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How to Manage Conflict in a Culturally Sensitive Way: Act or Accept?

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

In the previous blog post on cultural difficulties in Southeast and East Asian second-generation immigrants in Australia, we highlighted several areas that myself (an Australian Asian Psychologist) and my clients from these groups may face.


One of the key areas highlighted was interpersonal conflicts between second-generation Australian Asians and their first-generation immigrant parents. The exposure to different environments, cultures, laws, and societal expectations means that there are many potential areas of conflict. This may also be exacerbated if the first-generation immigrant parents have not integrated into the broader Australian community and continue to only associate with those from similar backgrounds.



"Just tell your parents..."


When talking to friends, colleagues, or a health professional about conflicts with parents, have you ever received any of these pieces of advice?

  • "Just tell your parents you're going";

  • "Just say no";

  • "Just tell them that it's your own life and you'll make your own decisions";

  • "Just tell them they can't speak to you like that".


How unhelpful was that? Not only is it invalidating, but it overlooks the important nuances that are present in families from different ethnic backgrounds. It doesn't feel emotionally safe and ignores the cultural context embedded in these dynamics.


So, if we don't take the typical boundary-setting route, does that mean we have to resign ourselves to acquiescence? Of course not, these are not the only options. Let's explore a more realistic pathway.



Reflect


Before we even talk to another person about what we prefer, we need to make sure we know what it is we're trying to communicate. When we have clarity of our own needs, it becomes easier to communicate them to another person. This may seem simple to those from an individualist society, but for those from a collectivist background (as is the case in many Asian countries), it can be a challenge or something that hasn't been considered before.


The first thing to try is to use an internal rating scale of 0-10. 0 being "I don't care about this at all, I don't know why I'm wasting time considering this", and 10 being, "this is critical, it's make or break". You may care in either a positive or negative way. Regardless, it is something that leads to a visceral reaction (whether it is expressed is a separate matter). 5 being a moderate level of care but you could go either way depending on the situation.



For example, let's say your Mum tells you to set up her online banking. On a scale of 0-10, how much do you care about this?


Maybe you don't mind because it's relatively straightforward and you know it will only take you a few minutes. Or maybe you're on the other end of the scale because your Mum didn't even try herself, and that's triggering to you because you feel overly relied on.



Decide


If you rated this situation on the lower end of the scale, you'll probably just help her set it up. On the other hand, if it's something you do feel strongly about, we may want to do something, such as boundary-setting.


When people talk about boundary-setting, it is common to suddenly overcompensate and push for everything to go your way. That's a natural human reaction when we feel empowered to act. However, we don't need to set boundaries for literally everything and it's not sustainable. It's not worth your time/energy and you'll likely get exhausted from the amount of conflict this will generate. Plus, you will probably not feel like yourself because it might not be in line with who you want to be as a person.


Even if you do feel strongly about something, you may still weigh up the pros and cons of whether to speak up. When deciding this, consider how much time and emotional energy you're willing to give this issue.


Traditional Western boundary-setting is not going to cut it in this cultural context. And verbal boundary-setting is not the only way we can "act" on something we feel strongly about.



Act – Practical Strategies


If it’s something we are willing to try and change, then we can use various strategies to try and affect the outcome. However, there will be no guarantees that your parents or the other person will change. You can only control and change yourself (even if it is only your mindset). These include you implementing some sort of behavioural change.




Assertive Communication


Speaking assertively tends to be a more western way of communicating. This strategy will work best on those from a western background or people from a similar upbringing (e.g., other second-generation immigrants brought up in Australia). If someone said those things to you in a neutral way, how would you respond? Generally, most people from those backgrounds would be quite understanding and receptive. For a more in-depth step-by-step process, refer to our blog Assertiveness in 3 Steps.


However, assertiveness may not be as effective for those Asian elders who have subscribed to more traditional Confucian values (i.e., defer to elders and put aside your own needs to keep the peace).


In these situations, the aim is to provide yourself with emotional safety, when the other party is not able to do so. By giving yourself some space, you can emotionally regulate and refocus on aligning with your values. The way we accomplish this, is basically through strategic avoidance.



Strategic Avoidance


For example, let’s say, your dad is saying something really triggering to you over the phone. Normally, you would bear it, until you could bear it no more, and then snap back, which would escalate to a full-blown lecture from dad and you feeling guilty for being a “bad child”.


Strategic avoidance would be noticing when you’re starting to get triggered, and quickly excusing yourself, “Sorry dad, I have to run to the bathroom quickly. I’ll call you back when I’m done”. This will be sudden, but most people would not deny you a basic human function (plus they don’t usually want to hear what’s going on in there). So, you have given yourself a 2min break from whatever dad is saying. Take this time to sigh, catch your breath, take some deep breaths, or all the above. Then, when you’re ready, call dad back.



This process allows 2 things to happen. First, you get to make a safe emotional space for yourself, even if only for 2mins. Then you get to choose when you return to the interaction. Or why you may choose to.


If you’re still feeling really heightened, you could text dad that you’ll call him tomorrow since you aren’t feeling well now. This may or may not end in a long text lecture about how to better take care of your health, but at least you have space for the moment.



Modelling


Do you know the phrase, “lead by example”? This can be a difficult thing to do in a parent/child dynamic, since the expectation is that the parent will be able to hold emotional space for the child.


But you are no longer that same child, and as an adult, you have more agency over what you do in that relationship. Same goes for someone who is in a position of power, “they should know better” you think, but they haven’t been acting in that way.


Alas, when you are modelling the behaviour you want to see, this may show the other party that there is another alternative way to interact in the situation. Or they won’t change, but at least you will be behaving in a way that you can be proud of and doesn't compromise on your values.



Open Questions


Sometimes people are so used to doing what they do because they have never thought of an alternative. They have never given much thought as to why they do something. This is where open questions can be very helpful. Increasing self-awareness is a vital step to change. When we can see things from another perspective, we become more open-minded to approaching things differently.


Below are some examples of open questions that can be posed:

  • Why do they do it that way? Was it because their parents/old boss did it that way? Did they agree with it when they were younger/in that situation?

  • What result are they hoping for by approaching it like this?

  • What are the pros/cons of continuing to approach things in the same way?

  • What if they could get the desired result using another strategy?

  • What’s the purpose behind sticking to traditions re: this issue?



Consistency is Key


Regardless of what strategy you choose to try, focus on one at a time. And do that consistently, over time, and across various settings. Initially, there will be resistance from the other party because you are doing something different, that probably isn’t convenient for them (i.e., saying no).



But done consistently over time, this will become something that they un/consciously come to expect (even if they don’t like it). Why? We’re creatures of habit. So, if you can persevere past the initial conflict and resistance phase, things will eventually level out and you will both reach an understanding of what the new normal is in your dynamic.



How a Psychologist Can Help


A culturally sensitive psychologist can help come up with a realistic plan, tailored to your particular situation. Having an Australian Asian psychologist may also be helpful as they may share some of the same lived experiences. A psychologist can help you work towards your specific goals and address any challenges that may show up along the way. A psychologist can also keep you accountable to the changes you want to make, by encouraging you to take the initial leap into an otherwise daunting task.



Conclusion


Tackling interpersonal conflicts as an Australian Asian can be a very challenging and seemingly impossible task. With reflection, strategies, and support, it can become a reality, starting with small steps in mindset, behaviour, or communication. Recognising your own needs and values is a critical part in deciding to act when there are intergenerational differences.

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