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obstacles to communication


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- a blighted land
- the vision thing
- full spectrum dominance
- obstacles to communication
- child soldiers

'...culture will colour the nature of the negotiating encounter: the importance of form, hospitality, protocol, the choice of delegates decision making style, methods of persuasion and linguistic conventions.'


Raymond Cohen, Negotiating across Cultures: Communication Obstacles in International Diplomacy (Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace Press, 1991, 193pp)

The tensions and violence between Israelis and Palestinians symbolised by murders and missiles makes this study by an Israeli political scientist all the more timely. Although the book was published a decade ago when Raymond Cohen was a fellow at the US Institute of Peace, the book’s main theme remains fully valid: ‘Learning that there is more than one way to go about things is surely not only enlightening but also enriches one’s palette of alternatives. This is particularly true for many of us in NGOs who wish to play a constructive role in the Middle East conflict where there exists the possibility for a grim escalation of violence. Many of us have been working for many years in different places and ways on Middle East issues trying to facilitate mutual respect. We have stressed the need to find appropriate political structures, to build economic cooperation, to develop educational methods toward future needs.

There is a long history of United Nations, US, European, Arab, and Russian diplomatic activity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict both as third party mediators or as advisors to one or both sides. Successes have been few so that one cannot say that failures in communication are due to a particular national negotiating style. Cohen, writing in the context of a US institution and studying American diplomatic transactions with China, Egypt, India, Japan and Mexico, tends to analyse American diplomatic culture vis a vis the others, but his techniques for analysing American negotiating culture can be transferred to the analysis of other diplomatic styles as well, looking at such factors as ‘the prevalence of bribery, the ethics of public officials, the real basis upon which representatives serve (to promote the interests of a constituency, clan or ethnic group), how fresh blood is brought into the system (by co-optation, family ties, success in business, or military record), models of patron-client relations, expectations of leadership, acceptance or rejection of the adversarial system, and so on.’

NGO representatives active in diplomatic-mediation work may be even more ‘culture bound’ than government diplomats where Foreign Ministries recruit from relatively narrow pools in terms of education and background, have their own orientation training and filter out people who do not fit the particular mold. NGO representatives, on the other hand, tend to be self-selected and are usually not strong on ‘organisational discipline’. Probably only the Vatican as a cross of government and NGO has a diplomatic service on a par with that of governments. Thus NGOs who wish to be active in mediation work need to be aware of the cultural obstacles in communication because they do not have the resources of power to pressure governments or to provide credible incentives and assurances. Thus NGO representatives can be helpful in exploring ideas, in proposing compromises. Clear communication of ideas both oral and written is essential.

The Middle East in particular is an ‘oral’ culture, and it is important to talk out concepts until the shape of agreement emerges and only then begin to commit them to writing. Much of the Middle East has a ‘community’ ethic, that is, the individual is defined in terms of communal interests. Conflict is resolved not by resort to formal processes of law, but by mechanisms of communal conciliation. People are concerned less with abstract principles of justice than with the requirements of continuing harmony. Courtesy and indirection are essential to preserve social harmony. As Glen Fisher points out in his International Negotiation: A Cross-Cultural Perspective culture impinges on negotiation in four crucial ways: by conditioning one’s perception of reality, blocking out information inconsistent or unfamiliar with culturally grounded assumptions, projecting meaning on to the other party’s words and actions, and impelling the ethnocentric observer to an incorrect attribution of motive.

Thus, culture will colour the nature of the negotiating encounter: the importance of form, hospitality, protocol, the choice of delegates decision-making style, methods of persuasion and linguistic conventions. Culture is also an important factor in the meaning of time and the philosophy of history. As Cohen points out ‘Time is crucial in diplomacy. Major tactical and strategic judgements hang on assumptions about history, ripeness, timing, tempo and duration. Preparing for negotiation, one might ask such questions as these about the opponents: How heavy does historical grievance weigh on relationships? How important to them are short-range considerations versus long-range considerations? ...How do they perceive time – as a road stretching off purposefully into the future, or as an ocean lapping in on all sides, directionless? Is ‘time on their side’? Do they see it as a sequence or a confluence? At what point should a negotiation be initiated? When do they consider a dispute ripe for resolution?

Culture is not only style but also content. ‘Culture is expressed not only in the way a society sets about ordering its experience, but also in the structuring of its priorities, that is, the goals or values it seeks to promote or defend. Thus structuring crucially determines what a society is or is not prepared to negotiate about.’

Negotiators are not free agents but representatives of departments, institutions and their interests. National bureaucratic operating procedures and traditions are important. Thus, it is important to understand the power and the limits of the government department or NGO with whom one is dealing. Sometimes, there is a formal system of checks and balances – a division of authority between executive, legislative and judiciary, or between state, sub-state and municipal authority. However, even without a formal system of balances, there are always less obvious but important limitations on decision making even when it is the chief who speaks for the group as M Fortes and E E Evans-Pritchard pointed out in their 1940 classic anthropological survey African Political Systems.

Moreover, all negotiators are constrained by domestic political factors. Thus, it is important to understand the relative strengths of domestic power and its impact on the issues under negotiation. NGO representatives have both limitations and advantages in contrast to third-party government negotiators. The weaknesses are obvious in terms of funds, backup for logistics and expertise, and an organisational memory of past efforts. The advantages arise from the fact that NGO mediators must work in close cooperation with local groups which are part of the culture. Local people can correct first impressions, help to explain reactions and the deeper significance of statements. However, the foreign NGO representative must not be captured by the local group or become just an external ally.
Cohen ends his study with 10 short recommendations on the need for knowledge and patience. Wise advice for those NGOs wishing to help heal the wounds of the Middle East.
René Wadlow


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