I’ve read Dr. John Ng’s book on conflict management Smiling Tiger, Hidden Dragon over the past month and want to share some thoughts on it. I also had the opportunity to do a couple day training with Dr. Ng covering the ideas in the book.
Over the last decade, as I’ve been in mostly Asian ministry contexts, the topic of conflict resolution for Asians has been a very challenging and difficult one – in part because of honor/shame dynamics, saving face, and indirect communication preferences. Most Asian believers I know readily admit that this is a difficult area of discipleship and skill for them because of the ways conflict can challenge cultural norms and behaviors. It’s also readily clear that many approaches to conflict resolution are blatantly western in assumptions and prescriptions, thus creating significant tension for Asian believers when so much out there on this topic challenges culture (which is not always a bad thing either).
Dr. Ng was educated in the West (Northwestern) and is currently in Singapore and works as a mediator and consultant throughout Asia. This book primarily focuses on describing the things that undermine healthy relationships in the Asian context and provides ideas and strategies for managing that conflict. So he dives into themes like saving face among other things to illustrate how conflict can start and escalate. The book is full of Asian anecdotes and examples which is helpful as a Westerner to just get a feel on a broad level how conflict escalates among Asians in different ways and for different reasons contextually.
He provides a lot of strategies for managing conflict, some based on a conflict style assessment tool he developed for Asia. He highlights about 12 different conflict styles that can lead to escalating conflict including the title, “smiling tiger, hidden dragon.” This was helpful just to really look at a wide range of conflict approaches (negative ones) that do not always get treatment in other books or resources on conflict.
He also highlights a lot of ideas for just managing conflict and keeping yourself in a good emotional space to have a constructive conversation. He draws from the HeartMath institute. I read The Heartmath Solution as part of a book club way back in the day and you see a brief review here, but he gives a lot of attention to breathing exercises and efforts to keep the heart rate under 100. That’s helpful and in the past I’ve utilized that in some mediation situations and it has helped me maintain mental sharpness. Dr. Ng also is passionate about the dynamics of the brain and the amygdala as I have often written about from the family and congregational systems theorists and practitioners like Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke. The big takeaway – we have to be mindful of what’s going on in our bodies or else we may lost control of the situation and start escalating and reacting.
An additional area is the area of bidding. Dr. Ng studied under John Gottman who introduced the notion of relational bidding as a key for understanding the health and future of marriage relationships. Basically – relationships need a 5 to 1 positive to negative bidding ratio or problems and eventual separation are likely to occur. Dr. Ng uses this idea really well in the context of general conflict management to keep the relationship the central focus and not the issues.
The areas that are weaker in the book are those relating to forgiveness and reconciliation. The forgiveness aspect is viewed as important – but follows some of current psychology trends in reinforcing that forgiveness is about us releasing and letting go. There really is not much attention to reconciliation. The book is written with a secular packaging, yet the treatment of forgiveness and reconciliation was still light if not non-existent at points. However, if the book is seen and experienced as a focus on the catalysts for conflict in Asian contexts and tools for having the conflict conversations – there’s some great ideas and tools. But there is not much here that will paint a vision or picture of what relationships will look like after conflict management to get a sense of what reconciliation in relationship looks like.
There are several ideas in the books I want to pursue more and explore, concepts that are very Asian, but even so – the book is relevant far beyond the Asian context. They key thing that feels Asian besides the metaphors, illustrations, and marketing is that the focus is on preserving relationship which is a high value for Asians. That’s something westerners can really benefit from as they think about conflict.