Dare to Disagree

In this talk, Margaret Heffernan's basic argument is that conflict is a very good means for creative thinking, because when you set out to respectfully conflict with someone, you can create something that's much stronger and well-functioning. Do you think this is always true? I wonder how this idea would play out in Taiwanese culture. First, let's look at the video:




Towards the end of the video, she says this:
"So, recently, I worked with an executive named Joe, and Joe worked for a medical device company. And Joe was very worried about the device that he was working on. He thought that it was too complicated and he thought that its complexity created margins of error that could really hurt people. He was afraid of doing damage to the patients he was trying to help. But when he looked around his organization, nobody else seemed to be at all worried. So, he didn't really want to say anything. After all, maybe they knew something he didn't. Maybe he'd look stupid. But he kept worrying about it, and he worried about it so much that he got to the point where he thought the only thing he could do was leave a job he loved.
In the end, Joe and I found a way for him to raise his concerns. And what happened then is what almost always happens in this situation. It turned out everybody had exactly the same questions and doubts. So now Joe had allies. They could think together. And yes, there was a lot of conflict and debate and argument, but that allowed everyone around the table to be creative, to solve the problem, and to change the device.

The fact is that most of the biggest catastrophes that we've witnessed rarely come from information that is secret or hidden. It comes from information that is freely available and out there, but that we are willfully blind to, because we can't handle, don't want to handle, the conflict that it provokes. But when we dare to break that silence, or when we dare to see, and we create conflict, we enable ourselves and the people around us to do our very best thinking."
In this story, the fact that Joe braved the conflict allowed him to change the state of knowledge from individual to mutual knowledge. Would this have worked in a Chinese workgroup?

'Clearing the air' is an American idea, where the thinking is that, if everyone has mutual knowledge, we all will be able to get along better and cooperate better. Do you think this is true? If it's true, is conflict a good way to 'clear the air'? Are there better ways?


from Chinese Conflict Management and Resolution
Generally, Western people believe that, through a linear process of logic and rationality, we can discover the external, objective truth. However, Easterners may believe that non- linear thinking patterns are the best way to construct the truth, which manifests itself without employing instruments of logical reasoning or rationality. p1

According to Hall (1975), people who are direct in communication style value self-expression, verbal fluency, and eloquent speech, and have a tendency to persuade counterparts to accept their viewpoints by directly expressing their opinions. By contrast, people of indirect communication style tend to be more silent and use ambiguous language in interactions, and avoid saying "no" directly to others in order to foster or maintain a harmonious atmosphere. p2

What is more important to you, getting to the bottom of things or maintaining relationships with people?
Different situations generally require different responses. In what kind of situation would you consider truth/clarity/transparency more important, and in what situation would you find maintaining relationships more important?
Does one kind of response better lead to a more stable community? In terms of an intimate relationship, family, workgroup, country?
What are the characteristics of a mature, stable, well-functioning community?


Here is some analysis if Chinese conflict management styles that may be of use to our discussion:

Chinese Conflict Management and Resolution
People of high-context cultures tend to enter into conflict when their cultural normative expectations are violated, tend to adopt a non-confrontational and indirect attitude towards conflicts, and tend to use an affective-intuitive style of conflict management. In contrast, people in low-context cultures tend to become involved in a conflict when their personal normative expectations are violated, tend to adopt a confrontational and direct attitude towards conflicts, and tend to use a factual-inductive style of conflict management. p1
Using the concept of "harmony" as the axis and guanxi (inter-relation) and mientze (face) as the two wings of harmony, the model is applied to three categories of Chinese interpersonal networks: vertical in-group, horizontal in-group, and horizontal out-group. Combining with personal goal pursuing, five Chinese conflict resolution styles are identified: confrontation, severance, endurance, obey publicly/defy privately, and compromise. In order to provide a more comprehensive model the author further integrates two aspects of conflict management into the model, i.e., coordination strategies and dominant responses. Thus, a total of twelve conflict resolution styles can be used to explain Chinese conflict behaviors. p3


Traditionally, mao-dun is similar to the meaning of "contradiction" that refers to "mutually opposed" or "logically incompatible." In modern China mao-dun is expanded, especially by Mao Zedong, to include all dynamic relationships of interaction in terms of differences, problems or difficulties, and antagonism in interpersonal or group situations. This is much closer to the western meaning of "conflict." The study further finds three Chinese ways of managing a mao-dun: first, avoiding confrontation in order to keep harmony, largely centering on guanxi and mientze; second, seeking intermediaries to resolve conflicts in order to reduce the need for direct and emotional responses; and finally, reluctantly going to court when all other means fail. p.4


Harmony is one of the primordial values of the Chinese culture. The Chinese consider harmony as the universal path which we all should pursue. Only when harmony is reached and prevails throughout heaven and earth can all things be nourished and flourish (Legge, 1955). The purpose of human communication is then to develop and keep a harmonious relationship in a continuously transforming processofmutualdependencyamonginteractants.

Thus,harmony is the end rather than the means of human communication. To the Chinese, conflicts are not treated as problems of communication but rather as detractors from harmony. Human communication is not a process in which we strive to direct the interaction to our ownfavor. Instead,itisaprocessinwhichwetrytoadaptandrelocateourselvesin the dynamic process of interdependence and cooperation. To sincerely display a whole-hearted concern for the other is therefore a gateway to reach a harmonious relationship (Chen, 1994). As a result, aiming to establish a conflict free interpersonal and social relationship is the ultimate goal for Chinese interactions (Chen & Chung, 1994).

The Chinese practice of conflict prevention is maintained by the principle of li (propriety, rite). Li refers to norms and rules of proper behaviors in a social context. It is an external means to achieve the ideal state of harmony by showing a feeling of respect or reverence to others (Chen & Xiao, 1993). Thus, in conflict situations li shang wang lai (reciprocity) is primarily a principle of harmony rather than a materialistic principle of mutual benefit. It requires people to show mutual responsibility in social interactions. In addition, shian li hou bin (courteous before the use of force) should be used only after the failure of li. In this case, one can gain moral support from third parties by putting the blame for destroying the harmonious relations onto the other party.

As the axis of the wheel of conflict management and resolution, harmony is supported by two spokes: guanxi and mientze. Guanxi forms the structural pattern of the Chinese social fabric and mientze is the operational mechanism that connects the nodes of guanxi network. The two concepts are natural products of the emphasis of harmony in the Chinese society. They function to keep the wheel of harmony in good repair.

Guanxi refers to relationships between two parties. These relationships include friends, family, supervisor/subordinate, teacher/student, coworkers, and manyothers. TheChineseplaceaheavyweightonparticularisticrelationshipsand establish a clear boundary between ingroup and outgroup relationships. The emphasis on particularistic relationships is originated from the Confucian "Five Code of Ethics" that specifies an unequal and complementary relationship between ruler (supervisor)/subject (subordinator), father/son, husband/wife, older brother/younger brother, and between friends. Particularistic relationships are regulated by a set of specific communication rules and patterns that give individuals a direction of interaction in order to avoid an embarrassing encounter or serious conflict (Chen & Chung, 1994; Hwang, 1988; Jocobs, 1979). In other words, particularistic relationships are potentially powerful in persuasion, influence and control, and can be used not only to avoid conflicts but also to resolve conflicts (Chang & Holt, 1991; Chung, 1991; Shenkar & Ronen, 1987).

The emphasis on particularistic relationships leads to a clear distinction between ingroup and outgroup members. Those who belong to the network of particularistic relationships are ingroup members and all others are outgroup members. The "we feeling" among ingroup members greatly reduces the possibility of confrontation or conflict, while harmony often becomes a victim of distrusting outgroup membership.

Mientze refers to the projected image of ourselves in a relationship network (Ting-Toomey, 1988). It represents our social position and prestige gained from the successful performance of our specific social roles that are well recognized by other members in the society (Hu, 1944). In order to follow the principle of li mentioned above one should show due respect for others' feelings and act to save their face, because any conscious act of making others lose face will damage one's own image, and saving one's face is a way to heighten one's self-esteem (Chen & Xiao, 1993). Showing no concern for face saving in social interactions often leads to emotional uneasiness or to a serious conflict. Thus, the Chinese incline to use all kinds of means to "earn face" (Chu, 1983) and to "make face" for others to establish a harmonious atmosphere (Chiao, 1981).

To integrate guanxi and mientze into the concept of harmony, we see that the Chinese endeavor to establish guanxi and give face to others to reach a state of harmony in social interaction in order to avoid confrontation and conflict. If conflicts are unavoidable, harmony is still the goal for reducing the negative impact of conflicts by searching for any possible guanxi or saving face between the two parties. At the same time, the Chinese tend to use an intermediary to help them resolve an unavoidable conflict to save face. This leads to an indirectcommunication pattern by which the Chinese can pursue a smooth verbal and nonverbal interaction in the process of conflict management and resolution. In addition, the indirect communication pattern also provides the Chinese with an opportunity for not saying "no" and not showing aggressive behaviors in public, for both saying “no” and showing aggression violate the principle of li and are detrimental to harmony.

Finally, power refers to the control of resources valued by the other party. It seems universal that power will decide the type of conflict styles we will select. In the Chinese society power is embedded in two concepts: seniority and authority.

Seniority plays an important role in the Chinese social interaction and conflict management process. Under the influence of Confucianism, especially in China and Japan, elders receive a wide range of prerogatives and power (Bond & Hwang, 1986; Carmichael, 1991; Nishyama, 1971). For example, in a case analysis of conflict between two factions of the ruling party in the 1990 Taiwanese presidential election campaign, Chung (1996) indicates that seniority is one of the most discernible qualities for the recruitment of mediators, who are between 78 and 92 years old. Elders also play a key role in Chinese politics, both in Mainland and Taiwan, and in other aspects of life. Seniority is also connected with credibility. Trust usually increases the control over the interaction process and the acceptance of other's influence (Griffin, 1967).

In the Chinese conflict situation the degree of trust originating from seniority often determines whether persons adopt a cooperative or competitive stance.
Authority is embedded in the structure of the Five Code of Ethics. The hierarchical structure of particularistic relationships ascribes the ruler (supervisor), father, husband, and older brother with authority to receive more power or control over their counterparts. As indicated in Cai and Gonzales's article in this issue, although knowledge and expertise can serve as powerful tools in persuading the opponents of the Three Gorges Project, the final decision must be made by the political leaders who are culturally accepted as the decision-makers and problem solvers.

In other words, in the Chinese society persons with higher status in the particularistic relationship structure are considered to be more knowledgeable in the process of problem solving or conflict management/resolution. Thus, as a determinant of Chinese conflict management and resolution, power can be an internal contingency that works with guanxi and face to reinforce the ultimate goal of harmony. Nevertheless, in socially and politically disturbing times, such as the ten-year Cultural Revolution period as indicated in Powers' article, power can be abused and engenders a negative force that destroys the ethical principle of relationship structure and face saving system. As a result, harmony becomes a casualty of power. In this case, power is an external contingency that constantly challenges the harmonious model of Chinese conflict management and resolution. Chinese history is replete with examples of the negative impact of power on harmony.

To summarize, harmony, guanxi, mientze, and power form the framework for the model of Chinese conflict management and resolution. However, in addition to these four concepts, a more complete model for the study of Chinese conflict management and resolution should include the following secondary concepts: reciprocity, courteous before the force is used, particularistic relationship, ingroup/outgroup distinction, avoidance of showing aggressive behaviors, avoidance of saying "no," indirect communication, seniority, trust and authority. p.7


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