independence and autonomy; indirect communicators are more subtle, often not expressing what they really think, in order to preserve interdependence and harmony. Similarly, those who have an emotionally expressive style tend to speak quickly and make generous use of non-verbal communication tools; those with an emotionally restrained style place great value on remaining calm and appearing in control.
There are, of course, many other communication styles that fall along a similar spectrum. Power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and monochronic/polychronic perceptions of time are just a few of the stylistic differences that are found between – as well as within – groups.
Conflict happens when these styles clash. An indirect communicator may perceive a direct communicator to be rude, brusque, and demanding. At the same time, the direct communicator may be frustrated by the perceived inability of the indirect communicator to get to the point. Someone with an emotionally expressive style may be disregarded as attention-seeking and overly dramatic, while an emotionally retrained style may be mistaken for aloof, snobbish, or cold.
Back to Community
Communities, like individual relationships, are built on trust and respect. Trust and respect, in turn, are earned through understanding: Understanding of such factors as differences in communication styles, which may allow you to trade your assumption that your co-worker is a snob for the understanding that she is merely emotionally restrained, or the perception that your client refuses to get to the point for an appreciation that he values harmony.
In most cases involving a relational component – within groups, organizations, and other communities – mediators find that communication has broken down. We facilitate conversations that participants are otherwise unable to have, creating a foundation for restoring trust and respect that may have eroded over years or even decades. We help our clients rebuild relationships and communities. By doing so, we occasionally make what seemed impossible possible.