“Culture directs our worldview, and provides meaning to our live events. The most important thing about learning a new culture is spending time with one another and being willing to accept a new culture without inhibitions. Open your hearts and have an honest non-judgemental approach to understanding the different way the other has towards life. Engage others with curiosity and zeal, observe how their perceptions differ as opposed to viewing only the familiar picture that reflects the world through our subjective lens.”
Mylene Chan is an arbitrator and mediator. Educated at Julliard School of Music, Yale University, and George Washington University Law School, she initially worked for corporations and consulting companies in Beijing and Shanghai as a transactional lawyer, but finally decided to switch her legal practice. As she says, witnessing a lot of conflicts in Hong Kong and China in the past few years, and how much pain they cause, started to make her think that it would be best to use her legal skills to serve as an advocate and build bridges of understanding between people in conflicts. Mylene decided to transition her career into peace-making as an arbitrator and mediator, which led her to earn a few negotiation and mediation certificates at Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, pursue a Master of Law in Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine University School of Law and to intern at the International Institute of Conflict Prevention and Resolution in New York in 2021. CPR continues to nominate Mylene as a representative at annual meetings and colloquiums at the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNCITRAL). It was there that Mylene was introduced to Robert A. Creo, one of the founders of the Mediators Beyond Borders International, and was awarded the 2022 Founders’ Fellowship. This is a one-year immersive mediation/arbitration mentorship with Bob partially remotely, and from April to December shadowing him in Pittsburgh. There are other prominent neutrals that Mylene observes and works with as part of the Fellowship. The focus of her work with MBBI is assisting in the strategic planning of expanding MBBI ADR consultancy in Asia and participating in its community outreach.
Twenty years ago, Mylene worked with U.S. government officials to help the Chinese government learn about the U.S. capital market. At the time, China had a fledgling economy as a developing country and was in the early stages of developing its financial market and integrating with the global economy, and there was a need for deeper understanding between the U.S. and China due to divergent cultural norms and beliefs. Mylene says, “Because of my diverse international experience–I have worked as a government official in the U.S. government, dealt extensively with Chinese officials as a foreign counterpart, and worked with Chinese and Hong Kong government officials as a lawyer representing foreign companies–I have a deep understanding of the nuances of cultural differences between the U.S. and China, which equip me to serve as an effective bridge to facilitate communication between these two countries.” This is part of a broader peace-making effort to facilitate meaningful communication between people. She believes that the most important thing in mediation is to help people communicate effectively so they can understand each other’s perspectives and needs, allowing for the opportunity to probe a creative and satisfying solution.
“When I read and took classes, I developed a basic view of mediation. However, in the first six months of my fellowship in MBBI, I have been exposed to a broader view and diversity, not just about how people conduct mediation, but really how I can learn to be a mediator,” says Mylene while speaking about the fellowship with MBBI. She has observed many mediations by experienced mediators, such as Bob Creo, David Hoffman, Jeff Kichaven, and Cliff Hendler. By observing in this way, one sees the variation among mediators, their different approaches, styles, models, and orientations. The same mediator will use different approaches in different cases. Some mediators are more transactional and quickly focus on the economics and the back-and-forth bargaining. Other mediators spend a lot of time on their relationship and communications, and they do not even discuss the bargaining till many hours into the mediation.
Mediation through storytelling and human interactions
As Mylene recalls, Bob’s unique orientation and unexpected methods, which primarily involve focusing on human communication and insights into human behavior outside of the context of mediation, are different for her. He encourages us to engage in diverse activities, such as networking and attending events focusing on spoken word skills. For 20 years, Mylene has been taught to think linearly as a lawyer. She is learning to look at things holistically and is encouraged to engage in every activity with every human being that can help her gain insight into what human decision-making and people’s concerns are. This includes conducting storytelling workshops for burn victims at a children’s camp, performing at Steel Storytelling shows, and assisting in cathedral restoration projects. Some of the amazing contacts have grown out of casual networking events. “For example, I was connected to a top arbitrator in Hong Kong through a contact who knew Bob 10 years ago and who happened to bump into Bob at a charity event. When Bob first introduced me to storytelling, I was skeptical of its value for my mediation training, thinking my time would be better spent reading more scholarly articles in front of a computer screen. After I presented a very personal story about my life, exposing my vulnerability, on Saturday night in front of the kids at the Burn Camp, I became stronger. It gives me more confidence as a mediator through the spoken word.” Mediation is a spoken word medium or modality. Storytellers get up without notes and tell a story from the heart that exposes vulnerability. A core part of mediation is getting participants to tell their own stories candid and heartfeltly. Mediators may empathize and buy into the emotions of the disputants, without having to agree to their perspectives of the underlying facts or positions.
Similarly, Mylene was skeptical when Bob asked her to attend a National Academy of Arbitrators conference in Toronto with him that she thought was irrelevant to her target practice. To her surprise, both the new president and the outgoing president spoke to her for nearly 30 minutes, despite her being neither a member nor anyone significant enough to help them. Mylene ended up writing an article for the outgoing president of Alternatives, the monthly magazine of the International Institute of Conflict Prevention and Resolution, a prestigious New York entity. She was able to make an important connection that did not exist previously. “Seeing Bob in action enabled me to witness the importance of human interaction and spoken words,” Mylene recalls. During the community mediation that they are co-mediating, Mylene saw Bob set up an in-person meeting with three lawyers. It took an hour of commuting time both ways, and the meeting was just 30 minutes. She questioned Bob whether it would be more efficient to conduct it over Zoom, but he said that relationships are the key to everything and that it is not always the best to take the efficient path. It is important to speak with people directly. Bob urged her to closely observe human interaction in every mediation and situation involving conflict and its resolution that she observes.
Finally, during the storytelling workshop that Bob conducted with her at the camp, she saw Bob and another storyteller improvise the entire workshop 30 minutes before the show started. “I was very impressed by how flexible Bob was and how he saw elements during dinner with the children at the camp that sparked a thought, and then revamped the entire workshop based on the inspiration. This is what master mediators like Bob do to excel at mediations, and this is what I hope to learn in the second half of my fellowship at MBBI.”
What plays a huge role in Mylene’s academic and professional career is reconciling the cultural differences between China and the U.S. Even though China has been integrated into the world for more than 20 years now, the country is still influenced by Confucianism, which underpins all aspects of the daily lives of ethnic Chinese – including how they negotiate and mediate with foreign business parties. It is a part of the core value system that cannot be erased, even when students go abroad for 10 and 15 years. As a part of efforts to promote cultural understanding, Mylene supports student exchange becoming a global standard. “Yes, I strongly support that. In fact at Yale, there was no requirement during my time, but now every student must spend a semester abroad to earn the cross-cultural experience.” She recalls that back then when she entered, students were not required to go study abroad, but it was mandatory to learn a foreign language, and that was the push that now is elevated. Mylene referred to a study done by Robert Axelrod in Evolution of Cooperation that proposes that the frequency of human contact is more important than the duration to build a connection. Therefore, even if people cannot spend that one semester abroad, there are still shorter exchange trips like mediation competitions where it is possible to meet with representatives of different nationalities every day, multiple times a day for a week or two weeks, and that would still be effective in fostering deeper understanding between countries.
“I went to the US when I was 13, and I spent about 15 years there,” Mylene recalls, speaking about cultural dynamics. “When I came back to Beijing to work, I was confronted with the collectivist mentality in China, when I just spent all those years learning about individualism, where one is encouraged to be assertive, and defend individual integrity.” Mylene, as an example, recalls a situation during a business meeting, where critical negative feedback elicited strong emotions from the Chinese parties. Mylene later learned that tough, to-the-point negative comments were demotivating to the Chinese who were accustomed to a gentler style. They were used for positive reinforcement rather than direct critique. Some business partners might even perceive it as losing face in front of their colleagues. Another example is that when Mylene was first coming to work in China, she did not know that people focus on building relationships rather than on contracts, which tends to prolong the process. Westerners befriend their counterparts only after making a deal, while the Chinese make a deal only when some level of friendship has been reached. Chinese hosts often engaged Mylene in extensive social activities to establish a warm relationship, not getting into the heart of the contract. Mylene used to view these pre-negotiation, relationship-building activities as extravagant and inefficient and felt annoyed by constant questions about personal issues. “That made me frustrated, and I did not know why we spent so much time on social activities. After having studied Chinese culture and philosophy, I now understand that they need to have trust in me and see me as a friend before engaging in transactions with me. I should have been more patient and welcoming with my responses to their extension of friendship.”
Mylene’s understanding and appreciation for the nuances of both cultures are evolving and growing. Now, in midlife, having spent roughly equal time in both the U.S. and China, she sees her identity as a Hong Kong Chinese passionate about helping China connect with the world during China’s historic rise. Realizing that she is uniquely positioned as a cross-cultural lawyer–with family members intricately involved with politics both in Hong Kong and China–she would like to follow her family’s decades-long public service in China and devote the remainder of her life to serving as a peacemaker bridging the difference between the two countries. This year, Mylene, Bob Creo, and Jeff Kichaven—a prominent mediator in California–have already engaged with the Hong Kong Mediation Council to conduct webinars and talks to promote exchanges between mediators between the U.S., China, and Hong Kong.
Mylene plans to return to Hong Kong in 2023. Mylene’s new calling is to promote better understanding between the U.S. and China so that Mylene can make China, her mother country, proud.
Article by Maciej Witek, MBBI Writer