Gold rush

The Dutch dream? To build your own house with a garden close to Amsterdam central station. The dream can become a reality, but only 19 couples or families are in the happy position. This priviliged position is bound to cause mayhem, and it did!

My husband and I, together with 39 other candidates, are in the race to purchase a plot in Amsterdam. The plots will be issued tomorrow. Three weeks ago the first candidates appeared on the horizon. To safeguard their spot in the line they have been camping outside the municipiality. Since then many other have joined them, as have my husband and I, a week ago from now.

Camping out here is no joke. Friends of ours lent us their eighties camper which sleeps comfortably but does not offer a shower or a toilet. Since we are not on an official campsite there a no facilities what so ever. And when we arrived we learned from the ‘plot-candidate-community’ that you can only safeguard your spot (we are 19th in line) by staying put.

As a result of this policy everyone has cancelled all their social engagements or invites friends to visit them at the campsite and we’ve all had to rearrange work. This is mostly to the benefit of the self-employed (like myself).

Now the scarcity of plots is taking its toll. The day before yesterday the guys occupying number 12, an Israelian twin, and their German friend, had left the campsite for several hours and were ‘caught’. The people queuing up behind them saw their chance at getting at a better spot and called a community meeting demanding that the guys be kicked out of the queue.

So we found ourselved at the heart of the improvised campsite deciding on the ill fate of people who had been camping with us for a week and who were not present to take part in the deliberation. Someone stated that the first eleven people in line would be less self-serving and asked them to form a committee and decide on behalf of everyone. They reluctantly agreed.

Fifteen minutes later their decision was made public: the absent campers had lost their number twelve and were kicked to the end of the queue!

For a little while the debate ended there, untill the missing guys returned ‘home’ to the campsite. The guys were furious aswell as in terror and demanded to be heard before the decision would come into effect. The next evening we gathered again and the Israelian boys were facing a Dutch crowd of fellow campers. The boys smiled bravely but I could see that their hands were shaking.

What happened next and how this related to conflict theory in general is for my next article, right now I must return to the campsite!


Getting to YES

How can you turn your adversary into a collaborative partner and overcome difficulties? As a mediator but also in my personal life I use the Breakthrough Method to transform conflicts. In this article I illustrate how you can do so too!

In my last article I told you about a conflict I recently experienced with a fellow mediator. At the root of the problem were assumptions we had both made about the way we would financially settle the mediation. Given my irritation with not getting paid at all I was close to:

Beating back – becoming unyielding myself: which is precisely when an argument escalates into a conflict.
Giving in – by letting go of my wish to get paid: this might save the business relationship but would certainly not meet my interests.
Ending things – this is always an option but should remain a very last resort: a breach always has its consequences.

Whatever automatic reaction I’d give in to, none of it would serve my interests well. I needed to think stategically. That means it was high time to turn to the Breakthrough Method.

The Breakthrough Method (I’ll refer to it as ‘the Method’) was developed by  William Ury. Mr. Ury is an inspiring mediator aswell as the director of the Program on Negotation at Harvard Law School. He developed five steps which will lead to ‘Yes’ even in very difficult circumstances.

Step nr. 1. Go to the balcony

Cool off and try looking at the scene from a distance. You can allow yourself to do so by suggesting a coffee or toilet break during a difficult meeting, you can decide to ‘sleep on’ a proposal or you can postpone answering an e-mail untill the next day. Cooling off will allow you to see clearer what it is that you and the other person risk to win or lose.

Once I had allowed myself to cool off, I realised that ending the collaboration with my fellow mediator at this point would leave a bad taste in my mouth for years, as would giving in. This insight motivated me to e-mail my colleague suggesting a conversation by telephone about our differences later that week.

Step nr. 2. Go stand next to the other person 

Look at the discussion you are facing from the other persons perspective. Why would he feel so much resistance?
Looking from the other side of the spectrum there may be things that make sense or that you can even agree with. 

Looking at the discussion from the perspective of my fellow mediator I realised that I had not insisted on setting the terms on which we would settle the deal financially either. I no longer felt that I had been ‘set up’, but I realised that we had been equally vague in expressing our financial expectations towards eachother.

When preparing for the phone call I wrote down a couple of things in which my colleague had been reasonable or just. At the very beginning of our conversation I told her all the points on which I agreed with her and I also told her how her point of view made sense from her perspective. While I was doing so I sensed her defensiveness wiping off. That gave me the courage to tell her ‘I feel we lost track of eachothers ideas and needs when it comes to the financial settlement of our collaboration’. Having said that out loud I had to come across with my point of view but could do so at a point when the tone was no longer harsh.

Step nr. 3. Don’t say ‘no’

Before you say ‘no’ to what the person on the other end is saying, lean in closer and ask questions. As soon as he or she notices that you are prepared to listen to their point of view you regain their trust in you. This allows you to turn the argument into a brainstorm.

As you try to learn more from the other persons context ask: ‘Why do you feel so strongly?’ or ‘What is it that you need to take into account?’
Then return the favour and inform the other person about your motives and limitations. You can also ask: ‘In you were in my shoes, what would you do?’

I told my fellow mediator that I had taken up extra work during our collaboration thinking it would get paid for and explained some of the work I had done outside of the meetings. When she said that she had not gotten all of her work paid for either I asked her for advice: ‘How do you suggest we settle this in a way that I am not the only one taking losses but no gains?’

Note: Even at this stage people may still retreat to bullying. In such a case, there appears to still be some distrust left. Don’t lose heart. Act as if whatever was said was meant in a constructive manner. That helps.

Step nr. 4. Build a bridge

At this point in time you have managed to set a good climate for negotiations. Now keep your interests in mind and continue to be patient. Pressuring the other person to agree to a deal you have come up with won’t work. To reach an agreement the other person will have to be a part of the solution.

In my own conflict I built a golden bridge by suggesting we’d decide on the financial settlement based on a proposal my fellow mediator could come up with. This approach offered two advantages: she regained the control she was looking for and I regained my trust, because whatever share I’d get, it would come from her and not me.

Step nr. 5. Use your power to educate the other person but don’t let it escalate

Maybe the other person does not realise what the cost is of the disagreement. If you have trouble reaching a final agreement it is up to you to educate him about the consequences. Once again, threatening won’t help, asking questions will, such as:

What do you think will happen if we don’t reach an agreement?
What do you imagine I will do?
What do you plan to do?

If these questions don’t lead to a breakthrough, W. Ury proposes saying:

‘I’m sorry to say this, but it seems like we will not reach a mutually beneficial agreement any time soon. I probably have to start looking into my alternative options. Nevertheless I still prefer to come to an agreement with you so if anything changes and you see a way for us to make this work do call me at any given moment and we can give it another try.’

In my own conflict there was no need for this last step. After my colleague came up with a financial proposal we reached a mutually beneficial agreement. When, ten days later, I had not received any payment from her, it only took a short e-mail referring to ‘our’ agreement. Tackling our disagreement while using the Method proved succesful!

Do you find yourself in the midst of a disagreement with a client, business partner or neighbour that could turn into a conflict?
Apply these five steps to turn a heated debate into an outcome everyone can benefit from.

Still struggling or in need of help to cool off or build a bridge? You can contact me at any point in time.



Say what you mean. Do what you say.

‘The origin of all conflict between me and my fellow-men is that I do not say what I mean and I do not do what I say’: it is beautifully put by Martin Buber and it is spot on. I sinned against it recently and suffered the consequences.

People often ask me whether I lead a conflict-free-life as a mediator. I don’t offcourse. Just recently, an inspiring collaboration of mine turned into an argument that almost escalated into a conflict.

I was contacted by a fellow mediator with whom I had already collaborated in the past. She told me that she was about to take on the mediation of a dispute between more than thirty people and asked me to join her. I said yes right away. I hadn’t yet conducted such a group mediation before and our earlier collaboration had been successful. And last but not least, I really like and value her as a person and as a mediator.

Agreements about the financial investment by all parties are settled during the first mediation session. It was clear that the lead was hers and what my colleague told me before hand was that she wanted to pay me for any work I would take out of her hands. We didn’t agree on a fee, but she suggested to agree on what was ‘reasonable’ later on in the process.

After one of the mediation sessions we went out for dinner and talked about many other things beside work. When the check arrived my colleague wanted to pay my share too. When I said there was no need and offered to pay my half she insisted that it was only ‘reasonable’ considering the work I had taken out of her hands. All of a sudden I realised she meant to say that a dinner was a reasonable remuneration for the work I had done. I was shocked. When I protested our intimate conversation turned into an unpleasant and unexpected negotiation.

I felt deceived. Why did she wait so long to specify what she felt would be a reasonable fee for my work?

But then again, I had waited just as long as she did. What was my excuse?

This is why the English expression To assume (ass-u-me), makes an ass of u and me is so true. Assumptions are the mother of all conflict. And the longer you wait to speak things through the more every one fills in from their own experience and alienates from the other person involved.

Yet discovering just how different our expectations had been and how they may have evolved in the process did not solve this issue. I still wished to be paid a reasonable fee and my fellow mediator still considered a symbolic fee a good way to go about this.

Did we manage to work this out? Luckily we did.

What I had to do was be my own mediator and apply the Break Through Method. These are the important steps of the Method:

1. Go to the balcony
2. Go stand next to him or her (in this case)
3. Don’t say ‘no’
4. Build a bridge
5. Use your power to educate the other person but don’t let it escalate

In my next article you’ll read how I managed to solve this argument while using the Break Through Method, and I will teach you how you can apply the Method successfully yourself.

But for now, here is valuable advice: SAY what you mean and DO what you say.
It will save you from a lot of mishaps in your business and personal life.





(un)Happy in Paris

One of my close friends moved to Paris last week with her husband and their children. The much romanticised city is not far off and accepting a promotion abroad seems like an opportunity. On top of that both of them are fluent in French: piece of cake right? 

Erasmus claimed to be a worldcitizen and that was allready six centuries ago. Having lived in Brussels my friend will happily say bonjour at every encounter in her new resident city and I’m sure she’ll know better than to walk into a restaurant demanding dinner at 6pm while wearing shorts.

And yes changing jobs is always tough but doesn’t it also demand a lot of flexibility and energy when you do so within your own country?

Relocating IS a big deal 

Work responsibilities and the relationships you have with superiors, subordinates and colleagues change with every job or career change. To make sense of any new role your old job proves an anchor. But when performing the new job in another country, the old anchor may prove pretty unuseful, even within the European Union.

The stressful anticipation of a new job is amplified in a foreign environment where values, norms, rules and customs differ.

Add to this that according to studies expatriates are likely to perceive their assignments as meaningful, their responsibilities as large, and the feedback they receive on the effectiveness of their activities or performance as inadequate and you can see why it is called a challenge (Bird and Dunbar (1991), Getting the job done over there: Improving expatriate productivity. Natl. ProdRev., 10: 145–156).

The support offered by employers is merely  logistical (think of health care, housing and at best language training). Since my friends have bought a house in Paris and speak French they feel that the biggest challenge will be tackling French administration and finding good child care and schooling. But neither one of them is prepared for the emotional and psychological process that always accompanies emigrating.

Cultural adjustment

Our identity is less flexible than we assume. All of us have culturally defined ideas about professional or social behaviour that have shaped us.

When based in a foreign country, your ideas will collide with the local behaviour and that leads to stress. That’s why an expatriate needs a variety of cultural adjustment skills to help them make their way through the cycle of readjustment.

It goes for France too where everything must be done comme il faut, an expression that applies equally to getting a massage, addressing a teacher, filling in a form and stuffing a duck. A faux pas is met with a silence, or a pained glance away.

And the French mix of hierarchy (including a high power distance) and rationality versus the importance of sociability (greeting neighbours, discussing topics not related to the job) and autonomy might be confusing too.

When relocating you question not only the foreign notions, you are challenged to redefine your preconceived notions and the conception you have of yourself.

Consequences of a failed readjustment

Employers focus on the substantial benefits of expatriation businesswise, such as the enforcement of corporate interests in vital markets, and so they assume that the readjustment will be succesful both for you as for the company.

In the event that a readjustment abroad proves unsuccesful for whatever reason whose loss is it?

Is it my friends loss? Or the loss of their young children? Not necessarily. Even if irelocating proves unsuccesful the kids may have picked up a new language and my friends may have grown closer as a couple in the absence of a social circle.

It are definetely employers who play a losing hand if they don’t prepare or counsel their expats profoundly.

In an article in the American National Productivity Review the authors calculated that the financial loss a company suffers amounts when an expatriate is failing to be get the job done abroad amounts to $ 40.000 tot $ 250.000. That estimation does not include intangible losses such as business opportunities or goodwill gone to waste (Bird and Dubar, 1991).

Most internationally based companies don’t provide cross-cultural training and stress-reducing coaching or mentoring. Looking at the losses they risk, you wonder what is keeping them from doing so.




Constructive confrontations

Telling people you work with and value what you don’t like about them, how do you do that? By saying something nice first, bringing the criticism next and then ending with something nice again (also known as ‘sandwiching’)? Sure that helps, but it doesn’t answer the question how you say what bothers you. Well this is how.

Part one: Why it is absolutely necessary to have difficult conversations

Not only friendships stem from mutual sympathy, business does too. Assignments will only come your way if the client knows you, trusts you ànd likes you. And as soon as you have gained the sympathy of your client, employer or associate you want to hold on to it as much as you can.

From my own point of view I can say I have more trouble speaking my mind and criticising when it comes to valued business contacts, loyal clients and friends than I have speaking my mind to random people on the train or to a cheeky sales person. It seems the more there is at stake the more we are afraid to lose what we have, where in fact the more there is at stake the more we should dare to open up and speak our mind.

A bomb ready to explode

Having invested a lot to build a relationship it is common sense that you are not eager to put it at stake. But what happens to that relationship if you keep all frustrations to yourself? Bitterness and frustrations that are not dealt or met with in time will turn into cynism and are in danger of exploding. Such an unexpected outburst of emotions is usually a big shock to everyone affected.

Nevertheless it’s also remarkable how after the first shock the majority of people claim they did see it coming. Colleagues or business associates who are in the dark of what is going on, can sense nevertheless that something is not right. It’s a fact, every time one swallows bitterness or leaves frustration undiscussed those feelings grow stronger under the surface. And it will not take long before your voice, body language or the way you look or avoid to look at someone starts shining through.

The beauty of self awareness

Relationships go sour when people hide unpleasant feelings. This goes as much for professional relationships as for relationships in your private life. Having said that, my advice is not to adress every minor feeling of discomfort. You must choose your battles. How do you know when something is worth battling for and when it’s really not?

When something someone else has done something that keeps bothering you you need to address it. You are not always aware of it at first but there are plenty of signs.

Take a close look at what happens during a conversation with the person who bothered you prior, do you feel a rising tensity in your shoulders or jaw that you can not explain? Do you click away any updates you see from him or her on social media?

Avoidance is the clearest sign that something has gone wrong in the relationship. If you choose to email where as before you always spoke on the phone you should admit to yourself that something is up. If you are more often speaking about someone than to someone then that’s another sign.

So a first important step in sustaining your relationships is self awareness. Be aware of your feelings and admit it to yourself when something or someone continues to bother you.

Part two: This is how you go into a difficult conversation

While reading this article you might realise that in fact you are avoiding someone close to you because of something he or she has done. If the professional or personal relationship with this person is of value to you you may also realise that you can not let it go sour. What you need now to be able to address the problem is some extra courage and the rules on constructive feedback.

Constructive confrontations 

There are a couple of ways to prepare for a difficult conversation. It is best to realise that it is a particular behaviour that is bothering you. The person in itself has not changed. Realise also that whatever you feel is your perspective,. Is there a sensitivity on your side? Try to also imagine the roles were reversed: the other person is bothered by something you did and you are not aware of it. Wouldn’t you want to get a chance to clarify things?

The reasons to confront the other person are abundant.

Now these are the rules of thumb to do so without damaging the relationship:

  • ask permission

  • be specific

  • don’t give interpretations but only describe your observation

  • start with ‘I feel’; stay away from moral judgement

  • don’t give advise and don’t trying to persuade the other person

You can ‘ask permission’ in many ways. In any case make sure that you time your message well. Bring it without any bystanders present and check that the other person is not occupied or stressed out by something else. You can explicitly ask for a one on one and you can also start by saying that you want to discuss something because you value the relationship a lot.

Be ‘specific’ about what is bothering you. Say for instance: during the meeting with client X last Friday I was saying ‘we probably need a lot more time to get the job done’ and as I started a new sentence you raised your voice saying ‘in fact time is not a factor at all’. Being this specific is much more effective than simply stating: ‘I don’t like it when you interrupt me’. Giving interpretations is not a constructive way of giving feedback.

Then continue by explaining how the particular action affected you.  Start with the words ‘I feel..’. You are giving your perception here, not a lesson of universal ethics (those don’t exist anyway). Don’t force anything either and don’t give advice. Your message will across better if the other person is free to think of his or her own way to do things differently next time round.

Do take care that your message is understood by the recipient. Half measures are not worth your while. If you go into this conversation make sure you finish it by checking whether your were understood.

The result of it all?

Your frustration is out the door. And so is the risk of an emotional outburst or avoidance. If the other person values the relationship as much you do he will change his behaviour or try to avoid the pitfall.

The best side effect of constructive confrontations is that the fact that the two of you have collided, spoken openly about it and resolved the issue strengthens the mutual trust. So don’t worry about that next assignment, thanks to the constructive confrontation it will come your way.

Rationality is an illusion

Not everyone sees the same things but we think we do. It’s a shared illusion, and only one of the psychological biases that disturb our daily communication. Working with conflicts (at best reducing and resolving them) I regularly witness illusions lead to so called rational behaviour that is in reality pretty irrational.

At a workshop in Amsterdam last May professor Richard Birke demonstrated via psychological experiments that people place too much confidence in their own judgement. Where as the truth is that we suffer from multiple cognitive biases. The only upside really is that the cognitive mistakes we make are systematic which means we can learn from them.

Do you suffer from perspective biases?

Perspective biases are positive illusions we create for ourselves. A clear example is The Selective Attention Experiment by Daniel J. Simons, a video that went viral. If you haven’t seen the short video yet, have a look at it before you continue reading. You’ll be surprised.

Half of the people who watch the video and count the passes made by the basketball players miss the gorilla! It is as though the gorilla is invisible. This reveals two things: that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea!

That we  are unwilling to accept that we miss so much from what is going on around us is due to over-confidence and the illusion of control. Two biases that play a huge role in conflicts: we hear or see only one perspective and we’re convinced that everyone shares our perspective. Something that is even more persistent when a matter is linked to our expertise.

I practiced as a lawyer earlier in my career and during my traineeship I was told not to read the opposing arguments before drafting my clients side of the story. It proved an effective technique to stay convinced of my clients’ arguments and strengthen them. But it’s also a dangerous technique. Strengthening a vision that is allready one-sided does not permit you to see the weaknesses in your own argumentation and will lead you to overestimate your position.

Through biased assimilation or confirmation bias we interpret facts in a way that supports our conclusion. And that leads to pretty irrational behaviour.

Add up all these psycholgical biases and you can see why we have so many conflicts!

How you can amend your psychological biases

The Gorilla Experiment illustrates how difficult it is to believe that each of us live in an altered reality. But how can you convince yourself or others that there are more sides to a story?

Research documented by the cognitive psychologist Tom Stafford illustrates that despite all the biases we’re subject to, we are sensitive to reason — we discriminate better arguments from worse ones, often recognise the truth when it can be demonstrated, and adjust the strength of our beliefs when we discover we can’t justify them as fully as we thought.

Other specialised literature also describes how crucial it is to offer different perspectives on the same reality. When it comes to disputes this means it is crucial for all parties to hear the other sides arguments ànd the reasoning behind it.

Looking at a conflict from all the different angles is the only way to compensate irrational behaviour such as tunnelvision and over-confidence. But most of all we should realise that there isn’t one single reality. If you decide to include other people’s interests you might gain a lot. Or framed more effectively: you can lose a lot if you don’t!

Photo: Street Art by Julian Beever.

It’s your best quality that leads to conflicts

I’m sure you know the type of person who, at a job interview, says their only flaw is ‘perfectionism’. It’s not that far off really. Our worst traits are always an overdose of our best qualities. 

Daniel Ofman, a Dutch engineer, was the first author to describe this. And judging from my own conflicts and the conflicts I mediate I can say it’s a fact: we reproach others a kind of behaviour the other person would qualify as a quality. When put under pressure your strong point becomes your pitfall.

More than 20 years ago D. Ofman developed a quadrant to help indivuals assess their core quality and its distortions. Distortion being the result of an overdeveloped core quality.

The Total Core Quadrant 


This is how you apply it:

In the first square you write down the quality or potential that defines you as a person in every situation. So if you are precise while at work but a chaotic freewheeler outside of work precision is not your defining quality, it is merely a skill (nurture versus nature). Think instead of what you can not turn off, a potential that drives you. That is your core quality.

The second square, your pitfall, is an excess of your core quality and describes the way you behave in stressful situations. Think of what people tell you in these situations: ‘Don’t be such a..’. or ‘Don’t be so..’.

The third square is your challenge, something you don’t have a lot of. Let’s say you are very ‘energetic’ (= core quality), which leads to ‘chaos’ (= pitfall) in stressful situations, then ‘structure’ or ‘focus’ could be your challenge. Adding focus to a lot of energy creates the perfect balance to make you florish. So balancing is not about being less energetic, but only about adding structure to that energy.

Last but not least is the aspect I see all the time while mediating conflicts: allergies. It is what I call a red button. A behaviour or tendency in other people that drives you mad. When being confronted with it you can no longer deal with that person. This is your allergy.

Using the quadrant to analyse conflicts 

The quadrant is particulary helpful to analyse conflicts. The beauty of it is that the different squares are complementary. As soon as you define one of the quarters you can deduce the other quarters. If you feel that someone is pushing your buttons take a closer look. Applying your allergy to the quadrant gives insight in your defining quality, your pitfall ànd your challenge.

In a crisis people are trapped in their pitfall: a core quality has become an excess. It is usually the display of your allergy by someone in your surroundings that pushes you in to your pitfall.

And there’s more: Ofman discovered that people are allergic to individuals who display an overdose of their own challenge. Say you are allergic to lethargic people: your challenge in life will be ‘to let go and lean back’ a bit more often.

Taking the example used earlier: you are ‘energetic’ and your challenge is ‘focus’, then you will get really annoyed by overly structured people (controlfreaks in your language). As an effect of your allergy you will display your pitfall, in this case ‘chaos’. Result: ‘chaos’ versus ‘control’. An effective collaboration is no longer possible and you will start avoiding the controlfreak.

The quadrant offers insight in the reason why people can no longer interact but it also explains why these two interacted in the first place: we are always looking for complementary qualities.

But then, how to resolve conflicts? 

Analysing conflicts by letting conflicting parties fill in their quadrant offers them self-insight: a clear mental picture of their core quality, pitfall and allergy. The self-knowledge helps them become more effective. One of the ways to become more effective is by adding what they don’t have much to their core quality.

At the same time the quadrant is a good tool to normalise and de-escalate crisis situations. It will allow the parties to agree what the problem is exactly and where it comes from, which is an essential aspect of solving a conflict.

Also, filling in the quadrant on behalf of the person you have a dispute with can offer understanding. An understanding of the incompatibility is essential because it helps you realise that you are allergic to a particular behaviour, which relates more to your core quality than to the other person. And just as important: you’ll gain insight in the underlying special quality of annoying behaviour. Someone who is ‘insistent’ and ‘oppressive’ is also at core a ‘decisive’ person, which is a quality and might have been the ground of which you started collaborating.

So it all adds up to self-insight of your behaviour and understanding of the behaviour of the person you are in conflict with. Both factors de-escalate conflicts to a level on which they can be resolved. The end result is that you can balance your core quality again and be stressfree.



A cultural conflict at work

A Belgian friend of mine works as a researcher at one of the academic hospitals in Amsterdam. She loves what she does. The other night we talked about work over a home made dish of pasta. Surprisingly she was highly irritated and dissapointed with her superiors. Listening to her rant I realised that she is going through a culture shock.

  • How doing your job kan lead to a culture clash

My friends superiors want to reform the counselling of PHD students. In the process of the restructuring they asked my friend several times to give her opinion. When the new structure was presented it turned out to be radically different than any of the ideas she had put forward.

My friend had invested a lot of her time and didn’t realise now that that was only part of the input-phase. While she had been flattered to be part of the organisational process, she was now shaken by the fact that most of her input had been pushed aside in yet another consultation round.

As a result she was overwhelmed, frustrated and angry. In a feedback session my friend pleaded with her superiors to take a decision behind closed doors and let her be. In other words she is ready to give up on a project that had been very important to her. Her superiors were surprised and kept pushing for consensus, which only lead to more frustration on her side.

Listening to her I realised that my friend was experiencing a clash of work cultures.

  • Cultural differences in aspects such as leadership and decisionmaking

At the heart of any struggle non-Dutch workers experience is a cultural aspect really. In the case of my friend the collision is between a hierarchical organisational structure (typical in Belgium) and a flat, egalitarian organisational structure (typical in the Netherlands).

When decisionmaking is top down a superior takes all decisions autonomously and is solely responsible for the outcome. In Belgium my friend wasn’t asked for advice by her superiors regularly, but when she was asked for her opinion her well dosed critique had a good chance of persuading her superior.

The process of decisionmaking in the Netherlands proved entirely different. Superiors who wish to find consensus on every single decision are very common. To non-Dutch (myself included) it might seem like all the debate does not lead to any decisionmaking and avoids taking responsibility. It is a risky and inadequate conclusion though.

What was really confusing my friend is that the behaviour of her superiors did not match with her – culturally defined – idea of leadership and decisonmaking

Richard D. Lewis explains the nature of Dutch leadership and listening habits of the skeptical Dutch well (source: When cultures collide):

In the Netherlands there are many key-players in the decision-making process. Long ‘Dutch debate’ leads to action taken at the top, but with constant reference to `the ranks`.

Dutch audiences are both easy and difficult: easy in the sense that they are hungry for information and good ideas, difficult because they are very experienced and not open to much persuasion by others.

But the Dutch do enjoy debate and even conflict. Anyone may offer an opinion.

  • Typical reactions to a culture shock

As a result to being exposed to work ethics that differ significantly from your own work ethics you will most probably assume that something is wrong with them, with your colleagues or your superiors, in any case not with you.

The reason for that is that we tend to over-value our own culture. We think that our way of communication, decisionmaking or leadership is more natural, rational, civilized, polite or more effective. Because of the clash of both cultures we at the same time under-value the new culture and disapprove of it.

Like every other conflict, a framework (in this case Dutch work ethics) that you don’t understand or are not familiar with causes you to lose confidence in the person you are dealing with. And that is worth avoiding.

  • How to avoid work-related conflicts?

To get beyond the reactions of culture shock requires a self-conscious effort to understand the reasonableness of other people’s way of life or work ethics.

In the Netherlands negating ideas does not mean negating the person. So if your ideas lose their grounds at the office that does not imply that your colleagues or superiors will think less of you. You’ll simply have to be more convincing next time round.

My advice to my friend and to any other non-Dutch worker I coach: to see your ideas embraced by your Dutch employer you should back up your ideas with convincing evidence and try to have more endurance with give and take in the decision process. Accept that you are working in an egalitarian workenvironment that strives for consensus and that many rounds of debate consist of ‘give and take’.

Try to also accept that you may have a different experience having worked at a culturally different work environment and allow yourself the time to adapt. Realise that it is not a personal clash between you and your Dutch superiors, it is merely (work) cultures that are colliding!




Dutch honesty leading to a cross-cultural conflict

My husband and I were on our way to South-Africa to attend my sisters wedding. On the first flight to Frankfurt I am seated next to a Dutch guy who is flying home to his German wife and children. When he learns that I have moved from Brussels to Amsterdam we chat away about what living in a foreign country is like.

We agree that the best Dutch traits are their enthusiasm and humour, aswell as their audacity. On the other hand he admits that his compatriots are also opinionated, and sometimes offensive due to a remarkable lack of empathy.

That lack of empathy even caused my airplane friend and his German wife to move away from Amsterdam. He tells me how that happened:

 In a maternity class in Amsterdam his wife made a Dutch local friend. They continued to see eachother and became good friends. Until her Dutch friend emailed her to say that given her busy social life she could not continue the friendship. Saying that even though they got along really well she preferred to dedicate her scarce free time to her longtime friends and was ending all contact (in other words ‘Don’t call me, and I won’t call you’).

Yep, brutal Dutch honesty. And the sudden end of a friendship. More so, this email was such an eye opener for them that it was one of the reasons to relocate to Frankfurt.

Whether it is a Dutch friend defriending you, or rather never really letting you into his inner circle, or a Dutch wedding invitation saying that you shouldn’t dare bring your children: The Dutch call it refreshing honesty, the non-Dutch are left offended and hurt.

Professor Geert Hofstede was the first to study the simultaneity of cultural adaptability and distress on a broad scale. His graphic shows clearly why values (‘brutal’ honesty or the concept of politeness are values really) are not flexible.


The diagram developed by Hofstede represents humans as onions. The outer layers (Symbols-Heroes-Rituals) reflect external practices. Those are modefiable. To explain, wearing orange on Dutch holidays (Symbols/Rituals) or admiring the Dutch soccer players (Heroes) are external practices that are fairly easy for expats to adapt to.

Hofstede discovered that Values and etiquette, on the other hand, are programmed according to one’s own culture. To come back to the onion-comparison: values are at the core and thus internal. They can not be seen and they are not prone to change. If they do change, that will only happen after an expat has allready adapted to external practices.

That’s why if expats internalise foreign values at all it will have taken very, very, very long exposure to that culture.

Personal values and interpersonal conflict
A lack of compatibility in values or etiquette can often lead to conflicts, but because these things are not visible to the eye, the collision is often difficult to detect.

It takes a skilled intercultural mediator to unfold that either conflicting values are at the heart of a conflict, or that an existing conflict escalated out of proportion when etiquette or other values weren’t met on either or both sides.

If you don’t want your intercultural relationships (whether professional or private) to end because of a non-compatibility of values, it is very important that you realise that values are hidden from the eye and are specific to every culture.

How to deal with intercultural conflicts
The best way to deal with such a conflict should it arise is to let the person you are dealing with know that what he or she does conflicts with your value or idea of etiquette.

Be conscious of your values
When you tell someone how you are feeling, be aware that these are your values you are expressing, predicted by your culture. There simply are no universal rules of politeness, or any other values for that matter.

– Give precise feedback
It’s best to start your feedback by saying “I feel…” and to stick to your observation. In other words, describe what you heard or saw the other person do and describe how that made you feel.

Be specific: the other person does not know your cultural background well and is probably not aware of the depth of your feelings.

– Stay calm
Also make sure to cool off before you start such a conversation. Only then will you be able to educate the other person about your feelings and values, while at the same time staying away from either moral judgement or an attempt to persuade the other person to agree with your values.

Agree/disagree/move on
Having this conversation will not enable you to change the other person’s values, because as the above diagram shows, values don’t change easily, and often not at all. What you will achieve by having this conversation is that you’ll be able to agree to disagree in a way that does not leave you hurt or frustrated.

Conflicts over personal space

Bodylanguage and the use of personal space define your comfortzone just as much as language does. It seems that when it comes to personal space I still miss living in Brussels.

I’m interviewing a list of people for a side project of mine, a documentary on intercultural conflicts. That’s why I had a long conversation with an energetic young Spanish woman who works as a nurse at a hospital in Amsterdam Oost. It has only been a year since she came to live here. Without giving away the conflict, and thus the interview, I can say she had a very rough first couple of months. Luckily a lot has changed since she found a job in a healthy working environment and masters the harsh Dutch language.

At the end of the extensive interview I ask her what she misses most compared to her life back in Spain? Her response is immediate, as well as the sadness that comes over her as she answers my question.

ʿI miss being allowed to make physical contact. I know the Dutch find it intrusive when you touch them and I try consciously not to do so. But it’s so hard. Most of the time I just don’t know what to do with my hands anymoreʾ.

Listening to her I realise that for someone who uses her hands so vividly (during the entire interview in fact) letting go of it must be a hard task. And even though Dutch are very direct and social they really do not like to be touched by anyone who’s not part of their innercircle. That Spanish people on the other hand are very touchy is not new to me, but I realise now how painful it is for them not to.

Richard D. Lewis describes the cultural difference on the use of personal space accurately (source: When cultures collide):

ʿYou need to talk to Spaniards with a twinkle in your eye. Their distance of comfort is much closer than that of most Europeans and they like both physical and eye contactʾ.

ʿAs far as personal space is concerned, the Dutch keep formal contacts and strangers outside of 1.1 meter radius space bubble. Physical contact is not welcomed and body language is limitedʾ.

Talking about colliding cultures!

As much as I like using bodylanguage when connecting with people I believe I can also do without. I don’t have the same warmblooded etnicity and I have been in the Netherlands for several years now.

On a Thursday night, weeks after the interview, I’m having drinks with a close Dutch friend in a bar in downtown Amsterdam. We are seated by the window and while we’re busy chatting, the French girl who has just moved in to my building walks by. She catches my eye and runs into the bar to greet me. It strikes me that as soon as she is right next to me we make more physical contact than my Dutch friend and I have in the last hour and a half. And yes ofcourse it has to do with personal preference, but this is clearly cultural too. For those five minutes with my French neighbour I am in Brussels again, where touching people on the arm or on the shoulder while speaking to them is part of social life.

I am sure I can do without, but now I am wondering why I’d want to?