The importance of multicultural awareness in negotiation and conflict resolutionThose of us in the ADR field here in North America are familiar with the story of the orange, which is used in probably hundreds of mediation trainings each year to illustrate the theory behind facilitative, interest-based negotiation and mediation. (For those of you not acquainted with this oft-told tale, please click here to learn more.)

Although the orange story is frankly getting a little dog-earred and shabby from the constant retelling, it remains a useful tool for helping students understand the theory behind interested-based negotiation and mediation. It’s a great way to get the point across, and it’s a story which even little kids can easily grasp.

Which leads me to my friend Ashok Panikkar. Ashok is a highly creative dispute resolution professional with an entrepreneurial flair who resided and worked here in the U.S. for ten years. He recently returned to his native India with plans to start a conflict resolution firm with an international focus.

Back in Bangalore, Ashok’s first project was to design and conduct a training session on conflict resolution skills for law enforcement officers as part of a human rights conference. Wanting to use the orange story but realizing that an orange would not have the same cultural resonance in India that it does here in the U.S., Ashok elected to tell the story by substituting a coconut for the orange—and in doing so succeeded in reaching his audience through a more culturally accessible metaphor.

In today’s world, you have to have that kind of flexibility and understanding. After all, with 20th and 21st century advances in transportation and technology, the widespread availability of Internet and telephone, and the instantaneous transmission of information and ideas through television and the Web, the world has diminished rapidly in size. I can call Ashok on his cellphone in Bangalore, email another pal in Sydney, and hop on a plane and be at my mother-in-law’s flat in Winchester, England, in seven hours—a journey that used to take many long and grueling months to complete.

And despite the fact that this planet of ours seems to be rapidly shrinking, the world remains wondrously and spectacularly diverse. We speak different languages, dress differently, observe different rules of etiquette, eat different foods, worship differently, have differently constituted political systems, engage in different courtship and marriage rituals, and are rabidly fanatical about different sports (if you don’t believe me, just ask a Briton, an Australian, and an American to each define “football”—and then ask whose version is better). It’s what makes international travel so much fun.

Multiculturalism and understanding of cultural differences are not only a source of fascination for world and armchair travelers alike, but they are a serious subject, too, for anyone who is interested in negotiating, mediating, or resolving conflict in international or multicultural settings. After all, the orange story may play well in Peoria, but it may not go over so well in Bangalore or Tashkent.

The following are some web sites and articles on the Internet which explore the relevance of multiculturalism and international perspectives to conflict resolution and negotiation.

The web sites are:

Interneg. The InterNeg site, based in Canada, describes itself as “a virtual organization bringing together people, studies, services, systems and information concerned with decision making and negotiations. It is also a source of, and repository for, negotiation-related resources comprehensively covering topics in negotiation and negotiation support in the international arena.”

The Culture of Peace News Network (CPNN). According to its web site, CPNN is a “global network of interactive Internet sites in many languages for information exchange on events and media productions that promote a culture of peace. It is a project of the United Nations International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Non-Violence for Children of the World coordinated by UNESCO.” Visitors can submit papers relating to the advancement of peace and participate in moderated discussions about other papers. There are also satellite CPNN sites located around the world, which CPNN provides links for.

WWW Virtual Library, in its section on Peace, Conflict Resolution, and International Security, contains numerous links to web sites focusing on international conflict resolution and related topics. (Just ignore the Itchy and Scratchy animation that appears at the top of the page.)

Some articles of interest are:

Culture-Based Negotiation Styles, by Michelle LeBaron from the web site. This well-written article by an important contributor to the dispute resolution field examines cultural approaches to and differences in negotiating.

How to Negotiate “Yes” Across Cultural Boundaries, by Professor James K. Sebenius, Harvard Business School, from the Harvard Business School’s Working Knowledge electronic newsletter. This excerpted article examines the ways in which cultural influences can impact the outcome of a negotiation.

The Cultural Vacuum in Online Dispute Resolution by Sharanya Rao, Associate Director of Programs, Envision EMI Inc. This article “addresses the issue of the extent to which [online dispute resolution] sufficiently accommodates for and facilitates cultural issues between parties.”

Cultural Issues in Mediation: A Practical Guide to Individualist and Collective Paradigms, by Walter Wright of the Association of Attorney Mediators, looks at two distinctly different approaches to negotiation.

Finally, for a list of other web-based articles and resources dealing with culture and negotiation, be sure to visit, which is always one of the best sources for information and materials on conflict resolution.

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