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Dancing with Elephants

Ministry partnerships are complex and challenging. Throw in the cross-cultural dimension and one is certain to encounter some form of conflict. As Westerners, our first reaction is to confront and resolve. Unfortunately, our swift and direct action may leave our Chinese colleagues reeling from the confrontation and feeling hurt. The relationship may suffer for lack of understanding in how to resolve disputes. Westerners may have the best of intentions in trying to resolve a conflict, but they may come off appearing overly abrupt and unintentionally offending the other party. This idea is illustrated by a story that an indigenous leader told about what it is like to work with Americans.

Elephant and Mouse were best friends. One day, Elephant said, “Mouse, let’s have a party!” So they did. Animals came from far and near. They ate and drank and sang and danced. No one partied more exuberantly than Elephant.

When it was over, Elephant exclaimed, “What a party, Mouse! Did you ever see a more wonderful celebration?” But there was silence. “Mouse?” Elephant called, “Where are you, Mouse?” Then to his horror, Elephant discovered Mouse—crushed on the floor, stomped into the dirt, trampled to death by the enthusiasm of his friend, Elephant.  

This is what it’s like working with Americans. It’s like dancing with elephants.

Chinese believe that initiating any kind of conflict may lead to chaos, disunity, or broken relationships— so they avoid direct confrontation at any cost. Americans, however, will handle conflict head on to achieve a resolution as swiftly as possible.

How many of us have been in a situation with Chinese partners and suddenly discovered that they are withdrawing? Later we learn from a mediator, maybe years down the road, that there was a dispute and the Chinese partner chose to back away rather than offend.

The best solution to this cultural problem is to prevent conflict before it has the chance to fester. Here are three principles:

1. Follow the example of Christ as described in Philippines 2:1-18. When there is the possibility for conflict, we must look to the interests of others by humbling ourselves.

In Chinese culture the desire to maintain “face” prevents believers from expressing this humility, especially in the midst of conflicts. However, as Christians, we all need to learn this lesson.

With God’s help we can “consider the interests of others” by putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes. We need to imitate the humility of Christ. We need to have the “face” of Christ.

2. Most conflict results inadequate communication. Clear and open communication will prevent future misunderstandings. When we look at Paul’s writings, we notice how often he explains himself and writes clearly about his intentions (see Phil 2:19-24; Romans 1:13). Paul was an excellent communicator!

Misunderstandings occur when instructions or communication are not clear or are misinterpreted. Cross-cultural communication is improved by:

  • Having open and honest contact with people different from you.
  • Experiencing a cooperative rather than a competitive environment.
  • Working toward mutually shared goals as opposed to individual ones.
  • Exchanging accurate information rather than stereotypes or misinformation
  • Interacting on an equal footing with others rather than on an unequal or imbalanced basis.
  • Viewing leadership or authority as supportive of intergroup harmony.
  • Feeling a sense of unity or interconnectedness with all humanity.[1]

3. As Christians we should forgive offenses. God’s Word instructs us to overlook wrongs. The Bible says, “He who covers over an offense promotes love” (Proverbs 17:9).

We must always be able to forgive a brother or sister (Matthew 18:21-35).

Unfortunately, conflict cannot always be avoided. When intercultural crisis occurs, Christians must assess the situation and determine the context. Recently I ran into some cross-cultural communication issues with a potential partner. We thought we had spent a lot of time doing pre-work but we discovered that each of us still focused on our own goals instead of looking at a mutually beneficial project. After much back-tracking and many apologies we are now working together to serve youth that meets our shared vision and mission.

It’s a difficult and challenging dance but the end result is worth it.

Adapted from an article originally published in the April 2009 issue of China 20/20.


  1. ^ Adapted from Sue, D.W. Overcoming Our Racism, the Journey to Liberation. Jossey Bass: San Francisco, CA, 2003.

Lisa Nagle

Lisa Nagle, BA, MA, has been working in and around China since 1991. She has lived in Changsha, Beijing, and Hong Kong. Lisa is founder and executive director of Pacific Link International Educational Services (PLIES, which provides short-term and long-term study abroad experiences for youth from China. View Full Bio

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