Monthly Archives: January 2013

Mediation in Multicultural Settings

By Ozichi Alimole, PhD

During the Reagan administration, a Chinese leader was quoted as telling the US President and arrowhead of the free market capitalism that it was daylight in New York at midnight in Beijing.  What the Chinese leader meant was that President Reagan’s view that the American social and economic philosophies could be exported to China was not practicable because the two nations had different cultural traditions and experiences.  Culture influences  the worldview of a people, including their perceptions of conflict interactions, and how disputes may be resolved.  In a world of rapidly shrinking frontiers and advances of communication technology, mediators tend to overlook cultural peculiarities of the disputing parties and assume a one-size-fits-all mindset.  Effective mediation or neutral third party intervention in conflict across cultural boundaries demands adequate knowledge of the cultural context of the conflict as well as the basic human needs of the disputants that constitute the main drivers of conflict. This paper will explore the basic nature of the mediation process as an effective alternative dispute resolution method, and suggest options for mediators working in cross-cultural environments to achieve the primary goals of mediation.

Mediation is a non-adversarial method of conflict resolution designed to facilitate communication between the parties to a conflict.  According to Zartman (1996), “Mediation is best thought of as a mode of negotiation in which a third party helps parties find a solution which they cannot find by themselves” (p. 446).  Steve Slate of the Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution defined mediation as “a private, usually voluntary, discussion and consensual decision-making process in which one or more impartial persons – the mediator(s) – assist people, organizations and communities in conflict to work toward a variety of goals.”  Christopher Moore (2003) describes mediation as “the intervention in a negotiation or a conflict of an acceptable third party who has limited power or no authoritative decision-making power, who assists the involved parties to voluntarily reach a mutually acceptable settlement of the issues in dispute” (p.15).  Doherty (2008)  offers a working definition of mediation as  a “structured process whereby an impartial mediator facilitates communication between those in dispute in order for them to  understand each other  better and for them to come up with mutually acceptable solutions that will improve the working relationship in the future.”   (p.7). What emerges from the above definitions are the basic principles of mediation that distinguish the process from other methods of conflict resolution such as negotiation, arbitration and adjudication.

It is generally believed that conflict is an inevitable aspect of human experience. People conflict as individuals and as groups for a variety of reasons ranging from incompatible goals, values, interests.  And when parties fail to resolve their differences on their own, disputes tend to escalate to conflict.   In such circumstances, several options are available to the conflicting parties.   They include avoidance, negotiation, mediation, arbitration, and litigation. Parties to a conflict may either choose to avoid the conflict or deal with it.   Conflict avoidance may be a viable conflict resolution strategy if either of the parties believes that the interest at stake is not sufficient to justify the time and energy involved in pursuing the formal legal options.  On the other hand, the conflicting parties may decide to negotiate a settlement.   When negotiation fails, they have either to take the legal course or the mediation path.   The major difference between the judicial or adjudicative path such as arbitration and litigation, and mediation lies in the degree of ownership and control that the disputants may have over the outcome of the process. This essay will focus on the mediation alternative. 

Mediation is used to resolve a wide range of conflicts including family, community, commercial, labor, environmental, workplace disputes and international political conflicts.   The concept of mediation developed in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s at the height of the Cold War when it became evident that the then super powers possessed sufficient capability to destroy life on Earth.  The practice of mediation has grown in popularity since then, especially in such countries as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and India for its advantage over the other methods of conflict of resolution.  It has been estimated that the success rate of mediation in settling disputes in India is around 60% and about 90% in the United States (Negi, 2007).

The reasons for the rapid growth of mediation as a mechanism for the settlement of disputes, both local and international derive from the following considerations:  (a) Mediation is voluntary and the parties to a dispute retain control both of the process and outcome of the mediation; (b) the rate of compliance with agreements reached in mediation is greater than those reached through the legal process; (c) mediation seeks to restore relationships rather than break them; (d) mediation is faster than the tortuous and expensive legal process, and, (e) mediation is less expensive than litigation.

Conflict has a cultural context.  Although individuals and groups may conflict for the same reasons, their perceptions of the conflict situation vary from one culture to the other.  Every culture has established structures for the resolution of conflict, from the sophisticated to the less complex societies. William Ury’s study of the Bushmen of southern Africa (1995) revealed a complex system of conflict management comparable to, or perhaps superior to the practice in the more advanced societies.  Among the Bushmen of the Kalahari desert, conflict resolution is a communal affair and every member of the community is involved in the peace process. This sense of communal participation enhances compliance with group values and beliefs and the overall integrity and survival of the community.  Some understanding of culture is therefore important when dealing with the issue of mediation in cross-cultural environments.  

Culture has as many definitions as there are individuals who have interest in the subject. Malin Aquilon (2006) states that there are in fact as many as 400 definitions of culture!  Bernard Mayer (2000) describes culture as the “enduring norms, values, customs and behavioral patterns common to a particular group of people”.  For the purpose of this essay, it will suffice to understand culture as a system of learned behavior, the traditions of a people that is transmitted from one generation to the next, which incorporates the group’s view about conflict and its management.  Culture embodies the totality of the way of life of a people, including their peculiar perception of conflict and system of conflict resolution.  It goes without saying that any society that lacks the mechanism for conflict resolution is unlikely to survive for a long time.

While it is possible to identify specific cultural characteristics common to a group or ethnic community, it is also important to remember that there are exceptions or subcultures within every group. These are individuals and groups whose behaviors differ significantly from the dominant cultural norms and values.   

We sometimes think of culture in terms of ethnic or national cultures.  But there are also organizational cultures, professional cultures and corporate cultures as well as family cultures.  Religious groups and ethnic nationalities represent cultural persuasions that are shared by their members. These groups embody the vision, values and principles of their members.  From this perspective, every human being  is part of a complex set of cultural architecture  that may be a combination of  family, ethnic, regional, national,  educational and,  or organizational experiences.  It is therefore dangerous to seek to determine the behavior of an individual or group of individuals on the basis of a given culture.   Throughout life, we are constantly exposed to a wide range of cultural influences, and the process is endless.  The process is so imperceptible that we are hardly aware of it and we even assume that our own view of the world is the only valid one, and all other perspectives are wrong or outright rebellious!  So, when we engage in conflict with others from different cultural experiences, we are so programmed that we adopt the mindset of, ‘it is either our own way or the highway’!

Mediation scholars and practitioners have conceptualized cultural differences in ways that help us to better understand the nature of conflict in cross-cultural settings.  In some cultures, conflict is desirable.   In others, it is a situation to be avoided at all cost.  This kind of polarization has been defined by scholars in terms of direct-dealing and indirect-dealing cultures (Moore, 2008).   The basic mediation curriculum in the western world holds that conflict is good for you.  It brings out the best in you, and if managed properly, conflict can help to clarify issues and improve relationships.   In short, we are encouraged to embrace conflict rather than avoid it. This view of conflict is captured expertly by Bernard Mayer in the following words:

Conflict is not in itself a bad thing. There are many reasons why it is a necessary part of the growth and development of individuals, families, communities and societies. Conflict can help build community, define and balance people’s needs as participants in larger systems and help them face and address in a clear and conscious way the many difficult choices life brings them. Working through a conflict can be an important bonding and growth producing experience” (Bernard Mayer, 2000).

Moore (2008) states more categorically that “Conflict is an omnipresent phenomenon in human interactions.  [It] can lead to productive and positive changes or growth or to destruction and degradation of relationships” (p. 466).  Moore’s concept of direct-dealing and indirect-dealing cultures corresponds to Geert Hofstede’s concept of Individualist and Collectivist cultures. 

Individualism refers to a social pattern that places the highest value on the interests of the individual.  Individualists are independent-minded and only loosely connected to the group to which they belong.  They measure their commitment to relationships on the basis of individual benefit and interest.  Their primary goals are personal needs, interests, rights, personal freedom and individual achievement.  Self-reliance and competitiveness are common traits of individualism.  The United States and most of the Western powers represent the individualist paradigm (Moore, p.466). 

Collectivist cultures, on the other hand, abhor conflict as much as possible.  Collectivism considers conflict as an aberration, at least where in-group members are concerned.  Within the collectivist community, conflict is thought of as shameful and an inability to maintain a harmonious relationship with others.  Among the collectivists, conflict avoidance is a preferred conflict management approach.  In a general sense, Asian and African countries represent the collectivist cultural paradigm.  But the pure collectivist or individualist cultures hardly exists.  Every cultural group represents a mixture of both the individualist and collectivist persuasions, although the cultural preferences of representatives at a mediation table tend to influence the outcome of the process in a significant way (Wright, 2000).

Cultural differences are also evident in a number of other ways.  They include the format of the mediation, negotiation style, sensitivity to time, language, and many more.  I will examine a few of these cultural variables. 

In terms of format, mediation in the western or individualist cultural paradigm is formal.  Mediation takes place in a formal setting and the use of the first person is even permitted.  The mediation format in the non-western model is generally informal and sometimes, mediation may take place in the open or outdoor!  The use of first names among persons of unequal status or rank is not allowed!  Sometimes, representatives on the mediation table may insist that they be addressed with their full title.  

Relationship with the mediator is also important.  In the individualist cultures such as the United States, there’s usually a face-to-face contact between the mediator and the disputants which gives the mediator the opportunity to hear out the concerns of the parties.  If the mediator determines that the time is not ripe for a face-to-face contact between the parties, he or she may engage in caucusing or shuttle diplomacy to narrow the differences between the parties.  During this phase, the mediator is able to ask questions and identify the interests as stake and clarify the issues. 

But the non-western collectivist cultures prefer conflict avoidance and would not welcome an initial joint session.  They consider this format a humiliation and a loss of face.  Instead, they prefer private meetings between the mediator and one of the parties at a time. The mediator shuttles between the disputing parties, and once the general outline of an agreement has been reached, the disputants may agree to meet in joint session to negotiate the finer details. 

The typical western mediation model is direct, linear and task oriented. The non-western model, on the other hand, is indirect, spiral and relationship-based.  A good deal of time is spent building trust and relationships upon which further negotiation would be based.  Interests are expressed indirectly through metaphors, anecdotes and body language.  The parties may talk about matters seemingly unrelated to the issues at hand, especially in the eyes of those unfamiliar with the cultural setting of the conflict.  The collectivist mediation model supports a wholistic approach to the resolution of the conflict. Issues may be resolved tentatively and later revisited to evaluate the proposed options.  Most importantly, settlement options are considered not on their effects on the disputants, but on the in-group as well who may need to be consulted.  Restoration of the overall harmony of the community is a primary consideration of the collectivist culture. 

Between the two cultural groups, matters of procedure can be a source of conflict.  One group may consider the other’s approach as rude, hasty and inconsiderate while the other may view the other’s decision-making process as slow, sluggish, and perhaps, a deliberate manipulation and bad faith.

Consider the case of emoting or venting  which is a standard practice in the western-oriented mediation model.   During my basic mediation training several years ago, candidates were advised not to limit the ability of the disputants to fully display their emotions in a joint session. It is believed that a disputant’s ability to emote or vent is not only therapeutic, it also offers the other party the opportunity to gain a greater insight into the depth of the other side’s emotional commitment in the dispute.  Emoting is typical of the low-context  western-oriented mediation model.  In non-western cultures where it is considered less than dignifying and a loss of face to display one’s emotion publicly, such a pattern of behavior is unacceptable.  

Cultures also vary in terms of language. The meaning of a word in one culture may be totally different in another and could even lead to significant misunderstanding to complicate the mediation process.  I was reminded, for example, that during the Iranian student crisis in the late 1980s, the United Nations Secretary General decided to travel to Tehran to mediate the crisis and secure the release of the US diplomats. When the Iranians learned that the UN boss was coming in his capacity of a mediator, they went wild, and threatened to blow up his plane if it tried to land in their country.  Reason?  In the Iranian language, ‘mediator’ means, trouble maker,  intruder, interferer, and related terms! 

In addition to the different perceptions of conflict, negotiation and,  communication patterns and language, time sensitivity and the relative degree of openness and disclosure are important elements of mediation in multicultural environments.   In some cultures, time is unimportant while in others, time is a limited resource.  Differences over time values could lead to misunderstanding between mediators and disputants.  For example, a US mediator who has been culturally programmed to think that ‘time is money ‘ will be impatient with people who have little value for time.

I was part of the Nigeria delegation to the Republic of Togo in 2004 for an emergency session of African Heads of States following the outbreak of hostilities in Cote d’Ivoire.  The then Togolese leader organized a carnival type extravaganza of dancing and merry-making to welcome his fellow African heads of state while Cote d’Ivoire was burning.  To a western audience, such behavior would be totally unacceptable.  But it was tolerated in Africa, even grudgingly, in some cases! 

Recognizing how cultural differences impact the mediation process is crucial for an effective intervention strategy.  But these differences are not the main drivers of conflict.  Human beings are motivated by basic interests and needs.  Abraham Maslow is known for establishing the theory of hierarchy of needs consisting of physiological, psycho-social, cognitive and spiritual needs, among others.  The inability to satisfy these basic needs is the primary cause of conflict regardless of the cultural orientations of the disputing parties.

Bernard Mayer (2000, p. 9) captured the concept of human needs in a diagram titled: the Wheel of Conflict.  The more we focus on basic needs, the more we discover the commonality of cultures, the values we all share as humans. Conversely, the farther away from the basic needs, the more diametrically the differences among cultures.   The conclusion we can draw from the Wheel of Conflict analysis is that at the heart of all human conflict is the basic human needs.

Cultural differences do not, in themselves, result in conflict.  What makes America the greatest nation on Earth is that the United States is a melting pot of world cultures.  Take a casual walk in Manhattan and you may find that seven out of every ten people you meet come from completely different cultural backgrounds.  Yet, the United States is the most stable, safe, and peaceful nation on Earth!  What leads to conflict is the denial of basic human needs, or the failure to recognize and address the basic needs of the parties to a conflict.

We are sometimes so blinded by our own cultures that any action or behavior that doesn’t make sense to us from our cultural perspectives is either wrong or strange or offensive.   Rather than try to impose our own cultural values on the disputants or pretend that culture is unimportant in cross-cultural settings, mediators should adjust their cultural lenses to understand the interests of the other parties. 

Understanding cultural differences, and how to overcome the challenges they pose to mediation is the most important task of the mediator.  Barkia (2008) suggested  three approaches to effective cross-cultural mediation to include, pre-mediation, caucusing, and Socratic questioning. The pre-mediation session offers mediators the opportunity to prepare the disputants for mediation. The caucusing session enables mediators to evaluate the  emotional state and cultural dispositions of the disputants and the Socratic questioning sessions allows mediators  to move beyond the entrenched  positions to the disputants’  overriding interests that are the drivers of the conflict.  Although Barkia limits the application of these principles  to international commercial disputes, they are certainly applicable to every other form of conflict in across cultural boundaries.

Mediation has emerged since the past 50 years as an effective alternative method of conflict resolution in terms of cost, time, emotional and relational considerations.  The growing acceptance of the mediation process in many industrial countries derives  especially from  the high rate of compliance with the terms of dispute settlement, and the opportunity it gives to the parties in conflict to determine the outcome of the process.  The cultural context of conflict should be taken into account when designing an intervention strategy, bearing in mind that culture does not determine the outcome of a conflict.  Cultural determinism and cultural relativism will amount to stereotyping which, in itself, may be obstructionist to an effective mediation process.  Mediators working in cross-cultural settings may want to look beyond cultural differences and focus on the basic needs of the disputants as the main driver of conflict. The larger purpose of mediation is not to determine who is right or who is wrong in a conflict situation.  Mediation is fundamentally future oriented and seeks above all to help the parties determine how they may continue to live and work together in a harmonious relationship in the future.  

Mediators working in cross-cultural environments should be sensitive to cultural sensibilities of the parties in dispute.  Indeed President Jimmy Carter offers a recipe for effective mediation  in cross-cultural boundaries.  He  outlined the delicate and complex negotiations leading to the signing of the Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt in conversation with  James Laue, Lynch Professor of Conflict  Resolution  at George Mason University on peacemaking  which took place during the fifth National Conference on Peacemaking  and Conflict Resolution in Charlotte, North Carolina on June 7, 1991.  Perhaps the greatest lesson we can  learn from the former president came in an  interview about the secret of his successful mediation activities across cultural boundaries. He said that the most important technique for an international negotiator is to put himself in the other party’s shoes in order to understand the other party’s position and develop a different perspective (Negi, 2007). 


This article is adapted from the author’s  Keynote Address  at the Joint Workshop of the New York Bar Association and the New York Chapter of the Association of Nigerian Lawyers, USA, held at the Cardozo Law School, New York,  on March 29, 2011.



Aquilon, M. (2006).  Cultural Dimensions in Logistics Management.  Quoted by John

            Barkia in What’s a Cross-Cultural Mediation to do? A Low-context solution for a  

           high-context problem. Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution, 10(1), 83.

          Retrieved from–90.pdf/

Barkia, J. (2008). What’s Cross-Cultural Mediation to do?  A Low-context solution for a

          High-context problem. Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution,  10(1), 4-90.

          Retrieved from

Doherty, D. and Guyler, M. (2008).  The Essential Guide to Workplace Mediation and

         Conflict Resolution.  Philadelphia, PA: Kogan Page Limited. 

Mayer, B. (2000).  The dynamics of conflict resolution. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-


Moore, C. (2003).  The Mediation Process:  Practical Strategies for Resolving Conflict.  

           San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Negi, Vikrant, S. (2007, October 30).  Cultural Challenges in Cross Border Mediation.

         Law and Technology Resources for Legal Professionals (LLRX).  In Jackson H.

        Ralston Lecture: Principles of Negotiation, 23 Stan. J. Int’l L. 1, 2 (1987). Retrieved


See Negi, V.S. (2007).  In Cultural Challenges in Cross Border Mediation.

        Law and Technology Resources for Legal Professionals (LLRX).  In Jackson H.

        Ralston Lecture: Principles of Negotiation, 23 Stan. J. Int’l L. 1, 2 (1987). Retrieved


Slate, S. (2009). Training Manual.  Institute for Mediation and Conflict Resolution.  New 


Ury, W. L. (October 1995).  Conflict Resolution among the Bushmen: Lessons in 

           Dispute Systems Design.  Negotiation Journal,  11 (4), 379-389.  Retrieved from   


Wright, W. (January, 2000).   Cultural Issues in Mediation: Individualist and Collectivist

          Paradigms.   Retrieved from

Zartman, Z and Touval, S. (1996).  International Mediation in the Post-Cold War Era.  

            Managing Global Chaos, eds. Chester Crocker, Fen Hampson and Pamela Aall.

            Washington DC: United States Institute for Peace.  Retrieved from


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the position of the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation, Inc.




Job Title:                                         Internship and Volunteer Programs

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Who We Are

At the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation, we develop alternative methods of preventing, resolving, and educating people about inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts in countries around the world. Working with the State of New York residents and diaspora associations, national governments, judiciary, schools, community leaders, religious groups, peace advocates, media, local, regional and international organizations, etc., we foster the culture of peace among ethnic and religious groups through research, education and training, expert consultation, dialogue and mediation, and rapidly implementable projects.

We are committed to creating a new world characterized by peace, irrespective of cultural, ethnic and religious differences. We strongly believe that the use of mediation in preventing and resolving ethnic and religious conflicts in countries around the world is the key to creating sustainable peace. For more information about the International Center for Ethno-Religious Mediation and its programs and services, please visit our website:

To solidify ICERM’s foundation, we need vibrant and motivated men and women who will join us as interns or volunteers.


Becoming an ICERM intern or volunteer is a rewarding commitment. It is also a valuable opportunity to collaborate with resourceful professionals who share the same interests and values. By working as an intern or volunteer at ICERM, you are not only helping in preventing and resolving ethnic and religious conflicts in countries around the world, you are assisting in creating sustainable peace and saving lives.

ICERM interns and volunteers help in structuring, planning, administering, organizing and implementing the vision, mission, and work of the organization.

Potential candidates are required to apply for any of the following programs:

  1. Research;
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Responsibilities for each of the programs


Provide technical, multidisciplinary and result-oriented research on ethnic and religious conflicts in countries around the world; assist in the creation and maintenance of an online database of world ethnic and religious groups (ICERM global conflict alert database which highlights zones, trends, and the nature of conflicts, as well as provides information on conflict prevention, management and resolution models previously used including their limitations); help in developing new conflict prevention and resolution tools.

Education and training

Assist in educating people about ethnic and religious conflicts through online radio, web-based forums, conferences and publications; help in developing training materials which will be used in training new mediators and facilitators through classroom and e-learning modalities; contribute toward the formation of a dynamic synergy within and among diaspora associations.

Fundraising activities

Help in securing adequate financial resources for the organization to fulfill its mission; assist in providing proper financial oversight; assist in developing the annual budget; and ensure that proper financial controls are in place.

Administrative activities

Participate actively in the overall planning process and ensure its effectiveness; assist in the implementation and monitoring of the plan’s goals; spearhead the drafting, proofing, editing and creation of required documents; establish and foster cooperation between ICERM and its partners; engage in ICERM membership recruitment.

Public relations

Articulate ICERM’s mission, goals and work to the public and garner support from the countries around the world; enhance ICERM’s public image and reputation; establish trust and build confidence in the beneficiaries of its programs and services as well as in the society; assist in widening ICERM’s support base and in promoting the organization among potential volunteers and general public.


These positions will require enthusiasm, creativity, innovation, strong interpersonal, diplomatic, problem solving, organizational and leadership skills. In addition, the successful candidates must possess analytical skills, exhibit signs of integrity and reliability in performance, as well as respect for diversity. They should be able to work in a multicultural, multiethnic environment and to maintain effective working relations with people of different national and cultural backgrounds. The ideal candidates should demonstrate the ability to articulate clear goals, identify priorities, foresee risks, monitor and adjust plans and actions as necessary.  Above all, these positions require the ability to listen and communicate clearly and effectively either in writing or speaking.



Advanced university degree (Master’s degree or equivalent) in any of the following fields of study or related area: conflict analysis and resolution, conflict transformation, conflict prevention or mediation, peace studies, ethnic studies, theology and religious studies, international relations, international law, public policy, communication, journalism, political science, philosophy, economics, accounting or finance, fundraising management or grant making, business administration or management, nonprofit management, computer science / website development or design / database systems or database management, etc. A first level university degree with a relevant combination of academic qualifications and extensive experience, preferably in related field or area, may be accepted in lieu of the advanced university degree.

Work Experience

Previous work experience is not required, but could be an advantage.


For these positions, fluency in oral and written English is required. Knowledge of French is desirable. Knowledge of another international language could be an advantage.

Other Skills

  • Good knowledge of the nonprofit sector.
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Qualified candidates will be invited for a competency based interview.

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This is an unpaid position. However, ICERM Board of Directors may waive the annual dues for any intern or volunteer who wishes to join ICERM membership. As a member of ICERM, you are entitled to the member benefits. In addition to the member benefits, interns and volunteers will gain valuable experience while working for ICERM. They will have access to professional development, mentorship and networking opportunities. Finally, excellent service would also result in the intern or volunteer earning letters of recommendation/reference for future career advancement.

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On no occasion or circumstance, therefore, shall ICERM restrict qualified applicants from participating in any capacity and under conditions of equality in its recruitment process because of reasons related to race, color, nationality, ethnicity, religion, language, sexual orientation, opinion, political affiliation, wealth or social status.

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