This month, I would like to return to a discussion of the principles of indirect communication, as I'm learning them from "Cross-Cultural Conflict", by Duane Elmer. One major communication tool, in a society which relies heavily on indirect communication, is mediation.
I'm not sure that we Westerners really understand the concept of mediation, at least the way that those in indirect cultures do. Before reading this book, when I thought of a mediator, my first mental picture was always of a debate setting. In politics, during a debate, someone keeps track of the time and allows each party representative an allotment to answer questions posed by some third party. The timekeeper is also tasked with making sure that the rules of the debate are followed. We give this person the title of "mediator".
I'd always thought of something similar in the realm of conflict resolution. A mediator is someone who makes sure that each side is able to air his or her views within a fair allotment of time. Perhaps the mediator will, on occasion, try to explain to one party what the other party is trying to say, if one side isn't really "getting" the point of the other. Sometimes, a mediator is brought in to settle legal matters and try to work out a mutually-beneficial solution.
Using mediators always seemed to me to be fraught with peril, both for each party and the relationships there, as well as for the relationship between the mediator and each party. If one party gets the impression that the mediator is favouring the other, the collateral damage could be even greater than the current relational schisms.
But now I wonder if the concept of mediation doesn't truly reach its fullest potential in the West. In the West, we often value truth and "right" above relationship. In two thirds of the world (including Japan and the Middle-East), where indirect communication is dominant, relationship is given top priority. How does mediation change with such a radical difference in priorities?
For starters, parties must approach mediation just as carefully as they approach talking with the opposing side one-on-one. One party must not directly accuse the other, even through a mediator, as this will only serve to shame the other in front of the mediator. Since the mediator tends to be someone respected by both parties, and the community in general, being shamed in front of the mediator would be a serious breach of relational trust. Both parties trust the mediator to come up with a solution which will protect them each from shame.
Westerners have a strong separation between the concepts of Self and the Other, but in two thirds of the world, this line is much more blurry. In Japan, relationships focus more on harmony and balance than they do on power. Mutual interdependence is key, and to the Japanese the need for a mediator highlights the mentality in both parties that unity is the ideal. In addition, conflict is seen as a violation of the community solidarity and peace, not just a breach between individuals.
Thus, mediation's goal is not simply for tolerance, plurality, coexistence, or good feelings about each other that only run skin-deep. Instead, the goal is for an integration of the parties, and a strong consciousness of belonging to the same group. "Self and Other are completed in the relationship. Both have a feeling of identity and certainty, through the work of the mediator." (Elmer, 75) Through mediation, identities unite, and each person is affirmed within the community.
As I consider this new, far more comprehensive view of what a "mediator" is, I can't help but be amazed at Jesus' work for us. The Bible tells us that He is the mediator between us and God (1 Timothy 2:5). Middle-Easterners are some of those who have a more holistic view of mediation, so I think it's fair to say that in Jesus' role as mediator between us and God, He doesn't just reconcile, negotiate, or interpret between us and God. He works to integrate us into community with God, so that we are complete and affirmed in our relationship with Him. How amazing!
Elmer, Duane. Cross-Cultural Conflict. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993. (content taken from pp. 65-79)