Summary of "Bridging Cultural Conflicts: A New Approach for a Changing World"

Summary of

Bridging Cultural Conflicts: A New Approach for a Changing World

By Michelle LeBaron

Summary written by Brett Reeder, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: LeBaron, Michelle, 2003,Bridging Cultural Conflicts: A New Approach for a Changing World, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA

According to Michelle LeBaron, conflict emerges when people have difficulty dealing with differences "that matter." The base of many of these differences, she says, is culture. Indeed, according to LeBaron: "Culture is integral to understanding conflict. It cannot be separated from conflict..." Bridging Cultural Conflicts: A New Approach for a Changing World seeks to provide a set of "capacities, practices, tools and choices," with which readers can come to understand the cultural underpinnings of conflict and use this understanding to transform conflicts into positive learning environments.

LeBaron views culture as systems of shared symbols (including language) that create meaning and a sense of belonging. Each of these cultures has its own set of "currencies" or "ways of being and acting in the world". Individuals are thought to belong to multiple cultures with various "currencies," which intermingle to make up our "world view". These "world views" are thought to be influenced by three "domains of culture": social and moral guidelines, practical knowledge, and transcendent explanations. Thus, a person's world view is essentially the way they see the world through their own "cultural lenses." Included in their world view is their "identity," which is essentially how they see themselves in relation to the world. Identity is a construction based on both cultural influence and personal characteristics. At the base of an individual's "identity," "currencies" and "world view" are what LeBaron refers to as "starting points".

"Starting points" are: "those places from which it seems natural to begin." These are essentially the underling assumptions upon which culture is based. They often differ between different cultures. The book provides several examples of opposing starting points including: high versus low-context communication (whether meaning is heavily tied to the context of the communication or not), communitarianism versus individualism (whether people see themselves as first and foremost an individual or a part of a community) and specificity versus diffusiveness (whether people prefer specific concepts, or more fuzzy guidelines to concepts). When one encounters "others" with different starting points and currencies from their own, massive miscommunications are likely, often resulting in conflict development or conflict escalation. Thus, cultural differences are directly related to conflict.

With the connection between conflict and culture established, leBaron turns her attention to the ways to bridge these cultural differences. With this goal in mind, the book is divided into four parts:

  1. Part One addresses the "capacities" necessary for bridging cultural conflict,
  2. Part Two lays out specific "practices" that can aid the process,
  3. Part Three provides the reader with "tools" for third party intervention and
  4. Part Four addresses attitudinal choices necessary for bridging cultural conflict.

I will address each part in turn.

Part One: Capacities

The first of the four parts of the book focuses on "capacities," which LeBaron defines as "broader than skills or tools--they are spaces carved within us by life experiences from which compassion, wisdom, intuition, and creativity spring." When differing realities (as a result of differing currencies, identities, worldviews and starting points) are threatened, serious conflict or conflict escalation is likely to ensue. To avoid this, LeBaron suggests we must first expand our "capacity" to bridge cultural conflict through these four concepts: Mindful Awareness, Cultural Fluency, Conflict Fluency and Dynamic Engagement.

Mindful Awareness is described as "paying exquisite attention." The goal is to become aware of one's own cultural lenses and the way they effect our perception of the world around us. LeBaron puts it this way: "reflect on our own cultural ways of knowing and being, noticing how they are continually shaped by memories, experiences and interpretations." By becoming aware of the way our reality is constructed, we become more aware of the ways others construct their reality, thus increasing our understanding of their point of view. Such Mindful Awareness helps us to become culturally fluent.

Cultural Fluency is essentially an internalized familiarity with the workings of culture, within ourselves, others, and in the dynamic relationships of which we are a part. In order to become culturally fluent, we must be aware of and avoid various cultural traps including: automatic ethnocentricity (the idea that ones own beliefs are inherently right or natural), taxonomy (the belief that all of culture can be categorized), complexity (assuming culture is too complex for intercultural communication), universalism (seeing only commonalities with a blind eye to differences) and separation (seeing only differences with a blind eye to commonalities). Additionally, we must acknowledge the existence of cultural lenses without specific preference. A culturally fluent person will draw upon many different cultural lenses as the context requires, in order to stimulate real communication and dialogue. Such cultural fluency allows us to become fluent in conflict.

Our own mindful awareness and cultural fluency are necessary for us to become fluent in conflict because, as LeBaron put it: "since we are social (in relationship with each other) and since we are cultural (in relationship with many shared influences), conflict is a social and cultural phenomenon. It follows that culture and conflict cannot be separated into modules or manipulated like pieces on a chessboard." Thus we must understand culture to understand conflict (or, in her words, "to become fluent in conflict"). Conflict fluency is essentially understanding the workings of conflict so as to be aware of the choices we make regarding it, as well as the impacts of our choices, and to thus act in ways that will bridge cultural conflict.

To help us understand the dynamics of conflict, LeBaron introduces the "three dimensions of conflict" and the "four faces of conflict". The "three dimensions of conflict" include:

  1. material dimensions - the physical "what" of the dispute,
  2. communicative dimensions - the "how" of the communication, and
  3. the symbolic dimension -- where meanings and identities are "located" in the conflict.

The second key concept introduced, the "four faces of conflict," is essentially the lifecycle of a conflict.

  1. First is naming, in which people become aware of a conflict and label it as such.
  2. Second is the framing of a conflict in which the boundaries (who and what is or is not involved) are drawn.
  3. Third is blaming, which is the way in which the parties deal with the conflict.
  4. Finally is taming in which some closure is made.

Not all conflicts go through all stages, and each stage will take a different form in different cultures (hence the need to be culturally fluent).

Keeping these two key concepts in mind. LeBaron lays out the "six elements of conflict fluency":

  1. Creating a repertoire of ways to engage conflict respecting various starting points,
  2. recognizing that conflict is neither positive nor negative, but that the choice made will make it one or the other,
  3. developing an "experience bank" of ways to deal with conflict involving multiple ways of knowing,
  4. embracing conflict as an opportunity for learning,
  5. applying emotional fluency to conflicts and finally,
  6. learning the contours of conflict in different cultural contexts.

Once one is mindfully aware, culturally fluent and fluent in conflict, one is ready for "dynamic engagement". Dynamic engagement entails actively engaging "others" with the understanding that both you and they change, as does your relationship. Dynamic engagement means striving to co-create a new relationship built on understanding and dialogue. LeBaron idenitifies eight components of dynamic engagement, each with a corresponding "spirit" or mind set, with which to pursue it. These include:

  1. attending to and assessing the situation (with a spirit of inquiry),
  2. suspending judgments/expanding perspectives (with a spirit of release),
  3. receiving the other side (with a spirit of witness),
  4. creating a shared circle of experience (with a spirit of engagement),
  5. designing a way through (with a spirit of creative action),
  6. reflecting on the relationship (with a spirit of perspective),
  7. integrating what has been learned into the relationship (with a spirit of acknowledgement), and finally,
  8. actively seeking other improvements to the relationship (again with a spirit of inquiry).

With this LeBaron concludes Part One of the book. Mindful awareness, cultural fluency, conflict fluency and dynamic engagement are thought to provide the capacity to bridge cultural conflicts, thus potentially leading to conflict resolution. In Part Two she turns her focus to specific practices to help make this possibility a reality.

Part Two: Practices

Part Two of the book provides specific practices which can be used to more successfully engage cultural conflict. These practices are meant to complement what we know rationally with what we sense and feel. They are divided into personal, interpersonal, and inter-group practices, with a chapter devoted to each. In each chapter, LeBaron provides two practices which correspond to each of the "four ways of knowing" which complement rational, reason-based approaches.

The first of these "ways of knowing" is intuitive/imaginative. Intuition is defined here as "knowing without being aware of the process by which knowing arose." It's partner-- imagination--is the capacity to see new possibilities by letting go of your cultural assumptions. Together imagination and intuition are thought to lead us to knowledge otherwise hidden by our rational thoughts. The second "way of knowing" is emotional intelligence. This entails being able to manage your own feelings and to be able to read feelings in others. According to LeBaron, much can be learned from our emotional selves if we are willing to listen. Third is somatic or physical knowledge. This is essentially using your body as both a receiver and a transmitter of information. We are more than our minds, and the whole of our bodies are sometimes able to clue us into things our minds miss. The fourth and final "way of knowing" is "the connected." This refers to the knowledge that we are all interconnected despite very real differences. These four ways of knowing provide the base for the personal, interpersonal, and intergroup practices provided in Part Two.

The personal practices LeBaron introduces are meant to be practical actions individuals can engage in personally to increase their cultural fluency and mindful awareness. These include such practices as the somatic practice of "listening to the body" (paying attention to the way your body feels) and the emotional practice of "sitting in resistance" (forcing yourself to experience unpleasant emotions). The interpersonal practices LeBaron provides are meant for groups of ten or less. These practices are actions we can take in small groups to enhance cultural understanding. They include the intuitive/imaginative practice of "dancing on a dime" (having a plan, but being willing to change it as the context requires) and the connected practice of "partnering" (in which one partners with someone different from themselves with the aim of learning from each other). Intergroup practices are meant to help larger groups develop collective partnerships including the intuitive/imaginative practice of "discovering common futures" (imagining alternative futures that meet all sides needs) and the connected practice of "dialoging" (a focused conversation about an issue or situation within agreed upon boundaries).

While Part One provides the capacity to bridge cultural conflicts, Part Two provides practical actions or "practices" to help make this vision a reality. Though quite specific, LeBaron points out that each of the practices she describes will look different in different cultures (necessitating cultural fluency). While both parts One and Two focus on people within a conflict, in Part Three LeBaron introduces "tools" for third parties.

Part Three: Tools for Third Parties

When one is engaged in conflict, it can be difficult to see a way out, as perspective is diminished and emotions run high. When conflicts become intractable, it can be useful to introduce an outsider's perspective. Part Three of the book is concerned with such third-party intervention. Similar to the practices provided in Part Two, Part Three provides "symbolic relational tools" because, as LeBaron puts it, "conflict happens in relationships, it is important to use tools that put relationship front and center in conflict."

LeBaron provides four "symbolic relational tools": stories, myths, rituals, and metaphors. Using these tools as aids, third parties can become more effective in aiding conflict resolution (which LeBaron refers to as "relational adeptness." LeBaron identifies seven things necessary to being relationally adept:

  1. Collaboration with stakeholders,
  2. genuineness (a genuine concern for the outcome),
  3. creativity,
  4. reflectivity (learning from events as they play out),
  5. sensitivity to cultural norms,
  6. humility and
  7. congruence (consistence in both action and rhetoric).

But even the most relationally adept mediator, properly using symbolic relational tools, is not guaranteed to be effective. This is, in part, due to credibility issues, of which five sources are identified.

  1. First, is the inherent characteristics of an individual. This includes ethnicity, sex and class which may drastically affect credibility in certain cultures.
  2. Second is conferred credibility, or credentials conferred upon an individual by a group or an institution (such a degree or an award). Different credentials will hold different weight in different cultures.
  3. Third is expert credibility, which is comprised of skills and competencies of an individual. This includes many of the concepts in this book, such as fluency with culture, conflict and language.
  4. Forth, is congruence with those in conflict. When one's own values and beliefs mirror those in conflict, credibility may be significantly increased.
  5. Finally, is contribution to the resolution process. Mediators that are effective will gain credibility.

Truly effective third parties will embody credibility and relational adeptness while using symbolic relational tools as aids. But even such third parties will not be able to bridge cultural conflicts between those who do not want a resolution. Choices are made throughout conflict and stakeholders must choose to resolve conflict, before a resolution is possible. The forth part of this book addresses such choices.

Part Four: Choosing a Way Forward

There are always choices to be made in the course of conflict. Many of these choices are choices of action, such as how to respond to a threat, or the tone one takes in dialogue. Cultural fluency, conflict fluency, and mindful awareness can inform such choices, but there are also choices of attitude. This refers to the way individuals view conflict, and the attitude they bring to it. LeBaron identifies six such choices necessary to bridge cultural conflict:

  1. choosing to honor all experience,
  2. choosing to listen (deep, respectful, and proactive listening),
  3. choosing shared standards (this does not mean giving up on your own values, but modifying them to be more inclusive),
  4. choosing a way forward,
  5. choosing to care about people (about everyone involved, even those you disagree with), and finally
  6. choosing authenticity (a commitment to an authentic relationship).

Making these choices is choosing to resolve, rather than escalate, conflict. This is perhaps the most fundamental choice in conflict situations. If stakeholders do not want to resolve a conflict, resolution is impossible. Once stakeholders have decided to attempt resolution, there are numerous choices to be made, choices that either move towards or away from resolution. When paired with the attitudinal choices listed above, choices of action informed by cultural fluency, conflict fluency, and mindful awareness can move conflict towards resolution. In Bridging Cultural Conflicts: A New Approach for a Changing World, LeBaron attempts to bridge the fields of conflict resolution and intercultural communication. She does this because, according to LeBaron, "[c]onflict and culture dynamically influence each other in inseparable ways," and thus conflict resolution requires cultural understanding. Conflict is not inherently negative and can be a positive learning experience, but this is unlikely if its cultural underpinnings are not understood. In this book, LeBaron provides capacities to aid our understanding, practices to aid our action, tools for third party intervention and necessary choices of attitude. These capacities, practices, tools and choices are meant to enable disputants and third parties to successfully bridge cultural conflicts.