How to Deal With Conflict in Intercultural Communication Encounters

Conflict is an ordinary part of life, and an inevitable part of the expat life. With completely different expectations, assumptions, goals, behavior strategies and more, it is inevitable that two parties involved in an intercultural communication encounter will eventually face a situation of conflict.

When you are faced with conflict, what do you do?

The problem here is that your ordinary strategies of resolving a conflict situation might not help during an intercultural communication encounter. They might even be detrimental to the situation if they are not adapted to the conditions of the environment in which they are used.

Jack Welch, former long-time CEO of General Electric, wrote in his book titled Winning that future CEO’s of multinational companies will need to have extensive experience in living abroad. Why is this so? Well, because he has found out that somebody who is able to achieve his desired outcomes in his own cultural environment is often unable to do so in intercultural communication encounters. People who know how to achieve the desired results in their home country often try to apply the same strategies in other environments, only to find out that the people there react completely different than expected.

Because of these problems that conflict in intercultural communication can create, let’s now focus on some strategies on how we can overcome them.

Ask yourself: what assumptions are at play here?

If you want to understand why conflict is arising in an intercultural communication situation, you need to analyse the assumptions that are at play on both sides.

First of all, you need to become aware of the cultural assumptions that you yourself are making in this situation. Let’s make a simple example here. Say that you are a newly appointed manager at a branch office of your company in Japan.

One of your employees has done an outstanding job, and so you want to reward her by pointing out her achievements during a staff meeting by granting her an employee of the month title and giving her a small financial bonus. She is shocked and form that point onward, the climate in your branch is becoming somewhat different.

What happened here was that you haven’t analysed your own assumptions about the cultural environment in Japan. You assumed that by rewarding excellent performance, you would motivate staff members to put more energy into their work.

In a collective culture like Japan, however, singling out one individual in front of the group by rewarding her is likely to make an individual employee uncomfortable.

She will feel like she is receiving special treatment, and this will cause trouble in her relationships with the other group members as the harmony has been disrupted. Consequently, the assumptions of the employees when giving a reward like these is that you want to communicate clearly that she is the favored employee, and that she will be the one with the best chances for moving up the hierarchy at the company.

Can you see what different assumptions from you and from your employees were at play here? For that reason, one key factor in resolving conflict in intercultural communication is to analyse the assumptions of both sides.

Make concessions for things that seem “unnecessary” to you

Sometimes during conflict in intercultural communication encounters, you will find that the other side is constantly talking about an issue that seems irrelevant or unnecessary to you.

Often, our natural reaction here is to ignore these issues and to move back to those that seem central to us.

This is a grave mistake, because there might be much more to it than we think. Remember, people from different cultural environments value other things than you yourself do, which will also lead them to have completely different expectations about how the situation should be resolved.

If the other side constantly shifts attention to an issue that seems unimportant to you, you should really open up your mind and find out what motivation lies behind their focus on this particular issue.

It is very likely that something lies behind it that you can not understand from your own cultural perspective. In fact, situations like these are good opportunities for achieving your negotiation objectives. Often, the other side may find this issue so important, that by giving them concessions at this point, you will be able to get better results on the points that are important to you.

Wherever possible, follow the other party’s way of doing things

Adapting to a different cultural environment is hard and a large part of people are unable to succeed at it. Because of this reason, the person who is able to adapt to a new cultural environment is always the person who has the advantage. He or she is able to function effectively in both cultural environments rather than just his or her own one.

By adapting to the way the other party is doing things, you will give them the feeling that they are in charge, that they are winning. And you can use their confidence to your own advantage.

If you are able to analyse the assumptions, beliefs, expectations and behaviors of the other side well, you will be able to adjust your behavior in a way that makes them feel that they are the one’s who are leading the negotiation table. They will feel comfortable, without understanding that it is in fact you who is slowly driving the situation into the direction that you want.

Ask yourself: how can you adjust your behavior to match the way the other party is doing things? How can you use this to your own advantage?

So, what are the next steps?

If you are stuck in a situation of conflict in intercultural communication, make sure that you analyse both your own assumptions and those of the other party very well. Think about the question how the two different assumptions are in conflict with each other, and what steps you can take to adjust your behavior in way that is in line with the expectations of the other party.

Last but not least, do not forget to subscribe to my newsletter by writing down your e-mail in the box on the top right of the page where it says “SUBSCRIBE NOW!”. You will receive a weekly list of posts on how to deal with different issues related to intercultural communication.


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