dealing with conflict in a cross-cultural meeting


This article is part of a series on effective meetings between Japanese and non-Japanese.


Since meetings are the place where people are expected to air differences of opinion and try to solve problems, it’s not surprising that occasionally tempers will flare. However, if conflict gets out of control, it can derail the meeting, and make things uncomfortable for everyone. The real test of a meeting facilitator and or even an ordinary meeting participant is how they react when an angry participant pumps up the emotion.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for Japanese when meeting with non-Japanese is to correctly judge whether conflict in a meeting has become too intense. From the perspective of many westerners, meetings will inevitably involve some level of conflict and controversy – that is the very purpose of meetings, and this can be constructive. In many cultures, such as in France or Germany, intense debates in meetings are quite normal and are considered a good way to reach a solution. And in some cultures, such as in Italy, display of strong emotions is normal and does not necessarily imply that someone is extremely angry.

 Just because people are debating a point intensively or excitedly does not necessarily mean that harmful conflict is occurring. Still, many Japanese are shocked when they see two people debating furiously during a meeting, then slapping each other on the back and going off for a drink together afterward as the best of friends. Thus, it’s important to not overreact, and to be sure that there is really a problem before trying to do something about it.

On the other hand, allowing a harmful conflict to spin out of control and poison the atmosphere of the meeting also is not good. Many Japanese as well as others from conflict-averse cultures such as in Southeast Asia, or even westerners who have quieter personalities, can feel cowed when someone in a meeting launches into an aggressive outburst. This tends to make conflict-averse people clam up and want to withdraw. However, the worst thing one can do is to sit by and not say anything when an outburst happens. If angry people meet with no opposition, they will feel emboldened to continue their tirade. And more importantly, if people who become inappropriately emotional in a meeting are not reined in, it sends the signal that this kind of behavior will be tolerated, which will surely encourage such outbursts in the future.

It’s essential that someone say or do something if a participant becomes inappropriately emotional or combative in a meeting, or if an inappropriately heated argument breaks out between participants. It’s best for the meeting leader or facilitator to take this role, but if they do not, then another participant should step in and perform this function. 

Sometimes it’s sufficient just to say something along the lines of “Please stay calm;” “It’s not appropriate to make personal attacks;” “It’s not necessary to raise your voice;” or “Let’s keep this conversation civil.” However if this type of warning comment is not sufficient to rein someone in, it may be necessary to ask the angry person to leave the meeting. Or, as a less drastic measure, a “time out” can be called and that person can be spoken to individually and asked to modify the behavior.

The most important thing to remember is that if a participant becomes loud or agitated, responding with a raised voice or hotter temper of your own is not appropriate because it will only exacerbate the situation. 


For more on how to make your cross-cultural meetings effective, get a copy of our free bilingual ebook here.


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