Conflict beyond the clouds: Managing difficult conversations in cross-cultural contexts

In a rather bold introduction, Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen introduce the reader to their book, “Difficult Conversations”, with the amazing story of how the concepts in the book teach people around the world a revolutionary way of handling conflict. They claim that Inuits in freezing northern Canada utilize the ideas to help settle conflicts with global oil companies looking to take a profit from the Eskimo homeland, how Saudi businessmen initiate the difficult conversations in the heat of the Persian gulf with American oil tycoons, of how African tribal leaders used the book to find a peaceful end to hundreds of years of bloody civil war, and even of how astronauts took the book to the International Space Station as a reference guide in dealing with the inevitable conflict between Russian cosmonauts and a menagerie of other cultures all stuck into a tiny glass bottle, rotating around the Earth’s atmosphere and no doubt dealing with dangers most of us could not imagine. Perhaps I am a cynic, but I find it hard to believe, after reading through the authors’ book, that the methodology presented in the book can be properly utilized in cultures without any western intervention.

Much of Stone, Patton, and Heen’s book revolve around cultural paradigms of behavior, which while embraced in many western countries, are often considered to be behavior of the worst sort in others. Working in an Asian context (as I do), the application of the three Conversations must be carefully fine-tuned and applied if used in delicate situations, as the concept of face propriety and the family unit are held in even higher esteem than such notions like the “law”, “proper behavior”, or even “self-awareness”. Stone, Patton, and Heen use the example of the “diplomatic hand grenade” (pg. xxix) in their opening preface to the book, as an image of what many reading the book hope to gain, but just as quickly as they dismiss the existence of such an element, so must I conclude the principles of the book may not work as intended in Asian contexts. In fact, if one applied the principles in the book upon an Asian context directly, the concepts might backfire, and the damage would be extensive.

To understand Stone, Patton, and Heen, we must first understand the final piece to their puzzle: the Learning Conversation. A lot of business theory over the past 20 years has focused on creating intelligent systems which allow an organization to learn and grow as changes occur both on an organizational level but also on a societal level. “Difficult Conversations” attempts to address the issue of conflict resolution with the creation of an intelligent resolution system for conflict: the Learning Conversation. However, such a system is founded upon several pillars. Through some careful analysis and according to Stone, Patton, and Heen, I have identified five pillars which form the foundations of the Learning Conversation, that goes beyond their original vision (the three conversations: interpretation of event, feeling, and identity), but which I believe are necessary to understand in order to contextualize the Conversation so that it can move across cultures.

 The first pillar: A view from the clouds, on the ground – a practically integrated worldview. On page 149 of the text, Stone, Patton, and Heen explore the crux of their conflict theory: the “Third Story”. Essentially, the Third Story is a state in which the observer understands that neither side of a conflict is either right or wrong – only different. The Third Story is the mediator, or in Chinese conflict theory, the “Third Party,” an entity with no stake in the conflict except for the resolution of the conflict between both parties. However, if we utilize Stone, Patton, and Heen’s model, the “Third Story” becomes an objective location where both sides can be seen clearly, which when inhabited by a mediator offers a “better” vantage point to begin to unravel the reasons of why a conflict begin and a healthy forum for discussing alternatives. However, what happens when the observer’s ethical underpinnings show a definitive lack of understanding in cross-cultural situations? For example, what happens when an American mediator attempts to start from the “Third Story” in a disagreement between another American and a Chinese? How can we expect that the mediator be fully aware of the functions of Chinese ethics and know how those differ from American ethics?

The Chinese board game Tu Shangguan illustrates the divide between eastern ethical boundaries and ethics of other cultures. For almost 400 years, Tu Shangguan was played and studied by the Qing dynasty elite, as a model for how to approach the dance of bureaucracy. The player begins the game as low-level bureaucrat, and through both random luck and the offering of bribes to other players, the low-level bureaucrat eventually proceeds through promotions and demotions, with the goal of eventually joining the royal family and ruling all of China. Bribery, during the Qing Dynasty, was not viewed as a perverse corruption. Quite the opposite, actually. The art of bribery has a long history in China, and is far less insidious than the interpretations of bribery among the popularized American political system. Ethical bribery in China often amounts to the building up of guanxi, social capital that people invest in, save, and use when the opportunity demands. However, to someone not familiar with Chinese politics, the use and sometimes abuse of guanxi can appear as rampant corruption. The Chinese concept of renqing adds a further layer guanxi through the promotion of moral imperatives to maintain guanxi. Such philosophical differences are beyond a simple black and white conflict scenario, in which a mediator can safely assume the place of the “Third Story” without being fully aware of the implications of how both ethical systems in conflict operate.

 The second pillar: Facing the music (with a little sacrifice). The second pillar I maintain contributes to Stone, Patton, and Heen’s conflict theory is that conflicts are complex, dynamic events, with multiple “contributions” (pg. 78) by people who because of orientation, see themselves in the beginning as blameless. When a problem is identified, the authors state that the impacted parties transform into “shifters”, truly believing the blame lies in another person’s sphere of influence, rather than their own. The key then, to unravel the conflict, is to create a “map of [conflict] contributions”, which can often only be done by the person starting from the “Third Story”.

However, the reason why conflict resolution can be difficult, Stone, Patton, and Heen maintain, is because “emotions and identity issues are wrapped” around those same contributions made which led to the conflict, and those emotions quietly hinge on “self-image and self-esteem” (pg. 144), core beliefs which act as a foundation to identity and purpose. These emotional burdens hinder the conflict contributors from fully appreciating the vivid qualities of the issue. Stone, Patton, and Heen state that while letting go of anger and emotion is vital to understanding the conflict, time is often an invisible but present character in the drama of resolution. Letting go of emotional burdens, furthermore, comes at great personal cost, especially as those burdens often serve as paragons of self-identity that root perception of self in an intricate fabric of perceived growth, even if that maturation comes bundled with negative experiences (many of which remain unaware, painted as positive trauma). Being able to identify those emotional burdens is essential to understanding the roots of conflict.

 The third pillar: Knowing yourself. One key conversation Stone, Patton, and Heen describe, is the “identity conversation”, a journey of conflict resolution that begins not only with understanding the internal source of conflict but more importantly, understanding how the “landscape of feelings” (pg. 96) affects not only conflict but also formation of complex identities. To know himself, a man must reach beyond the emotional reactions he has, but also evaluate the interplay of emotions in his own heart.

However, knowing oneself is only the beginning of comprehending the measured actions of conflict, especially in complex cross-cultural situations. The authors describe an activity called “role reversal” (pg. 76) in which the observer uses methods of empathy to project one’s mind into the eyes of another and view the actions of the observer – but in a conflict spanning multiple worldviews, this action often fails to ascertain any notable differences, due to issues of cultural blindness and ethical paradigms present in the home culture versus the visited culture.

I maintain that not only must the observer project empathic thoughts onto the conflicted party, but a “reverse role reversal” must take place, wherein the observer views the situation as an observer viewing the situation – by asking the question, “What am I thinking/how am I responding about what they are saying/thinking about my contributions?”, and finally evaluating those thoughts not in the observer’s home culture, but rather through the visited culture’s paradigm. But as the third pillar is about “knowing yourself”, so must the observer endeavor to know, as far as possible, all the “landscapes of feelings” and how those create identity within the conversation, for both parties.

 The fourth pillar: In the presence of wolves. In Matthew 10:16, Jesus counsels his disciples with the following statement: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Stone, Patton, and Heen write a lot about the particular methodologies of how to proceed through and develop a Learning Conversation. The authors (in the 10th edition) even put together a checklist, a step-by-step process of simplifying the Learning Conversation to a few steps (pg. 233). However, one of the most important yet hardly explained concepts in their theory of conflict resolution is the “blame web” which the authors address as early as the fourth chapter (pg. 59). The primary reason most difficult conversations are difficult is not because of the subject matter, but rather because of the subjects themselves and their refusal to submit to the other. When a mediator steps into the pit, the fangs come out and the claws are released, so to speak.

Therefore, the mediator or observer must be at all times connected to Stone, Patton, and Heen’s concept of “the heart of the matter,” (pg. 189) and continually seek a resolution for the conflicted parties that revolves around the key issues that need to be resolved. In cross-cultural conflicts, “the heart” is often shrouded in language and custom, but is always present. The observer must also be wise in the use of language, and practice the art of wordsmithing, or the choosing and selection of words culturally appropriate and empathically connected to the conflict’s conflagration of identities.

 The fifth pillar: The transformation stance. The final pillar, and most important to resolving cross-cultural conflicts while applying the principles of Stone, Patton, and Heen, centers around the concept of reframation. Reframation is the act of taking the Three Conversations framework by using words, actions, and retold stories through a medium that is better adapted to the parties currently engaged in conflict (pg. 202). The authors use a conversation between an American manager and a Brazilian worker to illustrate the concept of reframation, with the American manager constantly reframing her position and the worker’s position in different ways until the worker finally understands her problems with him without complex emotions coming into the conversation (pg. 203-204). While this sounds good on paper, in reality situations are much more complex, especially when the classic American model of confrontation is largely non-existent in the non-American culture.

Therefore, while reframation is absolutely essential to solving cross-cultural problems, sometimes other solutions must take precedence when trying to create a Learning Conversation. While Stone, Patton, and Heen touch on the topic for less than a page, creative solutions are of prime importance when preparing a situation for reframation (pg. 213). The authors suggest brainstorming as a technique to develop creative solutions, but I would suggest the more radical approach of cross-cultural hybridization, wherein the observer classifies cultural issues relevant to the case, and then researches proven methods within that culture to bring up difficult conversations, rather than the brunt method of American confrontation.

While the book was enlightening, a more serious approach to cross-cultural conflict resolution must always include the target culture’s methodologies for conflict resolution, as well as the innate character of ethical behaviors in that culture. While the Learning Conversation may be universal, the path to that conversation will always vary from culture to culture. The five pillars I have mentioned should serve as useful intermediaries for the cultural jump that is required for Stone, Patton, and Heen’s Learning Conversation primer to be successfully integrated into non-American cultures, although depending on the particularities of each culture, methodologies will need to change and be altered so that the confrontation approach of “Difficult Conversations” does not cause more harm than good.

Soft power in other cultures: a dream. According to the authors, when trying to broach “difficult conversations” in praxis, requires the use of the three-pronged Learning Conversation: the conversation about what is happening (pg. 23), the conversation about feelings (pg. 83), and the conversation about identity (pg. 109). Once these conversations have developed deep enough, the Third Story can be discovered (pg. 149), and by carefully proceeding through the “difficult conversation,” eventually both parties contribute jointly (pg. 257), and creative solutions to the problem-at-hand can be developed (pg. 213). As an English teacher in a college classroom in a non-English speaking country, difficult conversations often seem to arise, although in reality they are merely misunderstandings. As a husband in a cross-cultural marriage, quite often the fiercest arguments stem from the simplest misunderstanding: a word defined incorrectly, a false intent, or a misconstrued reaction to traditional methods. In my experience, “true” difficult conversations are rare, although they do exist and can be quite dangerous if not handled correctly. However, the three-step method Stone, Patton, and Heen propose, while quite ingenious, does not account for varying cultural interpretations of right and wrong, which are often at the crux of “true” difficult conversations.

Stone, Pattern, and Heen attempt to address this minor inconvenience, by introducing the concept of “intersections” (pg. 72), moments in which simple differences can be exacerbated into patterns of estrangement. However, when describing the ramifications, the authors plainly state “that so long as we each continue to see this matter as a matter of right versus wrong, rather than as an intersection, there is no way to avoid a train wreck. In contrast, successful relationships… are built on the knowledge that in intersections there is no one to blame. People are just different.” (pg. 74) While soundly tolerant, this singular statement epitomizes the authors’ belief: that without confrontation and acceptance of different ethical beliefs, there can never be solutions to difficult conversations.

Part of the reason why difficult conversations can sometimes seem unsolvable is the nature of facts themselves. In the appendix to the book, the authors attempted to answer questions from readers. The first question dealt with the supposed relativity of facts, to which the authors answered, “facts aren’t relative, but they can be hard to pin down.” (pg. 238) What is a fact? If a student copies the answers from another student for his exam, was he cheating or working cooperatively to answer a question? If a teacher gives all of his favorite students high scores, but the students who argue with his ideas low scores, does that make him a bad teacher, or a teacher who is suitably preparing his students for their future work in a culture that is defined not by product, but relationship? If a rich student refuses to buy the high-priced textbook, but instead copies the textbook from his classmate who borrowed the book from the teacher… is the teacher then a criminal, or is the teacher wise for choosing a textbook his department refused to purchase for his students, but if studied will allow his students to progress much further than otherwise?

These questions do not have easy answers, or like-wise, compartmentalized solutions. While the authors claim that facts aren’t relative, they also don’t disparage people from individual truths (pg 196). Sometimes, the authors believe, the only way to arrive at a suitable compromise is to first understand where those individual truths come from, but as Stone, Patton, and Heen state wisely, “most difficult conversations… are a series of exchanges and explorations that happen over time.” (pg. 216) The moral of the book, “Difficult Conversations”, is that both sides must come to the middle and agree on concessions in order to refrain from conflict and move forward. However, intentions are complex, often made up of both selfless and selfish acts which remain unsaid to even the source of those acts (pg. 120); add-in another layer of culture, and sometimes the complexificiation of identity (pg. 118) can take years, perhaps even a lifetime to truly understand and implement.

I do not believe that culture can be brushed aside. Under most circumstances, the authors agree with that sentiment. However, the cultural methodology of confrontation and conflict resolution must also be taken into account, and the three-pronged approach suggested in the book must be altered, perhaps in minor or major ways, in order to truly make a difference in non-American conflict scenarios.

Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2010). Difficult conversations (10th ed.). New York: Penguin.