96. Navigating Intercultural Partnerships

Note: This article has been simultaneously published in Nexus of the Fellowship Pacific region.

The Importance of Intercultural Partnerships

In today’s world, many partnerships involve people from different cultural backgrounds.  Each group comes to the table with a different set of assumptions concerning decision making procedures, hierarchical structures and kingdom priorities.  While creating a more complex scenario than mono-cultural networks, the benefits of intercultural partnerships can be significant, especially when working cross-culturally. A positive connection with cultural “insiders” that capitalizes on their expertise can mean the difference between success and failure.

In this time of incredible complexity both locally and globally, the benefits of partnerships greatly outweigh the frustrations

As underscored by the “body” image provided by Paul (1 Cor 12), one reason God has made us different (and limited) is to encourage us to pursue unity through the appreciation of each other’s gifts. It can be tempting to avoid partnerships and retain full control of our ministry in order to steer clear of the discomfort of interpersonal relationships. However, the result may be irrelevance, a “reinventing of the wheel” and limited impact.  In this time of incredible complexity both locally and globally, the benefits of partnerships greatly outweigh the frustrations.

Managing Intercultural Partnerships

It is hard enough to manage partnerships within one cultural milieu, but when they are developed cross-culturally, the potential for misunderstanding is increased dramatically on a number of fronts: financial disparity, accountability practices, language barriers, cultural expectations. Such tensions can easily unravel partnerships, especially if the partners are unaware of how their own cultural assumptions color their thinking and are therefore unable to correctly interpret the problem. Lederleitner1 outlines the problem of unmet expectations in a partnership relationship in this way:

  • I am in a situation where my expectation is not met.
  • Instead of categorizing the behavior as neutral, I decide it is bad or wrong.
  • I then innately, almost unconsciously, begin to infer negative intent and attributes to the person who did not act in accordance with my expectation.

Fortunately there are steps that can be taken to prevent fractured partnerships:

Cultivating Healthy Intercultural Partnerships

1. Be aware of cultural assumptions and their implications. For example, when involved in negotiations, some cultures rely on straightforward, direct speech. This perspective is common in Canada.  Alternatively, some cultures find direct speech aggressive and insensitive.  Many Asian cultures have this tendency. A Canadian may attempt to address a problem head on and judge their partner’s discomfort as being evasive and uncooperative, even dishonest.  Alternatively, the Canadian may be seen as controlling and rude.  Being educated in cultural orientations such as direct versus indirect speech can prepare partners to expect differences.

2. Master your story. In Crucial Conversations, Patterson et al2 provide a helpful technique that can be used when faced with unmet expectations. Our tendency to “infer negative intent and attributes” (our “story”), can be prevented by using the tool STATE, an acronym that describes a process that allows us to “step back” from our negative conclusions and evaluate them before they affect our attitude towards our partner.

  • Share your facts (neutral realities all can agree to)
  • Tell your story (your interpretation of the facts)
  • Ask for other’s paths (their interpretation of the facts)
  • Talk tentatively (recognize that your story may not be accurate)
  • Encourage testing (of the story provided)

3. Learn your partner’s “Language of respect.”3 This refers to “the culturally defined actions and behaviors by which people express respect for others.”4 Since people show respect via culturally acceptable actions, it is important to adopt those actions when working cross-culturally to ensure that your partner is comfortable and feels respected.  This is especially important when disagreements arise because, when under stress, people tend to resort to their default positions and assumptions.

4. Have a conversation around how to address problems, not just around problems themselves. This creates a learning atmosphere of open dialogue in dealing with minor concerns that prepares the ground for more difficult issues.

Through our experience and training in navigating intercultural relationships, Fellowship International is available to support Fellowship churches as they seek to develop synergistic partnerships across cultural barriers for the sake of the kingdom of God.  If you would like to know more of how Fellowship International can be your “Gateway to the Nations,” please contact us.


    • 1 Lederleitner, M 2011. Resolving Conflict with Cross-cultural Partners in The Evangelical Missions Quarterly, April 2011, pp 1-2.
    • 2 Patterson, K Grenny, J McMillan, R and Switzler, A 2002. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. New York: McGraw-Hill, 119-140.
    • 3 This phrase and basic concept is taken from Law, E 1993. The Wolf Shall Dwell with the Lamb. St. Louis: Chalice Press.
    • 4 For a fuller explanation of this skill, see Naylor, M 2008. Resolving Intercultural Tensions 3: Speaking Another’s Language of Respect.


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