conflict resolution · culture · Identity · Ireland · military · social structure

The Role of Culture in Conflict Resolution

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This article will explore the various ways in which culture can affect negotiations both internationally and personally.   In this paper I will explore the various aspects of culture as illustrated by “The Culture Wheel” in tandem with exploration of negotiation in two different aspects.  First, I will examine how culture has affected relationships and negotiations between the Irish and British in Northern Ireland in order to explore the international aspect of culture and negotiation.  For the first examination special consideration will be paid to the role of history in the development of cultural memory and the way it effects negotiations.  Second, I will consider the role of culture in an interpersonal negotiation between a military supervisor and a resource supplier .  In this case special consideration will be paid to the role of social structures within the military that effect negotiations.  Finally, I will close with a discussion of how an understanding of culture can help negotiators find their way through complicated situations in order to find integrative solutions for parties involved.

Culture is an observable, powerful force in human life as it creates significant influence on how humans act, think and communicate.  Differences in these aspects can affect how negotiations take place and their outcomes.  According to The Handbook of Global and Multicultural Negotiation, developing cultural awareness is a vital part of becoming an effective negotiator (Moore & Woodrow,  2010, pg. 21).  In addition to developing cultural awareness negotiators must also be able to analyze the effect of culture on negotiations.  There are many detailed factors that contribute to each individual culture that requires a model in order to illustrate the expansive realm of culture.  The framework presented by Moore and Woodrow is illustrated in “The Culture Wheel.”

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The Culture Wheel provides a framework for negotiators to see and understand communication barriers – which provides greater ability to communicate more effectively and find solutions that are integrative.  The outer rim of the wheel focuses on the natural environment, history and social structures of the given culture.  For our exploration we will use Ireland and Irish culture to examine how the Culture Wheel can be put to use.  “Geography and environment clearly affect the formation of beliefs, attitudes, behaviors and social organizations of culture” (Moore & Woodrow, 2010, pg 24.)   Ireland is a relatively small island nation, near Great Britain, whose location has provided excellent access to the oceans and fertile farming lands.  Natural resources of Ireland include natural gas, peat, copper, lead, zinc, silver and hydropower (CIA World Factbook, 2012).  Current social structures of Ireland include a parliamentary democratic republic, Roman Catholicism as the predominant religion, and other national and local educational and social groups.  

There are several questions we can ask in regards to the natural environment and social structure in order to analyze the culture in order to better understand how to negotiate effectively.   First, “has the natural environment created scarcity or abundance of resources needed for survive and how might this affect views and behaviors in negotiation?”  Historically speaking Ireland has been known for farming as a primary source for food.  While most time periods were abundant enough to provide for the population several potato famines caused significant reductions in populations due to death and immigration.   There are many points of view that blame the British colonial government in Ireland for the large number of deaths and inability to provide for the communities during the famine.  If an Irishman were to enter a negotiation with an Englishman during the famine the events and natural environment could have greatly affected the attitudes during the negotiation.  Even today there is a bitterness that still exists over the potato famine and the inability of the British government to stem the tide of destruction (Digital History, 2012).    Modern negotiations must take into account not only the natural environment but the history of the cultures as well.

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History has a tendency not only to repeat itself but also to be passed along from generation to generation through various social mechanisms like family stories, cultural legends, poetry and song.  The historical context of a conflict and the “stories are a central part of the way we give meaning to our world” (Docherty, 2005, pg. 25). This is a significant part of Irish culture.  The Irish wear their history, both negative and positive like a badge of honor.  “Incidents that occurred decades or even centuries earlier persist powerfully in present-day consciousness” (Moore & Woodrow, 2010, pg 27.)  Again this phenomena is alive and well in Irish culture.  Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland in the mid 1600’s is still a match-light for debate and disgust in Irish culture.  During a recent visit of the current Queen of England to Ireland’s Garden of Remembrance, crowds assembled nearby in protest (Hardman, 2011).  Not every person in Ireland was willing to accept this historical visit as a peace offering from the British monarchy.  

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A question we can ask according to the Culture Wheel is how these historical events shaped the consciousness of the Irish people and how will they affect negotiations?  In 1994 the Irish Republican Army and the British Government began to move toward peace through negotiations.  It began with a cease-fire offered by the IRA in September, yet the British did not feel their declaration would permanently stop the violence in Northern Ireland.  The cause of the violence has been an issue since the rebellion and partition of Ireland beginning in 1916 and stretching to modern times.  The IRA had been engaging in a violent campaign to gain Northern Irish independence from British rule for over 20 years.  A key factor in the cease-fire was the agreement of the British government to move four IRA prisoners closer to their families in Northern Ireland.  They offered this as a move towards a truce.  While applauded by the Irish, many British officials did not agree with the move (Coll, 1994) but the British decision makers understood the importance of acknowledging the violent history and allowing access to families – another important structure in Irish culture.

After exploring the various natural environmental issues, social structures and history, negotiators can move to the inner rim of the Culture Wheel which addresses context, situations, issues or problems that must be addressed, needs or interests that groups involved in negotiations wish to have met and sources of power or influence (Moore & Woodrow, 2011, pg. 33).  There are several contexts that should be explored in Anglo-Irish negotiations.  First, is the negotiation a transaction or conflict context?  In the case of the IRA versus the British government one could argue that the context is certainly a conflictual one in which parties are attempting to resolve conflicting views or interests.    The British want to keep Northern Ireland while the IRA wants Northern Ireland to be a part of the Irish Republic.    There is also an extreme emotional context that takes place in negotiations between the IRA and British.   Violence has created an intensely adversarial relationship that is emotionally loaded.   Negotiators must be aware of the emotional context for the parties in order to understand how to carefully navigate the waters to successful resolution.  It is essential to explore whether the parties involved in negotiations have common views in order to assist with the talks and to clarify views in order to fully understand where each party is coming from.   The Anglo-Irish conflict has been one in which emotions and conflict have reigned supreme and as such negotiators have been exceptionally careful to address each of these aspects of culture during negotiations.

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“Needs and interests are elements that individuals and groups require, expect or desire” (Moore & Woodrow, 2011, pg, 34).  For the exploration of needs and interests we will move away from Ireland and focus on a smaller target – a military supervisor and civilian contractor who provides services.   The Air University Military College website provides United States service members with resources on negotiation as it is often an important aspect of their day-to-day jobs. (AU Air Force, 2011).  There are three types of interests discussed on the military website: substantive or content interests or needs (money, time, resources), procedural (specific types of behaviors or ways things are done) and relationship or psychological needs which relate to how one feels or conditions for ongoing relationships.  

The military believes that negotiation is not just an operational skill but necessary to successfully move through day-to-day activities such as supervising staff and coordinating the arrival of various resources for a specific unit.  In a recent case I assisted with a supervising Military Working Dog handler, the kennel master, needed to provide training for his unit and had to coordinate with munitions in order to gain access to explosive materials for dog training scents.  The K9 unit works 24 hours a day 7 days a week and the kennel master is responsible for ensuring that all shifts receive proper training on the scents.  Evening shifts usually begin at 7PM.  The munitions unit is usually only open Monday through Friday from 7:30 AM to 5:30 PM.   The kennel master and the munitions providers must reach an agreement based on their interests and needs for each unit.  In this case the interests are substantive and procedural.  The K9 unit has a specific resource need while the munitions providers have specific procedural needs and interests that must be met.  

On meeting with the kennel master I asked what his specific needs and interest were for his unit, what he believed would be the munitions needs and interests and what the major issue he felt he needed to discuss would be.    In addition I addressed power issues that could arise.  The kennel master is a technical sergeant while many munitions officers who release resources are staff sergeants or senior airmen (lower ranks).  The military culture allows for higher ranking NCO’s to give orders to lower ranking airmen but the kennel master did not want to “pull rank” if he could avoid that action in order to maintain a good working relationship.  In this case power could have been easily used to manipulate munitions into staying late however using some tactics of negotiation the kennel master was able to create a contract of sorts that allowed them to check out resources just before closing, use them for several hours and then lock them in a safety box at the kennels until they could be returned in the morning on opening.  

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Once you reach the spokes of the culture wheel you are focusing on specific areas of cultural belief patterns and behaviors.  In our military case one of the spokes refers to culture norms regarding rank and status (in addition to gender and age.)  A military culture is not entirely egalitarian as hierarchy and status play a key role in the way relationships are formed and maintained.  Decision makers must often determine what the consequences of their choices will be.  Will they lose power or be criticized?  Will people support or be hurt by the decision?  (Fisher et al, 1996, pg. 53). While the kennel master had decision-making power, many of the resource handlers had to consult with their own supervisors adding another level of power to the culture wheel of the military.  As such this hierarchy can create significant problems if negotiators do not understand how the status system of the military works.  As an outsider looking in on this case I could easily see how pulling rank could have achieved the goal of the kennel master but he was serious about maintaining a good relationship with the lower ranking soldiers in munitions.

Another spoke in the Culture Wheel is that of the view of relationships.  Cultures view and treat relationships very differently.  Some are focused on instrumental or task orientations while others are focused on relationships.  In the military case both were important to the kennel master.  While the kennel master understood that there could potentially be tensions he was focused on striving for harmony in the relationship between K9 and munitions.  A key relationship question posed by the culture wheel is “are the cultures involved open and disclosing or closed and distant (Moore & Woodrow, 2011, pg. 44).  In the case of the military many relationships are closed and distant due to the hierarchical culture.   I stressed to the kennel master the importance of being open about the K9 unit’s specific needs in order to ensure greater success in negotiating the use of resources.  

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Every culture deals with cooperation, competition and conflict and this is especially true in the military.  There are three general attitudes toward conflict in cultures in addition to five reactions to conflict that can occur in different cultures.  Moore and Woodrow (2011) write that cultures may view conflict as “negative, unnatural risky or bad; some view conflict as positive, normal, beneficial; and finally conflicts are neutral but normal.”  Populations within specific cultures will then react differently to conflict.  A culture, such as the United States Military is often viewed as highly competitive.  For example the interests and the United States and the military complex come first, before relationships.  Some cultures may avoid conflict at all costs, others may accommodate the other party in conflicts.  Finally, some cultures may be more apt to collaborate or compromise.  (Katz & Lawyer, 1994).  Negotiators must ask what the cultures involved in negotiations orientations toward conflict are in order to better understand how to negotiate with them.  For example, in high uncertainty avoidance cultures there is a greater concern about the unknown, higher job stress and more emotional resistance to change.  Low uncertainty avoidance cultures on the other hand have less emotional resistance to change, lower job stress and less fear of taking risks.  This allows negotiator to better understand what tactics may be more useful in dealing with specific cultures in conflict by permitting an understanding as to whether parties will cooperate or compete during a negotiation.  Each culture will also communicate this information and their needs and interests very differently.

In cross-cultural negotiations communication may be a barrier if languages and behaviors are significantly different. (Meirding, 2011) In many Asian cultures, for example a bow is more appropriate than a handshake.  Even deeper under the culture surface is the concept of high and low context culture in negotiations.  Certain cultures tend to use more formalized agreements and lengthy conversations to reach agreements; there is an assumption that the parties “know” automatically what to expect because of experience, intuition and context.  Rules are often implicit in these high context cultures.  Active listening and saving-face are often important concerns in high-contextual cultural negotiations.  On the other hand low-context cultures often express expectations clearly and specifically so that nothing is assumed.  

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An additional communication issue that could arise in cross-cultural negotiation is that of time.  Some cultures are “monochromic” or have a tendency to do things in a linear order, piece by piece in a quantifiable manner.  These cultures will often want to focus strictly on issues, seek to use time wisely and show frustration if the other party brings up unrelated issues or does not follow an agenda.  Polychronic cultures on the other hand move through negotiation processes in a non-linear manner.  They may cross talk or overlap speech with other parties and are often relaxed about time and timelines.  They can become frustrated if they feel the other party is moving slowly or not seeing the bigger picture of the negotiation.  

Once a negotiator has a basic understanding of a culture or different cultures involved in the negotiation process they can better guide the parties to an integrative solution.  By creating an understanding of a cultures basic approach to negotiation you can create a program of negotiation processes or tactics that may work better within that specific set of cultures.  It is important to ask as you work with different cultures what each party believes negotiation to be in terms of conceptual ideas.  You must understand and assist the parties in understanding the role of relationships in the negotiation process and how the parties prepare for negotiations.  The use of the Culture Wheel and the various questions that are posed by Moore and Woodrow can assist the negotiator in better understanding foreign cultures which may be initially hard to understand and  maneuver through.  With continuing practice and use of the concepts held within the Culture Wheel model negotiations can be resolved more successfully and integrative in order to ensure that each party is satisfied with the outcomes of the process.

 

Works Cited

 

Air Force Negotiation Center. http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/army/usace/negotiation.htm, Accessed 08 April 2012.

 

CIA World Factbook – Ireland, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/ei.html, Accessed 2 April 2012.

 

Coll, Steve. “IRA and Britain move closer to direct peace negotiations.” The Washington Post, Vol 114.  Issue 38: Friday, September 2, 1994.

 

Digital History Online Textbook – The Irish Potato Famine, http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/historyonline/irish_potato_famine.cfm, Accessed 2 April 2012.

 

Docherty, Jayne. The Little Book of Strategic Negotiation., Good Books: Intercourse, PA. 2005.

 

Fisher, Roger, Elizabeth Kopelman and Andrea Schneider. Beyond Machiavelli: Tools for Coping with Conflict. Penguin Books: New York, New York. 1996.

 

Katz, Neil H. & Lawyer, John W., Conflict Resolution: Building Bridges, Corwin Press, 1994

 

Hardman, Robert. “A Simple bow of the head, such a symbolic gesture: How the Queen opened a new era after a century of bloodshed, distrust and uneasy coexistence.” UK Daily Mail Online. 18 May 2011. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1387878/Queen-Ireland-visit-opened-new-era-century-bloodshed-distrust.html

 

Meierding, Nina.  Negotiation and Mediation Training. 2010.
Moore, Christopher and Peter Woodrow. Handbook of Global and Multicultural Negotiation.  Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA. 2010.

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