Category Archives: systems

Quick Review: Culture, Conflict, and Mediation in the Asian Pacific

I have been reading Bruce E. Barnes’ Culture, Conflict, and Mediation in the Asian Pacific and found it unbelievably helpful as one who has been working in Asian contexts for the last decade and who currently is engaged regularly with people from over a dozen Asian nations.

The book is an exploration of how culture has influenced dispute resolution practices throughout Asia. There are chapters for each main country in Asia and they include Hawaii as well for integrative reasons.  Each chapter uses some of Hofstede’s cross-cultural indexes in different areas to provide a basic framework for the discussion and then the author unpacks the history of conflict resolution practices within those nations and how they may or may not have changed due to political or national changes.

For example – I didn’t realize China had such a rich history and interesting systems of mediation built into the framework of their history and culture and it was fascinating to see how Confucianism shaped conflict practices in different ways in China, Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan.  There was so much that really helps you understand more nuances of approaches to negotiation, conflict, or how to handle disputes.

The book provides a lot of comparative analysis between nations in some ways too so you can see how Japan is different from other Asian nations or how the Philippines or Indonesia is different.  In the west, most people now understand that “saving face” is a big deal, but this was a great resource to explore how those dynamics are different in different Asian countries and what the background influences culturally and historically might be.

The biggest takeaway from this book though relates to third-party strategies to conflict. Henry Cloud posted on facebook a couple of weeks ago a quote that said, “Direct communication is the best way to go through life.”  He went on and elaborating on things related to emotional and relational health. I think there are ways that this statement is true, but the book reinforced the reality that there are many ways in which indirect conflict resolution is healthier and in fact – better.

This is a worthy conversation – but I’ve seen too many white or American leaders write off, dismiss, wear down, or shame Asian-American or Asian leaders who were trying to resolve things genuinely, but that just weren’t respected or judged because their approach was different. Some of those things are not healthy, but not as much as what an average white American might think.

There are many ways where an indirect and third-party system of dispute resolution is very much compatible with the Scriptures and it’s worth a lot of reflection and cross-cultural dialogue about these situations and practices. You may find that it may offer a helpful corrective to some assumptions about certain Biblical passages related to conflict or at least it may expand the possible range of meaning and application.

I have been working through different strategies of how to apply some of the wisdom gained in this book, especially when matched up with insights from Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures and Cross-Cultural Conflict.  At the heart – it’s about a relationship first approach to conflict which I have come to increasingly value instead of the propositional truth or logic approach to conflict resolution.

Quick Review: Conflict Coaching

I’ve been working through the textbook Conflict Coaching: Conflict Management Strategies and Skills for the Individual by Tricia S. Jones and Ross Brinkert over the past few weeks.  It was written about 15 years ago when conflict coaching was just starting to become more popular in the dispute resolution world.

Jones and Brinkert introduce their Comprehensive Conflict Coaching Model, which has a lot of narrative dimensions to it as well as a lot of components that are quite helpful to negotiation, conflict coaching, and mediation. The general flow of the process begins with discovering refining the story in a conflict and then proceeds towards deeper reflection about story through the lenses of identity, emotion, and power. That provides the foundation for crafting a better story in a conflict situation and working skillfully through relationship building forms of communication.

The dimension of the model I find most helpful is the intentional process of helping facilitate reflection in identity, emotion, and power. This is what makes or breaks conflict in my opinion and lack of reflection in these areas is often where people get stuck.

Like many narrative or secular dispute resolution models, there is no treatment of themes like forgiveness, confession, or apology. There is only conversation about how to shape a better story with others, which I believe metaphorically is a great way to envision an alternative future. But that future has limits without heart change and the dynamics of reconciliation. I believe combining heart work and Biblical approaches to reconciliation with this type of narrative framework for working through conflict can be very powerful, but there are problems if we just try to move forward without dealing with hearts.

That being said, this is a tremendous resource for people who want to do a deeper dive into conflict coaching and mediation. There’s a lot of great research and scholarship pulled into this that makes for a lot of great research-based insights and learnings.

 

 

Quick Review: The Fire Next Time

I read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time over the weekend and found it really powerful. I had wanted to read it for a while and have heard many people compare Te-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which I found really powerful a few months ago. That increased my drive to prioritize this book and I’m really glad I did, despite being late to the party as it were.

As a book that was written in 1963 in the heart of the civil rights struggle, it struck me just how many of the themes are similar. As I was reading the book I saw the recent news that home ownership for African-Americans was assessed as having made no progress in the past 50 years, since the time The Fire Next Time was written. That bit of info powerfully shaped my reading and experience of what was written in 1963 with such power, art, and conviction.

One of the fascinating dimensions of the book was Baldwin’s critique of the nation of Islam’s approach to peace and justice as he found them to be ideologically on the same ground as white supremacists. But he provides a first-hand account of conversations and interactions I could never experience or observe in person and I found myself riveted in hearing the raw passion and anger and desire for justice. I was also disturbed by the unfiltered hate for whites by some. At this point in my own journey, such realities do not generate as much fear in me as they once may have. Instead, they generate deep sadness and anger of my own. It is true that much has changed for the better in the last 50 years, but it’s also uncomfortable just how much continues to reflect the same patterns of sin and injustice.  It’s these realities that make this book important for today as well.

Baldwin gives a strong critique of religion in this book through the lenses of oppression, corruption, and hypocrisy. He offers helpful perspective on how the church – both the black and white churches of the time contributed to the cycles of hatred, violence, and systemic injustice of the time. He clearly turns away from the church as a result, but there’s a lot about his experiences and insights that merit self-reflection for the modern church – especially the way religion and religious institutions can get enslaved by culture and the ideology of the time.

At the core of it, I heard through Baldwin’s anger and contempt for some of these institutions a deep longing for the church to truly be what it should be in the context of such blatant hatred, evil, and injustice. It’s a reality that when the church fails to have anything to say or do that engages meaningfully in matters of injustice and that fails to point to a tangibly different possibility instead of pie in the sky theology, the Church loses its credibility. And Baldwin, stirred with passion and anger, still resists the temptation of ethnic hatred and retaliation in favor of love and sacrifice.

This won’t be the last time I read this book because there’s so much in here that you just can’t absorb or take in one time through.

 

Quick Review: Cross-Cultural Conflict

This past weekend I read Duane Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Conflict: Building Relationships for Effective Ministry. There doesn’t seem to be a kindle version of the book, which would be a shame. The book has some great stuff and in some ways is a forerunner to the recent honor-shame “movement” in missions and Christian scholarship.

This book offers some basic primers on cross-cultural relationships, especially honor-shame dynamics in collectivist cultures such as in Asia and Africa. The focus is still on helping Western missionaries think more cross-culturally and contextually in terms of relationships, conflict, and ministry so there is a lot here designed to help Westerners self-reflect about their own cultural biases.

There’s actually a lot of common ground between this book and Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures by Jayson Georges, which I shared some thoughts on last week. That book has benefitted from a couple decades of additional scholarship, but Elmer’s book includes some fantastic insights on collectivist culture and dynamics.

There are several chapters that deal with indirect approaches to dealing with conflict but goes much more in-depth than Georges does in his relationships chapter in his book. In addition to discussing patron-client dynamics in a chapter on the one-down position, Elmer also offers some great stuff on storytelling as an indirect strategy for resolving issues in honor-shame contexts. Of great help to me at a time where I am studying mediation was Elmer’s chapter on mediation and the mediator with an honor-shame culture in view. The role of a mediator is really interesting as expressed in different cultures. Each culture celebrates some forms of mediation and rejects others it seems. Mediation in Asia from what I’ve experienced tends to function very differently than mediation in the United States.

Elmer also unpacks a great negotiation, honor-shame conflict case study from Joshua 22. I’ve heard some helpful things on this case study before, but I enjoyed Elmer’s treatment of it.

One additional benefit of Elmer’s book here is that there were numerous examples drawn from the Philippines, where I currently live and serve, which I found actually really helpful. There’s a lot here that I can draw from for my current context.

So while there is a lot of commonality with Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, this book goes a bit more deeply into the arena of conflict especially as the title suggests.  I’m really glad I read it.  I was fascinated by the reviews – some of which are highly positive and some are negative. It’s clear that some people really have a hard time looking at conflict, relationships, and the Scriptures through an honor-shame lens.  There’s so much to be gained.

 

Quick Review – Re-Centering: Culture & Knowledge in Conflict Resolution Practice

This month I’ve worked through the book Re-Centering: Culture and Knowledge in Conflict Resolution Practice by several editors and contributors.

This is a book written from an ethnic minority perspective on contemporary negotiation and mediation scholarship and practices. It’s a collection of 22 essays and papers covering a wide range of perspectives and cultural perspectives.

There’ are only a couple essays that I thought had marginal value, but by and large, this is an awesome resource for people working in a multi-ethnic context – especially related to theory and practice in dealing with conflict and reconciliation between cultures.

There are a few themes that stand out in this collection that are not often represented in a lot of the classic literature. One of these themes is that of power and neutrality. Majority culture driven practices often assume that neutrality is possible and approach conflict and mediation with a “blank slate” perspective.  This volume addressed that in multiple papers and from multiple angles and it really is helpful. There are some excellent perspectives.

Another theme is that of ethnic identity and how that impacts the arena of conflict and how the approach to a conflict can impact identity. Identity is a theme showing up more and more in the conflict and negotiation literature, though it’s more representative in peace and reconciliation literature. But here, those are woven together with a helpful cross-cultural perspective that illustrates why identity needs to be at the heart of any approach to conflict.

There are essays from a native Hawaiian, Chicano,  Latino, African-American and other perspectives that I thought were really insightful and add a lot of value.  There are some worldviews and elements to some essays I do not agree with and share, but the majority are quite insightful and powerful to read and reflect on.

If you do conflict work in multi-ethnic contexts or even broader cross-cultural contexts, I think this would be a much-needed resource to read for reflection and discussion.  It offers a framework for tensions between white leaders and structures and processes related to conflict and mediation and ethnic minority leaders who find themselves often further marginalized by the processes that others assume will help them.  I’ve already gone back to several of these essays/journal article style contributions to reflect more deeply on some of the themes.

 

Quick Review: Between the World and Me

Last week I finished Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  What a powerful book. I did this by audiobook, which was read by the author, and I think that made it even more powerful. The book is part autobiography and part letter to the author’s son, bringing a powerful personal touch to weighty topics.

The author documents his journey growing up African-American in Baltimore and the impact of systemic injustice and iniquity on him and others in his community. He provides the historical background to understand a more robust view of identity as it has been shaped over time. It’s a powerful read or listen even if it’s just out of a desire to understand more one’s experience in communities so shaped by power driven or overtly racist policies. But it’s much more than that.

One of the central metaphors that Coates builds his narrative around reflects a philosophical as well as poetic framing of how systemic injustice and racism impact identity. This metaphor is that of one becoming “disembodied,” where because of injustice or racism and the reality of one’s identity that he feels the shame of someone else having control of his body. That loss of autonomy, safety, and the self-worth that comes with security is an ever-present reminder of how power structures work against him.

This brings the reflection and discussion of racism from beyond abstract arguments or activism to the visceral truth that systemic injustice always has a fleshly impact. It touches the core of the marginalized identity because it is a fundamental reality that someone else can take control of their body and exercise power over them in a myriad of ways.  This way of experiencing and seeing the issues adds further heartbreak for the ways so many are shaped by injustice in deep ways to the core of their being.

Coates uses some new phrases besides the typical language. He refers to majority culture folks who find comfort in the current unjust systems as “people who think themselves white.” White is synonymous with offender or perpetrator.  He uses another word which forces one to wrestle – plunderer. He is using these words of those who find comfort in the benefits of injustice or in various ways perpetuates the system. He is not equating all white people with plunderers or racists. He uses “white” as not just an ethnic designation, but rather as an ideological tribe of sorts that through self-interest perpetuates contemporary injustice. It’s not a rejection of white people, but of an establishment that is benefitting from various forms of violence that continually keeps those outside down through the various forms and threats of disembodiment.

There’s so much here and the whole thing is a skillful and beautiful expression of deep pain and righteous anger. My summary is wholly inadequate. I would have loved more spiritual reflection or engagement. It’s hard to read things like this when there doesn’t seem to be hope or meaning anchored in a larger worldview. But that’s not where the author is coming from and in the meantime, he does convey some form of hope, albeit alongside a strong dose of reality without sugar coating what it means to journey in this world on the other side of institutional power.

I recommend it as a powerful journey into the depths of just how dark the impacts of systemic injustice are in the U.S. from a history of racism and racist policies.  This isn’t my story, but these are stories that need to be heard.  There are parts that are hard to here as one who has lived a more privileged existence in the U.S. from an ethnic standpoint, but it’s important to look, feel, and reflect on how I live and the broader communities and society that I am a part of.

 

Quick Review: Crucial Accountability

After reading Crucial Conversations a couple months ago I wanted to also read Vital Smarts’ Crucial Accountability: Tools for Resolving Violated Expectations, Broken Commitments, and Bad Behavior. It used to be called Crucial Confrontations, but the name change was probably a good thing.  I’m supervising a lot more people and coaching some others on supervising and have been looking for more tools on how to establish supervising relationships characterized by development and accountability.

There’s some overlap with crucial conversations, but there was sufficient new content that was really helpful. However, there are so many small pieces or elements of this book that a review is tough.  A lot of the book functions like a flow chart to supervising – which is really practical from a reference standpoint.  The book covers a lot of ground – from personal storytelling and identity to conversational dynamics to supporting structures and mechanisms.

There is also a lot of added content borrowed from the Vital Smarts book Influencers when discussing how to coach people for change. There are some aspects of non-directive coaching, but given supervision and accountability dynamics – not all coaching will be able to be non-directive. But the book offers a lot of suggestions and ideas to help address these conversations. It discusses basic conflicts as well as ongoing patterns that merit intentional engagement.

One of the more helpful components is the authors’ identification of common ways leaders take alternative paths to hard conversations or holding others accountable. There’s an in-depth section exploring the ways leaders bypass accountability for safety and security or certainty. It also covers elements such as passivity, blaming, manipulation, passive-aggressive, and other common approaches used by leaders to avoid having the hard conversation.

This is a good one for the toolbox of the leader – every leader needs a clear philosophy and system for how to supervise others and hold people accountable in ways that empower and hold up grace and truth instead of the alternatives such as control, manipulation, avoidance, condescension, and fear-based strategies.  This book can help you evaluate your approach and generate a lot of ideas for a fresh vision for your leadership moving forward.

The vital smarts website has a great companion pdf download as well that can walk through the more collaborative problem-solving dimensions of a crucial accountability discussion.

 

Quick Review: Braving the Wilderness

It’s been a month or two since I read Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness. I’ve delayed writing something up on it because I’ve had mixed feelings about it. It’s both the book of hers I’ve liked least, but it’s also the most intriguing related to some of my areas of research and study.

A lot of the book is similar to her other works – shame, worthiness, and vulnerability. I recently reviewed Rising Strong and there’s some overlap. It’s good stuff and there’s several stories and anecdotes from other books. However, there’s also a lot that is new and there is a different emphasis on this book. This focus, as I would describe it, is the connection between identity and belonging in a reactionary and tribalistic society.

What I liked was that at the core of this book, it really is a tackling of identity between individuality and community. Essentially, Brown is unpacking what family systems theorists call self-differentiation, the grounded identity that is both connected and separate even in the midst of an anxious and reactive society.  I kept thinking of one of my favorite authors, Edwin Friedman and his book Failure of Nerve as I read this. If you want to take a look see my post linking to a couple summaries here and also here.  It is one of my top 5 books of all time and has profoundly impacted my views on leadership and leadership formation.

Anyway – back to the wilderness. Braving the Wilderness is really a metaphor for self-differentiation. It’s living in between the polar extremes of reactivity and anxiety. Friedman calls one extreme emotional fusion. Christian psychologist PaulTripp calls this immersion. Harvard negotiation expert Daniel Shapiro calls this defaulting to affiliation.  It’s the surrendering of individual identity to the group out of fear of rejection, judgment, or shame. It’s compromising the integrity of personhood to belong – belonging becomes being part of a tribe.

Friedman calls the other extreme cutting off. Tripp calls it isolation. Shapiro calls it defaulting to autonomy for the sake of identity.  It’s surrendering community and relationship to preserve personhood. It’s to some degree distancing from those that provide a threat or challenge to be able to feel secure again in one’s self.

Brown is unpacking these dynamics. I think initially I was irritated because it felt like it was being unpacked as new data or phenomena, but these concepts have been out there getting discussed in a lot of places. But I like that she connected shame and vulnerability what can lead people towards surrendering their identity for either reactive extreme. People feeling anxiety and shame tend to seek security and certainty and if they cannot stand on their own and hold their ground for their higher values and their integrity – the emotional forces of society will bounce them around.  Thus Brown is directly addressing in this book how to foster civility and empathy in a society that is looking to dehumanize others and where everyone is trying to strengthen their tribe at the expense of the other.

Worthiness is at the heart of Brown’s books – that people who feel and act worthy and like the belong, actually believe that they belong.  The elephant in the room is the question, “Where does that worthiness come from?” I do not believe Brown offers an answer for this, but to describe that we need to do our best to be civil and understanding and do our part to help extend hospitality across difference.   Added to this though, Brown also discusses a lot about curiosity and civility as key to fostering civil discourse and belonging across difference.

Brown is advocating for people to connect as humans, fighting the tendency of people to dehumanize for the sake of certainty and tribal belonging. As I read this, it’s a perfect apologetic for the Christian worldview as the image of God, loving your neighbor, and the call to grace and truth are core foundational pieces. It’s a shame that Christians tend to be just as tribal, if not more, than others. It’s a sign that the gospel has not taken root. But Brown is pointing to a question that is theological in nature. Can we achieve our own worthiness? Or do we have to receive it from someone else?  Can we get it from other people or does it have to come from a higher authority?

So there’ s a lot that I like and it’s the most I’ve thought about any of her books so it’s a sign that it maybe it ranks higher than I initially thought. But there are things that are hard. I understand why some reviews complain about her being too political, but I didn’t think it was that bad – but an example of tribalism in the reviews.  There’s also a stronger tone of anger and “screw you, I gotta keep it real” to this book that wasn’t as evident in her other books.  On one level – I get it – I think Brown has to have some of that edge to play the role she is playing.

However, I’ve seen too many applications of her work where people are rejecting shame and community accountability to defend their positions (an ironic example of what Brown is speaking against). People can find justification through some of the concepts to defend their personal choices.  Not all shame is bad – when people reject the voice of community completely to “keep it real” they then run the risk of cutting off and getting lost in a myopic view of life. This connects to a series I did many moons ago called “Prophets vs. Posers.”

All in all – it’s a good book and I’m still thinking about a lot of it. But it is a clear reminder that there are deep solutions to questions of shame and belonging and vulnerability. Will people humble themselves to really find those solutions outside of themselves and receive the dignity, belonging, security, and love that can anchor one firmly in that identity so they can freely love and serve others across difference?  This is the Christian life.  Now more than ever, followers of Christ need to embody this self-differentiation in Christ so they can brave the wilderness where is increasingly anxious, hostile, reactionary, and tribal.

So I recommend it, but I recommend Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve even more.

Quick Review: Negotiating the Non-Negotiable

The best of the negotiation books I’ve read this year has been Daniel Shapiro’s Negotiating the Non-Negotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts. Shapiro heads the Harvard International Negotiation Program and was also the primary author of the book Beyond Reason, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.

One of the things I loved reading this book is that it reflects other streams of relationship theory that I’ve been pursuing for years, especially the application of family systems theory to leadership. Shapiro never refers directly to family systems theory, but does consistently discuss identity and relationships in ways that reflect the concept of self-differentiation as a foundational character foundation of mature and healthy relationships. In fact, themes like anxiety, cutting off, emotional fusion, and self-differentiation are all over this book.

Shapiro’s book focuses on identity-driven conflict – conflict that because of its deep connection to how people see themselves and what is most important to them. He doesn’t like using the language of identity-driven conflict because he sees all conflict impacting and flowing out of identity. But this book fundamentally is a roadmap of navigating deep-rooted conflict that tends to lead towards entrenchment.

Shapiro has some very helpful sections on emotions in negotiation, taboos – those things considered sacred and untouchable in every context, and some of the helpful components of integrative bargaining (i.e. the win-win bargaining). But one of the really interesting aspects of the book is that it’s not just about negotiation in the integrative bargaining kind of way – there’s a large section focused specifically on reconciling relationships. He explores apologies and forgiveness in a way that is quite helpful when considering the overall context of high conflict negotiation. There’s just really solid stuff throughout the book and this will be a go-to resource for me.

An additional note is that one of the awesome things about this book is the 75 pages or so of endnotes that discuss additional research and clarify smaller ideas or concepts. It’s a gold mine. I can’t remember a book where I spent an hour or two just reading endnotes because they were so interesting and helpful. Several of them have led me to other resources that will be super helpful for my research right now on negotiation.

From a leadership or relationship standpoint – highly recommend this one!