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Archive for September, 2009

Speak for yourself!

Two intriguing examples in recent days have reinforced some of the points about differences in Western and Asian communication/negotiation styles that have been discussed in diverse publications, and in this blog. The significant distinction here relates to the willingness to speak up, to speak out, to express one’s views in public or other fora. The broad difference that observers comment on relates to the high- and low-context variations, with members of the latter (characterised by flatter hierarchies, greater individualism, higher social mobility, diminished automatic respect for authority etc) more willing to speak up; and, in speaking up, more likely to rely on the literal content of what is said rather than relying on inferences and shared understanding of what is not said. Members of the former – high-context – societies are also likely to offer greater deference to authority and less likely to speak up on matters expressing opinion – and certainly expressing contentious opinion.

The examples which, at least anecdotally, reinforce this:

First, in one of my Negotiation classes I invited a kind of reflective and review discussion on what the members of class had noted, 5 weeks into the weekly class, worked or did not work as strategies and interventions in negotiation. The first suggestion, offered by an Israeli exchange student, was that direct questioning, going straight to the issues, was an effective technique. Knowing that this observation also reflected the self-confessed directness of Israelis, I asked the rest of the class – almost all Singaporeans – if that was also their experience.

I got two reactions: one was a reluctance to openly disagree and to speak up (itself, an interesting mode of answering and reinforcing the point); the other reaction came about when I phrased the option for Singaporeans that in fact the direct opposite was more likely to be a preferred and effective technique – at which point, I got a range of largely non-verbal affirmations that this was so.

So, to restate the blindingly obvious, what works at home ain’t necessarily going to work elsewhere. On this, see also Jeswald Salacuse’s “Ten ways that culture affects negotiation style: some survey results,” in Negotiation Journal Volume 14, Number 3 / July, 1998. And Lothar Katz “Negotiating International Business – Israel” http://www.globalnegotiationresources.com/cou/Israel.pdf

Further, in watching groups of students engaged in class negotiation simulations, the ones that are less likely to work easily towards an integrative solution are the ones in which this simple lesson is not heeded – and in which direct meets elliptical in a dance to different tunes.

The second example cropped up while I was observing a colleague’s class (as we do on occasion at SMU) – a class in corporate communications. Leaving aside the substance of what was being discussed, what was interesting was that my colleague’s open, engaging and inviting  style of asking questions and seeking to elicit interpretive, analytical and – to a degree – critical responses evoked participation almost exclusively from the exchange student members of the class – largely from Western Europe. While class participation is the norm here – indeed a norm that carries grade value – it was at least interesting to see that those volunteering opinions were from low context cultures, willing to engage in repartee and exchange with the instructor; willing also to engage in a critical interpretation of texts that did carry some relatively low-key socio-political implications.

This latter example was reinforced by a blog/journal comment by one of my Negotiation students who pointed to a Singaporean (and generalised “Asian”) preference in negotiations to observe, speak only when invited, and not to engage in speculative or exploratory discussions.

We’ve still a way to go on learning more about the unspoken negotiations . . .

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This is too grand a title for a brief blog entry, but I want to capture a question that has come up in a number of blogs in the ADR blogosphere, relating to this diversity and to the question of standards (especially standards of entry to the hallowed halls of professional mediator status).

Had I been diligent about this blog, I would also have taken the laptop or netbook with me to Ho Chi Minh City last weekend – but was saved from that obligation by (i) a preference not to risk the Mac and (ii) the fact that the power unit on the netbook had failed and (iii) a preference to be disconnected for a few days! But there’s more to be said another time about some of the more obvious things we might note in the varieties of mediation when we venture across the borders. I’m reminded also of a friend and colleague who went to Cambodia a few years back to assist in mediation training only to find that it was necessary to spend some time at the outset finding a word in Khmer that equated with mediation – and the closest that could be found was the word that described the role of the person who acted as go-between in the marriage arrangement business.

Discussions of standards typically lead us in the direction of the recognition of those who have been mediating for far longer than the ‘field’ has been in existence, but whose qualifications might not pass muster as they haven’t been certified by a provider or university or other agency. There’s no easy pass on this question.

But the other question that comes up – and did so again in a conversation here in Singapore – is less about the established mediator who now might not qualify, than about the qualities that a mediator is expected to have and display when working in some contexts. All the more so when the expectation of standards is a degree of universality and transferability. The issue is this (again, as it has come up before in this blog): if our expectations of mediator competence relate principally to process and intervention skills, what it the position when – as here – the mediator is expected to provide substantive guidance and suggestions; and a merely facilitative mediator (albeit highly competent on conventional criteria) would not be seen as competent or even useful by the parties. After all, in Singapore and perhaps even more so in neighbouring states, the expectation is that the mediator is a more active party in the search for solutions.

In the context is which this question arises – in commercial and financial mediation – the issue is in large part addressed by ensuring that mediators are, like arbitrators, subject specialists and not (merely) process specialists. Thus the mediator can and does provide specific guidance and direction towards outcomes.

This is probably nothing new to the more evaluative mediators [see http://www.mediate.com/articles/zumeta.cfm] – even though it may remain the case that evaluative mediators are more likely to be Devil’s advocates than the model I’m thinking of here.

So, the question: if we’re looking at international standards, how will they accommodate the quite different expectations that parties have of the ‘competence’ of a mediator, where those expectations are culturally shaped, especially in the context of more hierarchical societies in which, if fact, the mediator is a person whose competence might well be measured in terms of his or her authoritative actions?

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The bookshops here in Singapore are full of well-priced and familiar titles on negotiation (less so on mediation); and they are typically found in the “business communications” sections of the larger bookshops. Not far from these books, you’ll also find titles such as Sun Tsu’s The Art of War – and we sit (mostly comfortably) astride the norms and styles of East and West: a highly commercialised and modern, yet also traditional and hierarchical society.

What provokes today’s entry are a couple of comments, necessarily anonymous for this purpose, from students in a negotiation class, in their reflections on the negotiation simulations we’ve done and on the reading I’ve asked them to do.

First: we’d normally associate this region with a preference for the negotiation that is built on foundations of relationships, at least established sufficiently to move beyond the mere time-oriented efficiency associated with the West. What I note, however – and this is not a new observation for this year – is a preference for efficiency and pragmatism over enduring relations and principle. This is a bare description, I know, but I got an interesting reminder in a student comment to the effect that “we’re taught to be efficient in decision-making”. Quite what this efficiency amounts to is another matter, but it is likely to focus primarily on the completion of the deal in a timely manner.

More interesting – at least for observers from the West – might be the comment of another student in relation to the efficacy of threats used by Chinese-Singaporean parents, in comparison with the perceived soft threats by Western parents. The point made by the commentator is that the attempts to ‘reason’ with a child are usually futile and that more tangible threats are more effective: “Parents these days are attempting to negotiate and “talk sense” into their children instead of caning them, which is why so many of them are running around screaming their heads off, and hanging off the MRT handles. Nothing a good cane cannot cure, I’d say.”

This must be an interesting starting point for a conversation between New Zealand, with its ongoing debate about the repeal of s.59 of the Crimes Act (which effectively provided a defence to a parent who had used force, even violence, in the control of a child), and Singapore with its continued use of the cane as a part of the criminal punishment system.

But even without getting into that debate, which is not the point of this entry or this blog, what does interest me is the degree to which our assumptions about negotiation – and negotiability – are shaped by these norms which reflect differences in hierarchy, authority and power. They will surely also shape how we even regard the idea and process of mediation.

At the very least, the norms of Western mediation rest on a number of assumptions including:

–         full participation in problem analysis and resolution;

–         the agency of participants – that is, their capacity and willingness to engage in decision-making;

–         the  relative informality of the process (which, as we will see, is likely to be difficult in high power distance cultures);

–         the relatively low substantive authority of the intermediary; and

the emphasis on interest-based bargaining, which assumes not only that the parties are attending to negotiable interests rather than values but also that the interests are subject to the bargaining choices and mandates of the parties.

Similarly, intercultural studies add to our knowledge through not only emphasising the diversity in the structure of social relationships and factors such as social mobility, but also in pointing to the persistence and reality of asymmetrical relationships and to the perceptions and norms which sustain and legitimate that asymmetry. Inequality of relationships and decision-making authority in negotiation counterparts is not likely to be mitigated merely through the adoption of a set of process norms that, for example, assume or seek to create equality of participation and voice in any transaction.

We can also say that the acceptance of authority – and at of the power that comes with it – has a countervailing aspect: The corollary of such acceptance of commitments reflecting hierarchical relationships is that those possessing authority are expected to act justly. Thus, in countries of moderately high power distance (in the terms of the model provided by the recently-deceased Edward T Hall), such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore individuals are aware of hierarchies but regard this as acceptable provided that those in authority also acknowledge, and act on the basis of their obligations. Members of such nations will still acknowledge frustration at aspects of power distance, but rarely act overtly on that frustration, though it might have an impact on, for example, organisational efficiency.[1]

So, what’s going on under these brief and illuminating observations by negotiation course members is a set of assumptions – which will have their parallels in other regions of course – about the nature of social relations, power and authority . . . and the impact this is perceived to have on one’s autonomy in decision-making in negotiation or mediation.


[1] Norma R.A. Romm, Cheng-Yi Hsu, “Reconsidering the exploration of power distance: an active case study approach,” Omega (The International Journal of Management Science) 30: 403 – 414 (2002)

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