Last week I was in Delhi, India delivering a programme on Managing Disputes and Difficult Conversation in the Boardroom with my CEDR colleague, Susanne Schuler. This programme has been developed over a number of years as a CEDR foundation project, in partnership with IFC/World Bank, and applies mediator techniques to upskill board members in resolving conflict within the boardroom

The three day programme in Delhi was delivered to 19 corporate governance specialists, business people and directors of companies.

One of the interesting aspects of the course is a session on managing status, as in a CEDR/IFC survey of directors, 41.2% % of respondents identified status as the most difficult issue to manage in a boardroom conflict.  In the beginning of this session, 5 participants are confidentially given a particular status ranging from low to high and asked to act out that status in front of the rest of the group. At the end of the interaction between the 5 status individuals the group needs to agree the order of the 5 from lowest status to highest.

What was interesting on this course was that we as western trainers watching this exercise completely misread the non-verbal signals being sent by the participants as in relation to status they manifested themselves differently. One of the status individuals in particular was silent, stand-offish and when she did engage did not speak very much and waited to be spoken to. For us trainers based in the UK and the US this was a demonstration of low status behaviour. However when she was ranked by her fellow participants she was put as the highest… and they were right! It turned out that she was the highest level status.

When debriefed, the person explained that for her in India a high status person would stand apart and wait for people to approach her. They would expect to be spoken to rather than initiate conversation and at times not engage in attempts at conversation if the other person was deemed to be too low in status. Conversely, those with lower status cards said that they had to work the room harder, be more engaging and come across as more confident – contrary to what we Western-based trainers would have expected!

This is yet another reminder of what we know to be true as conflict specialists…. The non-verbal cues may be different in different cultures and importantly never make assumptions!

We have been asked to go back to do some more of these programmes, so this time I will look at this status exercise very differently.

James South is CEDR’s Director of Global Training and Consultancy and has been mediating public and private sector disputes for 17 years. As one of the world’s most experienced dispute resolution trainers and consultants James is responsible for the development of CEDR’s leading courses in Mediation, Negotiation and Conflict Management for legal and business organisations, the public sector, universities and professional bodies.