Symposium Book Club – Summary of Michelle LeBaron’s Articles About Culture and Negotiation Theory

This post begins the second half of the “virtual book club” discussing readings for the symposium at the University of Missouri on October 7:  Moving Negotiation Theory from the Tower of Babel Toward a World of Mutual Understanding.

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This post discusses two pieces suggested by Michelle LeBaron and begins with her summaries.

Her chapter, The Alchemy of Change:  Cultural Fluency in Conflict Resolution, explores relationships between conflict and culture in relation to theory, practice, and pedagogy, and argues that both arts and science need to inform development of the negotiation field moving forward.

Her chapter with Nadja Alexander, Negotiating Beautifully: The Alchemy of Aesthetics in Collaborative Processes, integrates a discussion of aesthetics and Jungian concepts of alchemy into negotiation theory and practice.  It also addresses constellation work and neuroscience.

Both these chapters are very rich and I will summarize some points but omit many others in the interest of brevity.

Alchemy of Change:  Cultural Fluency in Conflict Resolution

I start with Michelle’s summary and then follow with some excerpts from her chapter.

“My thesis rests on three simple assertions:

  • Cultural fluency—familiarity and facility with cultural dynamics as they shape ways of seeing and behaving—is essential to effectiveness in all aspects of theorizing, practice, and pedagogy in conflict resolution;
  • The field isn’t “there yet”; we very much need the infusion of work from multiple arts and science disciplines to inform culturally fluent progress;
  • The most promising route to inculcating cultural fluency in conflict work draws on art and science as equal progenitors of effective practices and pedagogies that are respectful and relevant across difference, while featuring immediacy and protean adaptability.”

Michelle defines culture as “a dynamic and changing set of shared patterns reflexively interweaving with knowing, being, perceiving, behaving, and sense-making in a given group of people.”  It invokes a “symbolic dimension . . . largely below the surface of observable behavior; therefore, accessing it requires symbolic tools including ritual, metaphor, and narrative.”

Cultural fluency “refers to awareness of culturally-shaped worldviews—our own and others’—and the capacity to pay attention to how these cultural lenses affect what we see, interpret, and attribute in conflict.  Cultural fluency involves readiness to anticipate, internalize, express, and enact culturally-sensitive meaning-making processes in resolving conflict.

The process is a dynamic feature of interdependent social contexts, enhancing our capacities to:

  • anticipate a range of possible ways to navigate communication and relationship in unfamiliar and diverse cultural contexts;
  • become and remain conscious of cultural influences embedded in meaning-making processes;
  • express cultural assumptions transparently to others unfamiliar with particular meaning-making patterns; and
  • navigate sometimes turbulent cross-cultural dynamics to co-create functional and constructive processes, systems and ongoing engagements.”

“Meaning-making processes” are “the constant brain-body activities that connect experiences to our existing mental schemas.  We make narratives of our lives, resisting our lives as a series of non-sequiturs.”

“Cultural fluency means anticipating and addressing parties’ needs, wants and comfort levels in relation to setting, timing, roles, style of practice (such as facilitative, settlement, or problem-solving; also the mix of caucusing and face-to-face meetings), manner of engagement, and myriad other elements.”

“[C]ultivating self and other awareness is a good start in developing cultural fluency.  But given the submerged influence of many cultural factors, it may be insufficient and even problematic.  This is, in part, because of the ubiquitous traps that await the novice.  Such traps may arise from taxonomy, universalism, separation, and automatic ethnocentricity.”  To avoid these traps, “it is essential to cultivate comfort with ambiguity.”

Some “helpful tools in cultivating cultural fluency include poetry, metaphors, rituals, and narratives.  These tools are windows into cultural influences on the conscious, subconscious and even unconscious motivations and actions of individuals and groups.”

This chapter also discusses neuroscience as a conflict resolution resource, arts-based approaches to conflict resolution, and implications for theory, practice, and pedagogy.

Negotiating Beautifully: The Alchemy of Aesthetics in Collaborative Processes

In this chapter, Michelle and Nadja Alexander elaborate how cultural activities can help in negotiation and other collaborative processes.   Again, I provide excerpts to highlight some of the points.

Publications like Sun Tzu’s Art of War and Getting to Yes “explain strategy, structure and skills; they promise efficiency, effectiveness or success.  What they do not provide is insight into the essential roles that beauty and nature — aesthetic elements — play in negotiation.  Overlooked through lenses that accent utility and orderliness, beauty and natural metaphors introduce a range of sensual, embodied ways that our human thirst for belonging and for feeling moved is implicated in negotiation.”

“As a form of aesthetic engagement, art embraces and stimulates senses and perceptions beyond cognitive analysis.  Arts practices activate our complimentary capacities for seeing beyond the visible, hearing beyond words and touching both the formless fears and inspiring possibilities that constitute figure and ground in negotiation.”

“[S]cience has seismically shifted, revealing evidence that supports arts-based approaches to decision-making, conflict resolution and negotiation, and invites beauty and nature into our thinking.”

“When used as a focus for dialogue, art comes alive, surfacing questions and complexities that simply do not arise in the course of more didactic forms of negotiation education.”

“Studies in neuroscience explain the contagion of the sensed and felt experience, and how feelings can move between us without us being consciously aware of the exchange.  This process begins at birth and is made possible by mirror neurons in the brain, which fire up and ‘mirror’ the physical signals of another.  A wealth of data demonstrates that when we observe others experiencing emotions, our own brains engage the same neural circuits that are active in ‘the other’ – the basis of empathy.”

“Scarry argues that beauty is essential to understanding the power of framing, and to seeing the differences and the gaps that inevitably exist among negotiators.  Dismissing political arguments made against beauty in recent decades, she contends that beauty presses us toward a greater concern for justice. . . . Responses to beauty, according to Scarry, are events of profound significance for individuals and societies because they make diffuse concepts like fairness and justice available to the full spectrum of our senses.”

“Infusing arts-engagement into negotiation education does not mean ignoring or neglecting other aspects of negotiation theory.  Traditional approaches to negotiation and negotiation education are filtered through concepts that accent logic and reason.  Logic and reason are useful in negotiation, but are not reliable maps of the entire territory.  They are always culturally situated, and — in traditional approaches to negotiation — actually distort understandings when they are taken as complete and sufficient.”

“Aesthetic approaches to negotiation draw our attention to the gap itself [between a phenomenon and a representation of it], to what is not known and therefore is not reducable to a framework or rational analysis.  This is one aspect of the potency of art in negotiation education: it presents gaps and diverse interpretations; it accents ambiguity and the elusive nature of truth.  As Picasso said, ‘We all know that art is not truth.  Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.’”

“Look to a variety of art forms – music, painting, dance, song and others – to strengthen the common ground we stand on as negotiators and build foundations for identifying, understanding, and beginning to bridge, the inevitable negotiation gaps.”

“A recent issue of the United States Institute of Peace Insights newsletter discusses arts in peacebuilding and negotiation as an idea whose time has come.  The lead article advises negotiators with Russian counterparts to stop reading “jargon-filled scholarly analysis from those political science journals” and to turn to works by Russian literary giants, such as Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn (Wood 2015: 1).  According to the author, literature is the way to understand Russians and their leader, Vladimir Putin, because these artists illuminate Russia’s worldview, nationalism, and endurance like nothing else can.”

“When things are stuck, referencing aesthetic experiences may be helpful.  Once, when working with members of a group who needed to renegotiate their ways of working with each other following a reorganization, I invited everyone to draw their experience of their present relations.  Pictures ranged from a sinking ship to a collapsing building and a placid lake with monsters beneath the surface, viscerally representing the intensity of upheaval shared by group members.  Speaking from the pictures, participants framed their concerns aesthetically, inhabiting the gap between their frustration and their images of how to move forward.”

2 thoughts on “Symposium Book Club – Summary of Michelle LeBaron’s Articles About Culture and Negotiation Theory”

  1. Thanks, Jon.

    The Theatre of the Oppressed exercises can be great. The name comes from liberation struggles in Latin America but the exercises don’t necessarily deal with oppression as such. When I taught a negotiation and mediation course, a colleague in our Theater Department would lead the class in a series of these exercises, which were very powerful.

  2. A number of years ago Lela Love taught me a conflict understanding exercise from Augusto Boal (Theatre of the Oppressed) that had mediation trainees “sculpt” pairs of their fellow trainees into depictions of conflict, depictions of resolution and depictions of the process of moving from the former to the latter. Great exercise. Also Lande’s summary brings to mind Steven Pinker’s argument in Better Angels that the invention and spread of narrative fiction in the last two to three hundred years has been a contributing factor to the overall reduction in violence because it increases our facility with perspective taking.

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