Adapted from “What Gets Lost in Translation,” by Lawrence Susskind (professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology), first published in the Negotiation newsletter.
Even with a common language and the best of intentions, negotiators from different cultures face special challenges. Try following these guidelines when preparing for talks with someone from a different culture:
1. Research your counterpart’s background and experience. With a little homework, you should be able to learn who your negotiating partner will be and find out some details about her background and experience. If your counterpart has a great deal of international negotiating experience, you can probably assume that cultural stereotyping (and any effort to modify your negotiating strategy accordingly) is likely to create new communication difficulties rather than solve old ones. If you have trouble getting information about your negotiating partner, ask an intermediary with contacts at that firm or organization to make inquiries for you. (Be sure the intermediary understands that he is not authorized to make any commitments on your behalf.)
2. Enlist an adviser from your counterpart’s culture. If you discover that the person with whom you are likely to be negotiating has little or no international or cross-cultural experience, consider enlisting someone from his culture to serve as your “second” during the negotiation. Rather than deferring to this adviser during talks, plan out signals in advance to indicate when you should take a break for additional advice. In this manner, your cultural “guide” can help you size up the situation, coach you as needed, and even interject if he feels you have made an egregious error or misinterpretation.
3. Pay close attention to unfolding negotiation dynamics. Listen carefully during talks. If you’re unsatisfied with the answers you receive, reframe your questions and try again. If you’re unsure about what the other side said, repeat what you think you heard. It’s safe to assume that people living and working in different cultural settings often view or interpret the same events differently. But in our era of globalization, it’s also true that we have more in common on the person-to-person level than you might expect. Don’t ignore your intuition, and mind your manners.
Most business professionals recognize when they need technical or legal expertise to proceed with a deal-making interaction. Similarly, cross-cultural negotiators should realize that they might well need help sizing up the situation in advance, as well as interpreting the signals and norms that could make or break a negotiation in a crosscultural context.