Working with populations with a problematic history and/or with religious tensions and/or who are/were at war

Due to the nature of my work, I find myself in situations where I work with Palestinians and Israelis in the same team, Germans and Israelis of all generations, Japanese and Chinese,Indians and Pakistanis, Chinese Thais and Indonesians, devout Muslims and devout Jews, as well as  secularists and religious people from countries where this divide is an issue (Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Israel)

The populations with whom I work are very well educated and/or in the high tech sector.

Here are a few of my observations.

1) It is very important to know about the relevant history and religious practices, and I mean more than reading a Wiki article. It is also equally important never to initiate a public discussion on these matters.

2)  More often than not, the atmosphere in teams like this will be very matter of fact and business like. There will be an attempt to be professional to the extreme in group settings. This having been said, there is “wear and tear” on people’s psyche due to the restraint they show. It is important to gain people’s trust and work with them one on one, allowing them to express what’s on their minds, and empathise with their personal struggle to remain civil and in control.

3) There are events which occur which make the working environment volatile to the extreme: a security event, a day of memorial for the dead of one side or the other, or even a seemingly benign news event. On days like this, while often nothing is ever said, the tension can reach boiling point. Needless to say, it is important to try not to schedule difficult meetings events in this time frame.

4) Develop an awareness of how different very diverse populations and people see you in their context. While you need to be neutral, you need to be authentic.

5) Sometimes, although very rarely, everything explodes in your face. This has happened to me 3 times in 35 years. Someone flips, and the you-know-what hits the fan. Stop the meeting immediately if you can. Reconvene with context about losing one’s cool, an apology from the protagonists, and right back to business. Any attempt to process this blow up in a group context goes nowhere and is far too dangerous and counter productive.The most appropriate processing of such events is done one on one. As the group reconvenes, the facilitator should be ultra vigilant and directive, maintaining civility with a heavy hand until the group returns to do so on its own.

6) Some people are too opinionated or passionate for these types of groups. Remove them immediately. Not to do so has devastating consequences.

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