The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

Seria Zara '20 RGLP Reflection: Evaluating Your Intercultural Conflict Style

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Session 5 of RGLP, held on October 18th, 2021, was titled, "Evaluating Your Intercultural Conflict Style" with Sadhana Hall. Sadhana shared a short summary of her illustrious, cross-cultural career, starting in hard sciences in college in India to over time transitioning into health and global public policy where she has made a global impact and been recognized internationally for her leadership. Among other things, she shared how she is in a cross-cultural marriage and it’s made her very flexible. It was discussed how cultural differences do not only exist across cultures, but can exist within the same culture (such as subcultures), between generations and within the same generation, and between and within sub-groups as well. The session entailed various introspective exercises exploring our ‘conflict resolution styles’ based on the intercultural conflict style (ICS) inventory from the Intercultural Development Research Institute and thought-provoking discussions involving our experiences navigating conflict and values and skills critical to resolving it.

According to the ICS inventory, which determines one’s core approach to conflict resolution, there are four main core approaches or styles, namely, dynamic, engagement, discussion and accommodation, spanning four quadrants across the cartesian plane, covering the spectra of emotional expressiveness (expressive to restrained) and directness (direct to indirect), and one’s unique ICS style maps onto a certain point on the plane. Nuanced and detailed, the ICS reports gave extremely helpful insights on the different aspects of our individual ICS styles, such as the characteristics of each style, the values underpinning them, their patterns and strengths and weaknesses, geographical correlations, the various aspects of communication, etc. While the differences in our attitudes can lead to conflict, appreciating these differences and what they look like enables us to understand other people and resolve conflicts more effectively through awareness, accommodation and mutual compromise.

One of the many notable points of discussion was that one’s ICS type can change over time. We discussed the factors that can cause a change in one’s reported type: it can be a result of an evolution in one’s approach to human problem-solving or of experiencing a significant event that alters their worldview, or even because of extreme stress, among others. Similarly, while each style has its strengths, it also has its drawbacks. For instance, people of the ‘dynamic’ style, according to the ICS report, are at ease with “emotionally confrontational discourse and expression” and observant about non-verbal behavior, but on the other hand, they can come across as unreasonable and devious. There was a consensus that almost any trait can be a strength or a weakness, depending on the situation, and the key to effectiveness is to know which skill to deploy where and when.

Among the exercises, Sadhana asked to think of and share two experiences of navigating cultural dispute or misunderstanding, one that went well and one that did not go well. She shared two experiences from her own life of navigating inter-cultural conflict and both demonstrated how conflict across cultural differences can be complicated and requires flexibility and empathy to overcome. One was an experience of her being an ethnic minority in a white neighborhood where she turned around a white neighbor’s racial bias against her by intentionally reaching out to them in connection. I thought this was really remarkable, and I would not have thought to do such a thing myself. The second example was of a time when a relative’s friend marvelled at her great English. This type of microaggressions can sometimes be taken in stride, and other times, confronted.

There are many tools that can be used for navigating disagreement. Empathy, and seeking to understand before being understood are paramount. Coming from a place of open-minded curiosity instead of judgement, and doing your homework on cultural differences are a good place to start. Pausing and “walking away” to re-evaluate and reset is another vital tool especially if the situation is tense. Humor is an underrated device in defusing tension. Furthermore, the importance of integrity cannot be understated.

This session took me back to United World College (UWC), a school where I lived and studied with teenagers from many different countries. It was there that I truly began to understand and appreciate how different people can be based on their social upbringings and cultural value systems and practices, and that yet, there is always some common ground to connect over. The session also reminded me of some of the tools I learned in another Rockefeller Program, the Management and Leadership Development Program (MLDP) about differences in social personality styles (social servitor, navigator, explorer, worker) and how they too can create conflict, but if comprehended and utilized well, can create value for everyone involved.

I came out of this session with an exceptionally deep appreciation for differences in communication in general and conflict-resolution styles in particular, as well as a broader vocabulary and know-how of the different types of approaches and their workings. As Sadhana summed it herself, finding our way through differences is “not easy but delightful.”

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